Photographing Jefferson Park Wilderness

By Adrian Klein

I figured now would be good for me to post something different on this blog since my last Photo Cascadia post was more about useful information and less about pretty photos. I hope to give you both here. With that said come join me on a photo and informational tour of Jefferson Park Wilderness covering my last three trips there.

There are many places to backpack and hike in the Pacific Northwest. One of my favorites is Jefferson Park Wilderness. It is a beautiful alpine area comprised of lakes, tarns, meadows and Mount Jefferson. I will be the first to say this is not off the beaten path. Although a backpack trip is required to get any golden light photos, it’s a popular location and is not a place for complete solitude unless perhaps you go in the dead of winter! That said even a popular backpacking place allows for partial peace and quiet away from the life of a curb side shooter.

Caveat: I can make this a really long blog post (longer than it is!) as there are many things I can cover for one area, however I will keep it to the important basics for now.


The Trailhead: Mount Jefferson and the Park lie about 50 miles East of Salem, Oregon. Getting to the trail head is something that allows more choices than most backpacking locations. What I mean by that is there are several routes you can take to hike in; Park Ridge, Breitenbush and Whitewater. They can vary in distance by up to a couple miles and a thousand feet of elevation gain. Whitewater is the route I have taken to date but is not the most scenic; it just worked for my trips at hand. For this area I recommend hiking books from William Sullivan. I have used these for years and they are a must for people hiking and backpacking in the area. Photographing Oregon by Greg Vaughn also covers this area. You can find location info online, which I do reference but I always like having hard copies when I am traveling to a location (don’t forget your topo map). Expect to hike 11 to 13 miles round trip and 1800 to 2800 ft elevation gain; again these vary depending on the route.

When To Go: This will depend on what you are after for your photography. The area is accessible most years from July to September. In this short window of time you will start from snow covered lakes to carpets of wildflowers followed by fall colors. This summer mid July was still mostly snow covered in the park and by mid August the snow finally was gone, the bugs in full force and wildflowers a blooming. This is later than most years. And while I type this I am sure the peak for fall color is now or already occurred. As you can see the environment changes quickly up in alpine country. And like any other place everything changes from year to year so don’t expect the same week that flowers were peak this year to be the same next year. Read up online for current conditions or contact your personal network if they head outdoors regularly. Online sites I check for applicable recent trip reports include; http://www.nwhikers.net, http://www.trailsnw.com and Nature Photographers. You can always try the ranger stations, they will be helpful for some information but I never seem to get 100% accurate info going this route.

Photography: No post would be complete on this blog covering a location without discussing the photography aspect. As you can already see by the images in this post there are many opportunities and they will differ based on when you are there.

Snow: When arriving with snow still on the ground you actually can have many options as long as the lakes themselves have mostly thawed. I tend to focus on finding edges along a lake that make for attractive lines or shapes. This will usually be at Scout or Bays Lakes first; Russell will normally thaw out last. The key is trying to find clean looking snow or ice which is not always easy when it’s not fresh!

Wildflowers: I find that if you are interested in wildflowers some of the best locations are normally around Russell Lake but you will of course see them throughout the park. The greatest concentration of wildflowers is Lupine and red Indian Paintbrush. Don’t get hung up on getting a reflection of Mount Jefferson with wildflowers. Sometimes the flowers can be nice along the shore but more often you will find plump meadows away from the main lakes. Possibly a small tarn will accompany these flower filled meadows, of which there are many just after the snow melts.

Reflections: All three main lakes will offer reflections of Mount Jefferson. That said they are not all created equal. Although Scout Lake is probably the most popular by backpackers it is typically not as photogenic when all the snow is gone. Of course I have an exception of that in my portfolio because we all know there is always an exception if you look around! Bays and Scout Lakes will offer the most interest along the shore under the water if you are photographing a wide angle reflection. Don’t forget the tarns, these might offer up a nice reflection and if there is a slight breeze these may not give you issues with choppy water covering up the reflection.

Autumn: What I like here and in many alpine areas around the NW are the changes of colors in the ground foliage and bushes. Most trees here are evergreen so don’t expect these to change except for the few vine maples around. With that said your focus will most likely be less about the lakes and more about the red and yellow meadows with Mount Jefferson as your backdrop.

The Lighter Side: I can list quite a few funny things that have happened or interesting people we have seen on the trail at this place but I will keep it to one that sticks out the most for me. While backpacking here with my good friend Josh we were hanging our food in a nearby tree and realized after the fact that it was stuck and would not come down when we loosened the line. Doh! I had to place my friend on my shoulders and leaning against the tree while he lunges up multiple times to finally reach it. Photographing it would have made a good ad for a company selling bear canisters!

As with any tips about an area don’t forget to explore and see what else the area offers. Just because it may be your first time does not mean you won’t find something great that others have not written about or photographed. Please be careful when traveling in the Park after snow melt. The meadows are fragile. I always watch where I am placing my feet, tripod and backpack. I am not a fan of having permit systems for backpacking because I like to go places when I want to which is not usually planned well in advance. That said I see this location instituting one eventually to limit traffic which I support here to ensure its long term beauty. If you find this information useful, let me know. I have given presentations about backpacking and hiking in relation to photography and I may have more as a future blog post. And on a side note if you want a worthwhile story about a summer trip with Kevin and I backpacking to Jefferson Park covering more of his personal adventure enduring his hip issue, check out his blog.

I wish you happy and safe traveling, and hope to see you on the trails!

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~ by adriankleinphotography on October 4, 2010.

3 Responses to “Photographing Jefferson Park Wilderness”

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