Wildflowers of Mt Rainier NP
Next to photographing Mount Rainier itself, the next most photographed subject in Mt. Rainier NP are wildflowers and meadows. And although the season is short for wildflowers, many visitors and photographers will take their fair share of photos and images of them.
September 2015 - The wildflower season this year was long due to the record low snowpack and early snowmelt where by early June the snow was effectiovely gone by Memorial day for the wildflowers to bloom far earlier than normal years. It lasted until late August with the last blooms in the upper elevations. You can check the NPS Mt Rainier NP Facebook page and Twitter Reports.
Wildflowers are found throughout the three zones in Mt. Rainier NP, the forest, subalpine and alpine zones. These zones vary in elevation around the mountain, up to 4,800 and 6,500 feet for the upper limits of the forest and subalpine zones, on the south and wests sides of Mt. Rainier, and 5,300 and 7,000 feet for the upper limits of the forest and subalpine zones on the north and and east sides.
Most of the wildflower areas are found in the subapline zone between 4,800 and 6,400 feet, with a few in open forest areas below 4,000 feet. The Subalpine zone is divided into five zones based on the openness of the area and the invasion of the surrounding forest (summarized by David Biek, pages 15-17, originally determined by Franklin and Dryness.
Subalpine meadows have evolved over time around Mt. Rainier. Some have changed more as the area was developed for visitors. Early in the development of the NP, the NPS wanted to help the visitors' experience and the Paradise and Sunrise areas were developed as destination areas with lodging, easy accces and amenities, including golf course and ski resort (both now gone). Studies have shown that the effects of development discontinued over 30 years ago are still present and evident in the meadows we see today.
This means that between the time of the original designation as National Park and today, the meadows in these areas aren't naturally evolved, but the other areas have experienced few changes from people, mostly overused areas by backcountry hikers and campers. Since the restoration of Paradise and Sunrise areas and restrictions for hikers and visitors, beginning in the late 1980's (report by Rochefort and Gibbons) the meadows have returned to their full natural state.
The wildflower season depends entirely on several factors of the weather, namely the winter snowpack, the spring snowmelt and the summer warmth and sunshine. In normal years, the wildflowers bloom right on schedule, the timing of which depends on their location, meaning the elevation and area in the NP.
The major wildflower areas vary in elevation from 3,800 to 6,400 feet in three of the quadrants and the Paradise area. Only the southeast doesn't have major open meadows except along along the area overlapping the northeast quadrant. The northwest is similar with only one wildflower area, Spray Park which is one of the best ones in the NP.
This means each come into bloom at different times but often overlop once in bloom, the question is getting to them when they're in bloom, but the normal window is listed below.
Wildflower Season by Elevation
< 4,000 ft
> 6,000 ft
|mid-June to mid-July
|mid-July to mid-Aug
When you do decide to visit Mt. Rainier for the wildflowers, the time of the season really isn't known until it starts, since the meadows have to become snow-free, the temperature warms and the plants come to life from the long winter. In addition a cool or rainy summer period at the onset can slow or delay the bloom, so it's all as they say, "timing is everything", and it's a matter of watching the news.
You can find the wildflower area via a map. Access to these areas are divided into three basic catagoies. The first type are the ones easily accessible at the Paradise and Sunrise visitor centers, and short dayhikes.
The second type are moderate hikes from trailheads near the visitors centers (above). These require some knowledge and experience in hiking but easily doable for a long dayhike for the photographs. And the third type are the longer backcountry hikes which require more hiking and backpack experience with overnight permit(s) for campgrounds.
There are a variety of resources for wildflowers, some books and Websites listed below, to identify wildflowers on your trips in the many meadows in the NP during the wildflower season, normally mid-to-late July but earlier with a low snowpack or early snowmelt or later with the opposite conditions such as 2011 when the wildflower season didn't occur until early-mid August after the record late snowmelt.
You don't need to identify, let alone know the wildflowers during your time in the NP, many photographers do this later with the photograph and print or on-line wildflower guides, but it doesn't hurt to know the most common wildflowers or take a pocket guide with you, several of which fit into backpack or camera bag.
You can get the list of wildflower species for each area in the map from the Washington Native Plant Society and a photo guide is available at the flowers of Mt. Rainier and has additional information about and locations of flowers, along with the resources below.
There two basic tips for photographing wildflowers and the subalpine meadows, which depends on your camera and system. Since I can't address all photographers, I'll focus on the more serious amateur and the professionals, who most likely know what equipment they need, but a quick review doesn't hurt if you haven't been to Mt. Rainier NP or the areas.
There are two types of photos or images which most photographers take with wildflowers and meadows. The first focus on the flowers. Here you need decent or better macro or close photo equipment, such as macro lenses capable of 2:1 (half-size) or better and either extension tubes or close-up lenses. A tripod is a must with a good tripod head along with a focusing rail.
The tripod should have the ability to go nearly flat being able to spread the leg of the tripod quite wide and have a short center post. In many ways a 4-section tripod is often better than a 3-section one for stablilty and set up. I've found a lightweight ballhead and simple focus rail aids in framing and focusing the image works well.
The second type of photo is the landscape where you frame the flower and/or meadows against the backdrop of the mountains, often Mt. Rainier itself. If you don't have the tilt-shift lens or shoot 4x5 to adjust the field of focus, the basic equipment is a good wide angle lens(es), usually something in the 16 to 35mm (primes or zooms) and the same good tripod and head.
The key for these images are the two basic photo tips. Location and light. You need to find the best locations for the scene you want. And you need to be there for the best light, which isn't always sunrise or sunset, but the best light for the foreground and background you want, can be mid-morning to mid-afternoon to reduce shadows and provide more consistent light dispersion.
Something often overlooked when and where you're taking photographs with macro or close-up lenses or using a bellows is a windscreen. The hardest thing in low to medium light conditions is when you can't get the shutter speed fast enough to freeze the flower in a breeze, but be careful with them since their use could be interpreted as a prop and necessitate a commercial permit.
The last tip is probably the most forgotten, and often the hardest to deal with in the field, and that is the background. You should pay special attention when photographing wildflowers close up to avoid a background which is busy, too dark or light, or isn't consistent to ensure the viewer sees the flower(s). This is often a compromise but it's better to get an optimal photo that a bad one.
What you see with the wildflower areas of Paradise and Sunrise are restorations so natural process can resume their work. The other areas have had some restoration but are mostly still what has been for centuries. And this is where you can help by following a few simple rules.
First and foremost, stay on the designated paths and trails in the meadows. It's easy to want to wander and explore off trail areas especially to photograph some interesting flowers, areas or scenes. But it's very simple.
Stay on the designated paths and trails in the meadows.
You may not leave a trace, but others may not be so cautious and careful about their footprint in environmentally sensitive areas. In addition you will run the risk of being given a ticket by a Park Ranger for violating the rules (which all visitors accept when entering the NP).
This is especially true using tripods. Watch where you set them to minimize or not prevent any damage to the meadow and ground plants and watch where and how you walk when working with the tripod setup. Just like walking knees and camera bags or backpacks damage plants. Think of the next visitor and photographer.
Second, if you hike into the backcountry hike and camp to get to the more remote alpine meadows, follow the NPS rules to scramble off-trail and camp at designated campgrounds and to follow the rules for fires, waste, water, etc. Set an example as a photographer and hiker to ensure the place will be the same for your next trip. Remember it's our national park.
And lastly, simply enjoy the beauty and wonders of the wildflowers and meadows, and leave only the ghost of your presence and take only photos.
Below are additional books and Websites about wildflowers in Mt. Rainier NP.
Please use the contact link to send e-mail.
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