Thursday, September 30, 2021

Hiking Through a Ski Area

Most folks who ski (and probably some that don't) assume that ski areas in the off-season months are bleak, bare, god-forsaken places.  Once the snow melts, skiers normally abandon the lifts in search of other weather-appropriate activities.  In the past, ski resorts sat empty all summer, even though many of them were in gorgeous mountain locations.

Ticket booth, height adjusted for snowpack

But now most ski areas have reinvented themselves to offer year-round outdoor activities.  Some have retooled their winter ski runs into mountain bike trails (with bikers riding the ski lifts uphill) or adventure parks with ziplines and alpine slides.  Others offer their venues for special events such as  weddings or festivals.  However, the best ski areas have created hiking trails through their boundaries, allowing people to discover that ski areas in the offseason are not ugly at all.

Dry ski lift, waiting for snow

This is what happened to my home hill, Mt Hood Meadows.  Although Meadows already had two USFS hiking trails crossing through their permit area, (the round-the-mountain Timberline Trail and Umbrella Falls Trail) management decided to create an entire network of additional hiking trails.  So during the summer of 2020, when the ski area couldn't open to the public due to COVID, Meadows put their crews to work constructing eight new hiking trails within their ski area boundary.

The fireweed still had some color

In June 2021 Meadows debuted these new hiking trails.  Throughout the summer they received rave reviews on local hiking webpages and Facebook groups.  By the time I finally returned home, I was dying to try them out.

Trails were numbered and well marked

On a sunny Monday in late August, I recruited my good friends Debbie and Barry for an exploration of the new Mt Hood Meadows trails.  Since this was only my second hike post-surgery I thought it was a good idea to have companions.  Besides, hikes are better when shared with a friend or two!

Goldenrod and pearly everlasting

It was a gorgeous late summer morning when we pulled into Mt Hood Meadows' enormous parking lot.  With only a handful of vehicles here, we got a front row spot (which never happens during ski season).  Besides rock star parking, my friends and I were delighted to discover the restrooms open.  So much better than the stinky Forest Service pit toilets at most trailheads!

More spent fireweed - still colorful

Walking out towards the ski lifts, I couldn't help marveling at how different the base area looked without snow.  The ticket booth was actually lifted a couple of feet higher to make up for the 5 to 6 feet of snow that is usually on the ground during winter.  There was a flight of stairs leading from the patio to the lift area which I'd never seen in the winter, because it's always covered with snow.  In the winter, there's so much snow this patio is normally level with the adjacent ground.

Who knew ski runs in summer could be so lovely?

One ski lift was operating, taking hikers up the first big hill to one of the hiking trails.  Since I'm a season pass holder, I could have ridden the lift for free and gotten a jump start on my hike.  But that felt too much like cheating.  Besides, my friends weren't pass holders and would've had to pay to ride the lift.  I don't mind climbing hills - that's part of hiking.  (As I always say, hills build character!)

Fireweed close-up

Although we had a map of the Meadows trail network, it still took a bit of searching to locate the start of Trail #1, dubbed "the Bear Grass Trail," our chosen hike for today.  We finally located it just past the Express and Blue lifts.  Despite our initial confusion, once we got going my friends and I found the trails well marked with nifty brown plastic paddles as signs.

My companions pose for a photo

It being late August I assumed that the summer wildflower bloom was long gone.  But to my pleasant surprise, there were still a few holdout wildflowers blooming.  Yellow goldenrod and white pearly everlasting covered the first slope we crossed (which during winter months, is called the "Stadium" ski run, one of my favorites).  Not only those wildflowers, but stalks of spent fireweed also added to the colorful mix.  Although the flowers had wilted away, these empty fireweed stalks retained their pretty pink hue.

Beargrass stalks

Beargrass blooms here in early summer and tons of their brown stalks still covered the hillsides.  The sheer number of stalks standing indicated it must've been a banner year for beargrass.  (Yup, I guess that's why they called this the "Bear Grass Trail!")

Fall color just getting started

Besides the still blooming wildflowers, I was also happy to see a few leaves starting to show some fall color.  The best of both worlds!

Unusual twisted tree trunk

I thought this twisted tree trunk along the trail was photo-worthy.

The beargrass bloom must've been spectacular!

Our trail of choice lived up to its name as we wound through more meadows covered with spent beargrass stalks.  I'm definitely gonna have to return next year during prime bloom season!

Mt Hood says "hi!"

Although we were in forest most of the time, Mt Hood occasionally popped out between the trees to say "hi."  The poor girl was looking mighty bare - this past blazingly hot summer had melted away more of her glaciers than usual.

Another colorful ski run

Trail #1 wandered through an area of the resort I recognized as served by the "Hood River Meadows" Lift - or HRM (pronounced "herm" by us Meadows regulars).

Taking a side trail to Picnic Rock

After about a mile and half of hiking, my friends and I came to a junction with Trail #3.  According to our map, this spur trail led to a feature called "Picnic Rock."  With a name like that, how could we resist not checking things out?

Nice views of the HRM lot and Nordic Center

The side trail was only 0.3 of a mile in length and passed by one very nice overlook of the Nordic Center and HRM parking area.  Despite a hot summer, the meadows down there were still green.

Debbie taking it all in

I didn't take a photo, but both this overlook and Picnic Rock had signs warning of cliffs.  I'd never skied over here, but was pretty sure this area was in the "Private Reserve" a place where the extreme (aka - crazy) skiers come to jump off cliffs and other kinds of nonsense.

Arriving at Picnic Rock - where to sit?

A short distance from the first overlook was Picnic Rock.  A large rocky ridge that jutted out over Heather Canyon, the views here were fantastic.  A great place to take a snack break, which is what my friends and I did.

Peek-a-boo Hood view from Picnic Rock

After sitting down, we discovered Mt Hood peeking through the trees!

Thick forest on the return trail

After our snack, my companions and I retraced our steps back to Trail #1 and continued the loop.  The trail led through dense forest so there wasn't a lot to take photos of here.

Passing under the HRM lift

We popped out of the forest to another trail junction.  Decision time - we could continue on Trail #1 up to the Stadium Lift or take Trail #2 back to the base area.  Since this was only my second hike back from surgery I decided not to overdo things just yet and opted to take Trail #2.

Pearly everlasting

Trail #2, called the "Bear Grass Cutoff" descended steeply downhill for nearly a mile until intersecting back with Trail #1 near the first wildflower meadow.  From there it was a just a matter of retracing our steps back under the ski lifts to the base area.

Lush meadow near the base area

Once back to the base area we treated ourselves to another trip to the bathroom (flushing toilets and sinks with running water to wash hands are luxuries for hikers!)  Then Debbie, Barry and I took a quick tour of the newest lodge at Mt Hood Meadows, which opened this past season but sadly couldn't be fully used because of COVID.  Meadows had opened one of their restaurants for lunch, but by the time we finished it was closed again.  I'll have to return again next season to hike and then have lunch and perhaps a beer.  :)

Can't wait to see this area covered in snow!

We ended up covering 4.75 miles and 800 foot of elevation gain, which was perfect for my post-recovery fitness level.  I came away super impressed with the trails we hiked - Meadows has done a banner job of creating this trail network in their ski area through areas of truly beautiful terrain.  As you can see, these snow-less ski runs are a far cry from being bleak, bare ugly places!  

Although the lifts, restaurant, and (sadly) bathrooms closed down after Labor Day, I will certainly return next summer to explore more of Mt Hood Meadows' new hiking trails.

Saturday, September 25, 2021

Back to Fernhill

After my return to Oregon, the first place I visited was the Fernhill Wetlands.  One of the closer wildlife refuges to my home, it's a favorite hangout for myself and my neighbor and photo-mentor Cheri.  She was glad to have me home - her photo-buddy was finally back!   

Great Blue Heron giving me the "eye"

Cheri had heard there were white pelicans at Fernhill.  She loves photographing pelicans, so we drove over one day to check things out.  Arriving late in the afternoon, we heard from another birder that a flock had just flown away.  No matter, it's a pleasant walk around the main pond, and we did spot a friendly Great Blue Heron.

This green heron posed nicely for us!

Not only that, but Cheri spotted a usually elusive green heron who posed nicely on a tree - for several minutes!  (Can you say "money shot?")

Perfect pelican reflection

Although the herons were great photo material, Cheri wanted to capture some pelicans.  Not to be deterred, she proposed we return to Fernhill the next morning - early.

Pelicans in flight

Arriving at the refuge by 6:30 am, we immediately headed to the large pond, hoping to spot some of our large-beaked friends. 

Big pelican flock in great light

At first all we spotted was one lone pelican, standing in the water by himself.  The morning light was perfect and the water so still, it made for an awesome reflection image.

Another shot of the flock

Then Cheri noticed the pelican flock in a nearby pond.  We sighted our cameras on the birds, but they were still too far away.  But then, much to our delight, the entire group spread their wings and flew into the pond right in front of us!

Caught the middle pelican's beak at an unusual angle!

Conditions couldn't have been better!  The morning light was coming from the correct angle and illuminated the pelicans perfectly. 

One guy is still feeding

Besides photographing them, the pelicans were fun to watch.  They swam around in a large group, dunking into the water for food in unison, and coming back up all at the same time.

Pelicans in a row

Then three of the pelicans broke away from the flock and swam together in a row.  Too perfect!  Cheri and I made many images of this.  (Naturally, we ended up with a lot of the same photographs.)

"Yak, yak, yak....."

This photo made me laugh.  Looks like the one pelican is boring his companion to death.

Swimming together looking for food

Although pelicans were our main focus of the day, I couldn't resist pointing my lens at the numerous shorebirds scampering around water's edge.  This Killdeer reflected perfectly in the shallow waters.

Killdeer reflection

After about an hour, the pelicans left in a large group, flying from the main pond to a smaller pond in an inaccessible area of the refuge.  But Cheri and I had enough time to fill our memory cards with plenty of great pelican images.  Enough photos that sorting and editing them would occupy an entire afternoon.

Acorn woodpecker

We ended our perfect morning by stopping by another local greenway on the way home to look for some acorn woodpeckers.  Eagle-eyed Cheri spotted one flitting through the trees with a green acorn in it's beak.

It was great to be back home in Oregon photographing some of my familiar feathered friends.  Enjoy the pics!

Monday, September 20, 2021

Sunny Sunflower Day

When I first returned to Oregon after being away for nearly 2 months, I couldn't wait to return to all the favorite places I'd missed.  However, I didn't limit myself to just the familiar haunts - I also discovered some new sites to visit.

Hello sunshine!

One such place was the sunflower field at nearby West Union Gardens.  I'd never been there before, but my neighbor and photo-mentor Cherri had visited a couple weeks prior.  Impressed by her photos of the sunny yellow blooms I just knew this was someplace I had to see for myself.

Glorious yellow blooms

West Union Gardens is a U-pick farm just west of Portland.  I'd been there in prior years to pick berries, but didn't realize they grew flowers too.  I discovered the garden property included a huge sunflower field that appeared to have been grown exclusively for the photo opportunities.

Photo subjects abounded!

Unlike other flower farms I'd visited, West Union Gardens only charged a nominal fee to photographers for the privilege of photographing their sunflowers.  A half day pass even allowed for sunrise or sunset access.  Of course I chose an early weekday morning for my sunflower experience. 

Someone etched a face in one of the flowers

Well, I didn't quite make sunrise.  As a matter of fact, it was well past 7 o'clock when I finally pulled into West Union Garden's driveway.  But despite missing sunrise, I was still the only person at the sunflower field that morning.

Seed heads starting to droop

The sunflower field was huge!  Rows upon rows of the sunny flowers towered overhead, the area a sea of yellow faces.

Fat bird eating the seeds

Peak bloom had already come and gone, but most of the sunflowers appeared to still be in good shape.  A few droopy blooms were randomly scattered throughout, but they were easy enough to exclude from most of my frames.

Yellow bird getting a snack

The farm management had cut pathways through the huge sunflower field, giving visitors an up-close look at the blooms.  It felt kind of like a corn maze at Halloween, except you were surrounded by sunflowers instead.

Iconic view of the field and an old barn

At one end of the field sat a weathered wooden barn, the perfect compliment to a wide-angle shot of the sunflowers.  I may have shot several dozen images of this scene.....

Happy bunch

Enjoy the next few photos of these bright, cheery flowers!

Extra large seed head

One more shot of that barn

Backlit bloom

I really liked the photos in the shade

After an hour I began to notice huge flocks of birds descending upon the field.  The bids perched themselves on the sunflower heads, pecking away at the seeds.  These feathered friends knew a free meal when they saw one!

Birdie convention

Thinking I'd just be photographing flowers, I hadn't thought to bring my long zoom lens.  So I was stuck trying to capture the birds with my 70-200 lens.

Another bird in the flowers

It wasn't easy!  Those birds did not let me get very close.  Once and awhile I was able to sneak up and catch one of them mid-snack.

Backlit sunnies

I discovered sunflower heads also look cool when you photograph them facing the sun.

Tall flower

After about 2 hours of wandering through the field, I was hot and tired.  About then, other customers finally began arriving.  Having had the place to myself the entire time, I decided I didn't want to share and took this as my cue to leave.

And a zinnia for variety

Before leaving, I decided to check out their farmstand store.  Next to the store was another huge flower field, full of several different floral varieties.  A U-pick bouquet was only eight dollars.  I couldn't resist!  So I spent another happy half hour roaming the different rows, picking out a bit of color for my dining room table. 

Smile, it's a sunny day!

A great way to start a day!  Roaming this lovely sunflower field put me in such a good mood.  I think every morning should begin like this.

West Union Gardens website for my local readers: