I have resided in Washington State for almost a year and I’ve always wanted to check out Picture Lake along the Mt. Baker Highway. But, for some reason or another, I’ve never ended up making the 3-hour trip there from Seattle. When I did make the plan to have a trip the weather would become sour.
Finally, on one weekend the forecast looked decent enough for Picture Lake with a slight chance of showers later in the evening. The weather in the Pacific Northwest is conducive to creating the most colorful sunsets in the world. It also is one of the most unpredictable in the world. It was early in the fall and I figured, bad weather or not permitting, it was as good a time as any to finally make my way to the lake.
As you can imagine, the lake gets its moniker from the serendipitous way it reflects Mount Shuksan. Mt. Baker Highway also happens to be one of the most picturesque mountainous landscapes in North America.
The lake’s location, relative to Mt. Shuksan, is probably more ideal for sunrise if you wanted a more dramatic composition. To be honest, I rarely get up that early unless I was car or tent camping. Maybe another day, I’ll do an overnighter and shoot the Milky Way and a sunrise over Picture Lake.
For this day, however, I will be shooting strictly for fall foliage and sunset.
Heading out towards the lake from Seattle, you will eventually see the majestic glacier-covered peak, Mt. Shuksan. Right under it is the world-renowned Mt. Baker Ski resort. I hope to snowboard here on the upcoming winter season and get a feel for the famed powder for myself. The highway climbs and then winds itself slowly around the bend and eventually loops around a parking lot with across a chalet.
Mount Baker Ski Area
Once you find a parking spot, you can meander over towards an ADA-accessible loop trail that has various platforms for viewing Mt. Shuksan and Picture Lake. At the time I was there, you couldn’t wander off the trail because the fragile meadows are currently under repair.
While on this loop, keep an eye out for wild mountain blueberries, it was all over the place when I was there and still ripe (October). It’s quite tasty – A caveat, Washington State Law requires that you have a permit when harvesting wild fruits.
Once you are done with the loop trail you can continue across the road and end up on another lake, called Highwood Lake. It’s a much smaller lake, more like a pond than Picture Lake but equally, photo worthy. This lake also reflects Mt. Shuskan like a mirror. If Picture Lake is crowded with photographers, head down to this spot. You can probably get better and more unique photos than the more popular Picture Lake.
It took me about 3 hours to get to Picture Lake from Bellevue, Washington so I didn’t have an entire day to devote to the area. However, Picture Lake and Highwood Lake are very small and the interpretive trail looping the two is barely even half a mile. I had a little over an hour before sunset so I took drove a little further up to see where the Mount Baker highway would go.
I got far up to a roadside stop and took several more photos along the ridge. If I followed this road all the way up, it would eventually take me to the Artist Point trail which would have been a cool adventure. But, I decided I’ll save this hike for another day so I went back down the Picture Lake parking lot and decided to wait for the sunset.
The most iconic spot is the one with the stone platform, which can be found after passing a wooden one. Here a wide angle and normal lens are ideal. A Superwide-angle lens might be a bit much unless you have a lot of details in the sky like clouds or if you can include some details in the foreground. You can use a polarizer if you wanted to see the bottom of the lake, but having clouds reflections is probably better.
The sunset that day wasn’t amazing by any stretch of the imagination but the clouds enveloping Mt. Shuskan created a dramatic effect. The skies never turned red, a slight orange with yellow was all it gave near the mountain. That was good enough for me. The next time I’m here I will probably car camp somewhere and get to Picture Lake at the crack of dawn, camera gear in tow.
Be sure to check the weather forecast before coming here. If you see scattered clouds or partially cloudy go. If you see scattered showers forecasted that’s also a good time to go – it’s a toss up but great lighting often comes right after a storm or sometimes during. A camera with built-in anti-shake technology like the Sony A7III is great for hand holding shots with the lake reflection – if not bring a decent tripod. Use a polarizer when you can, it’s great for bringing out the blue of the sky!
For sunrise or sunsets, you’ll need a Graduated Neutral Density filter to balance the contrast. That is unless you’re not familiar with exposure blending. I personally prefer the latter as the result seems more natural to me. I’ve used it in the last two photos above. It’s a matter of preference, some like the GND effect some don’t.
The Best Time To Go
For wildflowers in the spring, you would want to be there in July. For fall and autumn colors, around Mid-October.
Getting To Picture Lake
It’s roughly a 3-hour drive from Seattle so give yourself time to enjoy the scenic byway. From the town of Bellingham, drive towards exit 255 following signs to Mt. Baker. Turn right on Sunset Drive and continue on WA-542 East. You will pass a couple of roundabouts but go straight on WA 542 East and you will eventually see Mt. Shuksan and Mt. Baker Ski Area. Go on for a couple miles and eventually you will reach the Heather Meadows parking area.
There is a $5 a day parking fee unless you have a Northwest Forest Pass and there is no potable water, so bring your own.
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External Source – https://www.fs.usda.gov
Weather Forecast – http://forecast.weather.gov