I started visiting Mt. Rainier National Park the minute I moved to the Pacific Northwest. However, I initially didn’t photograph or visit Reflection Lakes. Not because I did not want to because I wasn’t even aware of it. Imagine that! One of the most iconic spots to photograph in the park and I wasn’t even aware of it.
I often found myself exploring the Paradise area from the southern approach and not venturing beyond. When I took the northern approach via the Chinook Pass, I found myself photographing Tipsoo Lake instead. It never really even crossed my mind to complete the loop around the National Park.
One day last fall, I decided to drive from north to south from Chinook Pass. From there I took the detour towards Paradise on Stevens Canyon Road. Lo and behold, there’s a pristine meadow full of wild mountain blueberries. There lie two lakes that seemingly frame Mount Rainier on its reflections. It is with luck this particular day that peaks are clear of clouds. I couldn’t wait to get off my car and explore the area.
There is a parking lot, and I would imagine this place would be crawling with visitors in the Summer when the meadows are blanketed with wild-flowers. I hadn’t visited the area during peak bloom because the entire Pacific Northwest was engulfed in smoke from massive wildfires – there was a week where the visibility was only 2o feet! Perhaps on another summer, I’ll get a chance to photograph the famed wildflowers, but I’m happy to take a few autumn frames as chance would give me.
Several marked signs point to several trails in the area with Pinnacle or Plummer Peak. But I was content to meander around in and out around the Wonderland Trail which offers fantastic views of the lakes and Mount Rainier. Besides, I was also busy harvesting the many blueberries growing wild along the lakes.
There are several varieties of these berries too and you’ll get your hands full within minutes of picking them. You’ll also stain your fingers and tongue as these berries are very dark. Bear in mind, you’ll need a permit to pick these berries in the State of Washington under the Free Use Berry Permit. The berries harvested under this permit are for personal consumption only. The best time to go here for berries is during September.
Why You Should Visit
Picking berries, though fun, wasn’t my primary purpose for visiting Reflection Lakes. I was there to take photos, but while waiting for the eventual sunset, I had time to scout the area for photographic locations and harvest berries. It’s easy to see why many photographers come back again and again at different seasons to this location. Colorful autumn leaves, insane wildflower blooms, random wild animals, the soaring volcanic peak of Mount Rainier, and pristine alpine lakes.
At the parking lot, you’ll see a marker that talks a little about the history of Reflection Lakes. There was once commercial activity in the area with a store and a business for boat rentals. The lakes were also stocked with Trout for recreational fishing. It would have been normal to see people wading and swimming in the lakes during this period. Today, however, the lakes are under repair in the hopes to bring it back to its natural splendor. It is not uncommon to see signs that warn you to stay on trails and not step on any fragile under repair meadows.
Hiking the loop trail allows you to see the Tatoosh Range with its jagged peaks that reminded me of the Minarets in the Eastern Sierras in California. Louise Lake can also be seen below with the Stevens Canyon Road winding its way at the top of the lake. At this time in mid-September, you can still look at some wildflowers in bloom, though it’s already way past its peak. Still, the faraway views of the surrounding ridges and valleys provide more than plenty for sore eyes.
There are reports of bear sightings in the area. With all the rich berries strewn about, I would not be surprised to encounter one during my stroll. Keep your distance. Don’t make a move or run. Stand tall and raise your arms with a stick to make your figure seem bigger in proportion to the bear. Play dead if attacked. Don’t climb a tree because bears can climb. Above all, be extra cautious of the bear has cubs nearby.
Yes, I’ve got my precautions down to a pat. But, I’d still prefer not to encounter a bear at any point while I’m in the wilderness unless I have a grand telephoto lens that I can capture it at a distance. Bears or not, with camera in tow, the Reflection Lakes is a fun photoshoot. These are reasons why the area is often crowded on the weekends with photographers hoping to catch a perfect moment between the synergy of Mount Rainier and Reflection Lakes.
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Try to arrive as early as possible in the morning when it’s calmer, and the winds aren’t blowing waves on the lake. However, if you’re like me and not an early bird, look for areas on the lakes that are shielded from the wind. The few times I was there it was windy, and there were no reflections of Mt. Rainier. The smaller lake has a smaller body of water and surrounded by tall trees that shield it from the winds so you might want to try your luck there.
Place your tripod low to the ground to get more of the reflection, and it looks like a grand landscape. Super-wide-angle lenses are ideal here and normal focal point to make the mountain appear bigger. Avoid the crowd on the west side of the big lake, instead go to the furthest parking lot and climb down towards the lake – There’s plenty of still and calm waters here that can reflect the mountain.
How to Get to Reflection Lakes
If you’re coming North from Seattle or similar, I recommend you take the longer scenic route through SR 410 (Chinook Pass). Make a slight detour to take visit Tipsoo Lake. From there head back down on SR 410 and make a left onto SR 123. Follow it all the way until you see Stevens Canyon Road. From here, make a right and follow it all the way up to Reflection Lakes. There are signs everywhere so you can’t miss it.
Best Time to Go to Reflection Lakes
While each season varies, the beginning of August usually marks the start of the wildflowers bloom. This is the best time to go to Reflection Lakes as the flowers will blanket the meadows. This will last until about the begging of September when fall will start creeping. For berries, mid-September is prime time to go – It’s also not too shabby for photography.
Check out the official Mount Rainier website for Alerts, Weather, and road conditions.
There are various campsites throughout the park but if you prefer something a little more comfortable check HERE.
Other Attractions Nearby
Once you got your fill at Reflection Lakes head over to Paradies and check out Myrtle Falls and Creek. You can also head down to the base of the mountain and explore the Nisqually River; there are lots of opportunities for a photoshoot there as well.
There are also a couple of roadside stops along Paradise Valley Road ideal for a sunset should you have the chance. If coming from Paradise do complete the loop by taking the Chinook Pass towards Tipsoo Lake, there are also notable stops along the way and drive is fantastic.