Aug 302014
trail through the forest

Salmon Lakes Trail, Willamette National Forest.

Mention any place in Oregon you visited with “Waldo” in the name and anyone who knows the central Cascades will ask, “How bad were the mosquitos?”

Waldo Lake, one of the most beautiful lakes in the Pacific Northwest, with water purity matched only by Crater Lake, is notorious for the hordes of mosquitos that have spoiled many a summer camping trip or hike at the lake. Naturally, the mosquitos don’t limit themselves to Waldo Lake, and are thick throughout any moist area of the western Cascades throughout most of the summer.

Three years ago, I set out on August 15th to hike the Salmon Lakes Trail in the Willamette National Forest to Waldo Meadows, a place that Oregon hiking guide author Bill Sullivan promised was “hip-deep in wildflowers”. While only a few miles west of Waldo Lake, the meadows and Salmon Lakes are more easily reached via the Salmon Creek drainage east of Oakridge, Oregon.

I’d barely opened the door of my van at the trailhead before the skeeters attacked me. Not to be deterred, I sprayed, slathered and smeared good old Ben’s insect repellant all over me. I usually try to avoid DEET, but when the bugs are really bad, I get out the Ben’s and rely on its 30% DEET formula to keep the mossies from biting.

But this time, it was the mosquitos that were not to be deterred. I hiked with hands and arms constantly in motion, waving hat and bandana, trying to keep the swarms of buzzing bugs away from my face, only to be met at the first meadow with clouds of the obnoxious insects totally intent on finding some square millimeter of my body that wasn’t doused in DEET.

Call me a wimp, but by the time I reached the meadows, I wasn’t really in the mood to photograph the flowers, and after about five minutes I packed up the gear and headed back to the trailhead.

On August 15th of this year, I tried Salmon Lakes Trail again. With an unusually dry and warm spring and summer in Oregon, I’d guessed that mosquito season in the high Cascades was coming to an end early this year, and I was quite pleased that that seemed to be the case as I readied for hike at the trailhead and headed down the path without hearing a single buzz.

The first part of the hike passes through classic western Cascades forest of Douglas fir, western hemlock and red cedar, with some of the trees approaching old-growth status. A couple of hundred yards from the trailhead and Wilderness Permit box, I veered right at a fork, opting to save the climb to Waldo Mountain Lookout for another day. Salmon Lakes Trail is an easy hike, with only minor ups and downs, following the contour on the south side of Waldo Mountain.

Cascade aster flower

Cascade aster in Waldo Meadows.

A couple of miles in, the trail crosses the boundary for Waldo Lake Wilderness, and shortly after that breaks out of forest and into the first of several meadows. And yes, the wildflowers are hip-deep and more. This year, the unusual weather also meant that most of the flowers had already bloomed and the corn lily leaves were starting to wither, but I there was still some very beautiful Indian paintbrush and lots of the lovely lavender-petaled Cascade asters. And no mosquitos to interrupt the joy of photographing the flowers and reveling in the beauty of the mountain meadow!

At 2.5 miles from the trailhead, a junction in the middle of a meadow gives the option of continuing east towards Waldo Lake (or making a loop to include the lookout at the summit of Waldo Mountain). I headed south instead, reaching Upper Salmon Lake, headwaters for Salmon Creek, in an easy ½-mile stroll.

I was hoping for a nice swim in a mountain lake as part of my hike, but both Upper and Lower Salmon Lakes are the type of shallow western Cascades lake surrounded by mucky marsh, with a muddy bottom where you sink in up to your knees when trying to wade out to swimming depth.

Upper Salmon Lake

Upper Salmon Lake, Waldo Lake Wilderness.

There is a very nice backpacker/equestrian campsite with a view of Upper Salmon Lake, but on this visit I was disgusted to find that it was totally trashed by some low-lifes who left piles of garbage, cans, jars and bottles. I cannot fathom how someone can pack in three miles to a pristine wilderness lake and then trash it.

Sullivan’s hiking guidebook noted that there was a waterfall just 150 yards downstream from Upper Salmon Lake. Bill doesn’t give much description of the falls, just noting that it is about 20 feet high. He didn’t mention that it’s a beautiful cascade, with Salmon Creek tumbling over a jumble of rock into a little pool, all surrounded by lush, green vegetation – exactly the type of waterfall that landscape photographers love.

waterfalls below Upper Salmon Lake

Waterfalls on Salmon Creek, Waldo Lake Wilderness.

Almost all waterfalls are best photographed on overcast days, else the contrast of the scene is just too harsh, and this one is no exception. I was there on a bright, sunny day, and while there was a brief moment of softer light when a cloud passed in front of the mid-day sun, I wished I was there very early in the morning when the falls would be in shade, or on a day with more clouds and overcast (which also would be better for forest scenes and the wildflowers in the meadows).

As far as I could tell, there is no established trail to Lower Salmon Lake, and getting to it requires a bit of bushwhacking through a lot of blowdown timber. I worked my way through the dense brush and trees at the edge of the lake and found a log to sit on for an enjoyable spot for lunch, listening to the birds and watching the dragonflies and damselflies.

Lower Salmon Lake

Lower Salmon Lake, Waldo Lakes Wilderness.

Returning the way I came, I noticed several different kinds of mushrooms popping up along the trail (there had been summer thunderstorms several days previous to my trip, which tends to bring up the mushrooms).

All in all, the Salmon Lakes Trail is a very pleasant hike, which numerous possibilities for landscape and nature photographers (and nature lovers in general). If you want to make it a loop trip and add the climb to Waldo Mountain, you’ll be rewarded with panoramic views of Waldo Lake and the surrounding forest from the fire lookout at the summit.

To reach the trailhead for Salmon Lakes Trail, travel Oregon Highway 58 to the town of Oakridge, then turn north onto Fish Hatchery Road on the east end of town. When the road crosses the railroad tracks and reaches a T intersection in about a mile, head east on Forest Road 24 for 11 miles, then veer left onto FR 2417. In six more miles, fork right onto FR 2424, and continue for 3.7 miles until you see the hiker sign on the right and a parking area on the left.

A note on the processing of the photos for this post:  As mentioned above, waterfalls are best photographed on overcast and cloudy days, and the same is generally true of forest scenes, where there is otherwise too much contrast for a pleasing photo. This particular trip was more about the hike than waiting for the best light, and these photos were all taken in the middle of a blue sky sunny day. I was able to tame some of the contrast by using OnOne Software’s Perfect Effects 8 plugin as part of my Lightroom workflow. The “HDR Look” filter has several options, from very slight to heavy grunge. For these images, I chose the “Subtle” option, which helped to bring up shadow detail and tone down highlights, but overall retained a quite natural look. In the case of the wildflowers, I simply leaned over the flower, shading the area with my body, while making the photos.

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