Mt. Jefferson 24 Hour Whirlwind Wilderness Photo Trek

POSTED: October 2018

I’m just back from a 24-hour Mt. Jefferson Wilderness overnight camping trip. It was a whirlwind wow trip. The mountain scenery was stunning. It took more energy than I expected to get there and back but I’m happy with the results.

My goal was to capture stellar landscape images of the mountain and surround lakes. I only 24 hours to do it.

The 12-mile round-trip hike with 2900 feet of elevation gain was expected to be challenge. Add 40+ pounds of camera gear and camping equipment and indeed it would be a grind.

I had a good reason to sneak this late autumn backcountry trek in before the first winter snow.

A client had contacted me a week or so ago asking if I had any photographs of Mt. Jefferson. I do but none worthy of selling as fine art prints. I told the client as much but quickly added that I could have some to consider soon.

There was no guarantee of a purchase but they were willing to consider what I could provide.

Yippee! This was exactly the excuse I needed. I had been talking about doing this backcountry trek to Jefferson Park on the North side of Mt. Jefferson for years.

I spent a couple of days doing the research; map gathering, route planning, hiking trail review, water source identification, weather forecast prediction, sunrise & sunset times, moon phase, etc.

Nighttime temperatures were already dropping and at 5,500 feet I speculated temperatures would be below 32 degrees. Every day I delayed the adventure meant I’d have to carry more clothes!

The drive to the trailhead took longer than I expected. Once there I organized and packed my gear. Off I went with deliberate pep in my step worried I wouldn’t make it to Russel Lake before sunset.

I would be hiking a section of the Pacific Crest Trail, the 2,000 mile trail from the Mexico border to the Canadian border.

I didn’t expect to see any through hikers. Most would be nearing the Canadian border by now. As a matter of fact, I didn’t expect to see more than few day hikers and maybe only one or two goofy overnight campers like me.

My research confirmed the skies would be cloudless. Normally this is a negative for landscape photographers unless of course night sky images are on the to do list!

I arrived lakeside at sunset. I grab the camera and took a couple of unenthusiastic photographs. I just didn’t have enough time to scout the area for a good composition before the nice soft sunset light disappeared.

So I set up camp, took a short walk of the area and set the alarm for 5am.

It was cold, very cold. I didn’t get a whole lot of sleep. I was actually happy when 5am rolled around!

With my headlight on I scanned the area. Mt. Jefferson was silhouetted against a starry night sky. The stars were well defined against a mostly dark blue sky.

Full sunrise would occur at 7:30 am. Before full sunrise there would be two periods of beautiful light, nautical start and civil start. I wanted to take full advantage of both.

Nautical start is the time when the sun is still 6-12 degrees below the horizon but provides enough light to define the horizon. I expected it to also illuminate the top of the mountain peak. This would happen at 6:30 am.

Soon thereafter at 7:00 am civil start would happen. Civil start is the time when the sun is six degrees below the horizon. It would bathe everything in an even, consistent neutral color light.

All of this meant I would have about an hour to shoot starry sky images, 30 minutes to take pre-dawn photos and about 30 minutes to capture the soft warm light of sunrise.

Camera mounted on the tripod I walked toward the water careful not to misstep and dip a boot in the shallow cold shoreline waters.

I calculated my exposure. The star light images would have to be a 25 to 30 second exposure for sure. I took many images tweaking the exposure frequently.

Jefferson Park Star Gaze 1810262LND8

Jefferson Park Star Gaze 1810262LND8

As it became brighter I realized the slight distortion in the water surface I was seeing was not created by the wind but rather it was a thin layer of ice! I repositioned myself and included the ice in the foreground of the frame. I made exposure adjustments more quickly. The light was changing fast.

Jefferson Ice Reflection 1810263LND8

Jefferson Ice Reflection 1810263LND8

Once through the nautical and civil periods I prepared for true sunrise.

There are two advantages of capturing late year sunrise. One, a longer ‘sleep in’ opportunity although that wasn’t the case on this day. Two, the sun is at a sharp angle to the horizon. This meant it would scrap across the lake, surrounding trees and mountain top.

It was happening. It was marvelous! The trees and mountain reflected nicely in the calm water. The temperature had risen enough the thin layer of ice was gone.

In just three hours it was over. I had capture beautiful mountain scenery in three distinct light periods with three very different results. All of the photos were taken within 100 feet of each other.

I took a few minutes to eat before packing my gear and starting the ascent back up to the ridge. As I ascended I stop frequently to look back at the mountain and lake below. I’d be back for sure. Maybe I’d come just a few weeks earlier. There would be more autumn colors and hopefully warmer nights!

Russell Lake Days End 1810267LNND8

Russell Lake Days End 1810267LNND8

Thanks for taking the time to read the story.



Steve J. Giardini

Nature, Landscape & Lifestyle Photographer

“Capturing the outdoor world in natural light."

Giardini Photography, LLC

Bend, Oregon, USA