Sunrise at Mount Rainier: The April Photo of the Month


Written and Photographed by Ian Phelps, Northwest Photographer

I grew up in Wisconsin. And I love Wisconsin.  The people are amazing and we have some pretty good cheese.  But the wild landscape of the west was calling me and in 2008 I packed my life into my car and moved to Seattle.

Shortly after moving to Seattle, I recall seeing a photograph of an astonishing subalpine meadow with Mt. Rainier looming in the background.  I had never seen anything like it and knew I had to experience the splendor of the wildflower bloom at Mt. Rainier for myself.  

Over the years I’ve tried on several occasions to capture the glory of Mt. Rainier’s wildflowers, but the conditions just didn’t come together (a very common experience in nature photography!). However that changed one gorgeous Sunday morning in late August.

Around 1:00 a.m., after a solid two hours of sleep, I left Seattle for the Paradise area of Mt. Rainier. My destination was Mazama Ridge, located just east of the main Paradise area. Since this was my first trip to Mazama Ridge, aside from the location, I didn’t really know where I was going. As an aside, when trying to photograph wildflowers, I highly recommend a visit during the day to scout the location to find a picturesque area of the meadow before the rising (or setting) sun transforms the scene.  Nonetheless, in this case I didn’t follow my own advice and arrived at 4:00 a.m.

After a failed attempt at hiking the ridge from the Lakes Trail starting near Reflection Lakes (I told you I didn’t know where I was going!), I opted to try a more direct route from the Fourth Crossing Trailhead. As I stepped out of the car, immediately my senses were jolted to life. The invigorating scent of Subalpine fir and Western hemlock combine with the sweet fragrance of a multitude of blooming wildflowers in the cool the mountain air. As I begin hiking, I become increasingly heartened with each breath of this refreshing mixture.

After 20 minutes I reached the junction with the Lakes Trail atop Mazama Ridge.  

As I continued down the ridge, I was overwhelmed by the abundance and diversity of wildflowers along the trail. Soon the clouds began to transform as first rays of morning light painted beautiful hues of pink and orange across the sky, creating a warm glow to fall across the scene. I found a gorgeous area of the meadow and started to take photographs as a small lenticular cloud began to form over the summit of Mt. Rainier. After about 15 minutes, most of the color had faded and I decided to search for another location as I waited for the sun to rise.  

I came upon an incredible field of vibrant purple Subalpine Lupine and Magenta Paintbrush. Soon the soft morning light began to stream in across the landscape, illuminating the meadow and producing a riot of color. The small lenticular cloud had grown and now shrouded the entire summit. This was it, the scene I had tried so many times to capture! I soaked in the moment. It was not long after, as the sun continued to rise, that the light became too harsh to produce pleasing images and I was done shooting. It was an incredible experience and one that will remain with me the rest of my life.

About the shot:  I took this photograph using a Canon 5D Mark II and Canon 17-40mm f/4 lens with a circular polarizer and a graduated neutral density filter to balance the bright sky and darker foreground. Since I was using a wide-angle lens, I chose a small aperture (high f-stop) to create as much depth of field as possible.  

Ian Phelps is a nature photographer based in the Pacific Northwest. Website coming soon! Contact with any inquires.