BlueHour Revisits the PNW: Oregon & The Columbia River Gorge

Every year we make a visit out to the west coast to lead a tour in Oregon. We would consider the trip to be another ‘classic’ in our arsenal of workshops and tours. What’s so great about this region is it has so much to offer in the way of nature and subject matter, and our students who come along with us end up making some of their best images yet.

© Paul Nguyen

Before a trip, Paul and I usually spend some time beforehand to scout some new areas for future trips, or just for fun. For a couple of days before the scheduled workshop, we paid a visit to Smith Rock - a haven for rock climbers and is known as the ‘birthplace for modern American sport climbing.’ Central Oregon is not what most may think; it is actually more desert-like than sprawling greenery like its coastal counterpart.

© Paul Nguyen

On our way back to Portland, we decided to see if we could get a proper view of Mt. Hood. According to many travel guides the ‘best view’ is from Trillium Lake. Due to the harsh winter this year, the entire area was still completely covered in snow (and many Oregon trails were closed). Even though neither of us had the proper clothing or boots, we went for it. It was much more difficult of a trek than either of us thought, and by the end we had the soaked feet and prunes to prove it. But, the travel guides were right.

By this point the time for our workshop had come. We met everyone at the Portland Rose Garden for our first stop. Bad luck though….The Rose Garden had no roses this year, which is pretty unheard of. The winter must have been very bad, which will be a central theme in this blog post. Normally the garden is a favorite for macros and compositional technique, but it’s important on these trips to remain flexible. It just meant more time in the Japanese Garden, which as always, was a hit. We were lucky that the Garden had special hours that day and we stayed extra late, shooting away.

© Paul Nguyen

© Allison Richards

The next couple of days was all about the waterfalls (except Elowah Falls, which was closed due to a washout on the trail from the winter). We also spent an evening at the Phelps Creek Vineyard at the heart of Oregon wine country, where we had a private wine tour and tasting - which was fantastic! Bob and Lynette, the owners, graciously showed us the grounds, explained every aspect of their process, and shared with us many wines and delicious food pairings. We then were given permission to roam the vineyard as we pleased, to photograph the sunset. We chose Phelps Creek initially because of their view of Mt. Hood, but we’ll be coming back for the wonderful and well-rounded experience.

© Paul Nguyen

The second half of the workshop takes place on the coast. But, before we made our way out west, Paul and I decided to brave glacial waters and make the swim to Oneonta Falls. Paul has been here every year, but never went all the way to the falls. But 2017 was the year. If you’re not familiar with this ‘trail,’ it is only a ½ mile long, but to reach the falls is a dangerous and extremely cold plunge. There is no trail per say - you just walk up the river, and pretzel yourself over a giant log jam. It’s a popular spot, and a good place for some people-watching. The further you get, the fewer people you will see! Of course, this year, the water was very high and there were many fallen logs interrupting the “Pinterest viewpoint” that makes it so popular. And, to make it even more treacherous, try bringing a tripod and your camera gear with you! Better have your gear insured - just in case.

© Allison Richards

We were treated to a nice sunset behind Haystack Rock on Cannon Beach - something that draws people from hours away! The beach on the coast is more often than not cloudy or rainy, so this was a stroke of luck. The tide came in, the sun went down, and the beachgoers were all having bonfires.

© Allison Richards

We spent the rest of the workshop exploring the beaches: Indian Beach, Ecola Point and Arcadia Beach. We made some images of Haystack Rock from the other side, learned about Sun Surveyor at the Pelican Brewery and went tidepooling - an unexpected highlight.

And after the conclusion of the workshop, Paul and I figured with the weather abnormalities, perhaps the wildflowers in The Dalles were still in bloom. Late May is typically too late. So we made the extra 2.5 hour drive from the coast to The Dalles Mountain Ranch, and hiked up up and up some more. We ditched the trail and traipsed through the grasses to find the most amazing display of wildflowers in their prime. Lupine, Balsamroot, Paintbrush and more. It was a real challenge to capture Mt. Hood, the flowers and to keep everything still or in focus, especially with the quickly-disappearing light. It was very windy! Even so, we were so lucky to have seen the bloom! What an end to a great week. We hope that next year, when we offer this as a tour, we will be able to coordinate the bloom as part of the trip too.

© Paul Nguyen