Friday, September 10, 2010

St. Mary Lake - Glacier National Park

St. Mary Lake is located on the east side of Glacier National Park, and is the second largest lake in the park (Lake McDondald being the largest). It was created by the widening of the St. Mary River.

The lake is probably most famous for its view from the Wild Goose Island viewpoint, shown here. On a perfect morning, one can catch the reflection of the surrounding mountains in the still waters of the lake. On such mornings, photographers line up side by side in anticipation.

I arrived at the viewpoint on such a morning, after driving over Logan Pass from Avalanche Campground on the west side. In comparison, the viewpoint is only a 1.5 mile drive for those staying at Rising Sun! Fortunately, I was still first to arrive and set up.

Within moments, several other photographers arrived and set up next to me. They were all very pleasent people and a lot of fun to share the morning the with, as is typically the case.

I learned that one photographer in particular had been trying to capture the lake's early reflection for over a week, but had experienced only windy conditions. This morning we were blessed with perfectly still water, so my timing was fortunate. Throw the excellent clouds in just begging to turn pink at first light, and it was a bonus!

To add to our experience, we also enjoyed a full moon to the south. The first image above shows it creating a "halo" as it dips behind the distant peak about 20 minutes before sunrise.

Soon the sky began to turn a brilliant pink as the clouds caught the first gentle rays of the sun - always a glorious experience. This was the highlight of the morning and the sound of camera shutters reflected this (pun intended)! As the sun rose, the cloud layer thickened and the morning turned overcast. Of course, we photographers retreated knowing we had witnessed a spectacular morning, evident by the smiles on our faces.

Just down the road a ways is the trailhead for St. Mary and Virginia Falls at the south end of the lake. Both are just a short hike from the road; 1.2 miles for St. Mary Falls and 1.8 for Virginia Falls. Both are worth the effort!

St. Mary is by far the most popular of the two, and can become quite crowded at certain times. Still, as long as one has some patience, opportunities will present themselves.

As with most waterfalls, cloudy days are best for photography to minimize contrast. Excellent compositions can be had from the bridge, as well as the rock on the far side. (Be careful on the rock though, it can be slick when wet. During my visit, a young lady slipped and fell into the swift current, requiring a rescue.)

During slightly diffused light, photographers must be aware of the potential of the railing shadow across the water during morning hours. Sometimes it can be faint and not so obvious if one isn't watching for it.

Virginia Falls is a mere 0.6 miles further up the trail and is also quite scenic. Compositions abound for photographers courtesy of a path that descends down to lower vantage points. Unfortunately, the sun decided to make an extended appearance during my visit and the scene became much too high in contrast with dark shadows and the brightness of the sun glarring off the water. Did I mention the benefit of photographing waterfalls on cloudy days?

The St. Mary area is a must visit for anyone spending time in Glacier National Park. Don't miss it!

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