Landscape Photography Locations East of the Cascades

A bio photo of landscape photographrer Curtis Heikkinen mountain hiking in the Pacific Northwest, USA.
Curtis Heikinnen recommends some lesser-known landscape photography locations in the Pacific Northwest, east of the Cascade Mountains. This article was first featured in Issue 38 of Light & Landscape.

When thinking of locations for landscape photography in the Pacific Northwest, images of certain places probably come to mind: the snow-capped peaks of the Cascades, the rugged Pacific coastline, or the magnificent waterfalls of the Columbia River Gorge. Those are certainly iconic locations for landscape photographers. However, there are some lesser-known spots east of the Cascades that provide ample subjects for the resourceful landscape photographer. The purpose of this article is to acquaint readers with some of those locales. Without further ado, let’s begin our look at those locations.

A long exposure photograph of the rapids at White River Falls.

White River Falls

Located off Highway 216 near the tiny town of Tygh Valley, a half-hour or so south of The Dalles Oregon, these waterfalls are among the most spectacular I’ve experienced in the state. When I visited in January, winter rains had filled the multi-level waterfall with copious amounts of water, making for spectacular landscape photography. Be sure to carry a mid-range zoom lens for tighter compositions as the lower falls are some distance from the most desirable photographic locations at the bottom of the large gorge. Overall, it is pretty easy to get unobstructed views of this magnificent natural wonder located in a most unlikely setting in the rangeland of Eastern Oregon.

Landscape photography of Smith Rock State Park.

Smith Rock State Park

Continuing with Oregon locations, Smith Rock State Park is one of the most stunning gems of the Oregon State Park system. This massive park receives its fair share of attention from landscape photographers, but many photos are taken from the easily accessed overlooks near the parking areas. I would encourage landscape photographers to venture well into the park and explore the many hiking trails it provides. I personally can recommend hiking along the scenic Crooked River where you can get some wonderful river shots and nice images of canyon walls. Because the park is so large, there is no reason why you can’t get some unique images in addition to the standard shots from the well-known locations.

A landscape photograph of Cottonwood Canyon.

Cottonwood Canyon

One of Oregon’s newest and largest state parks, Cottonwood Canyon is located in remote rangeland near Moro. It is a personal favorite because of the wild and scenic John Day River courses through it. Austere and mostly treeless, it requires some creativity on the part of the photographer to bring it to life in images. However, with some effort, you can produce some rewarding landscape photos in this park consisting of large canyons, jagged cliffs and desert vegetation. As with any location east of the Cascades, be wary of encountering rattlesnakes that are native inhabitants of this region, so proceed with appropriate caution.

Landscape photography of the Deschutes River Natural Area.

Deschutes River Natural Area

This locale is 10 or 15 miles east of The Dalles and features great hiking and some spectacular high desert vistas. Of course, the highlight is the magnificent Deschutes River, one of the most renowned rivers in all of Oregon and indeed the Western United States. There are multi-level hiking trails, one of which is adjacent to the river, allowing for some nice water images. The mid-level trail elevates the landscape photographer for some panoramic views of the river and surrounding canyons.

The highest trail penetrates many miles into the vast area surrounding the river. Obviously, wide-angle lenses are a must but zoom lenses will also provide some interesting compositions. I would avoid this area in the heat of summer but cooler times of the year, especially fall and winter, provide an amazing outdoor experience and excellent subjects for your camera.

Golden Hour on Columbia Hills, an excellent loaction for landscape photography.

Columbia Hills

Moving to Washington State, the Columbia Hills are located east of Lyle, a quaint little town in the Eastern Columbia River Gorge. Largely treeless, this area explodes with color every April and May when wildflowers are in bloom. This is probably when the area receives the most attention from photographers. I visited during the late fall and early winter when you can pretty much have the area to yourself.

It may not be as colorful but the stark beauty of the prairie landscape lends itself to some moody landscape photography. Wide-angle and longer zooms all work well here. If you are up for it, a hike to the top of Stacker Butte provides some stunning views and some great opportunities for panoramic photos. Hike toward the Columbia River and you will find some nice perspectives on that magnificent waterway. Of course, Mount Hood in Oregon is prominently visible to the south and west.

A landscape photograph of Cherry Orchard Trail

Cherry Orchard Trail

Close to Lyle lies one of the Columbia River Gorge’s most scenic and difficult hikes, the Cherry Orchard Trail. Not sure I would recommend doing this hike alone because the trail is extremely steep and more suited for mountain goats. But if you are up for a challenging hike and are desirous of some stunning views, this trail will satisfy on both counts. Any landscape photographer worth his salt will find more than enough subjects for his camera.

The views of the Columbia River and surrounding plateaus, cliffs and canyons are magnificent. A sign placed at the beginning of the hike warns of ticks and rattlesnakes so be forewarned. I did as much of the hike as I dared one early November morning when the chances of encountering unwelcome critters were reduced and the temperatures were more conducive to hiking. I had no trouble finding suitable subjects for my camera.

A landscape photograph of Klickitat Trail.

Klickitat Trail

This is another personal favorite of mine. This trail follows an old railroad bed through the remote Swale Canyon and the high Washington prairie between Lyle and Centerville.  You can access the trail in Lyle but I prefer the trailhead at Harms Road off Centerville Highway. This is a great place to photograph. There are marvelous views of Stacker Butte, and if you are in the area when Swale Creek is running high with water, there are opportunities for long exposure shots on the creek.

Winter is a great time to visit. If the area has snow, you can get some moody winter images and some nice minimalist shots if you use the sparse vegetation and barbed wire fences creatively. Wildlife, such as birds and deer, are also present and could provide some interesting photographic subjects. In the fall, there is a surprising amount of color produced by the riparian vegetation and by the trees that are present. If you are attracted to austere landscapes for your photography, this is a place you will want to check out.

A bio photo of Curtis Heikkinen sitting in his kayak on a lake.

I am an avid kayaker, bird watcher and outdoor enthusiast, who likes to travel the Pacific Northwest in search of beautiful places to photograph. Though I am strictly an amateur landscape photographer, I hope my pictures effectively capture some of the amazing beauty that surrounds us in the Pacific Northwest. Visitors will find that my landscape photographs generally lack the heavily processed aspects that characterize much of contemporary landscape photography. Many were taken in areas not often photographed and from uncommon vantage points. I hope you enjoy them as much I did taking them.