Rambling with a camera: How to getting great nature photos on 10 southern Idaho hikes |
My love of the outdoors started at an early age, but didn’t really blossom into a passion until the summer of 2012. That’s the year I discovered the South Hills, City of Rocks and of course the hikes through the Snake River Canyon and beyond.
During the pandemic I found myself with an atypical assignment load so I started up a hiking project. I waded through the creek at the Little City of Rocks, listened to the hiss of the mighty Snake River at Auger Falls and it’s roar at Cauldron Linn. I watched as the sun set on Balanced Rock and the moon rose over Pillar Falls.
There’s something about getting my boots dusty on a hike that scrubs my mind free of clutter for a bit. Life slows down for a bit, it allows me to take in the surrounding beauty and use my senses more acutely. As with photojournalism, my camera is a tool to help record the splendor around me, but don’t take my camera’s word for it, go check it out yourself.
Mogensen Trail — delving into the SnakeDistance: About 2.5 miles
Difficulty: Easy, some elevation
Directions: From Twin Falls, take Canyon Springs Road down into the canyon until it forks. Parking will be right in front of you. There is a trail sign and some parking. Beware of traffic and pedestrians as the area can get heavily congested.)
Why make the hike: The Mogensen Trail gives hikers a dose of the outdoors while never leaving Twin Falls. A straight forward hike, the trail delivers breathtaking views of the canyon, waterfalls and a unique perspective of the I.B. Perrine Bridge. Wanderers will encounter all sorts of terrain from rock, dirt, scree and wooden footbridges. Stinging nettle and thistles and grow in thick around the trails, so wear appropriate clothing. Overall, it’s a convenient hike for visitors and long time residents alike and you just might meet a BASE jumper along the way.
Pro Photo Tip: While using the continuous shooting mode is common for sports photographers, it can also be helpful while out on the trail. For example, if you see a beautiful bird of prey, like the turkey vultures that glide through the Snake River Canyon, continuous shooting will help capture more options. Since this hike takes us under the bridge, there’s a chance hikers can get photos of BASE jumpers coming down through the canyon as well. I used this mode while trying to get a cool photo of the American flag waving in the breeze near the landing site, too.
Pillar Falls — a lone sentinel
Difficulty: Moderate, steep
Directions: From Pole Line Road and Eastland Drive North in Twin Falls, head east on Pole Line Road East. About a quarter-mile down, you’ll find parking on the north side of the road. If the lot is full, head back and find a spot in the parking lot at the Eastland corner.
Why make the hike: Another beautiful — albeit rugged — way down into the canyon. Plenty of loose rock makes getting to the bottom a bit nerve-wracking, but the views are breathtaking. One of my favorite angles of the Perrine Bridge is from about halfway down. There’s also a lovely waterfall to take pictures of. Once at the bottom, a canopy of trees greets hikers around a sandy area. If water flows are low, hikers may be able to reach Pillar Falls from this point. Regardless of flows, the hike is a fun way to get outside and those making the trip should see plenty to enjoy. I’ve found that this hike is a great way to test your endurance on the way back up as well.
Pro Photo Tip: Try using different lenses while out hiking. Shooting the same scene at different focal lengths will greatly increase the diversity in your photography. I usually leave a longer lens on the camera, because I never know when I’ll see a cool animal in the distance that I might want to photograph.
Cauldron Linn — toiling with little trouble
Directions: From Interstate 84, take exit 188 and travel south on Valley Road. Turn left onto 1000 East, and one mile later turn right onto 1900 South (also known as Murtaugh Road) until you get to 4575 East, then follow the signs. To make it all the way down, a vehicle with high clearance is suggested. Otherwise, there is some parking near the midway point of the grade into the canyon.
Why make the hike: As others often mention, not much has changed in the area since the Hunt party took on Star Falls back in 1811. With water flows constantly changing, the ‘cauldron’ always takes on a different look. Pair that with different times of day, and the view is always something new. The hike is short, but there is plenty of trail to roam around on near the edge of the canyon wall. I’ve explored all around the area and there are plenty of ways to increase that 1/2 mile hike distance I posted at the top of this article. While I’ve often found myself there at sunset, sunrise would be a beautiful time to approach the falls as the sun would be coming up behind it. Keep in mind the area is dangerous with fast moving water amid high cliffs and may not be suitable for children and dogs. While Cauldron Linn is not maintained as a park, there is a picnic table nearby. So pack a lunch and go enjoy one of the most tumultuous waterfalls in the Magic Valley.
Pro Photo Tip: Keep your ISO low in order to keep noise (imperfections that are the digital version of film grain in the image) down. It might be difficult to see on a small screen, but if you get an image you really enjoy and want to print big, then noise will quickly become a factor in the quality of your print.
Balanced Rock — poised for exploration
Distance: About 1 mile (while exploring near the rock)
Difficulty: Moderate, steep incline and a small section of scrambling
Directions: In Twin Falls County, drive west on 3700 North. It’ll turn into Balanced Rock Road. Follow that about 1.5 miles and there will be parking on the north side of the road.
Why make the hike: The hike is all uphill, but it’s a short hill. If you still have some gas in the tank and want to explore farther, then, by all means, keep going up. At the time of this hike, there was a cairns garden (cairns are human-made stacks of rocks) overlooking the canyon. Eyeing a vague trail, we wandered east passing other massive rock formations along the way. We stopped near the edge and looked up the canyon that we had driven through and made some photos. We headed back to the Balanced Rock for sunset photos, keeping our conversations with others at a distance.
Pro Photo Tip: Closing down the F-stop on your camera will give the sun a starburst effect. Try f16 for starters and open up or close down the aperture for the desired appearance.
Box Canyon — more than meets the eye
Difficulty: Moderate, steep inclines
Directions: In Gooding County, drive south on 1500 East or West Point Road. Just past the intersection with 3400 South will be a sign and parking on the west side of the road for the Earl M. Hardy Box Canyon Springs Nature Preserve in Thousand Springs State Park. Vehicles can continue down the dirt road and reach another parking area where portable restrooms await. A state park pass is needed or a $5 day-use fee will be charged.
Why make the hike: This jaunt delivers almost immediately with a gorgeous view of two crystal clear spring ponds from the canyon rim. Moving along the rim hikers will likely see birds of prey as they try not to trip over an unlimited supply of basalt. With an ominous “unimproved trail” sign leading you into the canyon, the trail becomes steep but manageable. After several switchbacks, hikers will reach the bottom of the trail and eventually come to a damaged overlook. Be careful as you take in the view. From there you can continue on the trail for a short way or head back after seeing the main attraction.
Pro Photo Tip: Be sure to have some microfiber lens cloths on hand when shooting this waterfall, it tends to spray a lot of mist downstream.
Little City of Rocks — isn’t so little
Distance: About 3.5 miles (to waterfall and back)
Difficulty: Moderate (small creek crossings, possibly some scrambling)
Directions: From Gooding, head north on Idaho Highway 46 for 14 miles. Look for signage and turn west. There are two parking areas, both on private property so be respective and don’t tear them up with your motor vehicles. The first is good for low clearance automobiles. The second one, about a mile up, is directly at the trailhead but oftentimes requires a higher clearance and four-wheel drive. Only use it when it’s dry because it’s a private road to get there.
Why make the hike: Almost immediately after setting foot on the trail, I thought to myself this would be the near-perfect place to shoot night photography. That alone is why I would make the trek out to the Little City of Rocks. If that’s not in your wheelhouse then there is still plenty to see and enjoy. I counted about 12 small creek crossings along the way to an epic little three-tier waterfall at about 1 3/4 miles in. The surrounding spires took me back to the days of Billy the Kid and the Wild West. Basically, the Little City of Rocks felt like Idaho’s version of Utah’s Bryce Canyon National Park.
Pro Photo Tip: Wear waterproof boots to make crossing the creek easier and you’ll also be able to make photos in the creek and use the water as a leading line throughout the hike.
Auger Falls — notorious whitewater just a heartbeat away
Directions: From Blue Lakes Boulevard North at the north end of Twin Falls, turn west onto Canyon Springs Road and take it down into the Snake River Canyon. At the road’s end, you’ll find a trailhead parking lot at the park gate. From there, you will need to hike or bike into the falls
Why make the hike: Being able to get my hiking boots dusty within 20 minutes of leaving my apartment is a huge benefit to living in the Magic Valley. The Auger Falls loop is one of the closest hikes to Twin Falls proper, allowing for a nice view of the famous I.B. Perrine Memorial Bridge as well as Auger Falls itself. The trail leads hikers, mountain bikers, trail runners and the like along a path steeped in history. Along the way, wanderers will see the old Urie homestead, remnants of a mining operation and the washed-out Interstate Bridge.
Pro Photo Tip: Take a travel tripod and neutral density filter to allow for slower shutter speeds in order to create those smooth creamy water flow images.
Vineyard Lake — a hidden, critical environment
Distance: About 2.5 miles
Difficulty: Easy to difficult, depending on how adventurous you’re feeling
Directions: Start at the Garden of Eden truck stop on Idaho Highway 50, north of the Hansen Bridge. (Hint: Many locals still call the truck stop “Travelers’ Oasis.”) Turn west onto 1010 South. After a few curves, the road will become 1000 South. Then it will turn 90 degrees to the right and become 1000 East. Immediately before reaching an overpass, turn left (west) onto 900 South. The paved road will curve a few times before ending at the T formed by a farmer’s dirt road.
Turn left onto the dirt road. After four-tenths of a mile, you’ll spot a wide gap between two fence posts on the right side of the road. A third fence post offset between them allows hikers into a cow pasture while keeping cows from escaping. You’re entering private property; be respectful.
Why make the hike: This short journey has something for everyone. There’s not an enormous amount of elevation so this hike allows those who don’t want to huff and puff find a nice middle ground. For those not afraid of heights, there is a small plank that allows travelers to discover a large waterfall. If scrambling is no big deal, then wanderers can explore another part of the area and find the source of the lake coming out of the canyon wall. In the summertime, hikers are likely to run into swimmers. In the meantime, remember to pack out what you pack in and leave no trace. The BLM designated the lake as an area of critical environmental concern — or ACEC — in 1986 because of its geology, scenic values and several rare species.
Pro Photo Tip: Having multiple focal lengths allows for a larger variety of images. When changing lenses remember to always point your camera body toward the ground and away from the wind to keep dust from settling onto your sensor.
Dierkes Lake — a recreational mecca
Difficulty: Easy, but there are steps and some elevation
Directions: From Twin Falls, take Falls Avenue East to Champlin Road (3300 East) and head north. Pay at the toll booth (during tourism season) and head into the canyon. At the fork, stay right and find parking.
Why make the hike: Dierkes Lake has long been a destination for recreational activity, and hiking is no exception. The trail loops explorers around swimmers, anglers, rock climbers and archers. Detouring off the beaten path will reward adventure seekers a hidden lake where a younger crowd makes splashes all summer long. The view of the lake is beautiful, and on the north side of the trail and a stretch of the Snake River is visible down below. Fun fact: Dierkes Lake used to be an apple orchard in the mid-1900s.
Pro Photo Tip: Autofocus (AF) is a key component in making good photographs. I’ll often keep mine on continuous AF in case I need to make a quick photo of wildlife on the trail. Once I settle in on a scene though, I’ll usually switch to single shot or manual focus (with the AF magnifier on) to make sure I have exactly what I want in focus.
Malad Gorge — magnificent coves and cataractsDistance: About 2 miles
Directions: From Twin Falls, take Interstate 84 west, then take the Tuttle Exit (147). Look for signs. Turn left onto 2350 South, then right onto Ritchie Road and you’ll see the entrance sign. (Visitors will want to have a state park pass or pay the entrance fee at the tollbooth.)
Why make the hike: The average traveler may not know a magnificent gorge runs under I-84 near Tuttle. It’s worth checking out Devil’s Washbowl, a 60-foot waterfall with a footbridge nearby. During higher water flows, Woody’s Cove comes alive and multitudes of birds dwell along its canyon walls.
Malad Gorge is one of eight units making up Thousand Springs State Park and is advertised as a six-point self-guided tour. Most of the markers have little more than a turnout and viewpoint, but I was able to do some exploring around their wildlife pond, Woody’s Cove and Devils Washbowl.
Keep in mind that most of these trails are near the edge of a canyon so keep children under a watchful eye and pets on a leash. The park contains a beautiful picnic and play area, so pack a lunch and enjoy one of Idaho’s great state parks. Unlike Box Canyon, there is no trail down into the canyon. You’ll have to enjoy the views from above.
Pro Photo Tip: Hyperfocal distance can play a large role in landscape photography. Given a focal length and an aperture value, I can find out exactly how much of my scene will be in focus using my PhotoPills app. This helps determine if I need to focus stack the scene I’m shooting. (I’ll address focus-stacking another time.) Basically, knowing my hyperfocal distance tells me how much of my foreground will be in focus all the way to infinity. For more information check out this tutorial. https://bit.ly/3ev60eV.
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