FURTHER AFIELD: The Boulder River Trail

The green island where I live is brimming with lush parks, but as much as I enjoy the beauty here, my restless spirit keeps spinning dreams of the mountains, where up is higher, down is lower and vistas are rugged and vast. Late summer is a perfect time to venture inland, to places like Mount Baker in the North Cascades or Hurricane Ridge, high in the Olympic mountains. Those two places have been teasing my brain for months and we could visit either one – they’re two or three hours away. But it’s prime time for visiting parks and crowds don’t appear in the pictures in my mind. When the summer frenzy abates there will still be time for those trips. In the meantime, last week I was looking for an alternative, an easy hike that doesn’t require too many hours on the road. I came across the Boulder River Trail and we decided to give it a go.

The trail leads through a forest surrounding the rushing waters of Boulder River, which tumbles down from a remote lake, high up on Three Fingers Mountain, where three jagged peaks rise 6,500 feet above sea level. Following an old railroad grade on the side of the canyon, the trail enters the Boulder River Wilderness, where 49,000 acres of forests and mountains are distinguished by wet conditions (twelve feet of rain annually), thick vegetation and steep terrain. The river plunges down three separate waterfalls on the way to its confluence with the larger Stillaguamish River. One of those waterfalls is the big draw for the hike.

The first waterfall is noisy Boulder Falls, which can be heard but can’t be seen without descending off-trail through thick woods. The next waterfall is the prettiest and at just over a mile from the trailhead, requires the least effort. Some sources say it has no name but others call it Feature Show Falls. Just don’t disagree about the directions and I’ll be fine!

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1. The road to the trailhead is overhung with mossy Bigleaf maple trees.

2. A peak at part of the waterfall

Feature Show Falls is a lovely, 180-foot-tall double cascade that runs all year, unlike some waterfalls that dwindle to a trickle in summer. The hike isn’t long but you pay a price for that: the trailhead is at the end of a pot-holed, gravel road. Happily the road is only four miles long. Many Pacific Northwest trailheads can only be reached after navigating cratered roads at a snail’s pace for at least an hour. The relatively easy access and non-strenuous hike appealed to us. Even better, a mile up the road there is a well-built vault toilet with lots of toilet paper and a door that locks. Just when you need it!

We were relieved to see only three cars at the trailhead when we arrived on a Thursday morning at about 10:30. We set out under a stunning canopy of moss-hung Bigleaf maple trees, with golden light angling down from high overhead. Our packs held plenty of water and snacks and our masks were stuffed in our pockets. I had a new, wide-angle prime lens on my camera that I was eager to use. Unfortunately, I had left a circular polarizer on it the day before and didn’t notice it until well into the hike. It’s frustrating, but who hasn’t done that? If I’d known the polarizer was on the lens I would have turned it for the best effect. In some cases I would not have wanted it – our forests can be very dim, even in summer. Some photos were beyond saving and others needed a lot of help in Lightroom but, c’est la vie!

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3. This forest was logged many years ago. Western hemlock, Douglas fir, Western redcedar and Bigleaf maple are all plentiful. Slopes are very steep but timber is valuable, so back in 1909, eight miles of railroad track were laid into the woods here. It’s hard to imagine how they did it. Further into the forest, the trees were spared because the going got too tough.

4. We admired this well-worn boardwalk across a wet section of trail. It’s made with thick planks of Western redcedar, once felled and split for cedar shakes and shingles but now left to grow tall and play its part in the great scheme that is life, here in this one particular slice of our earth.

5. Setting off.

The trail is mostly level as it traces the old railroad grade cut into the face of a steep slope. Nature proceeds unhindered here. Trees fall and rot in place, returning nourishment to the soil, with its wealth of fungal networks that in turn, nourish the plants above. Of course, some trees fall right across the trail and if they’re too big to remove, you have to climb over or under – whatever works. We were awed by the size of the fallen giants, especially two conifers that fell across the trail right next to each other. There was very little space underneath them but they seemed way too big to straddle. I handed my pack and camera to Joe and took the awkward way, crawling under the log. A pass of the packs and it was his turn. At times like these, I think, “Will this be the moment when the big earthquake we are overdue for finally happens?” The funny thing was, on the way back we noticed that someone had cut large notches in the tops of the two trees, making it practically a walk in the park to climb over them. We hadn’t studied the situation well enough on the way out, or maybe we’re just not experienced enough to know to look for those handy notches. Swinging up and over wasn’t so hard and it was much nicer than crawling across sharp rocks!

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6. The first of many trees to duck under or climb over, this one doesn’t need notches because there’s plenty of room to walk under it. The tree further down the trail can be walked around.

7. Another place I don’t want to be when the big earthquake hits. The notch is near the rock on the right; the second tree is hiding behind this one.

8. This piece of tree trunk plunged into the earth like a spear and then stayed there. I pushed and it hardly gave at all. It must have hit the ground with formidable force.

9. Sword fern shadows, a gentler side of the forest.

10. Like someone having a bad hair day, this frond on a Deer fern (Blechnum spicant) twists and turns every which way. Deer fern has two kinds of fronds – spore-bearing and sterile. The bright green sterile fronds usually grow low to the ground, like in the photo below. The spiky fertile fronds rise from the middle, standing straight up at first but contorting into wild shapes when they’re ready to release their spores. Yes, deer eat these ferns.

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12. A Pine white butterfly (Neophasia menapia) moved slowly enough for me to get a sharp image but in the end, I like this partly blurred one better. By this time I had switched to a macro lens.

13. This sculptural arrangement of roots and rock consists of at least one mature Western redcedar tree growing on an old, Western redcedar stump that grew on a large rock. To give you an idea of scale, the rock is big enough to sit on comfortably, with your feet barely touching the ground and your head two feet below the top of the stump.

14. Maidenhair fern (Adiantum pedatum) flourishes on moist rock walls. Unlike Sword fern and Deer fern, it’s not evergreen and the leaves were getting ragged. It’s not white, of course, but is fairly light in color, especially compared to evergreen ferns. I’m fond of the circular growth pattern.

15. Vine maple (Acer circinatum) prefers consistently moist environments so I rarely see it where I live. I was happy to see it growing here, even if some of the trees (technically they are large shrubs) were insect-ridden. Vine maple’s closest relatives are Japanese and Korean maples and like them, it is a graceful, delicate tree.

16. The forest is full of old trees; many of them have rotted. This mushroom, probably a Red-banded polypore (Fomitopsis pinicola) was one of the biggest I’ve ever seen. Black and white emphasizes the sinuous curves.

We heard the enticing roar of Boulder Falls, then rounded a bend and climbed an incline. Feature Show Falls was in range. After all, we were hungry so we must be near the end! We had taken far longer than the other six or eight hikers we saw. There was so much to admire – moss-covered trees disappearing into the canopy, filtered sunlight picking out leaf details, late-blooming wildflowers, six kinds of ferns, a dark, hollow tree with white, dew-dotted mushrooms inside it, huge stumps with loggers’ springboard slots cut into them…and finally, the waterfall appeared through the thick foliage. The trail had narrowed and footing was precarious in places. As we picked our way carefully across rocks and roots, we glanced across the deep ravine, getting bits and pieces of the falls. Eventually we arrived at a wide opening on the side of the ravine. A conveniently placed log offered a spot to sit while we ate lunch and listened to wild streams of water tumbling down 180 feet of rock to the Boulder River below. A rough trail leads steeply down to the river but we were content that day to just sit and listen.

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16. There were no vantage points to see the whole falls, top to bottom and right to left, without descending to the riverbed. I worked with what I had. This view is through the moss and lichen-covered branches of a Bigleaf maple tree.

17. The air was cool and fresh and filled with tiny insects flying back and forth in the charged air next to the falls. Leaves fluttered from breezes let loose by the force of the water. Fine threads glinted and wavered, catching the light – they were spiderwebs, strung high over the river from tree limbs. Only the rocks were still.

18. A view through graceful Western hemlock branches.

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77 comments

  1. Magnificent, Lynn.Thanks for bringing me on a lovely, quiet hike. Your first B&W of the trees caught my breath- excellent use of a centered subject as the anchor as my eyes circle around the ferns and trees. Brilliant shot. Bad hair day made me laugh, love the backlit leaves and the mushroom abstract. And your final waterfalls are gorgeous.

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    • Thank you, Jane. At first, I thought there weren’t enough good quality images to make a post of the hike but I worked at it. ๐Ÿ™‚ As you know well, converting to black and white can make a big difference. And it turns out, you don’t have to get the whole waterfall into the picture after all. ๐Ÿ˜‰ We have smoke today for the first time, coming over from eastern WA where fires are burning. It’s not as bad as so many other places but it always makes it so much more real when the air is affected and you realize you can’t get away from it. I don’t think it will last but we’ll see! Have a good week.

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    • It sounds like you feel the way I do – the point is to sense what’s around you, not to make it as quickly as possible to the destination ahead. ๐Ÿ™‚ Thanks so much for commenting and I’m glad you enjoyed the post.

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    • Thank you, Jo, that’s good to hear. I was frustrated at first that I couldn’t really frame the shole waterfall in the viewfinder but I think seeing pieces of it through the foliage can be just as beautiful. Have a great week!

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  2. #18… loveliest example of what is often called a ‘ bridal veil’ falls I’ve seen, ever. I’m luxuriating in that delicious misty atmosphere in a virtual sense. Still far too dry here with dire predictions of a heat wave. I’m happy you got to get out into fresher surroundings!

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    • Yes, bridal veil falls…I saw photos of that waterfall in May and there was so much water then that the two streams united. I was thinking it might actually be prettier now, when the flow is very low. I don’t always favor the slow shutter speed style with smooth water but this time it seems to be a good way to see the falls, along with the foliage around them. The trailhead was about a two-hour drive, maybe a little more – not too bad. I was so happy to find a hike that doesn’t require an hour or more of bone-jarring, suspension destroying, rough road driving. Will we ever get a proper back road vehicle? ๐Ÿ˜‰ Good luck with the heat…we have smoke today for the first time. Had to close the windows. Take care, stay safe and stay healthy, Gunta!

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    • Thank you! So glad you singled out the butterfly – thanks for constantly advocating for expressive photos over tack-sharp images. Your insistence finds a sympathetic ear here but it can be hard to hear that voice over the din of “proper” nature photography. You may remember that I use Olympus gear, so it’s an Oly 12mm f2. They’ve been making it for almost ten years so I was able to get a nice used one at half the retail price. I had been using a 17mm f1.8, another good lens they make, but was finding it wasn’t wide enough for what I wanted. I have a high-quality zoom that goes equally wide but it’s a beast to carry. And yes, wild fits the bill in that part of the world, and I’m so happy to be able to access real wilderness without taking a plane. ๐Ÿ™‚

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  3. Your title at first made me think of Boulder, Colorado. Speaking of names, Feature Show Falls is an unusual one. From what I’ve been able to tell when searching online by date range for “feature show,” the term didn’t appear in print until the early 20th century. Do you happen to know when Feature Show Falls was named?

    You said in #16 that you black-and-whited the photo to emphasize the mushroom’s sinuous curves. I’d be curious to see the original color image for comparison. Regarding #12, sometimes softer pictures carry the day. The off-center placement of the single berry on the Hookerโ€™s fairybell plant works well. The sword fern shadows in #9 are quite appealing; what photographer doesn’t love shadows? (Well, I guess there must be a few who don’t go for them.) I had the same reaction as Jane did to #3: it really grabbed my attention; the way the trees appear to lean in toward the top is part of the attraction. I imagine you felt that color would distract from the geometry.

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    • Thanks very much, Robert, I have no problem with your observation. No problem at all. ๐Ÿ™‚ It seems that one doesn’t have to fit the whole scene into the viewfinder, even if it’s a waterfall, to make a nice image. That’s my big takeaway. Oh, and look for notches in the logs before crawling under them. ๐Ÿ˜‰

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  4. Another beautiful walk with several aspects: on the one hand, adventure with obstacles to overcome; on the other, the beauty of the trail and the magnificent details it offers, namely the trunks and waterfalls; and lastly the botanical details that enrich most of Lynn’s posts and where we always learn something new.
    Thank you so much for sharing …. and also for the mood of the fern on a bad hair day!
    Very well seen!

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    • The obstacles would be nothing at all for my son, but for me, it was noteworthy. The sight of those giant trees in front of you on the trail is really awe-inspiring. Like you, I was thinking about the different aspects of forests and the land in general here – on the one hand, the landscape awes us with its wildness and power – the steep, inaccessible valleys, the dense forests with giant trees and on the other hand, the forests are filled with small, tender plants and animals that can stop you in your tracks with their delicate beauty. I’m glad you liked the post, and the fern having a bad hair day. ๐Ÿ™‚ Thank you, Dulce, and have a great week.

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  5. Splendid! I do like the perspective in #3 and the lovely #18 reminds me of the style of Chinese/Japanese ink paintings.

    โœจโ˜€๏ธ๐Ÿ™๐Ÿ•‰๏ธโ™พ๏ธโ˜ฎ๏ธ๐Ÿ™โ˜€๏ธโœจ

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    • It’s nice to hear that you thought of Asian art when you saw the last photo because the Japanese/Chinese/Korean aesthetic is one that I greatly admire. Trees here grow very, very tall so if you try to get the whole tree into the picture, something like #3 is what you get! ๐Ÿ˜‰ Thanks so much, Graham.

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    • Thank you, Alison…there are so many interesting walks within a few hours’ drive. We liked this especially because the forest there is so different from where we live, and the terrain is dramatic. Meanwhile, here we are in the (relative) heat, avoiding the worst of the smoke today, and feeling grateful for that.

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  6. The roads to those Pacific Northwest trailheads sound just like some of the trailheads here in the back country and the desert! ๐Ÿ˜›

    Lovely photos that made me long to take a walk in a lush forest like this again. Thanks for sharing, I really enjoyed these.

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    • That’s funny, I was thinking that many places in the west have the same kind of difficult access even though the landscape is totally different. The lushness is quite different from where we live, too, believe it or not, and it was refreshing for us to be back in that kind of milieu. We need these respites from everything we’re dealing with these days. Part of me wants to post a group of far more somber abstracts I’ve been putting together but part of me realizes that this kind of post is better at making people feel good. I think you get where I”m coming from. ๐Ÿ˜‰ Thanks for commenting, Alex. Stay safe and, well, breathe shallowly.

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  7. I know the feeling of not wanting to join the tourist crowds. We can’t help but hope the snow and cold we are getting will entice some to return home so we locals can enjoy the area around home. With that said however you did find many lovely subjects along this trail. Your B&W, #3 is my favorite in this set. The waterfall images are great too with the last view, through the trees being another favorite.

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    • I saw a photo of Denver with the snow – it’s shocking but I don’t think it’s unusual to have those extremes there, is it? The state park near here and the roads in general, seem a little quieter. Even without the impetus of in-person classes, I think lots of folks may have gone home. I hate seeing garbage, which I do more since the pandemic than I ever did before. In spite of that, there are always many interesting things to see and this trail was no exception. I trust that you’ve managed to enjoy places near home even with the out-of-towners around. I hope so. And it’s always interesting to know which photos speak to people, so thanks for letting me know. I was happy to get some nice waterfall images without a tripod! ๐Ÿ˜‰

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    • That butterfly was a gift – it was near the trail’s edge and not in a rush to leave. We don’t have many big, colorful butterflies here, not like in the south, so I’m always happy to see one of any kind and this one was new to me. ๐Ÿ™‚ Thanks for stopping by, and especially for commenting. I appreciate it.

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    • Well before, I think, but right now all I know is that we’re in the thick of it. You’re on Whidbey, right? I think parts of Whidbey are a little better, but probably not much. It’s looking like a tough weekend! Thanks for stopping by. I recommend this hike if you haven’t done it yet. Take care!

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      • Yes, on Whidbey. We might get some onshore winds this evening which would help the smoke situation (fingers crossed).
        Iโ€™ve climbed Three Fingers before but I donโ€™t remember using that Boulder River Trail for access. It looks very beautiful and motivates me to get back outside into the wilderness, thanks for the inspiration!

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  8. Very nice reading and beautiful images, as always. #18 is fantastic. Light and composition of course, but I think the fact that you can’t really see the start and end of the fall (right?) makes the image interesting. It’s like the water is falling past the observer. I envy your walk on this beautiful trail!

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    • I’m so pleased to read your comment, Goran. It was a good lesson for me, to be forced to compose with branches always in the frame. It’s a beautiful place – very steep, very lush and wet. August & September are the driest months, so it was not so slippery, which meant easier walking. I want to go back! Have a good weekend!

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    • John, we stood and admired that tree/rock formation for a long time. Of course, I wished the light had been coming from the opposite direction, but in general, the light was very pretty that day, so I’m not complaining. Redcedars are very special. It’s heartbreaking to see mammoth stumps in the forest with their springboard cuts but there are many newer ones working to take their places. I have certain favorite Redcedars scattered around. Thanks for stopping by. ๐Ÿ™‚

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    • There is always something new to see, right Otto? This trail is much closer to Seattle than Mt. Baker, and for us, it was a refreshing change of pace from our rather dry little island. I’m glad you enjoyed the photos – hope it won’t be too long before you can do some long-distance travel again. ๐Ÿ™‚

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    • This is a very easy hike, compared to most in the mountains, and it offers so much. We’ll get back there again at some point. I’m glad you enjoyed these, Howard, thanks for letting me know. ANd have a good week!

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  9. I really like the lightness and perspective of #3 and the framing of #18; the shutter speed you used was a perfect match for that waterfall, giving a good sensation of the flow but also retaining interesting detail. Really nice set of images, Lynn!

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  10. You found an incredible trail to hike here, and your creativity with finding the interesting angles make for such great shots, Lynn, really impressive. I had to smile about the polarizer left on your lens…yep, many times ~ but you were able to create something pretty spectacular. I will have to try out the Boulder River Trail at some point. Like you, I had thoughts about traveling to Hurricane Ridge in August but a friend of mine said it was busier than they had ever seen it, so I’ll leave it for another day.

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    • So many places have been extra busy this year, understandably. Even though the school year looks very different, I’m hoping it will still mean a reduction in traffic on the trails. It’s fun to think about different ways of looking at things, but the waterfall really forced my hand. It was a good experience all around. I think you’re back in this area, and if that’s right, here’s hoping that rain forecast is correct – this air needs a serious scrub. Thanks for commenting!

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  11. I enjoyed walking along with you! Even though you forgot your filter on, the photoโ€™s are absolutely beautiful Lynn. Tell me more about the huge earth quake that is expected. Are there specific signs that one can see?

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  12. How good it is for you to have so much water around you! Actually, I only meant the beauties of nature, but in times of forest fires the expression gets a secondary meaning, unfortunately.
    I was happy hiking with you to the romantic lunch spot that you described so vividly that I thought I could smell the scents of the place and hear its noises in my ears. And the reward of seeing the blue waterfall is great! Who cares if it can be seen in several parts or in one piece?

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    • ๐Ÿ™‚ Waterfalls have such an intense multi-sensory presence – I wish I could add the sound, the smells, and most of all, the feeling in the air. But your imagination is equal to the task! I’m glad you enjoyed the hike…yesterday we went into the mountains and oh boy, it was beautiful. You’ll see it soon! Have a good week, Ule!

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