Posted by: kerryl29 | February 4, 2019

Alaska: The Brooks Range – The Marion Creek Falls Trail

As I noted during the chronicling of the day of exploration that was our first full day in the Brooks Range, we discovered the Marion Creek Falls trailhead.  The trail emanates from the Marion Creek Campground, on the east side of the Dalton Highway about halfway between Wiseman and Coldfoot.  Given the time of the day (late afternoon), and the fact that we didn’t really know what we were getting into, exploration of the trail that day was limited.  Since then, we’d had the opportunity to read a brief description of the trail in a guidebook and, based on what we’d seen during our initial foray, everyone was interested in spending more time there, and making the full hike up to the falls.  As this would be our last full day in the Brooks Range, and given that the expectation was for cloudy weather throughout the day, we knew that this would be our primary destination.

The weather forecast turned out to be correct.  It was overcast from the word go, with low-hanging clouds that made it look like it might rain at any minute (though in fact we didn’t see any rain).  With no chance of a sunrise, we took our time, and reached the trailhead at mid-morning.  As expected, the campground was completely deserted and we made our way over the now familiar first 3/8 of a mile or so, past the Marion Creek overlook and through the reindeer-lichen strewn forest.  I again noted that, on the way back, I wanted to spend some time at both of these places.  We reached the point along the trail where it becomes clear that the path is: a) going to head up a hillside; and b) is clearly not maintained beyond this spot.  The trail–which is plainly visible throughout–is more of a “social trail” than anything else; no bushwhacking is necessary, but there are plenty of muddy areas and frequent brushing against bushes and shrubs is to be expected.  Though the trail to the falls is only supposed to be a bit more than two miles each way, the fairly rugged nature of the hike for most of its length makes it feel longer.  At one point, as we climbed the hillside, we reached a relatively open area, surrounded by what was, to that point, probably the best fall color we’d seen on the entire trip.  Despite the fact that it was quite windy, we stopped briefly to photograph.  There wasn’t much room to maneuver, given how narrow the trail was and the fact that there were four of us, but we made do.

Marion Creek Falls Trail, Brooks Range, Alaska

The wind was annoying, but I was determined to do some focus stacking–for which I was given a bit of a hard time, as no one thought that there would ever be enough of a lull to allow me to pull it off.  But I persisted and that ended up paying off with a couple of photographs.  The above image required only a two-image stack for a sharp combination, but the second shot (below) needed four, as I was practically right on top of the foreground.  The use of a polarizing filter, to take the sheen off the foliage in both instances, was not a benefit when it came to producing the stacks.  It took awhile to be able to execute the sequence but, again, persistence paid off.

Marion Creek Falls Trail, Brooks Range, Alaska

Eventually, we reached an intersection with an old logging road, as the guidebook had indicated would be the case.  Our route now followed the road and that made the next half mile or so of the hike much easier.  We passed several interesting locations along the way, but decided to let them wait until the return trip as we were anxious to reach the falls.  Eventually, we could hear the roar of fast moving water and found a short spur trail from the logging road which put us right astride Marion Creek and a broad set of rapids, just above the falls themselves.  It was difficult to get much of a look at the main tiers of the falls as they were below us and navigating this part of the mountainside was tricky.  There were huge boulders and the rock faces were often wet and potentially slippery.  There were also a lot of trees in the way.  But this spot, at the top of the falls, was plenty interesting and we set about photographing, with care given the potential hazards.  If anyone fell into the creek at this location, they were probably done for.

Marion Creek Falls, Brooks Range, Alaska

It was necessary to take care to set up here.  Establishing a solid, reliable tripod position was difficult, but absolutely necessary.  And, of course, as is always the case when photographing with others, we had to stay out of each other’s way.

Marion Creek Falls Black & White, Brooks Range, Alaska

All of the images in this sequence were stacked, utilizing from three to five frames.

Marion Creek Falls, Brooks Range, Alaska

Within the limits of where I could set up, I tried to look for interesting elements to be part of the foregrounds in these images.

Marion Creek Falls Black & White, Brooks Range, Alaska

Marion Creek Falls, Brooks Range, Alaska

While the majority of everyone’s attention was placed on this end of the rapids, I’d noticed what appeared to be an interesting location a bit upstream from our location, so when I was sure I couldn’t insert myself in anyone’s shot, I made my way over and around a couple of boulders to get a closer look.

Marion Creek Falls, Brooks Range, Alaska

Marion Creek Falls Black & White, Brooks Range, Alaska

Marion Creek Falls, Brooks Range, Alaska

When we wrapped up at this location and were retracing our steps back toward the logging road on the short spur trail from the falls, I looked over my shoulder and saw a fascinating sight on the cliff face on the other side of the creek.  I told everyone else to feel free to continue on, that I’d seen something I wanted to photograph and would catch up.  The image I saw in my mind’s eye would require a telephoto lens, so I pulled out the camera with the 80-400 mm lens and set up.  It was a slightly awkward spot, given the nature of the trail in that location, but I was able to obtain what I was after.  There was a series of stunted birches, in rich autumn yellow, with reindeer lichen covering substantial spots on the boulders.  All of this was perched high above the crashing rapids in the creek (which were invisible from this spot, but were plainly audible).

Marion Creek Falls Trail, Brooks Range, Alaska

It didn’t take long to catch up to everyone else and we decided to stop at a small “rock garden” that we’d found nestled into the hillside astride the old logging road on the way up.  This was an opportunity to engage in some photography of intimate scenes.

Rock Garden Intimate, Marion Creek Falls Trail, Brooks Range, Alaska

Fortunately, this area was protected from the wind, making it much easier to engage in a focus stacking approach.  The above image is a four-image set, the one below is three.

Forest Floor Intimate, Marion Creek Falls Trail, Brooks Range, Alaska

Just steps away from the rock garden area, this intimate scene, replete with color, caught my attention.

Autumn Intimate, Marion Creek Falls Trail, Brooks Range, Alaska

Not far from this location, still along the old logging road but facing the other direction, there were broad views of the mountainside, which was partially enveloped in low-hanging clouds.  It was back to the telephoto rig for another series of images.

Encroaching Clouds, Marion Creek Falls Trail, Brooks Range, Alaska

Encroaching Clouds, Marion Creek Falls Trail, Brooks Range, Alaska

Marion Creek Falls Trail, Brooks Range, Alaska

From here, it was back on the “social trail” until we arrived once more at the forested area, less than half a mile from the trailhead.  I had done a bit of shooting in this location during our visit two days prior, but there was a lot more I wanted to do this time around…and so, I did.

I began with the reindeer lichen in the forest.

Reindeer Lichen Splendor Black & White, Marion Creek Falls Trail, Brooks Range, Alaska

Reindeer Lichen Splendor, Marion Creek Falls Trail, Brooks Range, Alaska

I slowly made my way along the forested trail, back in the direction of the creek overlook, but with my attention still focused on the carpet of reindeer lichen.  The wind was a factor here, but not as much as it had been on the more exposed part of the trail on the way up to the falls.

Reindeer Lichen Splendor, Marion Creek Falls Trail, Brooks Range, Alaska

Eventually, I turned my attention to the overlook.  I started with wide-to-normal perspectives, with a mix of verticals and horizontals.

Marion Creek, Marion Creek Falls Trail, Brooks Range, Alaska

Marion Creek, Marion Creek Falls Trail, Brooks Range, Alaska

Marion Creek, Marion Creek Falls Trail, Brooks Range, Alaska

Ultimately, I pulled out the telephoto rig, to take advantage of some isolates.

Marion Creek Falls Trail, Brooks Range, Alaska

Autumn Isolate, Marion Creek Falls Trail, Brooks Range, Alaska

The climb down to creek level was fairly steep, but Debbie and I found a way and descended to the water’s edge.  There were a number of interesting elements to be used as foregrounds from this perspective.

Marion Creek, Marion Creek Falls Trail, Brooks Range, Alaska

Marion Creek Black & White, Marion Creek Falls Trail, Brooks Range, Alaska

Marion Creek, Marion Creek Falls Trail, Brooks Range, Alaska

It was a short walk back to the parking area, though by now it was at least mid-afternoon.  We moved along the highway and found another colorful meadow.  It was amazing how much the fall color had developed in just the last two or three days.  This area has been almost entirely green when we passed through earlier in the week.

Brooks Range Autumn Meadow, Dalton Highway, Alaska

I had been hoping to have the opportunity to photograph a scene like this at some point on the trip and now I had my chance.  Again, the wind was a problem, so patience had to be employed.  After obtaining a wide shot, I went back to the telephoto set up; I was intrigued by the notch created by a series of intersecting ridge lines and the marvelous kaleidoscope of color.

Brooks Range Autumn, Dalton Highway, Alaska

Brooks Range Autumn, Dalton Highway, Alaska

Brooks Range Autumn, Dalton Highway, Alaska

At this point, it was early evening, roughly two or three hours before “sunset.”  We stopped at a pullout near a spot where the pipeline rises up, not far from the highway.  It was evident, at this point, that everyone in the group other than myself was completely out of gas–not surprising since it had been another very long day (and the fatigue was surely enhanced by the fact that we’d taken turns getting up in the middle of the night earlier during our stay in Wiseman to check for possible aurora opportunities; spoiler alert:  there were none).

I made a couple of token images (see below) here and then put everyone out of their misery (I don’t think anyone else even got out of the car at this location) by announcing that I’d had enough.

Brooks Range Autumn, Dalton Highway, Alaska

Brooks Range Autumn, Dalton Highway, Alaska

When we got back to Wiseman, I saw what appeared to be some changing light and ran down to the river to make a few last images before the light disappeared completely.  The opportunities were limited, but I found it a satisfying conclusion to another long day of photography.

Koyukuk River Evening, Brooks Range, Alaska

Koyukuk River Evening Black & White, Brooks Range, Alaska

Brooks Range Autumn, Dalton Highway, Alaska

And so concluded the last full day of our time in the Brooks Range.  It would be a long trip back to Fairbanks the next day (and we had a ridiculously early flight out the following morning), but there would be photographic opportunities during that return trip, and I’ll chronicle that experience in the next installment.

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Responses

  1. The Marion Creek area definitely has a lot of photographic potential. Perhaps a little investigation with the locals would reveal the secret to getting a full view of the falls. The combination of the aqua water and yellow leaves makes for beautiful imagery.

    • Thanks, Ellen. Yes, this was very much a work the scenes–plural–kind of location. There were several such locations (Horseshoe Lake at Denali, Creamer’s Field, etc.) that we visited on this trip, but I think this may have been the richest of them all.

      Heck, might as well go whole hog and inquire with both of the locals. 🙂

      • LOL

  2. It must have been an incredible hike with the rich scenery and color contrasts. Especially like how you captured the rush of water past the rock strata at the falls.

    • Thanks!

      The hike itself was a bit of a slog at times, just given how muddy some areas were and how overgrown part of the route was. But, you’re right, there were some fantastic views to be had and I would love to have the opportunity to explore the area again.

  3. Hello.

    I did find Your blog, when looking at my old posts and comments on them.

    Your photos are gorgeous and I did find something interesting to me: Reindeer Lichen.

    After seeing Your beautiful photos, I remembered that I have a post of them:

    Reindeer Lichen

    Have a good day!

    • Thanks very much for taking the time to post a comment and for providing the link to your post, including the fine examples of reindeer lichen in Finland.

  4. […] first stop was at the meadow location we’d photographed late on the previous day.  As it was on our way, and was only about ten minutes south of the turn-off to Wiseman on the […]


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