PHOTO STORY: Midnight Hiking in the White Mountains


Click to watch - and set the video quality to 4K for the best experience!

Have you ever done a night hike? Not a sunset hike that ended with you descending during the twilight of blue hour, or a sunrise that quickly turned into daytime. I'm talking about a hike that starts after dark, and when you're coming back down it's still the middle of the night. No? Me either - until I decided to give it a go for a night sky session earlier this month.

The Setup

When I'm planning night photography shoots, I look for clear, dark skies and something interesting or different in the scene to add interest to the image. That sounds pretty simple, but when you consider that the darkest places typically require the most effort (and danger) to reach, and you have to get there and back safely in the middle of the night, it's actually a really complex task. So, I try to balance the desire to shoot at remote locations with the reality that wherever I end up has to be accessible via a short-ish walk from the car.

Back in March as I was planning my shoots for the summer, I remembered a really fun hike I did last summer in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, called the Mt. Willard trail. It's a very popular 3.3 mile hike with a great payoff for visitors, offering dramatic views of Crawford Notch - and you can park right next to the trailhead. The Notch is also a particularly dark part of the Whites, perfect for stargazing. I did a bit of research and found that the Milky Way would be positioned directly over the Notch in early June, so I booked a campsite nearby for the weekend and marked it on the calendar.

A hiker stands on top of a boulder looking out at Crawford Notch in the White Mountains of New Hampshire
The overlook at Mt. Willard during the summer. Thanks to my wife for modeling!

The Hike

When the night came, I couldn't get anyone to come with me, so I started up the trailhead alone at about 9pm. Mt. Willard is a well-marked trail that's easy to follow, so my headlamp and a flashlight was all I needed to find my way. The hike itself isn't very difficult, especially since I had done it before, but it was a completely different experience doing it at night!

The human eye isn't designed for night vision, so when you're hiking at night, your other senses really turn up to compensate. Within the first quarter mile I could feel any slight hint of a breeze, every bit of moisture in the humid air, and every pebble underfoot. Any audible sound felt like it was amplified 10x - to the point where even a loose pebble made me stop and do a 360 degree proximity check with my flashlight. I wouldn't describe it as a scary experience, but I was definitely on my toes the whole time, constantly aware of everything in my immediate vicinity. I actually played some music on my phone's speaker on the way up just to help keep my mind from wandering - though I never saw a single animal during the hike.

I powered up the first leg of the hike in about 10 minutes, stopping briefly to have some water and listen to the rush of an adjacent stream. The trail steepened quickly from there, and the next half mile or so was about half speed as I tried not to turn an ankle in the dark on the football-sized boulders that filled the trail. No injuries please! Things flattened out more in the last half mile, and reached the overlook at about 9:45pm. The Milky Way was due to rise around 10pm, so it was time to take a breather and find my composition(s).

The First Shoot

It's tempting to set up shop right near the edge of the overlook to capture as much of the valley below as possible, and the road that bisects it. But, it always pays to survey the scene before you start shooting! After walking around a bit, I set up my tripod behind a large boulder that perfectly framed the Notch. My goal for this session was to shoot a timelapse and hopefully pull out a nice still frame from that sequence, so I set up the camera at about 10:30 and let it run for the next few hours while I laid out on the rocks and stared up at the stars.

 

Unfortunately, I've had some bad luck this year when it comes to clouds randomly showing up where they aren't supposed to be. That was the case during my first night shoot of the year on Cape Cod, and it happened again on this hike! Check out the video at the top of this page to see what I mean... Luckily, these clouds weren't nearly as thick as the ones I encountered on the Cape, and while they did block my view of the Core for most of the night, I actually think they added a bit of depth to the timelapse. 

When the camera finished its sequence, I took a handful of 5 minute exposures to capture the detail of the Notch, which I would later blend with the sky exposures to create this image, which I'm super proud of.

Milky Way core shot from Mt. Willard looking over Crawford Notch in the White Mountains of New Hampshire
"Stardust". The latest image for my Milky Way collection.

The Second Shoot

Eventually, the pesky clouds cleared out around 1:30am, so I moved on to my second composition of the night, which was one I identified while shooting the timelapse. I've been experimenting with adding a human element to my night photos, and that's been really fun. The only issue with doing that in my first composition is that standing on the boulder completely blocked the car trails on the road, which is an essential element of that image. Luckily, I found a way to incorporate both by moving further down the rock face.

I took another 15-20 photos of the now completely clear night sky, then I grabbed an LED lantern that I brought with me and took a few photos of myself standing on the rock. A few more 5 minute exposures helped light up the Notch, and I later blended all three layers to create this image, which I'm also really proud of.

A hiker stands on top of a boulder as the Milky Way core rises over Crawford Notch in the White Mountains of New Hampshire
Self-portrait under a perfectly clear night sky in the White Mountains.

The Wrap Up

It was just after 2am when I pulled myself away from the incredible views at Mt. Willard and started the 1.5 mile hike back down the trail to my car. Going down was pretty quick, although I was even more careful to not be careless with my footing. After about 30 minutes, I was back on the road to my campsite.

It's tough to pick out a favorite part of this experience. Certainly the thrill of hiking at night for the first time kept me on edge, and there's a sense of pride knowing that my planning process worked out (mostly) as expected. But, I think what I'm most proud of is the fact that I've never seen another image online of the night sky with these compositions before. Certainly there are Milky Way shots from other photographers in Crawford Notch, but I'm pretty sure that I'm the first one to shoot it from these spots - and I just think that's so cool.

Thanks for reading, and stay tuned for my next night adventure!