Holiday Light Shows 2019: Northwest and West Coast Region

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Holiday light shows cover a lot of ground in Western states, from the more intimate celebrations in the wide-open states of Montana, Wyoming, and Idaho, to the increased sophistication of displays in the arts and culture meccas of California, Oregon, and Washington, to the distinctive character and ethnic flavors found in the non-contiguous states of Alaska and Hawaii.

As explained in our other story segments, operating hours, dates and admission costs for each venue vary widely, so please check event websites for specifics before planning a visit. As for cost, many of the venues have a primary goal to raise money for local charities. In such cases, consider the admission fee as a benevolent effort to spread some holiday cheer.

Above photograph © Mike Reid, Colorful Christmas Trees, Petersburg, Alaska

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Montana

The residents of Big Sky Country love their parades. From annual Christmas Strolls in downtown Bozeman (4:30 – 7:30 pm, 12/7) and uptown Butte (5:00 – 9:00 p.m., 12/6) to Missoula’s Parade of Lights (all day, 12/7) and the Holiday Parade of Lights in Bigfork (6:00 – 8:00 p.m., 12/7), crowds take to the streets to usher in the holidays amid festive activities and pageantry all over the state, generally followed by a ceremonial tree lighting in the city square.

David Marx

Yet the season’s most dramatic light show is arguably held in Montana’s northwestern corner, on the slopes of Whitefish Mountain during Santa’s Torchlight Parade (6:00 – 8:00 p.m., 12/24). Photographer David Marx documented this dynamic scene in a still image using a Canon 5D Mark III and EF 35 f/1.4 L lens secured to a Manfrotto MT055CXPRO3 Carbon Fiber Tripod with a Really Right Stuff BH-40 Ball Head.

“To capture the scene, I blended two separate exposures created within minutes of each other,” he explains. “The first was made at late nautical twilight before the skiers began down the slope, to capture a hint of color in the sky and as much detail as I could from all the lights throughout Flathead Valley. Then I captured the motion of the skiers with their torches heading down the slope. Once I had my images, I processed each separately using Adobe Photoshop Lightroom Classic, and then blended them together using a layer mask in Adobe Photoshop CC.”

Although Marx’s camera set up did not move between frames, he did change exposure settings, using an ISO of 1600 for a 10 second exposure at f/2.8 in the first capture and an ISO of 200 for a 46 second exposure at f/8 for the action shot.

He recommends the following when shooting these types of events: “Use a really stable tripod and go long. Snow is highly reflective, so long exposures work particularly well in those conditions,” he points out. “Slowing the shutter way down captures the torchlight streaks in a way that a faster exposure simply cannot. Plus, a long exposure will allow additional light to fill in some of the shadow areas.”

His other suggestion is to arrive early. “Since events like this only happen once or twice a winter here at Whitefish, you want to get there early and get all your settings figured out, with plenty of time to spare! Find your spot and shoot enough frames so you are confident in your focus and other general camera settings long before the parade starts.”

When he’s not out shooting, Marx offers technical instruction on subjects such as blending multiple images during field workshops and through video tutorials posted to his website.

Wyoming

In the great state of Wyoming, holiday light shows range from fundraising efforts to celebrate hope to historical reflections on the state’s outlaw past. In the southeastern corner of the Equality state, the Cheyenne Street Railway Trolley gets festive with Holiday Lights Tours (two departures nightly, at 6:00 and 8:00 p.m., 12/12 - 24), offering a curated journey through the capital city’s many brightly lit homes and buildings from the comfort of a heated vehicle.

Fifty miles northwest of Cheyenne, visitors to the historic site of the former Wyoming Territorial Prison, in Laramie can witness the site’s outlaw past transformed by a Holiday Music and Light Show (5:30 – 11:30 p.m., nightly, 11/29 – 12/31). Feast your eyes on more than 10,000 lights and 20 displays from the comfort of your vehicle, while listening to a special playlist of favorite holiday songs on your car radio.

250 miles due north, in Wyoming’s northeastern corner, the city of Gillette hosts the free drive-through Campbell County Festival of Lights (4:30 – 11:00 p.m., nightly, 11/22 – 1/3) at the 120-acre Cam-Plex Park. Featuring more than a million lights and 70 displays—including such colorful characters as surfing reindeer, trumpeting angels, Harley Santa, and Penguins on Ice—Wyoming’s largest holiday light display towers more than 50 feet high in spots and can even be viewed by passing planes. On select nights, the route closes to cars for a two-hour period to allow visitors to experience the lights from a hay ride, complete with Santa and hot chocolate.

Mike Cavaroc

And on the western side of the state, residents of the tourist mecca of Jackson Hole gather for the ceremonial Town Square Tree Lighting (5:00 – 7:00 p.m., 11/29, with Santa visits nightly from 12/14 – 24) and the illumination of the square’s famous elk-antler arches by thousands of sparkling LED bulbs.

Jackson-based photographer Mike Cavaroc captured the environmental view of the square shown above using a MeFOTO Backpacker Tripod and Really Right Stuff BH-25 Ball Head to stabilize his Canon 5D Mark III and EF 24-105mm f/4 L lens.

“There's always something special about downtown Jackson lit up at night for the holidays,” he says. “Snow King Mountain, the local ski hill, stays open into the night for night-riding, which makes for a complementary backdrop to the downtown area. Despite the cold and snow,” he adds, “there's a warm peacefulness that emanates from the lights around the antler arches and trees.”

Idaho

Idaho’s nickname as the Gem State seems particularly fitting when it comes to the region’s penchant for holiday lights. From the Preston City Festival of Lights (noon – 8:00 p.m., 11/30) in the state’s southeast corner to Caldwell’s Winter Wonderland Festival (5:00 – 10:00 p.m., 11/22) and 17th Annual Treasure Valley Night Light Parade (6:00 – 8:00 p.m., 12/7) outside Boise, to the Holiday Lighting Ceremony and Fireworks Show at the Coeur d’Alene Resort (11/29, with holiday light cruises continuing nightly until 1/1) in the northwest corner of the state.

In the capital city of Boise, the Idaho Botanical Gardens pulls out all the stops with Winter Garden aGlow (6:00 – 9:00 p.m. nightly, 11/28 – 1/4, closed 12/4, 12/10), where a dazzling display of more than 400,000 energy-efficient lights twinkle in the crisp air, as a G-scale model train winds its way through the landscape, and a new illumination display provides visitors with an interactive experience.

Patrick Teglia

“This yearly event brings thousands of people from all over the state,” says local resident Patrick Teglia, who photographed the lights using a FUJIFILM X-T1 and XF 27mm f/2.8 lens.

“I was able to get decent handheld images on the fly by shooting wide open, and I let the camera kick the ISO up to 3200. I think it surprised me by making decent images straight away,” he explains.

Teglia offers a helpful tip for shooting outdoors in frigid weather by advising, “Carry extra batteries and gloves! Shooting at lights on winter evenings is usually cold work, especially in Boise, and it zaps batteries faster than you expect. I have a nice pair of mitten/gloves that let me flip the mitten fingertips over, so you can get your finger out to shoot, and then flip them back to warm up your fingertips.”

California

The Golden State hosts a diverse array of festive light events—from San Francisco’s artsy Illuminate Festival of Lights (11/28 – 1/1), to the LA Zoo’s interactive Zoo Lights display (6:00 – 10:00 p.m., 11/15 – 1/5, closed 11/28, 12/24 – 25), and many more. In the seaside city of San Diego, a transitory holiday light show offers a nautical twist, as sailors assemble for a festive procession in the San Diego Bay Parade of Lights (starting at 5:00 p.m., Sunday 12/8 & 12/15). Now in its 48th year, this themed parade is an annual tradition with more than 80 boats and yachts that set sail from Shelter Island, for a scheduled route that passes Harbor Island, the Embarcadero, Seaport Village, and Cesar Chavez Park, before crossing the bay to end at Coronado Island’s Ferry Landing.

“Viewers line the Bay route and can also see the parade from the aircraft carrier Midway,” says the parade’s official photographer, Marv Sloben. He notes, “It’s my responsibility to capture each boat, including the I.D. number on the hull, to recognize winners when giving out awards at the banquet dinner for the participants.”

Marv Sloben

For the image above, he secured a Nikon D5600 and AF-P DX NIKKOR 18-55mm lens to a Manfrotto MK290 tripod with 804 3-Way Pan/Tilt head, “which makes it easy to switch from horizontal to vertical,” Sloben points out.

With his ISO boosted to 8000, he used a mid-range aperture of f/7.1 and a shutter speed to 1/60-second to eliminate motion blur. “Shooting the boats is a challenge because of the low lights, the movement, and the dark background,” he says, “while also accommodating a wide variety of boat sizes and distances from shore.”

Oregon

The warm glow of holiday lights is the perfect antidote for the damp, dreary weather that often hits the Beaver State. Along the southern coast in Coos Bay, colorful lights reflect the maritime setting during the annual Holiday Lights at Shore Acres (4:00 – 9:30 p.m., nightly, 11/28 – 12/31). A community tradition since 1987, this walk-through display at Shore Acres State Park features at least 325,000 lights shaped into fanciful creatures from land and sea, while beautifully decorated interior settings offer entertainment and seasonal refreshments.

190 miles northeast, in the city of Silverton, visitors can wander through a sparkling forest of 1 million lights as part of Christmas in the Garden (5:00 – 9:00 p.m., most nights, 11/29 – 1/5). Other activities include ice skating, snowless tubing, fire pits, live music, and a European-style holiday market, filled with additional sights, sounds, and smells of the season.

Forty-one miles farther north, in Portland, the Oregon Zoo hosts the annual ZooLights display (5:00 – 9:00 p.m., nightly, 11/29 – 1/5, closed 25), featuring more than 1.6 million colored lights formed into life-size animal silhouettes and decorating fanciful zoo trains.

The waterways of Portland’s Columbia and Willamette Rivers also shine bright with the Christmas Ship Parade (varied departures nightly, 12/5 – 12/22, except 12/8 – 9 and 12/16), an annual holiday tradition organized by the Portland Yacht Club since 1954. On select evenings during the month of December, two fleets of up to 60 illuminated boats ply the dark waters, giving communities along both shores a chance to enjoy the colorful flotillas.

Yet, perhaps this city’s best-known and most beloved light show is a residential display put on by the southeast Portland neighborhood of Peacock Lane (6:00 – 11:00 p.m., nightly, 12/15 – 31; pedestrian-only nights 12/15 - 17), which decorates its historic Tudor homes with creative lighting, in a holiday tradition dating back to the 1920s.

David R Burton

Local photographer David R. Burton has admired this display many times since moving to Portland, in 1976. “In years past, the neighborhood has been accessible both by auto and walking,” he says, “however, the lights became so popular that the experience was diminished by traffic.”

In December 2017, Burton visited on a pedestrian-only evening, noting, “The ability to take unobstructed photographs was vastly improved, but using a tripod would have been very inconvenient.” Handholding his Sony Alpha a77 DSLR and Tamron SP AF 10-24mm 1:3.5-4.5 zoom, he boosted the ISO to 1600 for a 1/20-second exposure at f/3.5.

“One of the potential problems in Portland, of course, is the weather,” Burton adds, “but the night I took this photo the weather was beautiful. The cool, sometimes cold, weather offers a perfect opportunity to bring a thermos of something hot to drink.”

Washington

While the largest holiday light display in the Pacific Northwest is reportedly Stanwood, Washington’s The Lights of Christmas (5:00 – 10:00 p.m., Thursday – Sunday, 11/29 – 12/29, plus 12/18 & 12/23), in the Seattle area, the Bellevue Botanical Garden has organized an annual Garden d’Lights holiday display (4:30 – 9:00 p.m. nightly, 11/30 – 12/31) for the past 24 years. More than half a million sparkling lights are shaped into plants, flowers, birds, animals, and cascading waterfalls, to enchant visitors during special evening hours.

Monica Sapek

Local photographer Monika Sapek captured the magic of the season in this 2011 image. She used a Manfrotto tripod equipped with an Acratech Ball Head and a Kirk camera plate and L-Bracket to secure her Nikon D200 and 18-70mm f/3.5-4.5G lens set at f/8, and then set her exposure compensation to -0.7 EV for a ½ second exposure that skillfully balances the sparkling lights with a faint glow of sunset.

“The Seattle area gets very dark and wet during the winter, which makes it hard to find something to photograph,” she says. “This has always been my favorite garden for photographing flowers and other plants, and the holiday display is filled with whimsical creations and bright colorful lights that are really fun to shoot.”

Alaska

A family favorite in the city of Anchorage, is the Zoolights display at the Alaska Zoo (5:00 – 8:00 p.m., Thursday – Sunday, 11/29 – 1/31, nightly 12/23 – 1/12, then 6:30 – 8:30 p.m., 2/1 – 3/1, closed 11/28, 12/25), when the zoo is overrun by a colorful, whimsical and animated parade of animals in lights.

Adding to the festive landscape, the Alaska Botanical Garden hosts its second annual Holiday Lights in the Garden (5:00 – 8:00 p.m., Wednesday – Saturday, 11/29 – 1/11, closed 12/25 and 1/). In addition to the lights, the garden features nightly events, including live music on select nights and hot chocolate and cider in front of a bonfire on Fridays.

But for a truly unique holiday experience in the last frontier state, head to Petersburg, a small island fishing town along the southeast coast, where many of the annual traditions draw on the community’s deep Nordic roots.

Mike Reid

A ceremonial tree lighting leads off the annual Festival of Lights on the day after Thanksgiving (5:00 p.m., 11/29), but photographer Mike Reid also tells of a Pickled Herring and Smoked Seafood competition, and the town’s Julebukking Day (held during Christmas week). “Julebukking draws everyone downtown for a door-to-door feast of holiday treats, culminating in a massive potluck at Hammer and Wikan’s Hardware centered on Moose Milk, a local concoction of brandy and eggnog mixed in the store’s paint shaker,” he recounts.

While admitting that the Christmas Lights contest is not as hotly contested as the annual Pickling competition, “It still draws eager participants all over the island,” he says. “Bundled up against the cold, with fistfuls of colorful lights, residents climb trees and ladders to express their own vision. The Sons of Norway Hall is lined with bright lights in every direction.”

During a trip to the island to visit family in 2017, Reid and his girlfriend set out one evening to see the Christmas Lights. “We stopped to get a few quick shots, as it was about 10 degrees out,” Reid notes. “Too cold, in fact, to mess with my tripod in the trunk.”

So, using the roof of his car to steady his rig, Reid framed up the image in our top shot with his Sony a7r2 and 55mm/1.8 lens. With his ISO set to 500 and an exposure value of -1, he made a 1/25 second exposure at f/1.8.

“The beautiful display of a row of trees, each lit in its own colors, really captivated me,” he says.

Hawaii

Where better to immerse yourself in holiday lights than amid balmy Hawaiian breezes? The Aloha state offers a wide variety of light shows and events to visit, from the colorful Festival of Lights in Kauai (6:00 p.m. - 8:00 p.m., Friday – Sunday, 12/6 – 12/28, plus Monday – Tuesday, 12/23 - 24) to the Christmas Light Parade & Ho’olaule’a on Molokai (beginning at dusk, 12/7) to Hawaii Kai Towne Center’s Festival of Lights Boat Parade on Oahu (starting at 3:00 p.m., 12/7), to quaint neighborhood displays sprinkled around that same island, as categorized in a post on the Website Beyond Honolulu.

Bill Sodeman

The festivities reach a peak with the annual Honolulu City Lights (until 11:00 p.m. nightly, 12/7 – 1/1), a free seasonal celebration in Honolulu’s downtown area that tickles the senses with trees and buildings draped in light and the Hawaiian Christmas tune Mele Kalikamaka floating through the air.

“Honolulu has a long tradition of colorful floats and illuminated displays at its city hall, Honolulu Hale,” says local resident Bill Sodeman. “For many families and visitors, a visit to see the lights is an important part of December.

Sodeman captured the spectacle of the City Hall Tree Lighting in 2010 using the camera of his Apple iPhone 4 and the apps TrueHDR and Picnik for photo editing.

Click below to read the companion articles in this series, Holiday Light Shows Northeast, Holiday Light Shows Southeast, Holiday Light Shows Midwest, and Holiday Light Shows Southwest.

Do you have a favorite Holiday Lighting event not mentioned above, or a cherished memory at one of these sites? Tell us about it in the Comments section, below!

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