Its been a rollercoaster week in Rocky Mountain National Park. With late summer continuing its trend of hot and dry weather, exacerbated by the Cameron Peak fire which entered Rocky Mountain National Park last week and burned up along the Hagues Creek and Cascade drainage, one could only expect the year of 2020 to continue with oddities and disruptions.
With the park service closing Trail Ridge Road, Old Fall River Road and access to pretty much all of the north eastern and western portions of Rocky Mountain National Park due to the Cameron Peak fire, the weather took a dramatic turn after the Labor Day holiday weekend.
A strong early season cold front dropped in the night of September 7th, plummeting temperatures and kicking off 3 days of unseasonably cold and wet weather which was badly needed over Colorado.
Most of us probably don’t envision waking up the day after Labor Day, the unofficial end to the Summer Season to find temperatures in the 20’s and snow falling hard but thats in fact what we were greeted with.
Snow fell on Rocky Mountain National Park along with the Cameron Peak Fire from the night of Monday the 7th all the way the through the early hours of Friday morning. In total nearly a foot of snow fell over portions of RMNP and the needed moisture helped to at least temporarily stop the explosive growth of the fire.
The dramatic shift from summer to winter also allowed for the skies to clear of all the smoke and ash that had been falling over the past few weeks and flip the script from summer type photography conditions to winter landscapes.
I took the opportunity to get out the back end of last week and enjoy the snow covered landscapes in Rocky and get into some areas that are usually very difficult in the winter months due to heavy snows and cold conditions. These early season storms in Rocky typically offer photographers a chance to capture the landscape of Rocky covered in fresh snow without the brutally cold temperatures one would find in the middle of winter while also needing only minimal equipment such as micro spikes to access the backcountry and trails.
While I had 3 great mornings out in the park, the morning of September 9th offered the most dramatic conditions and I took advantage of them by hiking up to the top of Flattop Mountain for sunrise. While the sunrise was obscured by clouds, breaks in the cover did happen latter in the morning make for some dramatic lighting over a snow covered Longs Peak.
The reprieve to cooler weather was only temporary as this week looks once again to be warm and dry. Hopefully the moisture from last week can keep a handle on the Cameron Peak fires spread into Rocky and we can get some more moisture over the park by the end of the week. Either way it was a welcome change even if I’m not quite ready for the snow and winter just yet.
2020 continues to be the year that fails to be dull. The year that never fails to surprise and amaze, and not always in good ways continues on with more surprises. The current surprise being a post labor day snowstorm that is now hitting Rocky Mountain National Park after a week of near record temperatures and the exponential growth of the Cameron Peak Fire which has now entered the northeastern section of Rocky Mountain National Park.
With ash raining down on the park all weekend, and smoke so thick that the NPS had to close Trail Ridge Road due to poor visibility, the Cameron Peak fire exploded and nearly tripled in size from a few days ago to just under 100,000 acres. Even more upsetting is that the fire managed to cross over Highway 14 and make a run up the Hague Creek drainage in Rocky Mountain National Park.
Reports on how much damage the fire has actually caused in RMNP are still vague as most of the news reporting has been focused on the areas outside the park where there is housing and buildings to direct resources to.
The fire incident mapping which is updated once a day now shows that the drainages up Hagues Creek and just below Cascade Creek and Mirror Lake have now burned. This hits close to home for me not only because the fire is now inside Rocky Mountain National Park, but also because I just recently spent a few days backpacking in the Mirror Lake getting to explore the beauty in this remote section of the park. As is always the case, when one visits and area it just leads one to plan on exploring larger and different areas on future visits. This was certainly the case with the Hagues Creek drainage which is a beautiful and remote section of the park just asking to be photographed.
The good news with regards to the Cameron Peak Fire is that the current snowstorm that is blanketing the park, should help with much needed moisture. Fire officials do not believe this will be a season ending event and think the fire will continue to burn even after the predicted 8-14 inches falls on Rocky in the next few days, but it will certainly help with what has turned into an unbelievably dry summer.
I’ll certainly welcome some cooler weather and hopefully smokeless skies moving forward. Hopefully the NPS will be able to reopen Trail Ridge Road, Old Fall River Road and some other northern sections of the park after all the moisture falls. While it would be easy enough to complain about the early season snowfall and the impact it is likely to have on fall color and late summer season photography, it really could not come at a better time considering the spread of the Cameron Peak Fire.
Summer continues to fly by here in Rocky Mountain National Park. August has now come and gone and one of the best months for photographers has now arrived. With the calendar page flipping over from August to September, the first day of September left little to the imagination on what lies in store for us as we begin to say goodbye to summer.
After having an above average temperatures for the months of July and August, and the Cameron Peak fire burning just outside the northeastern boundary to the park since August 13th, the morning of September 1st brought some much needed relief.
The first of two strong cold fronts moved in through the park on the night of August 31st into September 1st. Rain fell over most of Rocky Mountain National Park but just above 11,500 ft, that rain turned to snow. For the first time this season, the high peaks of RMNP had a nice dusting of snow on them.
The combination of snow along with the alpine tundra that is found at nearly the same elevation made for a nice combination of color and contrast. Snow dusting the peaks and reds and yellow alpine tundra displaying its fall glory helped to change the scenery for a change. No smokey or cloudless skies this morning, just some light snow on the peaks and the tundra looking colorful as it was amplified by the moisture on the grasses.
While its hard to know if this is the start of a weather pattern change here in Rocky Mountain National Park or a one off, it was an unmistakable change in the weather that could be felt as we moved into what is regarded by many, as the best month of the year in the park.
While the Cameron Peak Fire continues to burn just outside the boundary of Rocky Mountain National Park (21,000+ acres with 0% containment as of this writing), we finally caught a break the other morning with regards to air quality and smoke which has been ever present since the fire started back on August 13th.
Shifting wind patterns and some nice afternoon and evening rain showers helped to improve the air quality over Rocky Mountain National Park on the morning of August 26th. While I’ve been trying to use the smoke as best I can when out photographing in Rocky, sometimes there is only so much you can do .
Heading out yesterday morning, I was surprised to be able to see the stars as I started my drive north towards Estes Park. The smoke tends to settle in the valleys overnight but its been so heavy of late that its often hard to tell if its cloudy or just smokey in the morning.
The forecast showed clouds moving in over the west side of Rocky Mountain National Park around sunrise yesterday, so I figured I would head up Trail Ridge and over to the Kawuneeche Valley to see if the combination of less smokey skies and haze and clouds at sunrise might yield a good old fashioned morning of photography.
For the past few weeks, The Kawuneeche has be inundated with smoke from both the Cameron Peak Fire and the Williams Fork Fire further to the west. With rain that had fallen overnight and clouds predicted on the west side of the park, I was also hoping that maybe some low lying fog would form in the valley to add to the mood.
While the low lying fog only materialized in a few isolated areas of Kawuneeche Valley, the clouds did just as predicted and started moving in just before sunrise. Best of all, while there was still some smoke present in the valley, the air quality was the cleanest its been in over two weeks.
I took the opportunity to setup along the Colorado River at a location I’ve photographed a hundred times before. It’s a classic west side of Rocky image. The Colorado River a few miles from its headwaters with Baker Mountain looming over Bowen Baker gulch to the west. This time of years the grasses which have been growing all summer in the Kawuneeche Valley are waist high and there are hints of golden autumn hues mixed in with still lush greens.
Great clouds, great scenery and more importantly, some great conditions which included the air quality yesterday morning made for a refreshing change. Cooler weather is predicted for the park starting on Friday and smoke from the fires in both California and Colorado are supposed to abate as well. Here’s to hoping for some great conditions again as we hit the homestretch towards the end of summer and fall in Rocky Mountain National Park.
Lots of photography tour clients have contacted me asking what the current conditions are in Rocky Mountain National Park. Many want to know if their are any signs of fall color or the elk rut starting as we are moving into late August. Others just want to know what the air quality situation is with the Cameron Peak Fire burning just outside the northwestern boundary to the park ongoing.
Before giving an update on the Cameron Peak fire, I’ll give a brief update on the first two questions. The back end of summer has been very dry here in Rocky Mountain National Park. Evidence of this can be seen not only from the fires burning across Colorado, but also in the alpine tundra which has now turned mostly brown instead of it autumnal red. Wildflowers have dried up in most areas of the park and the grasses in the lower elevations are browning. Even with that said, there are certainly signs of autumn appearing now in Rocky. With the exception of a few draught stressed aspens which have started to turn, at or above timberline one will find both the grasses, tundra and willows starting to change. In fact, just last week on Flattop Mountain I was surprised with how far along the willows below the summit had turned yellow. Its possible that both the dry conditions and diluted sunlight from smokey skies will have some effect on Rocky’s fall color season which usually begins in earnest around the second to third week of September.
Secondly, the warm weather has kept most of the elk herds high above the parks so far. While the bulls have been shedding their velvet in preparation for the rut, overall congregation of the males and the females remains separate and even the offset bugling bull elk has been fairly subdued. I would expect this activity to start changing in the next few weeks, especially if some cooler weather moves in.
Lastly, the Cameron Peak fire continues to burn just outside the northern boundary of Rocky Mountain National Park. As of this writing, the Cameron Peak Fire had burned just over 20,000 acres with 0% containment. The National Park Service has closed off access to the northern part of Rocky and one is not able to access anything from along Long Draw Road, the Poudre River Trail or the areas around Mirror Lake and Hagues Creek. As it currently stands there is no reason to believe any of these areas will reopen anytime soon with the fire at 0% containment. Luckily for Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado Highway 14 and Long Draw Road have been acting as a fire break and preventing the fire from moving inside the boundary of RMNP. While there is concern with such a large fire burning just outside the boundary, it appears as it stands today that the biggest impact from the Cameron Peak fire to RMNP will be smoke and poor air quality.
For photographers, smoke is now making photography inside of Rocky Mountain National Park a challenge. The smoke is not only coming from the Cameron Peak Fire, but also from the 3 other large fires burning in Colorado and along with smoke from the numerous California fires.
The smoke is thick enough most morning that getting anything close to full sunlight is very difficult even if there are no clouds present. The smokey haze is causing for diffused lighting and poor air quality. While the smokey skies certainly present some unique opportunities to photograph the park, it certainly makes getting classic vistas like sunrise at Dream Lake, or sunset at the Rock Cut along Trail Ridge Road very difficult as the smoke obscures and diffuses most to the light.
At this point, I find the best strategy is to head into the park and use the smokey skies to ones advantage. I’ve been doing that by getting as much elevation as I can and shooting back into sunrises. The smoke filled valleys and backlighting allowed for one to create moody, layered images with deep blue shadows and warm reds around the rising sun.
I’ll continue to keep the blog updated on the status in Rocky Mountain National Park but with regards to the the Cameron Peak Fire but also the fall color status as well as the elk rut. In the meantime, if you are heading to Rocky for photography, prepare to make adjustments to your shooting itinerary and use the smoke and haze to one’s advantage.
Dry. Thats the operative word for the current conditions in Rocky Mountain National Park. After a winter with above average snowfall and a more or less normal spring, moisture has been tough to come by as summer moves along.
Moisture and active weather patterns are not only good for the ecosystem of Rocky Mountain National Park but dynamic weather is great for photographers. Other than a few gully washers we’ve had in July during the peak of the monsoon season here in Colorado, rain, fog, or just plain cloudy skies have been hard to come by this season.
While out in the backcountry of RMNP camping at Mirror Lake a few weeks back with my friend and fellow photographer Erik Stensland, we were discussing just how mild and placid the weather had been this summer. We both remarked at how we badly needed moisture and then both tried to remember the last time we had an entire day or rainy weather or even upslope conditions and or fog to get out and photograph in. The best we could come up with was sometime during the COVID-19 lockdowns when Rocky was still closed and photography in the park was not possible.
During the conversation it was never stated but its always implied that if we dont get moisture soon the risk of a large fire in or near the park is always looming. Combine all of the pine beetle kill of the last 20 years with the fact that many parts of Rocky Mountain National Park have not seen fires in hundreds of years and you realize our favorite location on earth is also a tinder box.
Fast forward to today and there are now 4 major fires burning across the state of Colorado, with the Cameron Peak fire burning just a few miles outside the remote northwest corner of Rocky Mountain National Park. Ironically, the Cameron Peak Fire is burning only a handful of miles from the Mirror Lake area where Erik and I were discussing our dry weather just a few weeks back. The fires are so close in fact that the NPS has closed the area around Mirror Lake as well as much of the Never Summer Range, The Poudre River headwaters and the Hagues Creek area. If we were back camping in this area today we would have been forced to evacuate the area or cancel the trip.
Currently the park service is only closing these areas of Rocky Mountain National Park out of an abundance of caution. The fire has jumped across Highway 14 near Long Draw Reservoir a few times but luckily firefighters have been able to quickly extinguish the growth and hold the fire line on the north or west sides of Highway 14.
With the 4 large fires burning and one burning only a few miles from the boundary of RMNP, smoke has become a major issue in the Estes Park and Grand Lake area over the past week. The thick smoke which comes and goes based on wind direction and humidity has created very poor air quality in the park but has also made photographing landscapes more difficult as the light is diffused and the visibility is reduced.
It’s difficult to get motivated to wakeup just past midnight and head out 7 or 8 miles into the backcountry when you know the air quality is likely to hinder your quality of light on the landscapes. I find the best thing to do in this situation is to just ‘embrace the suck’ and use the current compromised atmospherics to the best of ones advantage.
strategy is to go high and shoot into the sun when possible. All that smoke and haze not only creates colors and patterns that may not exist on clear days, but it also can enhance mood, texture and obviously the light.
Mountain ridges, the sun rising over the eastern plains of Colorado, every valley and peak take on a different quality when sifting through the blue smoke hovering over the landscape.
While it may not be ideal right now to be out photographing grand landscapes in Rocky Mountain National Park, theres plenty of unique and subtle photography that can still be done that will help to document and capture one phase of life in the Rocky Mountains. So while I’m hoping for a few nice days of rain soon, I’ll still get out there in the smokey air hanging over RMNP and try to get some unique compositions and color palettes not typically present when our air quality and visibility is excellent.
One of the natural evolutions of photographing in a place like Rocky Mountain National Park for so long is the need to continually explore and search for new locations, images and compositions. The natural evolution here is that the more one spends time photographing in Rocky, the farther and longer one will head in from the trailheads to explore new locations.
One location that I’ve been eyeing for years on the map but had yet to visit was the Mirror Lake area in the remote northern section of Rocky Mountain National Park. Mirror Lake is one of those areas that I’ve always wanted to visit but to be honest it quite difficult to get in and out of, especially if you are not spending a few nights in the backcountry.
When the backcountry office of RMNP opened the lottery up this March for backcountry sites, Mirror Lake was on the top of my list. I was lucky enough to secure two nights in early August at the Mirror Lake backcountry sites and had been eagerly awaiting for the day to come to travel back to Mirror Lake to explore and photograph this beautiful area nestled deep in the Mummy Range.
To reach Mirror Lake, the most common entry point is through the Corral Creek Trailhead. The Corral Creek Trailhead is located about 9 miles in on Long Draw Road off of Colorado Highway 14. Its a rough dirt road that heads between Highway 14 at the top end of Poudre Canyon, and Long Draw Reservoir which helps to feed the Front Range and Denver Metro area with its water supply through the Grand Ditch diversion which brings water from the Colorado River through the Continental Divide over to the east side or Atlantic Side of the Rocky Mountains.
From my home here in Erie its a slow 3 hrs and 111 mile drive up to Ft. Collins, than through the beautiful Poudre River Canyon to Long Draw Road and eventually the Corral Creek Trailhead. Once at the Corral Creek Trailhead, I met my friend and fellow Rocky Mountain National Park photographer extraordinaire Erik Stensland who would join me on this two day trip. Erik had been back along Thunder Pass the previous night and after eating a quick lunch at the trailhead, we started the 6.3 mile hike up to Mirror Lake.
After a few hours of hiking with our heavy packs loaded with camping gear, bear canisters and of course tripods and photography gear we arrived at Mirror Lake. There are 3 backcountry sites at Mirror Lake and sites 1 and 2 were already occupied so we took up in site #3 which is the southernmost and farthest site from the lake itself. We setup camp, ate dinner and we each headed off in different directions to photograph what would be a beautiful sunset that evening.
The following morning looked promising once again. Clouds hovered over Mirror Lake and Mount Ikoko with a nice break to the east. As is typical during the morning hours, the clouds dissipated then reappeared shortly after sunrise. This worked out well as the valley that Mirror Lake sits in does not get sun on Mount Ikoko this time of year until a little after 6:30 AM anyway.
With a great sunset and sunrise already in the book it was time for some exploring and climbing. Erik who is one never to squander time or opportunities was looking to climb Mount Ikoko, Revision Peak and Comanche Peak which all rest in the basin above Mirror Lake. We climbed up the scree slope on the north west side of Ikoko and reached the alpine tundra which would allow us to loop around the basin and climb the 3 12,000 ft peaks. With the threat of summer thunderstorms a good possibility we made good time to the summits of Ikoko, Revision and Comanche Peak. As we headed down Comanche Peak and back to the faint trail that is the Comanche Peak trail back towards camp we got down into the forest canopy just as the rain and thunderstorms moved in.
After resting up and grabbing something to eat it was time to head back out again for sunset in the basin. This particular sunset was not quite as dramatic as the one the day prior. There were lots of nice clouds and action going on over the backside of Ypsilon and Fairchild Mountain but sunset was blocked by some clouds and was more on the modest side. Tired from the hiking and climbing it was time to head to bed and get ready for one last sunrise at Mirror Lake.
I was up long before sunrise checking out the skies and making a cup of coffee. When you are out in the backcountry for a few days you only have a 48 hr old forecast to guess on what conditions would be like. I suspected we may have some clouds on this last morning based on the previous forecast before I left, but the last forecast I read showed mostly clear skies and a stiff 8 to 9 mph breeze. Thats not what happened in actuality at all. Instead, there were even more clouds than the day prior and what appeared to be a break in the cloud cover to the east again. There was no wind and conditions were looking close to perfect. I headed up to the tarn above Mirror Lake and waited to see where the sunrise would be most dramatic, either over Mount Ikoko or farther south over Ypsilon and Fairchild.
With great conditions for a second great sunrise in a row, a real rarity in Rocky Mountain National Park, I was able to capture Ikoko reflecting in the placid waters of the tarn above Mirror Lake. Once the sun had risen high enough in the sky it was a quick hustle back down to Mirror Lake for a few more images and then back to break down camp and hike the 6.3 miles back out to the vehicles.
Its always a little easier to hike out with heavy packs and sore legs after a successful few days in the field. We made good time and were back at the vehicles by 10:30, a little over 2 hrs after we left campsite #3 at Mirror Lake. With raindrops starting to fall I said goodbye to Erik and started the slow journey back out on Long Draw Road and then into Poudre River Canyon.
Arriving back in Erie in the early afternoon there is always excitement as one downloads images from the journey. Mirror Lake did not disappoint and we were blessed with both amazing conditions, great weather and a little bit of luck. Mirror Lake may take a little bit of effort to get into than many other locations in Rocky Mountain National Park but I can guarantee I’ll be back as soon as I can.
How many of spend countless hours eyeing a topo map of a given location thinking about all the scenic wonders and photographic possibilities?. So as not to date myself, perhaps many now use Google Earth and simply scroll around trying to imagine the possibilities. Regardless of if you are old school or new school, its always fun to seek out new locations and enjoy the anticipation and excitement new exploration is going to bring.
For me, the Lost Lake area of Rocky Mountain National Park was one of those places. While I’ve been lucky enough to get around to many areas of Rocky over the years, the truth is to get to all 415 square miles of the park not only requires years, but requires planning as well as physical endurance. But back in March I was able to secure two nights at the Lost Lake backcountry site so I’ve had a few months to plan my couple of days to photograph the area for my first time.
Nestled deep in the Mummy Range, Lost Lake is just shy of ten miles from the Dunraven Trailhead in Glen Haven. While you could certainly do and out and back to Lost Lake in a day if you were really motivated, doing so with photography in mind would be nearly impossible. Ten Miles and about 2800 ft of elevation gain get you to Lost Lake, but the real beauty of the area lies in the basin above Lost Lake itself.
After picking up my permits at the Backcountry Office, I arrived at the Dunraven Trailhead shortly before 11:00 AM. The trailhead was nearly full already as this location is popular with day hikers who are typically hiking shorter milage along the North Fork of the Big Thompson River and into the Comanche Wilderness area. It takes nearly 5 miles of hiking before you get to the eastern boundary of Rocky Mountain National Park. One maintains a steady grade as you head west following the North Fork of The Big Thompson River.
Once one crosses back in Rocky Mountain National Park, encounters with other hikers becomes less and less. Most day hikers or people with their dogs who are hiking in the National Forest area east of the boundary of Rocky Mountain National Park have turned around leaving the trail mostly empty with the exception of other backpackers heading to their respective backcountry site.
After stopping for a quick 20 minute lunch break just past ‘Halfway’(half the elevation gain to Lost Lake has been climbed at this point), I made it up to Upper Lost Lake campsite # 1 in 3 hrs and 45 minutes. I setup camp, ate dinner and then headed up into the basin above Lost Lake to explore Lake Husted and Lake Louise.
The monsoonal weather pattern had yet to really kick in so sunset this evening was for the most part subtle. The following morning I was up long before sunrise setup in the basin at Lake Husted. It was clear when I hiked into the basin but the wind was calm so at a minimum I should be able to capture a reflection of Little No Name, Middle No Name and Rowe Peak reflecting in the waters of Lake Husted. Just before the sun was set to rise on the aforementioned peaks, some nice clouds began to stream in. I watched the sunrise and was able to capture near perfect conditions at Lake Husted, a lake nearly 11 miles from the trailhead, and one I’m told is often blanketed with wind.
Sunrise my first morning at Lake Husted alone already made this long trek into the backcountry of Rocky Mountain National Park well worth it. After the feeling of euphoria began to wane, I decided to do some more exploring and headed up further into the basin to explore Lake Dunraven, Whisky Lake and Scotch Lake. Hiking up into this basin required a good deal of bushwhacking and careful navigation, but the upper part of the basin was spectacular. Getting back here for sunrise is a goal of mine the next time I get a chance but it’s takes a fair amount of cross country navigation and bushwacking to do so it’s going to be a challenge.
Sunset my second night at Lost Lake was again placid and calm. The thunderstorms that began to build over the plains of Colorado quickly dissipated and moved east away from RMNP. My last morning at Lost Lake began much as my first one did. After a quick cup of coffee at camp, I headed out on the unmaintained trail towards Lake Husted. This morning had a little more excitement from the get go as I ran into a large animal in the woods shortly after leaving camp and heading up the hill towards Husted. While I’m pretty sure It was a large Moose I ran into on the trail based on the eyeshine coming from my headlamp, its possible it was a bear as well. It was too dark for me to get good look at the silhouette of the animal and as I stood there staring at two eyes spaced well apart, the animal urinated and moved off into the woods. I’ve run into plenty of animals in the middle of the night hiking in Rocky Mountain National Park and this was the first time I was unable to really confirm what I was looking at.
With the caffeine from the coffee hitting me, along with the adrenaline of running into something large on the trail, I quickly made it up the hill to the basin and surveyed the landscape trying to decide where I should setup for sunrise.
When I had awoken at camp, it appeared the skies were clear but as it began to lighten towards sunrise I could see that we had some nice high clouds in the sky that should really pop with color at sunrise. I was tempted to photograph Lake Husted again knowing that there was a good chance I would come away with another great image of what now had become my favorite lake in RMNP. I was not going to have the time to bushwhack it up to Lake Dunraven in the dark and while Lake Louise is spectacular, it does not have the commanding view of the 3 peaks that make up Rowe Mountain. That being said, variety is the spice of life and I figured I best photograph Lake Louise to keep things fresh.
Sunrise from Lake Louise was a beautiful as I could have imagined. Subtle pastels graced the skies and peak just before sunrise. The shoreline of Lake Louise is lined with both willows and stunted pines bordered by marshy grasses. There’s not a lot of places one can photograph from unless you want to be in the lake. I had found a nice spot near the eastern inlet the day before and setup in this location. Even with a slight breeze blowing this morning, the east end of Lake Louise stayed calm enough to allow me to still capture a reflection.
After photographing Lake Louise at sunrise I was know for 2 for 2 on this trip as far as morning photography goes. At this point the trip had far exceeded my expectations and I could probably make 10 more trips to Lost Lake and not have the conditions I did on these two mornings. Before I would call it a morning and begin my hike back out, I wanted to take advantage of the beautiful clouds and still nice light I had. I hustled east to some small unnamed tarns and continued to photograph Rowe Mountain from this area. With the sun now high enough to warm my back I just took it all in and felt grateful for not only being able to enjoy the beauty of this location, but also the opportunity to photograph this area in near perfect conditions.
With a big smile on my face I headed back to camp to pack up. By 7:45 AM I had my camp packed up and cleaned and my now heavy backpack hanging on my shoulders. At least the 10 miles back to the car would be almost all downhill so that was good.
With a spring in my step I headed out of camp and down the hill back towards my car at the Dunraven Trailhead. Hiking downhill was indeed easy and being mostly in the shaded forest in the early morning made it very comfortable for hiking. 2:45 minutes after leaving Lost Lake I was back at my car. Two days had passed in what seemed like a blink of an eye but I was more than ecstatic about not only my exploration of a new area of Rocky and all the potential it holds, but some of the new images I was able to capture in those short two days and nights at Lost Lake.
Hard to believe that the 4th of July holiday has already come and gone but here we are. It’s now officially summer season in Rocky Mountain National Park. Although Estes Park and Grand Lake both had to cancel their fireworks shows this year, both towns along with RMNP have remained relatively busy as we sort our way through the COVID-19 pandemic.
We are officially now in the summer season in Rocky. With a few exceptions, conditions are turning to prime in the higher elevations of the park. Grasses have greened and wildflowers are not starting to take hold. Paintbrush is filling meadows and it looks like we are going to have a great year for alpine sunflowers on the tundra.
While there is still some snow present on some trails, especially above 11,000 ft, conditions are rapidly improving and with a few exceptions, trails are snow free and travel on trails is for the most part snow free and easy. One of Rocky Mountain National Park’s oldest harbingers of summer opened on the afternoon of July 3rd. Even in the midst of the current pandemic, the National Park Service did a great job getting Old Fall River Road open for the season right on schedule.
Rocky like many National Park has been facing a shortage of seasonal workers, so maintaining large parts of the park has been a challenge. Wild Basin reopened in mid June, and now with Old Fall River Road opened for the season, pretty much all of Rocky Mountain National Park is open and accessible. What seemed questionable only a few months ago, has been reopened and restored allowing for a sense of normalcy along with access to places in the park that have become a summer tradition to so many of the visitors of Rocky Mountain National Park.
While I have not posted quite as much as I typically do, its only because I’ve been getting out more this year than years past. With the COVID-19 pandemic still in the background, my photography tour business has been much slower than in years past. While I miss seeing old clients as well as showing new clients around RMNP, from a personal portfolio standpoint, I have not been able to spend this much time during the summer months photographing Rocky Mountain National Park in years.
I’ve got lots of locations on the bucket list that I will try my best to get to this summer and I also have two backpacking trips planned to locations in Rocky that I have previously not photographed. I’ve got a whole lot of processing to complete in the backlog and more to come as we move into the heart of the summer season. Stay tuned, and hopefully you get a chance to get out and photograph Rocky Mountain National Park this summer to enjoy what in my opinion is one of the best times of year in the park.
Rocky is finally opening back up and while things are much different this year in the park due to the coronavirus pandemic, there is finally a tinge of normalcy that appears to be settling into the park.
Crowds and visitors are smaller than a typical year, but I’ve been surprised by the volume of visitors to Rocky Mountain National Park even with the timed entry permit system in effect. To me, people are looking forward to getting back out into nature and returning to normalcy after a long period of stay at home orders throughout the United States this past spring.
Not all of Rocky Mountain National Park is currently open. The National Park Service is dealing with staffing issues as many of the seasonal workers they come to count on each summer season have opted to remain in their home states and towns. For example, the Wild Basin section of the park still remains closed with no known date of reopening at this point. Trail Ridge Road was closed all week after another June snowstorm dumped a half of foot of snow on the road earlier in the week. Old Fall River Road remains closed as it traditionally does until July and the park service is working on making an attempt to open the road sometime this summer.
For us photographers who love visiting Rocky Mountain National Park it just feels great to be able to get back out into Rocky and soak in all the beauty and opportunities the park presents for landscape and wildlife photographers. It’s a great time to work those legs out on the trail and to shake the rust of your cameras. Here’s a couple of suggestions for subjects and locations to currently photography in Rocky Mountain National Park.
1. As always the landscapes of Rocky Mountain National Park are a personal favorite of mine as well as many other visitors and photographers. Lots of traditional summer locations are now moving into prime season for photography. While there is still some snow on the trails in the Glacier Gorge and Bear Lake areas, lakes are free of ice below 11,000 ft and travel is for the most part summer like. Lower elevations in the 9000-10,000 ft ranges are coming are rounding into form and grasses lining lakes are greening up and wildflowers such as Wild Iris and Golden Banner are flourishing.
2. The west side of Rocky is also starting to look great again. The Kawuneeche Valley is nice and green right now and as always Moose are plentiful anywhere in the valley. Best time to spot Moose in Rocky Mountain National Park is always at dawn or dusk. Look for them grazing in the willows along the Colorado River. For landscapes on the west side of the park, look for lots of opportunities with water as the Colorado River is currently running over its bank in many areas and flooding low lying areas with water.
3. Babies!. Lots of new life to be found everywhere in the park right now. Elk are still dropping calves and if you are lucky enough to stumble on a group of females and sub adults you will see plenty of newly born elk taking in their new surroundings. Moose have new babies with them as well now and Marmots and many of the cavity nesting birds in Rocky Mountain National Park also have newborns they are attending to. While its fun to photograph the little ones its extremely important that you give these creatures space for both their well being and your safety. Animals such as Elk and Moose are extremely protective of their young. Birds can become extremely stressed by your presence near a nest so be aware and limit your time spent with any of these creatures. From first hand experience, I can tell you one experience you dont want to have is to be caught out on a trail with a female elk protecting her calf.
So things are different in Rocky right now then they have been during past summers. That being said, the sense of normalcy that nature and these sacred places provide will endure over whatever turmoil is enveloping our human world. It’s time to get out and visit some old friends again.