It was fun while it lasted. Autumn was stunning this year in Rocky Mountain National Park. The elongated fall season that we experienced, with warm days and vibrant colors has mostly now come to an end. Thanks to an arctic blast which combined both wind and snow finding fall color in Rocky Mountain National Park has gotten a bit more difficult.
It’s still autumn in RMNP it’s just finding fall color to photograph takes quite a bit more work. For the most part almost all the deciduous plants have either dropped their leaves or they have turned brown from the cold temperatures. Some of the small ground plants still have some nice color but one is going to have to work a little harder on more intimate type scenes now to capture the back end of the fall season in Rocky.
With the exception of our blast of snow and cold last week, the weather is still fall like and spectacular in the park. Cool mornings that quickly warm once the sun rises are the norm. There are some icy spots on trails but for the most part one is able to access much of the park without having to pack a full compliment of winter gear.
After spending the morning in Moraine Park looking for some of the last vestiges of the elk rut, I headed up the Cub Lake trail to enjoy the beautiful conditions and investigate some of the nooks and crannies to see if there were any small patches of autumn color to be found.
While autumn color was mostly sparse along the cub lake trail, I did happen upon a small vignette that I just had to photograph. A small stream which runs down the side of Mount Wuh provided just what I was looking for.
The edges of the small cascade had frozen over. Aspen, mountain maples and narrow leaf cottonwood leaves had all recently fallen into the stream and become entombed in the recently formed ice. It’s rare enough to find all these leaves in such close proximity but the fact that I had variety combined with the contrasting warm colors of fall and the cool colors of the ice made me stop in my tracks and get the camera equipment out of the bag.
So while most of the fall color is now gone from Rocky Mountain National Park for the season, with some exploration and appreciation of some of the smaller vignettes of color that can be found in Rocky, one should be able to capture some of the more subtle fall scenes RMNP provides on the backend of the season.
This autumn in Rocky was an unusual one. We got off to a very late start this season with many of the aspens remaining green long past the time they usually lose their leaves. A warm and dry late summer and early fall seemed to be the reason behind the late change in the foliage.
With fall color kicking off this year around the third week of September in the highest elevations, and with the warm and mild weather sticking around, the color remained very good in many parts of Rocky Mountain National Park into the second week of October. Normally, one would be looking for the last remnants of autumn gold in RMNP during the second week of October while lamenting on how quickly the season turns.
Furthermore, with the late start to fall, warm weather and lack of any early season snowstorms or cold through the second week of October, the fall color both hung on late but also remained colorful and vibrant. With the elongated fall, both the trees and the underbrush stuck around long enough so that they peaked simultaneously. Many years in RMNP, the timing with the understory and the tree canopy will occur at different times.
All in all its been an amazing fall color season in Rocky Mountain National Park and one of the more colorful but unusual ones I can remember in my twenty-one years of photographing in the park.
As of today, October 10th you can more or less stick a fork in the fall color season. While its still autumn and there are still going to be some great opportunities for landscape photography and wildlife photography in the next few months, a powerful and cold weather system has moved over the park.
While snow falling in Rocky Mountain National Park during October is nothing unusual, this front is going to pack some record low cold temperatures with it. Lows are expected to be in the single digits tonight, through Friday morning.
Normally, I would expect some of the foliage in Rocky to make it through an early season snowstorm. While there are still some trees that have yet to even turn and remain green, the single digit temperatures coming in on the back end of this front will more than likely put an end to the fall color season. Hopefully I’m wrong, but I’m going to guess that the foliage that remains in Rocky after this system moved through is going to turn brown on the account of the extremely cold early season temperatures.
I expect to be photographing some winter like scenes tomorrow morning in RMNP, but yesterday I spent as much time as I could taking advantage of one last day of peak fall color in the park. In fitting fashion, sunrise was stellar over the park. So while there is a bit of melancholy associated with the end of the fall color season, warmer weather is supposed to return to the area by the weekend and there still plenty of great opportunities for photographers before winter formally settles into Rocky.
The fall color in Rocky Mountain National is still looking pretty good for the first week of October. We continue to experience a later than usual season with everything running about a week or so behind.
Winds late last week through parts of the weekends certainly did a number on the leaves at or near peak around the Bear Lake area and Hidden Valley but overall everything is still looking pretty good in areas below Bear Lake.
On a typical year in Rocky, I would expect almost all of the autumn color to be down or past peak in the higher elevations like Bear Lake, Bierstadt Moraine, Boulder Brook, Hidden Valley etc. Even lower elevations like Moraine Park and Horseshoe Park would be passing peak most years by this time though as always there are patches here and there that will hang on longer than others.
I expect the fall color to look pretty good through Wednesday of this week. After Wednesday all bets are off as it looks like Rocky Mountain National Park will get hit by an early season snowstorm combined with record cold temperatures on Thursday and Friday.
While there may be some interesting opportunities with the combination of snow and remaining fall color, I would expect whatever color makes it through Thursday and Friday is going to turn brown and fall from the hard freeze.
My advice at this point is if you want to photograph the remaining fall color in Rocky Mountain National Park, it would be best to get out there in the next 3 days and enjoy the end of what has been an awesome fall color season in RMNP albeit a late one. Don’t overlook the interesting opportunities that may present themselves on Thursday and Friday, just don’t forget to bring the winter coat and gloves.
Here we sit on October 4th in Rocky Mountain National Park with fall still in full swing. A mild and moderate fall continues and theres been lots of warm days with the nights getting cooler. With only one small dusting of snow above 12,000 ft since the autumn season started in RMNP, the autumn color in the park has taken its sweet time turning over.
Frankly, I have no issue with this as its been great being able to photograph much of Rocky’s fall color with my photography tour clients later into the season than is usual. The photo posted above from Bear Lake was taken on October 3rd. I would say Bear Lake is right at peak now or maybe a tad past. Typically, I anticipate photographing Bear Lake around the 22nd of September to take advantage of the best color. At nearly 9500 ft above sea level, Bear Lake is one of the first areas of Rocky Mountain National Park in which the aspens start to change.
Over a week past the anticipated timing of peak at Bear Lake and the colors look awesome still. Lower elevations of the park area really starting to come into their own as well now. About 50% of the Bierstadt Moraine has peaked and I would guess by the end of the weekend we should be looking as good as its going to get.
A caveat to all this is the forecast for the most part is calling for lots of clear skies and some windy days. I expect the wind forecast in the next few days to strip many of the leaves from the Bear Lake area but you can certainly expect to find fall colors well into next week. The early forecast for the end of the week in Rocky looks like we could see cooler temps and possibly some snow but expect good conditions with both the fall color as well as the elk rut through next week. See you out in the field!.
Quick fall color update for those interested in the current conditions in Rocky Mountain National Park as of yesterday. The title sums it up best at this point. The west side of Rocky Mountain National Park is defiantly has the best autumn colors. The Kawuneeche Valley, the aspen trees around the west entrance to RMNP and the area around Grand Lake are all looking very good right now. Lots of brilliant yellow, oranges and some nice reds to be found.
The east side of Rocky is still petering along at this point. As of yesterday, about 45-50% of the hillside above Bear Lake had started to turn. This area around Bear Lake should really start looking good by this weekend.
The Bierstadt Moraine at this point might at best have about 10% of it leaves starting to change. For the most part its all green with a few trees here and there that have turned. The Boulder Brook area is mostly green with some small areas here and there changing much like the Bierstadt Moraine. Glacier Gorge around Alberta Falls is starting to look very good and the aspens along Trail Ridge Road just above Hidden Valley are now at or near peak.
Overall, signs of autumn are becoming much more prevalent now in RMNP, but as it stands and if the weather pattern holds we should have some great fall color pushing into the next two weeks or so. If that holds, I would say that would mean we are running about a week behind the traditional fall color change. Regardless, the next few weeks in Rocky and many parts of Colorado should be both interesting and beautiful.
Fall color change has been running behind in Rocky Mountain National Park. It’s running so far behind that up until the last few days with few exceptions it was actually difficult finding even small pockets of fall color.
With a few cool nights over the weekend the leaves and color seemed to have picked up steamed and there are now some smaller pockets of decent color to be found in Rocky.
This morning I opted to pass on other locations to photograph this small stand of aspen trees along Trail Ridge Road above Many Parks Curve. It’s certainly not the most impressive stand of aspens in RMNP, but the color of this stand was one pretty nice and the sun was going to rise directly behind these aspen trees. Add in some clouds and I opted to pass on the grand scenics to photograph this small scene.
There are now some nice pockets of color on the west side of Rocky, some decent patches near Hidden Valley along Trail Ridge Road and aspens starting to change over in and around Bear Lake.
At the current pace, I would expect conditions to start to get really nice towards the end of the week into next week. The elk rut is also very active right now as well so although autumn may be a bit behind, the first day of fall today certainly felt every bit the part.
Here it is September 20th and one would have to guess that signs of autumn must be all over Rocky Mountain National Park at this point in time. Usually by now, the Bear Lake area is nearing peak and good hints of color are showing along the Bierstadt Moraine. The elk are deep into the rut and the underbrush around Lake Helene and The Loch are now a striking yellow and red.
This would be a spectacular weekend to visit RMNP and take in all of the beauty of fall right?. Not so fast. While I would love to tell you that Rocky is currently covered in fall splendor, it actually looks a lot more like Labor Day right now than one’s typical impression of Rocky Mountain National Park is autumn.
Here’s an update on the fall color status of RMNP as it stands today. As far as color change goes when it comes to deciduous trees go there is little to report. It appears that we are at least a week behind historical fall color change in Rocky.
For example, there are only a handful of aspen trees that have started to change at Bear Lake. Normally, this weekend would be expected peak color at Bear Lake. There is almost no color change along the Bierstadt Moraine and only a few splashes of color around Glacier Gorge. Some of the River Birches in Moraine Park have started to change as have the smaller willows at higher elevations. With that said, there is still only minimal color change to report as of today.
The elk rut however, is well on its way. While many of the elk are still up in the higher, snowless elevations of the park, many are starting to fill into the meadows of Horseshoe Park and Moraine Park. As always, early mornings and late evenings when the temperatures cool, the elk become much more active and leave the shaded cover of the forest.
While fall is slowly showing up in Rocky Mountain National Park, a photographers best bet right now is to either delay their visit to RMNP a few days or figure on concentrating on photographing the elk and fall rut.
One last note regarding my RMNP Photography Tours. While I am nearly booked the next two weeks I do still have a few openings for Rocky Mountain National Park Photography tours. Shoot me an email and I’m happy to let you know if I have availability to help you photograph all the wonders of Rocky Mountain National Park. I have a few sporadic openings the next two weeks and more openings during the second and third weeks of October. Feel free to contact me and I’m happy to help with scheduling a photography tour or just giving a quick update on currnet conditions.
With fall running behind schedule, we should have great conditions for photography well into the middle of October. Looks like this year we will just need to excercise a little paitence waiting on mother nature to cooperate.
It’s been a beautiful week here on the east side of Rocky Mountain National Park. There is a definite change in the air as late summer unfolds over the park. Subtle signs of the completion of summer and the entrance of autumn can be found if you know where to look.
The summer crowds and families have thinned out a bit during the mid week (weekends are still very busy). Elk can be heard starting to bugle in the meadows of the Kawuneeche Valley and up on the tundra though I would not say the elk rut has officially started as of yet.
Frost can be found on the grasses in the valley and low lying areas and the ground cover is changing color. This is also true of the alpine tundra above 11,000 ft where the short lived green grass is now quickly turning golden and auburn welcoming in fall at this highest elevations of RMNP.
The question most people have, and of course the one most photographers want to know is if there are any signs of fall color amongst the aspen trees of Rocky Mountain National Park as of yet.
There are in fact subtle signs of aspen trees starting to change color in some locations of Rocky. Some aspens above Hanging Valley near Trail Ridge Road are showing some golden leaves now as are some aspens roadside near Hidden Valley. No need to panic as this is typical for any given year and its not uncommon to find a few trees here and there changing color even as early as Labor Day weekend.
While I enjoy seeing the signs of autumn filter in RMNP, I’m still quite focused on working on adding to my portfolio of summer images of the park. The season in the high country is so short, that summer flies by in a blink of an eye each year and before you know it these beautiful and sacred places are covered over in snow and difficult if not impossible to access until next May or June depending on the winter.
We still have at least a month or so of good weather to look forward to. Sure, we could have a snowstorm or two mixed in but access to Rocky Mountain National Park’s higher elevations should be good for another 4-6 weeks.
With that in mind I headed out on the alpine tundra on Tuesday morning to photograph what was one of our best sunrises of the summer. Alpine tarns reflecting the beautiful colors of the sunrise combined with majestic mountains and thick summer grasses are some of my favorite subjects. These are also some of my favorite locations to spent time in during the summer months in Rocky.
Watching a late season summer sunrise unfold over the high landscapes of Rocky Mountain National Park and understanding how fleeting these moments are is both intoxicating and bittersweet. You never forget mornings like this one, while at the same time you understand well that summer is coming to a close and this precious moments in the park are fleeting as always.
One last note. I still have a few morning openings left for my Rocky Mountain National Park Photography tours this fall. As of this writing I still have the morning of 9/16,9/18,9/24, 10/2,10/3 and 10/4 open. If you are interested in any of those dates or dates before or after for a photography tour of Rocky Mountain National Park please contact me via email or phone.
Whether you are a beginner when it comes to landscape photography, or a seasoned veteran of the craft, we’ve all been there. You have a location you’ve been dying to photography for months or years and the stars finally align and you have now arrived at the said destination.
You’ve played the scenario through in your head multiple times, you have all your camera gear dialed in, you know just what lens you need to use, you’ve been working out and training so you can make the long difficult hike before sunrise and the weather forecast looks promising.
You’ve now done it, you’ve arrived. Only problem is you’ve arrived to find clouds blocking the first rays of sunlight over the landscape. How could this be?. You’ve put in all this time and effort and now that you are standing behind your camera and tripod waiting to trip the shutter the light is not cooperating. Those dreams of alpenglow hitting the mountaintops, while the sky turns pink and red at sunrise will now remain in your imagination only.
For landscape photographers, this scenario plays out all the time. Having a sunrise or sunset busted by by light or no clouds or other weather related factors that take away from our perceived bias on how the scene looks is one of the most frustrating parts of being a landscape photographer.
While I have no actual numbers to base this claim on, I would bet tarnished expectations is one of the leading causes of burnout amongst landscape photographers. There’s no doubt about, putting all that time, effort and money into making an attempt at capturing a dramatic scene can begin to feel like a fools folly when it doesn’t work out.
As a professional photographer and a photography guide in Rocky Mountain National Park I see this scenario unfold often when I have clients out in the field. I’m rooting for my clients to get killer light and conditions more than anyone and when it doesn’t happen I feel for them and empathize with them as I’ve been there as many times in the exact same situation.
For many landscape photographers, the perfect window of light is the 15 minutes before and after sunrise and sunset. No doubt about it that this is the most dramatic window of light during the day. One can build a career off being in the right place at the right time while the light breaks and the landscape is filled with dramatic otherworldly lighting. The truth however, is this happens quite rarely.
When I have photography tour clients out in the field with me in RMNP, I try to manage their expectations and keep them in a positive frame of mind. Sure, we may not get that perfect image of Dream Lake at sunrise, but the light thats appeared a half hour after sunrise once its cleared a cloud bank to the east is pretty darn nice as well.
One of the things I constantly like to reinforce with my students and photography tour clients, is that you can’t only hit homeruns. Sometimes you need to hit singles, doubles and triples to set the tone or in our case our portfolios.
Just last week this very scenario unfolded. I had a client out in Rocky Mountain National Park for a sunrise photo tour. This client was hoping to capture some great images of Odessa Lake and Fern Creek at sunrise. We started early with a 2:40 AM departure from the Boulder area which culminated in the 4.3 mile long hike into Odessa Lake for sunrise.
Conditions looked promising this morning and there were clouds hanging over the divide and Rocky Mountain National Park. All landscape photographers love to have clouds in their composition unless they are blocking the sun. After our moderate hike into Odessa Lake long before sunrise, this is exactly what happened.
6:25 AM came and went and there was no alpenglow on the landscape. No fire red clouds over The Little Matterhorn or Notchtop Mountain. My client while enjoying the experience, the location and the hike in was disappointed that the sun was not shining. I tried to assure him that I thought the sun would make an appearance and while it might not be exactly the light he had envisioned, even the light a little after sunrise can look really good when you are framing Odessa Lake, The Little Matterhorn and Notchtop Mountain through your camera viewfinder.
Finally, after about 35 minutes past sunrise, the sun started to shine down on our location. While there was some disappointment, going through the motions of shooting the scene in front of you can quickly change ones mood. We spend the next 15 minutes photographing various composition at Odessa Lake until we once again lost the sunlight behind the clouds.
The light was moody once it did make an appearance and I could tell that we would be able to capture some really nice images of Odessa Lake and Fern Creek. While it wasn’t exactly the light my client had hoped for, he was very pleased with his images once he was able to get back home and get them downloaded on his computer.
As I try to reinforce with my clients, photography is all about the light. Sometimes the light may not be exactly what you had hoped for, but sometimes the light is just good enough to work.
On Tuesday morning of this week I took a quick trek up to Mills Lake for sunrise. In my opinion Mills Lake, located in Glacier Gorge is one of Rocky Mountain National Park’s most spectacular and jaw dropping locations. One of the reasons Mills Lake does not get quite as much attention from photographers as do some of RMNP’s other dramatic locations is that Mills Lake can be difficult to photograph.
With Mills Lake resting at the bottom of Glacier Gorge. It’s nestled in and around some of Rocky Mountain National Park’s most impressive and iconic peaks. Longs Peak, Rocky’s tallest peak at 14,259 ft towers above the eastern shore of Mills Lake along with Half Mountain and Pagoda Peak. To the south rests Chiefs Head Peak and the iconic Spearhead. On the west side of Mills Lake, Thatchtop Mountain rises high above with the Arrowhead down valley. With all of these impressive and iconic peaks of RMNP rising above Mills Lake, it makes for one of the most dramatic and visually impressive locations in all of Rocky.
These same peaks however, make Mills Lake difficult to photography because more times than less, they are overshadowing and blocking the sunlight in and around Glacier Gorge. This is especially true early in the morning and late in the afternoon when the sun is low in the sky.
Mornings at Mills Lake means that only the summit of Longs Peak will catch sun. In the middle of summer Chiefs Head Peak will catch first light. It still takes awhile for the sun to reach the Spearhead even during the longest days of the year.
Afternoons are best at Mills Lake but even with that said sunlight can be sparse. The backside of Longs Peak otherwise known as The Keyboard of The Winds will glow at sunset. That’s all well and good but many summer afternoons produce strong thunderstorms and cloud cover over Rocky Mountain National Park meaning you have a good chance of not getting any light at sunset. Wind is also an issue with a large lake like Mills and both the afternoon and mornings have a good chance of having a breeze flowing down Glacier Gorge.
With that said, my strategy at Mills Lake has been to look for heavy cloud cover over Longs Peak and hope there break in the cloud cover to the east. They way I see it when it comes to photographing Mills Lake, is that while I would call it more of an afternoon shot than a morning shot, a good set of clouds over Glacier Gorge can help even the score.
Tuesday morning I headed up the 2.8 miles to Mills Lake with decent cloud cover of the Gorge. That cloud cover thinned out as the sun rose, but enough white puffy clouds hung around after sunrise to make for a beautiful scene. Even better, the northern end of Mills Lake remained calm enough to allow for a great reflection. Not exactly how I had drawn up the morning in my mind, but regardless the results were still more than satisfactory.
One other note in closing here not related to photography at Mills Lake but to my tour and workshop schedule in late summer and fall. My schedule for photography tours this fall is quickly filling up. Many of my clients book these autumn dates nearly a year in advance. That being said if you are looking to take a photography tour or workshop with me at the end of August or through September and the fall color season, I still have some openings. Please contact me sooner than later and I’ll be happy to let you know what open dates I still have for summer and fall photography tours in Rocky Mountain National Park.
Late August, September and the first half of October is some of the best times to photograph Rocky Mountain National Park. It’s a great time to take a photography tour and I’’m happy to try and accommodate anybody who is interested in heading out with me in the next few months.