Fresh snow on the mountains always gets the juices flowing for this landscape photographer. Mountains covered thick with fresh powder and pines covered in the white stuff can make for that perfect winter image.
As I’ve detailed in pervious blog posts, living in Colorado and photographing Rocky Mountain National Park, both clients and other photographers assume that capturing beautiful wintry scenes is like shooting fish in a barrel. If you’ve been a reader of my blog for any length of time you know that on the Front Range of Colorado, and specifically RMNP, its much easier said than done.
Photographing winter in Rocky is challenging for a host of reasons including high winds that often fill in on the backside of storms as the exit the region, a few breaks of sunshine here and there which will quickly melt and drop the snow from the pines and tree branches, and lastly clear blue cloudless skies which often can be found the morning after a snowstorm moves out of Rocky Mountain National Park.
This can be frustrating for the landscape photographer who gets up early, heads up to the mountains on snow covered roads and then heads out long before dawn in the winter cold to be in the right place at the right time.
One only get so many chances each season at capturing the beauty of Rocky Mountain National Park after a good dumping of snow, so you really want to maximize your chances of coming away with an experience and an image you are proud of.
While you may first wake up to the skies being filled with clouds, more often than not you will find much if not all the clouds in and around Rocky will have a way of dissipating shortly before sunrise. Being left in the lurch with cloudless skies after all that work to be in the right place at the right time can be frustrating.
One trick and tip I like to give clients is not to panic when you watch the skies clearing at a breakneck speed right as you are arriving on location. ‘The belt of Venus’ or the ‘Earth shadow’ will produce a nice magenta glow on the horizon a few minutes prior to the sun actually rising.
If you arrive to clear skies and before you decide to forgo that hike out into the backcountry of Rocky with the mercury hovering around zero degrees, turn off the car heater and get on site before dawn to capture the subtle but beautiful hue created by The Belt of Venus or the Earth Shadow. Doing so will allow you to both take advantage of photographing Rocky Mountain National Park in one of its most beautiful states after snow has covered the park, and capture a dynamic and beautiful landscape not only covered with snow, but also with some added color and beauty.
Farewell 2020, hello 2021. Most are more than happy to bid 2020 adieu and welcome in the new year. Many forsee the return of normalcy or at least more normalcy than we have all experienced in this previous year which will be one for the record books.
I dont think anybody has the slightest idea on what 2021 holds in store for us, but I think most of us are just hopeful that turning the page on 2020 will be in and of itself a positive momentum changing occurrence that many are looking for.
Truth be while 2020 was a challenging year for me, photographically speaking it was actual a very positive year. Business was more difficult with COVID, lockdowns and Rocky Mountain National Park being closed both due to the pandemic as well as the two large wildfires that affected swaths of the park. Even with the pandemic and wildfires making operations more challenging, I was able to narrow down my focus and work on accomplishing goals and projects I had been putting off.
While my Rocky Mountain National Park photography tours and guiding services were down for the year, I was able to use any spare time I had to photograph and backpack into areas of Rocky Mountain National Park that I had not been able to access previously.
Having this time to concentrate on my personal portfolio along with being able to create work that I wanted to was sorely needed. I started running my photography guiding service in RMNP back in 2015. While I very much enjoy getting clients out into the field and sharing with them the beauty of Rocky Mountain National Park, I had not been able to get out in the park and photograph where and when I wanted to the extent I was able to do so in 2020.
This has allowed me to reflect on how I will conduct business and photography tour services going into 2021. It will also allow me to continue to offer photography guiding services to my clients with a renewed passion and energy for both photography, Rocky Mountain National Park and my clients going forward.
So with 2021 underway, I look forward to continuing to photograph Rocky Mountain National Park while also meeting new clients, seeing some old friends and continuing to act as an advocate for protecting and sharing the beauty found in Rocky Mountain National Park.
One day removed from the winter solstice and you’re getting an itch to get out in Rocky and do some winter photography. You have some time off from work, maybe you scored a new piece of gear during the black Friday sales or you’re just trying to get out in nature and enjoy a few hours on the trail.
Now you have to figure out what you want to photograph during the offseason in RMNP. It’s not as easy as it will be six months from today when a short hike up to Dream Lake would lead you to one of Colorado’s and Rocky Mountain National Park’s most spectacular and iconic locations.
Drop your camera at Dream Lake in late June and you are likely to have a wall hanger. Maybe it’s not quite that easy but you get my point. This time of year it’s a little more difficult to jump out of bed on a cold and windy morning and get motivated to get out in the field. Cold, snow, and wind are waiting for you right on the other side of the front door.
Once you get done fretting about the weather and get done scraping the ice of your vehicle, the next step is figuring out where and what to photograph in Rocky. Getting out far into the backcountry like one would in the summer requires dedication, physical endurance, knowledge own winter safety and avalanche protocols and proper equipment to ensure you are prepared for the weather and difficult conditions often found in the mountains this time of year.
So maybe your not gung-ho about heading out into the backcountry but still want to get out and get some winter photography done and kick off the rust thats accumulated since the last aspen leave fell this past fall.
The good news is there is always something to photograph in Rocky, especially when the light is good. Even better, Rocky Mountain National Park gets some of its most dramatic light in the middle of winter.
There are plenty of subjects to photograph in Rocky even during the short days of late December. My strategy this time of year is to take the time to photograph subjects and locations I would likely not be photographing during the summer and fall. Many of these locations are also short hikes from the trailhead or vehicle which is welcome on chilly mornings in the park.
Favorite locations and subjects for me this time of year are any of the lower elevations in the park such as Horseshoe Park, Moraine Park (access currently limited), and Beaver Meadows. It’s also a good time to photograph some of the man made structures and objects this time of year as well.
Even with the brown and white landscape and the short, cold days found this time of year in Rocky, there is plenty to see and photograph to keep ones creative juices flowing. Concentrate on the light and compositions this time of year more than just the drama found in the landscape and you should be able to satiate your photography appetite and come away with some images that will hold you over until your next winter adventure.
Icy and brown. That’s the current state of the season in Rocky as I write this. Nights have been clear and cold and days mild and sunny. Our stretch of dry and mild weather has continued right into December now.
While there is some snow on the higher portions of Rocky Mountain National Park right now, the lower elevations are mostly just brown. Nights are cold enough that most of the lakes and streams have frozen over. Overall, Rocky is immersed in its early winter slumber.
I keep checking the weather looking for dramatic sunrise or the hope of a few good days of snow but so far no dice. Dry Novembers and December are not uncommon in Rocky, but one can usually bet on some colorful sunrises and sunsets this time of year. Wild wave or lenticular clouds are often common when the winds pick up, as are some colorful sunrise on account of high clouds over the region. So far, neither of these scenarios have come to fruition.
So it remains quiet and calm here in Rocky Mountain National Park as the park enters its winter slumber. We could use both the moisture and some dramatic weather to spice things up, hopefully the pattern shifts shortly and the drama awakens the slumbering and brown landscape for us photographers.
Rolling into the Bear Lake parking lot long before sunrise always brings excitement. So many of Rocky Mountain National Park’s most scenic and beautiful locations emanate from the Bear Lake Trailhead. Bear Lake itself is a classic iconic Colorado location in itself and its only a few hundred yard walk from the parking.
As somebody who photographs RMNP a lot, its really easy to take the accessibility and beauty found in the Bear Lake area of Rocky for granted so after the entire area was closed for the past few weeks due to fire activity from the East Troublesome Fire, it was great to be able to get back up to Bear Lake for a sunrise.
Even better than getting back up to Bear Lake for sunrise was fining a small portion of Bear Lake with open water and clean ice. Normally by the end of November Bear Lake would be covered with snow and lots of footprints.
Warm weather had kept a small portion of the east side of Bear Lake open and free of snow making for a nice welcome back and a short trip from the parking lot. As I write this snow is falling on Bear Lake so it will now remain covered until late spring when the thaw starts.
While access is still limited on many of the trails around Bear Lake, including the Fern Lake section, its good to see snow falling on the dry landscape and access to Rocky Mountain National Park opening back up once again.
A few more areas of Rocky Mountain National Park have opened in the past week. On the west side of Rocky, the East Inlet Trailhead is now open. All of the west side of RMNP was previously closed as of last week as they recover from the East Troublesome Fire so its great to see a small but spectacular portion of the west side of Rocky reopen.
On the east side, the portion of US 36 from the Beaver Meadows entry station to Deer Ridge Jct is now open. The caveat here being that the construction project to improve pullouts and repave the road is still ongoing. This project was to be completed in September but still has a small portion of the road to complete.
Bear Lake Road remains closed so the most popular part of the park is still inaccessible and Trail Ridge Road is closed at Many Parks Curve for what I have to believe will be the remainder of the season even though NPS still is calling it a temporary closure.
Regardless of the fact that its both now the brown season and many parts of Rocky remain inaccessible its still fun to get back out in the grove of things and kick the rust off the cameras. The weather remains very moderate and the pattern other than for high winds has remained tame for the most part.
I’ve been using this time to work on some other projects and look to find locations and compositions I’ve previously not photographed prior. While I’ve scouted out this location awhile back, this morning the skies and sunrise looked like it might be a good time to revisit this composition in Lower Beaver Meadows now that the road has reopened and access is a little easier.
I’m a sucker for twisted and tortured trees and given the fact that the one has very limited options with the restricted access in the park, I was happy to hike out to this spot and enjoy the colorful sunrise with this ‘loner’. Sometimes having fewer options is more preferable to having more after all.
It’s been quiet here on the blog for the past few weeks. After a busy summer and autumn season here in Rocky Mountain National Park, both the Cameron Peak Fire and the East Troublesome Fire’s played spoiler to the end of the fall season.
The two fires which exploded at the end of October and burned nearly 30,000 acres of RMNP as well as large areas outside of Rocky. Snow finally appears to have brought both fires under control and each day that we move closer towards the winter season and snow cover on the ground is positive. In fact other than a few hot spots, there has been no growth of the two fires in the past week.
While the damage is still being assessed, we do know the fires caused significant damage both inside Rocky Mountain National Park as well as outside. Since this blog relates to photographing Rocky Mountain National Park, I’ll stick with what I know as of this writing.
On the west side of the park, the NPS office at the entry station burned down. Somehow, the two kiosks did not sustain any damage. The seasonal employees cabins across from the Green Mountain Trailhead also burned down as well. Portions of Trail River Ranch in Rocky Mountain National Park also sustained damage but Little Buckaroo Barn is ok as is the Holzwarth property.
On the east side of the park, the East Troublesome Fire made a run over the continental divide through Spruce Canyon and down into Upper Beaver Meadows and Moraine Park. To date, the only structure that I know that was damaged by the fire on the east side of Rocky is the Fern Lake patrol cabin which was destroyed.
Small portions of Rocky Mountain National Park are now open again outside the zones where the firefighters are still monitoring the fire, building containment and putting out any hot spots. Currently, the entire west side of RMNP remains closed with no known date of when it will reopen.
The east side of the park is open through the Fall River Entrance through Horseshoe Park and then up Trail Ridge Road to the Many Parks overlook. US 36, Bear Lake and The Beaver Meadows Entry station are currently closed. Old Fall River is open for hiking and bikes until December 1st at which point it will return to a trail until spring. Wild Basin is open to the winter gate and access along Highway 7 including Lily Lake and the Twin Sisters and the Longs Peak trailhead is currently open.
I was able to make a quick run up to the park earlier in the week just to kick off the rust and get out and explore for a morning. While much of the park is not currently accessible, its good to have portions of it back. We’re basically now in the winter season in Rocky, so Trail Ridge will remain closed.
With that being the case, the best locations for photography are going to revolve around smaller areas with access to much of the backcountry of Rocky currently being limited. I’ll keep things updated here as locations open up or I get any new information pertinent to the fires and damage inside of RMNP.
We’ve all done it. It could be something as simple as taking the garbage out, changing the oil in a vehicle or paying a bill. Procrastinating or putting things off for another day is just part of the human condition. Most of these items we put off will are not life or death and other than ending up in the dog house with your significant other, most of these are trivial.
This same dynamic can affect photographers as well. As is the case with our day to day responsibilities, it’s easy to pack up the camera after a good morning or evening and head back to the house, hotel, bar, coffee shop and call it a day. In fact, I would argue that much of the time this is an important process in allowing artists to refresh, relax and reflect on the process and allow for the creative process to rejuvenate itself for another sunrise or sunset.
Even though I’m a believer in moderation in all things, there are times when one needs to push a little harder, work one more composition or explore one more mile of trail. Why?, none of us is promised tomorrow so it’s important to take advantage of the moment.
This has become abundantly apparent the past few weeks up here in Rocky Mountain National Park. Fall is by it very nature fleeting. Now combine the ever retreating autumn season in Rocky Mountain National Park with two of Colorado’s largest wildfires burning through portions of RMNP.
The threat from both the Cameron Peak Fire as well as the East Troublesome Fire seemed to be abating as fire season was winding down. In short order, both these fires unexpectedly grew and exploded right as the autumn season was wrapping up. Both the towns of Estes Park and Grand Lake have been severely affected by the growth and destruction of these two fires. Overnight, peoples lives have been turned upside down. Over 25,000 acres of Rocky Mountain National Park has now burned and the park will remain closed until further notice. Photography is the last thing on many of our minds right now, and that changed in an instant.
Whats a beautiful image one day is often gone the next. But its not just fall that is fleeting, our existence on this planet is fleeting from the day we are born into this world. Autumn and the fires emphasize why one should live in the moment and not take for granted whatever time one gets to spend doing what they love. Change is a constant companion, dont put off for tomorrow what you can do today.
Sunday we finally had some rain and snow move in through the park in what seems like forever. Snow fell on the Cameron Peak fire and the park got a decent dusting of snow in the higher elevations. When this new system moved in and out of the region it brought lots of wind with it as well.
As it always is with fall in the high rockies, one quick blast of weather and hillsides go from golden brilliance to down and brown. So was the case with this new system which stripped what remaining fall color there was and ushered in the brown season once again. This last system put mostly to an end what was one of the strangest autumns in Rocky I can remember in sometime.
Not only were we in the midst of a pandemic, but late summer into early fall in Rocky Mountain National Park was absurdly dry. We had very little rain and very little in the way of interesting clouds or weather for what I would estimate to be well over two months. Basically from August through October with the one exception being our early season September snowstorm, we were suffering not only from drought like conditions but also severe clear with little in the ways of interesting cloud cover and skies.
The Cameron Peak fire broke out in mid August and the hot and dry conditions allowed it to spread and grow quickly. Smoke from this fire has been hanging over Rocky Mountain National Park and the Front Range of Colorado ever since. Just 19 miles north of the Cameron Peak fire, The Mullen Fire broke out in September and only added to smoke, ash and haze.
As a photographer during what is normally considered the best season of the year to photograph, you try to adapt and go with the flow. If 2020 has taught my anything its that you really need to appreciate your time and freedom as well as learning to make the best of a bad situation.
So while the haze and smoke from the fire, combined with clear skies and non-dramatic skies with weather made it difficult to get motivated or find subjects to shoot, I kept pushing myself to get out in the field and see what I could come away with.
As I always say, field time is always better than office time and if you can push aside your preconceived notions of what you think you should photograph and how the conditions should be and instead work with what you have, I think you will find you can come away with quite a few images that you’ll be pleased with.
So while autumn 2020 in Rocky Mountain National Park was the strangest and most difficult year I can remember photographing in the park, We had some of the most vibrant colors I can remember as well. Overall, fall 2020 worked out nothing like I would have imagined but I’m happy to report that even with the difficulties, I came away with many new images that will eventually be added to my portfolio.
I apologize for the lack of updates to the blog the past week or so as i’ve been busy spending as much time as possible out in the field. The fall season in Rocky Mountain National Park is without question my favorite time of year but its also the most hectic. Autumn is both short and frenetic and this means lots of time spent trying to not only chase the light, but also chase where the best color and photographic opportunities are located.
While one location on west side of Rocky Mountain National Park may be hitting peak one day, weather events or just time can cause it to be past peak the following day. That likely means another location in Rocky, likely on the complete opposite side of the park may be hitting peak the following day and one spends quite a bit of resources trying to stay on top of the frenetic pace while also enjoying and savoring the season.
As it stands now, we are in the backend homestretch of autumn fall color seasons in RMNP. We have had incredible stretch of warm dry weather in the park. This has been beneficial in the fact that the fall color season has certainly extended a little longer than it normally would in many areas. As of this writing there is still some decent fall color on the Bierstadt Moraine for example. Normally, I would expect this area to be well past peak come the second week of October but the lack of very cold weather and snow has allowed for trees not stripped by the winds to remain golden a little longer.
While the warm weather is helping to extend the autumn color which is now best in the lower elevations of the park such as Moraine Park, Beaver Meadows and Horseshoe Park, the dry weather has allowed the fire situation to continue to be dire. Currently, the Cameron Peak fire continues to burn just north of the park. While its 43% contained at this point, the lack of moisture allows it to continue to flare up while also putting a good deal of smoke into the air over Rocky when wind directions are favorable.
Adding a double whammy to the fire situation around Rocky is the Mullen fire which is burning on the Wyoming and Colorado border area. Currently the Mullen fire is burning about 18 miles north of the Cameron Peak fire. The Mullen fire is not contained and this fire is much more active than Cameron and it has also been contributing to very smokey and hazy skies over Rocky.
Last but not least has been the dome of high pressure that has been parked over Rocky for what seems like weeks. This high pressure system with warm days, moderate winds and clear blue skies all day has not been conducive to dramatic sunrise and sunsets. We seem to be regularly going 7 to 10 days with completely clear skies at sunrise. Combine this with smoke from the two fires and capturing grand landscapes in Rocky Mountain National Park this fall season has certainly been a challenge. In fact, in my 22 years of photographing RMNP, I cant recall an autumn season that has been as challenging to photograph as this season has been due to both the smoke and clear skies.
Even though its been a very challenging fall season (why would we expect 2020 to make anything easy?), there is still plenty to photograph. The autumn color while about average when it comes to the large deciduous trees like aspens and cottonwoods has been average, but the underbrush and scrub has been spectacular this year. Intimate fall scenes are where its best this year as you avoid the clear skies and smoke concentrating on the smaller landscapes less dependent on dramatic lighting.
As it stands I would expect another week of decent fall color in parts of Rocky. The wind is forecast to pickup this week and it does not look like we will have any decent cloud cover until the backend of the week. Currently the best fall color is on the east side of Rocky. The Bierstadt Moraine and Boulder Brook area are decent but look for the lower elevations to provide the best color the next week. So keep an eye on the weather and your viewfinder on smaller, more intimate scenes and you should still be able to come away with some great shots. Lastly, don’t forget the trails area still snow free and the lakes and tarns still open so traditional summer type images may also yield great opportunities once the fall color is past peak.