Rocky Mountain National Park Fall Color Update

Aspen trees along Bear Lake Road display their red and yellow colors
The boulders of this scree slope provide a tenous location for these four Aspen trees to survive. Needless to say, they are certainly putting on a colorful display of fall color this year. Red, yellow and some green can be found mixed in amongst the trees. Technical Details: Canon Eos 1ds III, 24-105mm F4 L IS
Aspen trees and ferns display their fall colors
The ground cover is looking pretty good right now in Rocky Mountain National Park. These autumn ferns along Glacier Creek complimented the few Aspen boles quite well. Technical Details: Canon Eos 1ds, 24mm TS-E f3.5 L II
Fall Aspens in Rocky Mountain National Park
The classic Colorado view!. Looking up at a grove of peaking fall Aspen trees in the Glacier Gorge area of Rocky Mountain National Park. Technical Details: Canon Eos 1ds III, 16-35mm F2.8 L II

I just wanted to give a quick update on the fall color up here in Rocky Mountain National Park while I’m back in my office. Let’s just say fall is in full swing in Rocky Mountain National Park. Most areas with the exception of the Aspens in the lower elevations of the park are at peak or just past peak. That being said there will certainly be sporadic color in many areas of the park for the next seven to ten days at least.

The Aspens in Moraine Park and Horseshoe Park proper are mostly still green with hints of yellow just appearing. The more popular areas of the park such as the Bear Lake area and the Bierdstadt Moraine are just past peak with some good color still but the leaves are starting to drop in those areas. Our warm and sunny weather the last few weeks is certainly helping to extend the fall color season. While the warm, mild weather has been nice, there has not been much in the way of dramatic weather, fresh snow on the peaks, or dramatic sunrises and sunsets as its been mostly blue sky days. Here are a few samples of fall color from the last few days up in the park. I’ll certainly be out in the field with my camera as there are still many opportunities to be had. We all just need to keep our fingers crossed and hope for some weather and clouds to make it to this part of Colorado.

Tips For Successful Colorado Fall Photography

Scrub Oaks and Burnt Trees at Mesa Verde
This is one of my favorite Colorado fall photographs. More importantly it does not even include a single Aspen tree. I photographed this scene a few years ago in Mesa Verde. I was at Mesa Verde touring the ruins and had no inclanation that there would be such spectacular fall color amongst the Scrub Oak's and burnt Pinyon Pines. Technical Details: Toyo 45AX, Rodenstock 150mm APO Sironar-S, Fuji Velvia 100
Finally, fall has officially arrived. Photographers from all over the United States and the World are arriving in Colorado to photograph our beautiful fall foliage. While Colorado does not have the same range of colors the Northeast has, Colorado is famous for it’s large Aspen tree groves. Aspen’s make for great fall foliage subjects. The Aspen tree’s leaves with turn a golden yellow as the cooler temperatures set in and more importantly, the amount of daylight lessens. These displays of color along the mountainsides can make for impress landscape photographs. It’s important to remember that there is a lot more to photographing fall color in Colorado then just the Aspen groves. I’ve put together a short list of tips and recommendations for photographing the colors of Autumn in Colorado.

Tip 1(Use a Polarizer) – One of the easiest ways to make your photographs pop and capture the autumn color is to use a polarizing filter. A polarizer while help to cut down on the glare that comes from shiny and wet surfaces. Autumn leaves, especially when wet, will give off a glare. This glare will tone the color of the subject down and rob you of that ‘pop’ your looking for. Keep in mind that with a polarizing filter you will lose two stops of light. Because of this, when using a polarizer keep an eye on your shutter speed and ISO to prevent motion blur on the subject from a breeze or wind.

Tip 2(Look up, but more importantly look down) – Walking into a large Aspen grove its hard not to start at golden canopy of leaves above your head. Make sure you pay attention to what’s going on around the base of the Aspen trees and along the forest floor. In many areas of Colorado, the Aspen tree’s grow in and around Scrub Oak and Ferns. The Scrub Oak and Ferns will often be peaking at different times then the Aspen trees but using the Aspen boles as part of the subject of the image still conveys fall. Lastly, when the Aspen tree’s have peaked or have been subject to high winds, lots of leaves and color will cover the forest floor and rocks.

Tip 3( Colorado Fall Color is not just about the Aspens!) – While Autumn Aspen groves make for great subjects and are by far my favorite subject in the fall there are other trees and plants which make for great Autumn subjects. Scrub Oak will turn red and orange, Mountain Ash trees in the Canyons will display a vibrant orange color. Ferns located in the wetter areas will turn yellow or orange and don’t forget about the grasses. Many of the grasses of Colorado will turn golden as well.

Tip 4(Remain flexible and be prepared to break from your itinerary) Typically fall color in Colorado peaks from the northern reaches of the state and then moves it’s way through the southern portion of the state. Elevation also has a major role in when areas begin to turn and peak. Many photographers will travel here to capture iconic scenes such as the Maroon Bells from Maroon Lake or the San Juans from the Dallas Divide. It’s important however, to be prepared to give up on attempting to shoot iconic locations if the color or weather are not ideal and move on to locations that have more favorable shooting conditions. While it’s pretty hard to get a bad shot of the Maroon Bells from Maroon Lake, some years the area wont yield ideal conditions. We may have a dry late summer and early fall and the Maroon Bells wont have any snow cover. An area may be subjected to high winds and the leaves may be stripped from the trees. Regardless, it’s important to be prepared to move on and find where the color’s at.

Tip 5 (What is Peak color?, It’s subjective) – I kind of laugh at the term ‘peak’ fall color. I think to myself, what exactly is ‘peak’? Is it when 90% of the trees are yellow?, 50%?. The point is there really is no such thing as peak fall color. People will have varying ideals on what they consider peak. The important thing to remember when photographing fall color is that dramatic images can be capture at 20% peak color, and long past peak fall color. That’s what so great about fall color photography, there are opportunities not only at every iconic location, but also in every nook and cranny as well. It’s important to keep an open mind and look for unique opportunities and compositions.

Follow these tips and you should be able to improve your success rate when out photographing Colorado’s fall color. Lastly, one important thing all photographers need, is just a little bit of luck and serendipity. Sometimes you just end up in the right place at the right time. But like the slogan for the New York lottery states, ‘you got to be in it, to win it’. So regardless of what fall color reports say, get out in the field and make images because before you know it, the season will have passed.

Two Rivers Lake Endurance Test

Sunrise at Two Rivers Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park
The base of Notchtop Mountain illuminates for a brief moment in a driving wind, rain and snow squall. The weather conditions in Rocky Mountain National Park were less than idea this morning but I managed to get one good frame in six of Two Rivers Lake. Technical Details: Canon Eos 1ds III, 16-35mm F 2.8 L II
If you were expecting a shot of aspen groves along the Bierdstadt Moraine awash in color, were going to have to wait a few weeks. While this is technically the last weekend on summer, autumn is quickly approaching in Rocky Mountain National Park. The tundra is starting to turn red and lots of the ground cover and foliage along some of the creeks is starting to turn yellow. Currently there is very little doing with the Aspen tree’s in Rocky. Sure there are a few rogue trees spread apart that are starting to get a hint of yellow, or the occasional branch of a tree that has peaked but I would say we have at least another 7 days or so until we see any significant color around the Bear Lake area. Other areas of Rocky such as the Bierdstadt Moraine are still 99% green and have a long ways to go before they peak.

My goal this morning was to not only to see what was doing as far as the color change goes, but also to try to photograph Two Rivers Lake. The weather looked promising this morning with clear sky to the east and clouds overhead. The hike towards Two Rivers Lake started out placid enough. There was a slight breeze at the Bear Lake trailhead but by no means gale force winds. It was at about the 1.5 mile mark that it started snowing lightly. By the time I made it to the Marigold Pond area it was spitting snow and rain and the winds were howling. I arrived at Two Rivers Lake about 45 minutes prior to sunrise. While many landscape photographers like to highlight their travails and difficulty accessing and producing their photographic work, I generally find it to be part of the job and fodder for good stories down the road.

This morning however, was different and required all my will to sit still and see how the sunrise would develop. It seemed pretty apparent to me that Notchtop Mountain would not be making much if any of an appearance this morning, and that the wind would continue to ratchet up until all areas of the lake had small whitecaps making a reflection impossible. Most of the clear sky to the east had been covered by clouds and a decent sunrise was looking more and more like a bust. After standing along the shores of Two Rivers Lake for what seemed like an eternity in the rain, snow and relentless wind, the sunrise lit the base of Notchtop Mountain for a minute or so. I managed to get off 6 frames of this scene before it disappeared. It was certainly challenging holding my neutral density filter still while the 4 second exposure elapsed. Even more difficult was keeping the driving snow and rain of the front element of my lens and filter. The other 5 shots were ruined by the rain droplets on the lens, but one of the six frames was not. I cant say it was the shot of Two Rivers Lake I envisioned, nor can I say I’m ready for the colder weather that’s starting to bear down on the park, but I can say I’m glad I reluctantly pulled my camera out of my bag at the last second to capture this view.

Dreaming At Dream Lake

An epic sunrise occurs over Dream Lake and Hallet Peak in Rocky Mountain National Park
Hallet Peak and Flattop Mountain catch an intense and short lived sunrise at Dream Lake. I've been attempting to capture an image of Dream Lake in these kinds of lighting conditons for years. My persistence finally paid off for me this morning. Technical Details: Canon Eos 1ds III, Canon 16-35mm F2.8 L II
Becoming a successful nature photographer requires many things including technical skill, passion, vision, persistence and sometimes just good old fashion luck. While luck certainly comes into play with photography, you have to make sure you put yourself in a position to benefit when luck may strike. Sometimes when it comes to photographing a certain image or location, a photographer can feel like Captain Ahab hunting for his illusive white whale. I may visit locations hundreds of time in all different types of lighting conditions and never capture an image I am completely satisfied with or feel resonates my vision of the said location.

Dream Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park has always been one of those white whale locations for me. I have visited this iconic Colorado locale many times over the last 13 years. I have a handful of portfolio worthy images from Dream Lake, but I’ve always envisioned being at Dream Lake with epic lighting conditions. Colorado weather has been pretty vanilla this summer and the opportunities for dramatic sunrises have been few and far between of late. Last week we finally had a good day of rain and cool weather. I headed up to Rocky Mountain National Park hoping the clouds and low hanging fog would stick around for sunrise.

I was debating in my head where I would go for sunrise as I drove through the fog I was encountering driving through Estes Park. It was going to be one of the lakes reached from the Bear Lake trailhead for sure. I first decided on Emerald Lake. I had photographed Dream Lake many times before and frankly there are so many great images of this location I wanted to try and attempt something a little different. As I was hiking towards Emerald Lake, things were looking good. There was no wind, clouds swirled overhead and fog sifted in and out of the crags of Flattop and Hallet Peak and there was a small gap on the eastern horizon where the sunrise should peak through for a few minutes.

I was hiking passed Dream Lake and saw that the shoreline was void of any other people. The pre-dawn scene was to difficult to resist. I setup along the eastern shore of Dream Lake and watched this light show unfold before me. It was quick and only lasted a few minutes before the sun ducked back into the cloud cover. I was able to capture a dozen or so images before the light was gone. To my surprise, I only shared this once in a lifetime light show with one other photographer visiting Rocky Mountain National Park from Atlanta. There was a bit of luck involved here as Hallet Peak never received full sunlight. If I had gone to Emerald Lake as I had planned, I would have been above the light show and missed this seen. I could not help but feel I had gotten my white whale as I hiked back down to the parking lot this morning.

Emerald Lake Reflections And Bear Lake Road Closure

Hallet Peak Reflects in the waters of Emerald Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park
Hallet Peak is seen reflecting in the placid waters of Emerald Lake. More often the not, the surface of Emerald Lake is raked by high winds which prevents one from capturing images such as these. Technical Details: Canon Eos 1ds III, 16-35mm F2.8 L
Anyone who has spent a significant amount of time in Rocky Mountain National Park can tell you stories about the wind. Rocky Mountain National Park can be one of the windiest locales on many days of the year. Winters tend to be windier then the summer but nevertheless I’ve arrived at many locations in the Park to find photographic conditions less than ideal.

One of the locations in Rocky Mountain National Park that I have visited many times to photograph, only to come away with nothing due to the wind is Emerald Lake. Emerald Lake sits .8 miles above the ever popular Dream Lake. It is not photographed as often as Dream Lake for a few reasons. First, it’s hard to walk by the iconic Dream Lake and pass up that view. I suspect many photographers who only make occasional visits to the Park cant resist the lure of Dream Lake’s classic view of Hallet Peak. Secondly, Emerald Lake sits right at the base of Hallet Peak and Flattop Mountain. Photographers need a very wide lens in the 14-20mm range on a full frame 35mm camera to be able to capture the entire scene. Lastly, even on a perfectly calm day down the trail at Dream Lake, the area around Emerald Lake will often generate enough of a breeze to foul the surface of the waters and prevent the classic peak and reflection type image.

Earlier this week I was able to get up to Emerald Lake on one of these such days when there is no wind. Due to the lack of clouds this morning I played around a bit with my compositions. While I was able to capture the classic peak and reflection image with a cloudless sky above Hallet, I used my 16-35mm lend to isolate the reflection of Hallet Peak in Emerald Lake along its rocky talus shores while minimizing the cloudless blue sky.

I’ve been spending a fair amount of time this summer in the Bear Lake area adding some additional locations to my Rocky Mountain Portfolio. While there has been little discussion about the issue, photographing the Bear Lake and Glacier Gorge areas is going to be getting significantly more difficult in the near future due to a second phase of road construction on the bottom portion of Bear Lake road. Back in 2004 the National Park Service completed a fairly large road construction project on the upper portion of Bear Lake road. The 2004 road construction project made access to the Bear Lake and Glacier Gorge trailheads difficult.

At the time, Park shuttles were the only way to access those trailheads at the time and unfortunately, they started running at 5:00 AM if I recall correctly. Sunrise in the middle of Summer occurs around 5:30 AM so even if your on the first shuttle, your not likely to even get to Bear Lake in time for first light and you can pretty much forget hiking into locations farther in the back country like Dream Lake or the Loch. The Phase II portion of road construction is slated to begin in mid October and last through the Summer of 2012. While it appears the 5.1 miles of Bear Lake Road that will be under construction will be closed during the night to traffic, it also appears that it will be closed during much of the day with the exception of some holidays. Either way its going to make photographing these areas more difficult for foreseeable future starting in the middle of October.