Every so often, the light, wind and snow come together just perfectly enough to create a scene that looks otherworldly. A strong storm was moving in over Rocky Mountain National Park this past Saturday that provided the perfect conditions to produce what I refer to a Bierstadt lighting. Clouds swirled over Hallet Peak as the intense first rays of sunshine filtered through the blowing snow off the Continental Divide.
The light was changing quickly and only lasted a short time before the sun began to be blocked out by the passing of ever more clouds in the sky. I chose to isolate Hallet Peak from it’s neighboring peaks to highlight the drama going on in the sky and around Hallet. Isolating Hallet Peak allowed for me to showcase the drama unfolding this morning. The resulting image of Hallet this morning seemed to take on an owed to Albert Bierstadt.
Albert Bierstadt’s name is familiar to many visitors to Rocky Mountain National Park as well as Colorado. Bierstadt Lake only a mile or so from where this image was photographed is named in this nineteenth century painter in his honor. Bierstadt travelled the west painting dramatic canvases of the high peaks and breathtaking mountain vistas. Bierstadt travelled to Estes Park during his second journey through the west in 1863.
If you have ever viewed one of Albert Bierstadt’s paintings in person, they are quite a site to behold. Bierstadt often painted on very large canvases. The Hudson River School painter emboldened the scenes before him and often took liberties in exaggerating the scale of the mountains and the drama and weather surrounding them.
In many ways, Bierstadt’s dramatic style is mirrored by today’s landscape photographers. Like many of today landscape photographers, Bierstadt’s style was often panned by critics as being unreal and over the top. Modern day landscape photographers often here similar critiques. On mornings such as this one, it’s easy to see what inspired Bierstadt’s love of the west and his desire to showcase it’s dramatic beauty.
It’s the middle of winter and sometimes it can be difficult motivating oneself to head out into the elements to create images. It’s easy to want to hit the snooze button on your alarm and stay in the comfort of a warm bed. Winter photography can be challenging but rewarding. Here are three suggestions for getting out and the elements and successfully photographing Rocky Mountain National Park in winter.
The Tahosa Valley and the Twin Sisters: Located along Highway 7, the Tahosa Valley and the Twin Sisters formation offer some of the most impressive views of Longs Peak and Mount Meeker, the two tallest peak in Rocky Mountain National Park. Hike up the Twin Sisters trailhead for impressive views of Longs Peak and it’s famous eastern face known as the Diamond.
Trail Ridge Road and The Mummy Range: The Mummy Range has a southeast facing orientation. This southeasterly orientation is ideal for capturing the winter sun which rises in the southeast this time of year. A short hike up a closed Trail Ridge Road from Many Park’s curve will result in spectacular viewpoints of Mount Chapin, Mount Chiquita and Yipsilon Mountain. It’s common to find clouds floating over the peaks of the Mummy Range which will only help to aid in capturing even more stunning light at sunrise.
Bear Lake Area: Nearly everybody favorite spot in Rocky Mountain National Park for winter activities of all sorts. There are endless possibilities for winter photography in this area. Slap on some snowshoes or cross country skies and impressive viewpoints of the backside of Longs Peak, or towering blocky summit of Hallet Peak lend themselves to your camera and lens. Dream Lake is a popular location even in the middle of winter. Images of Hallet Peak from Dream Lake are just as impressive in winter as is summer, but Dream Lake also attracts photographers looking to photograph abstract images of its icy surface. Because Hallet and Flattop mountain have a northeast orientation, late winter will provide fuller and more complete lighting of this iconic location.
Sometimes it’s easy to forget what a short history Rocky Mountain National Park has. While the geographic area that is now Rocky Mountain National Park, has soldiered on for eons, the protected entity drawn out on a map that is Rocky Mountain National Park is not even one hundred years old.
While there are many who were responsible for establishing Rocky Mountain National Park, none other than a former Kansan named Enos Mills. Enos Mills had a greater influence in establishing Rocky Mountain National Park than any other individual. Furthermore, Mr. Mills was a talented photographer and his images of Rocky taken with his Kodak Pocket camera are images of locals in Rocky Mountain National Park never before photographed.
While the Estes Valley was filled with strong pioneering type personalities such as F.O. Stanley and Abner Sprague, it was Enos Mills strong belief in the conservation movement that helped establish Rocky Mountain National Park as a protected and treasured piece of America.
In remembrance of Mr. Mills efforts in helping to establish Rocky Mountain National Park, a lake was named in his honor. Mills Lake is one of Rocky’s most popular and spectacular locations. Located 2.6 miles up Glacier Gorge, Mills Lake resides on the backside of Longs Peak in a beautiful glaciated valley. It’s a location worthy of the man’s name who lectured and educated citizens on the need to protect these beautiful and unique areas.
Mount Meeker is Rocky Mountain National Park’s second highest peak. Rising to 13,911 ft above sea level, the ridgeline of Mount Meeker towers over Rocky and the Front Range. Even with it’s impressive sight and ridge lines, Meeker does not get the attention and respect of Longs Peak, it’s nearest neighbor and only fourteener located in Rocky.
While both Mount Meeker is shorter in stature than Longs Peak, it is in fact a more technical mountain than the already difficult and challenging routes up Longs Peak. For us photographers it’s also easy to overlook Mount Meeker with the siren of Longs Peak towering just to the north.
I’d like to tell you that the morning I decided to hike half way up the Twin Sisters was to indeed photography Mount Meeker in all her majesty. I’d by lying of course if I wrote that. My intent in fact was to capture sunrise unfolding over Longs Peak and the Diamond instead. The Twin Sisters reward hikers and photographers with some of the best views of Longs Peak and Mount Meeker anywhere in Rocky Mountain National Park.
Sunrise this particular morning had more or less fizzled out. The clouds that had circled above Longs Peak prior to sunrise had for the most part dissipated. The northern area of Rocky had a nice set of clouds over it, but I was committed at this point to photographing from the Twin Sisters.
A small set of clouds started to form along the flanks of Mount Meeker just as I was about to pack up my gear and hike out. The inversion along the flanks of Meeker were just enough to get me to reframe my shot and train my lens and camera on Meeker instead of Longs Peak. In my many previous images from this location, I had never thought to concentrate on Mount Meeker’s impressive lines and ridges alone. Longs Peak was always to much of a distraction.
It was because of a busted sunrise and a set of small clouds rolling up the flanks of Meeker that allowed me to train my camera on the red headed stepchild of Longs Peak known as Mount Meeker.