Light snow had fallen all through the day and into the evening over Boulder. The foothills were coated with fresh snow and the pines had a frosty glow to them. The clouds hadn’t cleared by the time I awoke in early in the morning though the forecast called for clear and sunny skies after sunrise. The fresh snow and lingering cloud cover were promising signs that sunrise could indeed be a good one for photography this morning.
The conditions looked favorable for another inversion. Though the entire area around Boulder was covered in low lying clouds experience was telling me it was likely to be a low cloud deck with clear or clearing skies once one got above the layer of clouds. I figured I’d do what I do most mornings when conditions are similar and take a drive up Flagstaff Mountain to see how high I needed to go to get above the clouds.
Two and a half miles up Flagstaff Mountain the clouds broke and I was able to get above the low lying layer of clouds over Boulder. The Moon shone brightly in the sky and illuminated the frost covered pines along the flanks of Flagstaff and Green mountains. Simply put the conditions were breathtaking.
I’ve been having great luck photographing some beautiful landscapes around Boulder this winter due to frequent conditions favorable for inversions. Taking the break in the cloud layer into consideration, a hike to the summit of Flagstaff mountain seemed like as good as anyplace to photograph sunrise this morning. So I parked my truck half way up the mountain and started hiking towards the summit of Flagstaff in the fog.
Hiking through the snow and fog in the pre-dawn hours with a partial moon lighting my was magical. Soon I was above the cloud line and nearing the summit of Flagstaff. The Ponderosa Pines where covered with snow and hoar frost and the fresh untracked crystalline snow shimmered and sparkled. As I hiked continued my hike towards the summit, a section of trail appeared different than any other I had just hiked.
The fresh snow had covered the trail completely. No other footprints could be seen and it was apparent I was the first person who had hiked up through this section of since the snow had stopped falling late the previous night. Something was odd about this section of trail below the summit. The trail was muddied and soft in this section. There was mud splatter all over the otherwise pristine snow. I did not give it much thought other than to think somebody had decided to ride their mountain bike through this section of trail which is typically closed to bikes.
A few paces up from the muddied section of trail an interesting track in the snow caught my eye. Upon inspection there were quite a few of these large animal prints in the fresh snow. This was not a coyote, deer or bear print but that of a mountain lion. I followed the tracks as they meandered through a meadow and towards the summit of the mountain. With sunrise quickly approaching I broke off following the tracks to go find a locations to photograph from. I figured after sunrise I could take my time and study the tracks in more detail when the sun was out.
Sunrise was brilliant and beautiful from the summit of Flagstaff. The low layer of clouds caused by the inversion made for great conditions to photograph both the Flatirons as well as sunrise over the eastern plains of Colorado. Wrapping up, I packed up my camera and headed back down the mountain to explore and investigate the fresh mountain lion tracks I had picked up on my up the mountain.
I picked up the tracks just behind the nature center on the summit of Flagstaff. Following them down through the trees and into the meadow just below the summit until I was back on the trail. The sun was shining brightly now and the fog had burned off so it was much easier to inspect my surroundings. The tracks appeared to stop at the portion of the trail that was muddy, the same area I had thought someone had ridden a bike through on my way up to the summit earlier in the morning.
I stopped and surveyed my surroundings some more in the daylight. Just off to the side of the muddied portion of the trail I could see a large patch of blood on the fresh snow. Looking more closely, my senses peaked I surveyed the hillside along the side of the trail. Inspecting the hillside I could see that something was dragged through the snow. It looked much like a hillside does after someone makes a first pass on a snow sled. The drag marks, peppered with streaks of blood here and there led into a group of Ponderosa Pines.
My heart beating a little faster, my senses more attuned to the sounds and sights around me it became clear what had happened on this muddy portion of the trail. I was standing more or less on top of a fresh mountain lion kill that had occurred only a short time before I had hiked on through on my way to photograph sunrise from the summit of the mountain.
With freshly fallen snow coating the ground it was easy to see exactly what had unfolded at this location only a short while prior to my arrival. The mountain lion waited for its prey on the hillside along the trail. The unsuspecting mule deer likely never realized there was a cat lying in wait until it was too late. The deadly efficiency of the lion was evident.
While the trail itself was muddied where the mountain lion took the deer down, there appeared to be little sign of a chase, struggle or resistance once the mountain lion had gripped onto the deer’s neck with its powerful bite. After dispatching the deer, the cougar dragged the deer up the side of the hill, 20 yards or less from the trail, ate a portion of it’s meal and then buried and cached the rest of the deer under pine needles, cones and duff for safe keeping.
Finding the mountain lions cache pile on the hillside with the mule deer’s two hind legs protruding from the pile was unnerving. Here I was standing over a mountain lions fresh kill having walked right through the area in the dark and fog only a short time after this had all taken place.
As is always the case when in the presence of a large predator, my senses were now heightened and alert. My eyes scanned every shadow and rock and tree on the hillside to see if the cat was watching me from the brush. The photographer in me wanted to stick around and see if I could photograph the mountain lion or at least catch a glimpse of this elusive animal. I decided it was best if I moved on back down the mountain and my dog Jackson seemed more than happy to move on from the area as well. I had a great morning photographing sunrise from the summit of Flagstaff mountain and there was no need to push my luck or more importantly disturb or stress the lion. I had my share of adventure and excitement for the morning and one I will remember for a long time.