It’s hard to believe it but we are now well into fall in Rocky Mountain National Park. It seems like just weeks ago the lakes were thawing and the snow was melting. The Elk rut is well on it’s way and as of this writing, we are for the most part at peak, or just past peak for fall color in most of the higher elevations of Rocky. As always, fall is fleeting and much to short.
This years colors were spectacular. We survived an early season snowstorm on September 11th through the 12th which did little damage to the trees or the vibrance of the colors. I’m not exactly sure why, but many of the aspen groves in Rocky Mountain National Park had vibrant reds and oranges along with your more typical yellow coloration. So here are the latest observations and recommendations regarding the current status of fall colors in Rocky Mountain National Park.
Overall, fall color in Rocky appears to be peaking three to five days earlier than an average year. In my opinion the higher elevations of the park, specifically the Bear Lake, Glacier Gorge and Bierstadt Moraine peaked somewhere around Sunday 9/21 to Monday 9/22. Starting on Sunday 9/21, the weather became a bit more unsettled in the park. Rain and gusty winds on Sunday, Monday and Tuesday have stripped many of the aspen tree’s around Bear Lake of their leaves. Bierstadt Moraine, while just past peak still was holding on fairly well as of Tuesday.
Lower elevations of Rocky Mountain National Park such as Moraine Park and Horseshoe Park are certainly showing their colors as well with much of the scrub and underbrush having already turned. The aspens in the lower elevations are starting to turn as well, and barring that the wind does not wreak to much havoc on the leaves, should be looking good into next week.
So what would I recommend as far as photographing the fall colors in Rocky Mountain National Park over the next week?. There are still plenty of opportunities but I would emphasize looking past grand landscape type views and instead concentrate on photographing the remaining autumn color on a smaller scale. Locations such as Boulder Brook look great right now. This is one of those locations that looks better when the aspens have dropped from the tree’s and line the forest floor and banks of Boulder Brook with gold. I could spend hours and hours right now photographing along Boulder Brook.
Bierstadt Moraine still has quite a few stands of large aspens that are still looking good. Instead of looking to photograph the entire moraine, concentrate on finding batches of golden aspen trees and work those areas. The ferns along the moraine are looking very good right now so look low for compositions of colorful ferns and fallen aspen leaves. Beaver Meadows, Moraine Park and Horseshoe Park will also be providing ample fall color over the next week. Instead of looking to spend time around Bear Lake and Glacier Gorge, look for locations in the lower elevations to provide a colorful backdrop.
So while the fall colors may be just past peak now in most of the areas of Rocky Mountain National Park, there still should be plenty of opportunities to photograph fall color for the next few weeks. Stay open and flexible and if the grand landscapes are past peak, look to smaller scenes to find unique compositions.
The first significant snow of the season fell over the lower elevations of Rocky Mountain National Park last week. By significant I mean about an inch or less fell over area around Bear /Lake, Sprague Lake, Moraine and Horseshoe Park. It’s significant in that it that September 11th is fairly early to see the white stuff at the lower elevations of Rocky. Meanwhile, at the same time the snow began to fall the night of September 11th into the morning of the 12th, fall color in the park is just starting to show signs of beautiful autumn color in amongst the aspen leaves, mountain maples and underbrush. I’d be remiss if I was to mention I did not find some irony in the fact that on the anniversary of last years historic flooding in Estes Park and the Front Range, snow fell instead of rain.
So as they often happens this time of year two seasons collided. This collision of course resulted in stunning conditions for photography. When the weather changes this quickly and it causes winter to overlap fall it can be somewhat bittersweet. While it creates great opportunities to pick up the camera and capture imagery of overlapping seasons, it’s also likely to mean the fall season may be shortened by the cold snap and snow. Many of the aspen trees were still green when the storm hit so at this point it will be a bit of waiting to see how this early season storm affected the fail foliage in Rocky Mountain National Park.
Looking to maximize both my chances to photograph sunrise as well as a combination of the fall color and fresh snow on the landscape, I hiked up to Bierstadt Lake the morning of the 12th to see what sunrise had in store. I knew it would be too early in the seasons for Bierstadt Lake to have frozen over, so I had my hopes on being along the shores of Bierstadt Lake when the inversion broke and the clouds cleared the sky and revealed the Continental Divide covered in fresh snow. These kinds of opportunities to photograph snow covered peaks with lakes not yet frozen over are rare and short lived in Rocky Mountain National Park.
Hiking up to Bierstadt Lake takes you up and over the Bierstadt Moraine. This is one of the better locations to photograph stands of aspens turning yellow in Rocky. My plan was to photograph sunrise at Bierstadt Lake and then hustle back over to Bierstadt Moraine and see if I could find some color along the hillsides.
I hiked up to Bierstadt Lake with it still spitting snow from the sky. I could still see the nearly full moon behind the clouds so I had hope that the inversion and clouds would clear as sunrise approached. It was peaceful and silent as I made my way through the forest at the top of moraine. Only when I arrived at the east end of Bierstadt Lake was there any signs of activity in the untouched snow. A fresh set of black bear tracks lead the way around the south end of Bierstadt Lake. While I did not see the bear, the tracks had been laid very recently. The Bear tracks in the snow only added to the mystique and aura as fog and snow drifted through the pines along the shore. Knowing a good size bear was ambling around the woods somewhere close by only enhances the experience of wild places and wilderness.
I setup along the south shore of Bierstadt Lake and waited for the clouds to lift and the sun to shine. Sunrise came and went and the clouds remained. There were a few breaks in the cloud cover from time to time but never enough to let the sun through or reveal the snow covered peaks to the west. Even without the sun peeking through at sunrise the scene at Bierstadt Lake was magnificent. The fog, snow covered pines, and unfrozen lake made for nearly limitless potential. Truth be told, these kinds of conditions along with diffused lighting are some of my favorite to photograph in. After spending over 2 hrs photographing various compositions along the shore of Bierstadt Lake in the 26 degree weather, I spent some more time photographing a few of the aspen trees on the Bierstadt Moraine that had already turned.
So even though the shot of snow covered peaks reflecting in the still, and unfrozen water of Bierstadt Lake did not materialize the way I had hoped, the resulting images and experiences that morning were equally as rewarding. Now I’m just keeping my fingers crossed that fall will hang on a little while longer so I can photograph golden aspen leaves against Colorado bluebird skies.
It happens like clockwork every year around this time. Somebody spots an aspen grove changing colors somewhere in Colorado and then loudly proclaims on the internet that fall is coming early. Photographers from all over the country chime in to the forum in a panic, fearing that their year long trip planning or vacations have now gone awry In my experience, while there are sometimes small changes in peak fall color, especially due to weather, the timing is fairly predictable and consistent year in and year out. So let me just be perfectly clear. I don’t want to be that person proclaiming fall in Colorado is coming early this year, but I can say signs of autumn are quickly starting to appear in Colorado and Rocky Mountain National Park.
Everywhere you look, the subtle signs of autumn approaching are becoming less subtle. Temperatures are certainly starting to noticeably cool. The alpine tundra has turned red and orange in Rocky Mountain National Park along with some of the ground cover in the lower elevations. Even a few aspen tree’s and maybe a grove here or there in the park has started turning from green to yellow, red and orange. The Elk rut has really ramped up in the last week and the sound of Elk bugling in the morning is now nearly as common as chirping birds. As for subtlety in change, last Friday, Longs Peak received a healthy dusting of snow on it’s summit while many of elevations of the park above 11,000 ft received enough of a dusting today that Trail Ridge Road was closed overnight.
As I write this, the National Weather Service is predicting a cold front from the north that will bring snow again to Rocky Mountain National Park Thursday night into Friday night. Let’s keep our fingers crossed that the snow coats the peaks but leaves the aspen trees still in good shape once the storm moves out. Because as we all know, fall color and snow capped mountains look pretty darn good.
It’s been an age old issue in landscape photography since it’s inception. When conditions are dynamic but changing should you settle on one location or perhaps move to another location that may yield an even better image. Even more difficult, should you make an attempt to photograph two locations in a hurried fashion?. The second approach leaving one essentially attempting to try and both have your cake and eat it. The risk may pay off in multiple images in conditions that are rare and often no duplicated, or of course it may backfire and leave you scrambling around with nothing to show for frenetic efforts once the dust settles.
Generally speaking I advocate taking a more methodical, contemplative, mindful and less hurried approach to photography. There are times however, when spectacular conditions combined with equally spectacular locations transcend one’s contemplative approach and we throw caution to the wind and let our excitement overrun our sensibilities.
I’ve run into this quandary often when out photographing in the field. Conditions for dynamic landscape photography look perfect. The stars are aligning in your favor. The earlier morning hike to an alpine lake 4 miles from the trailhead looks like its going to reward your hard work in getting to the remote location long before sunrise.
Of course there’s that pesky little voice inside your head that both harbors doubt,questions your original intent and begins suggesting different or more favorable destinations. For me, I may find myself questioning whether my original location is really going to be ‘the shot’. Maybe a seed of doubt has now been planted, maybe that next alpine lake another mile higher will be even more dramatic. And for those now concerned for my health, don’t worry this is all part of the creative process for me. It’s my discussion with my muse, it’s my attempt at rationalizing something that most rational people wont attempt to accomplish. Somewhat counterintuitive as it may seem, it can actually be a way for me of being more immersed in the moment. I’m sensing, feeling, moving all the while attempting to anticipate how the ‘moment’ is going to unfold before my eyes and camera.
I found myself in this very situation a few weeks back. The plan was to get to the Glacier Gorge trailhead early so that I could be up at Sky Pond for sunrise. Arriving at the trailhead a little after 4:15 AM I found the skies over Rocky Mountain National Park still covered with clouds. Skies to the east over the plains of Colorado were clear so the conditions were shaping up to be perfect for this four and half mile trek up to Sky Pond. Sunrise was around 6:15 AM, so this particular morning so I had a good amount of time to make it to my destination but not so much that I could dilly dally along the way.
I set out from the trailhead with my headlamp lighting the way feeling pretty good about my prospects. Clouds drifted overhead and the wind was still as I bounded along the trail. I made it to western edge of The Loch in good time. I stopped briefly to survey the eastern horizon to confirm there were still nice breaks in the clouds. Sure enough it looked great, maybe too much so. It was not even 5:30 AM but the pre dawn colors had already begun to explode in the sky and The Loch was still as glass. While I was set on photographing Sky Pond, the little voice inside my head said ‘you have to photograph this!’. Anyone who has attempted to photograph Loch Vale enough times knows windless mornings are rare, and windless mornings with beautiful clouds even more so. I glanced at my watch and attempted to reason with myself. If I was going to photograph from Sky Pond and give myself enough time to setup, I really needed to keep moving. I’ll be quick I figured, Just a few exposures and I’ll be on my way.
So I quickly setup my tripod and camera and started making images of this beautiful and tranquil scene unfolding before me. Photographers of course know that photographing in predawn light often requires very long exposure times. So even ‘a couple’ of exposures was taking much longer that I had anticipated. But I could tell from reviewing the display that these images were worth making. My five minute pit stop quickly turned into fifteen minutes and I forced myself to pack up and start heading up the trail towards my original destination.
It was now 5:40 AM and I was still one and a half miles from my final destination. The sky looked great, the clouds looked great and I was beginning to strongly question my decision to stop at The Loch. The last 1.5 miles to Sky Pond include a fairly steep ascent from The Loch as well as a scramble up and over Timberline Falls. I knew I was cutting it much too close for comfort at this point. Worst case scenario I figured I would stop short of Sky Pond and shoot Lake of Glass just below Sky Pond. So I pushed onward at a very fast pace huffing and puffing as I ascended the steep switchbacks just below Timberline Falls.
As I started the scramble up the side of Timberline Falls, the sky was really starting to explode with color. There was no way that I was going to be able to get to the western edge of Sky Pond for sunrise and the last thing I wanted to be doing was hiking along the trail as an epic sunrise unfolded over the peaks and lakes. As I crested the top of Timberline Falls and arrived at Lake of Glass it was apparent that I would have to setup here if I wanted to catch first light.
Tired and sweaty from the final push up Timberline Falls I setup along the shore of Lake of Glass just as the sun started to illuminate Taylor Peak and the Cathedral Spires. Sunrise was beautiful and if only for the fact that my original intent was to be at Sky Pond for sunrise I was quite pleased with my results from Lake of Glass.
I again packed up my camera gear and hiked up to my final destination along the western edge of Sky Pond. The clouds that had made sunrise so beautiful earlier had now obscured the sun. There were still a few breaks in the cloud cover so I again setup and waited to see if the sun would make a brief appearance as it rose in the sky. Shortly thereafter the sun illuminated for one last time the bottom half of The Cathedral Spires before again being blocked out by the cloud cover for the remainder of the morning.
What a morning it had been. A little more excitement and hustling around then I had anticipated but I felt good about the images I had created. It felt like not only did I have my cake, but I was able to eat it as well. While there’s a small part of me that wonders what sunrise would have been like at Sky Pond if I had not stopped at The Loch and Lake of Glass I’m pleased with my how the morning turned out. The next time I’m heading to Sky Pond however, there will be not pit stops made along the way regardless of what that little voice suggests.