Happy Halloween to everyone out there. With the autumn season in Rocky Mountain National Park now past us we are now transitioning towards winter. We’ve had a very mild autumn with little early season snow with mostly mild to warm days. The leaves are now down and the grasses have turned a golden brown in most areas. The lakes in the higher elevations have just started to freeze over along the edges but it wont be long until the lake surfaces are completely covered over with ice.
Everything starts to slow down in the park. While tourists still visit the park, the numbers decline considerably compared to the large number of summer and fall visitors. It’s a great time to catch up on images in the backlog and enjoy the quietness of the season. It’s a little more difficult to find subjects to photograph, but even so, photography this time of year is just as rewarding as the summer and fall months.
I’ll be out in the field photographing as often as I can. As you can see from the image posted above I am currently taking a Nikon D810 for a test drive. While I shot with Nikon during my film days in the 1990’s, I switched over to Canon in 1999 and have been using their equipment ever since. While my Canon gear is more than adequate, I felt it was time to give Nikon and the D810 a test run as the camera’s higher resolution and more importantly to me at least, higher dynamic range sensor. At this point in time, while Canon continues to make amazing camera equipment, they appear less interested in improving the dynamic range of their sensors which is very important to landscape photographers.
Often when photographing in Rocky Mountain National Park, one is photographing a subject with a very dramatic range of light. Mountain peaks are illuminated, while lakes and scenery below the peaks are in deep, dark shadows. So I’ll be giving the Nikon a full run down and will eventually share my thoughts and experiences on the Nikon D810 compared to the 5D Mark III and Canon EOS 1ds III that I typically photograph with. In the meantime, my first morning in the field with the D810 was a very positive one. Of course the amazing sunrise this morning would have made any camera look good.
It’s an afternoon shot. Typically that’s what I would tell people who asked me for a recommendation as to when the best time to photograph from The Rock Cut along Trail Ridge Road is. While mostly true, the more I photograph locations in Rocky, especially iconic ones, the more I find equally as pleasing images when photographing during times that are considered less ideal. This also applies to exploring and photographing from vantage points that may not actually highlight the actually icon or depict the iconic scene seared into our consciousness.
Having just returned from my fall jaunt to photograph autumn colors in New York State, I was keeping my fingers crossed that Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park would stay open while I was out of town. Mostly mild weather over Rocky Mountain National Park allowed Trail Ridge Road to stay open into this week. For those not familiar with Trail Ridge Road, it’s the highest continuous road in the United States and reaches and elevations just of 12,183 ft above sea level. Typically Trail Ridge Road is closed during the first significant snow storm of the season which on average usually pans out to be the third week of October.
Essentially at this point in the season any inclement weather is likely to close Trail Ridge Road at Many Parks Curve on the east side of Rocky and the Colorado River Trailhead on the west side of Rocky for the winter season. So as soon as I set foot back on Colorado soil, I was dead set on spending time photographing along Trail Ridge prior to it becoming a long, cold, and difficult winter hike.
Tuesday was the first day I was able to get out to photograph Rocky Mountain National Park. With conditions looking promising for a nice sunrise, up Trail Ridge Road I headed long before the break of dawn. I drove Trail Ridge Road all the way to Medicine Bow curve trying to decide where I wanted to photograph from. Normally, I’ll spend a few afternoons photographing from the Rock Cut, but I had yet to do so this year.
The sunrise was looking very promising and the early morning glow was just starting to color the skies over the eastern plains of Colorado. A large lenticular cloud was forming east of Longs Peak and the skies to west had started to clear. The Rock Cut seemed like the perfect vantage point to take in sunrise. ‘It’s an afternoon shot’ is the thought that raced through my head. With little time left to mess around with what now looked like a slam dunk sunrise, I headed to the Rock Cut. I was prepared to go down in flames for photographing a location that’s supposed to be an afternoon shot.
Thoroughly enjoying a rare late October morning at just under 12,000 ft, with a light breeze and mild temperatures, I grinned ear to ear as sunrise unfolded and my shutter clicked with the constantly changing hues of a spectacular sunrise. I often have to relearn this lesson, but mornings like these are a great reminder. There is no such thing as a morning or afternoon location. There is good light, great light and spectacular light, chase the light, not the location!.
Having just finished with photographing some of the best fall color in Rocky Mountain National Park that I’ve seen in some years, I’ve headed back to the east coast and New York State to photograph fall color here. As is typically the case when I’m back east my time is split between visiting family and getting out in the field to photograph.
Autumn along the east coast is special and I would recommend that photographers who mostly spend time photographing on the west coast at least make one attempt at heading east to photograph the colorful show the trees put on here. I’ll be back in Colorado in a few days with fall being mostly a distant memory and winter knocking on the door. Until then I’m splitting my time photographing Harriman State Park and Bear Mountain State Park and some of the beautiful gorges and waterfalls in the Southern Tier region of upstate New York. So until I can get back out into the field in Rocky here are a few images of the fall color back east.
With the fall color season nearly over and Rocky Mountain National Park transitioning over towards the winter season, I thought it would be a good time to reflect on a few of the reasons Rocky Mountain National Park is my favorite National Park to visit and more importantly to me photograph. A lot of people ask me why I spend so much time in one area when I have all of Colorado and the west to explore as well. Frankly I love photographing Colorado and the western United States, but if I had to chose between those and Rocky Mountain National Park, I’d still choose Rocky any day. One could easily spend a lifetime photographing Rocky Mountain National Park and not even scratch the surface when it comes to all the possibilities Rocky has in store when it comes to photography. Here are five reason I personally love Rocky Mountain National Park.
1. I love Rocky’s diversity. Sure Rocky Mountain National Park is only 415 square miles in total size. While that’s certainly nothing to sneeze at size wise, Yellowstone National Park is just under 3500 square miles and The Grand Canyon National Park is just over 1900 square miles. While these two other iconic National Parks of the west have Rocky Mountain National Park beat in size Rocky has some notable icons of its own. Rocky plays host to the headwaters of the Colorado River. Tucked behind Specimen Mountain near Little Yellowstone Canyon the Colorado River begins its longs journey southward towards the Pacific Ocean. The Colorado River is the engine that helped to form what we now know as the Grand Canyon. John Wesley Powell the first American explorer to discover and navigate the Grand Canyon is also credited with the first summit of Longs Peak the year before his famous travels down the Colorado River. Rocky Mountain National Park is also home to Longs Peak which at 14,259 ft above sea level is Rocky’s highest summit. Yellowstone’s highest peak, Eagle Peak reaches to 11,372 ft above sea level. 2887 ft below the summit of Longs Peak and 811 ft lower than the highest point on Rocky’s infamous Trail Ridge Road which tops off at 12,183 ft above sea level. This is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to exploring Rocky. Spending time above tree line in Rocky Mountain National Park will yield a completely different experience then spending time at the lower elevations beautiful meadows and parks.
2. Rocky has two very distinctive sides to the park. The continental divide splits Rocky Mountain National Park into an east side and a west side. Trail Ridge Road which is only open from Memorial Day until mid October is the means for which 99% of all visitors to Rocky will travel and experience each side of the park. The east side of Rocky Mountain National Park plays host to some moderate and short hikes that allow visitors to visit beautiful alpine lakes such as the iconic Dream Lake. The east side is also home to Longs Peak, the highest peak in the park and the challenging eight mile hike to it’s summit has become a goal of many of the park’s visitors. The west side of the Rocky Mountain National Park while just as beautiful as the east side is more mysterious. It’s alpine lakes and peaks are just as majestic as the east side but require long strenuous hikes to visit. Your just as likely to encounter a Moose in the back country of Rocky west side as you are other hikers.
3. Rocky has some of the most beautiful sunrises and early morning lighting anywhere. The geographic location of Rocky Mountain National Park allows it to garner some of the most beautiful light at sunrise. Situated above and just west of the Colorado high plains, Rocky Mountain National Park high peaks have a completely unobstructed view to the rising sun over the flat Colorado high plains. First morning light in Rocky Mountain National Park comes early and is intense. The peaks and summits will glow a fiery red and if one’s lucky enough to have clouds in the sky at sunrise they will begin to change color and hue 30 to 45 minutes before the sun actually rises. The light show in Rocky Mountain National Park on a partly cloudy morning is simply breathtaking to take in and photograph.
4. I’m a student of history and Rocky Mountain National Park is chock full of interesting events and people. From the early Ute and Arapahoe tribes that spent time in what is now Rocky Mountain National Park to characters that seem to read from a movie script such as The Earl of Dunraven, Rocky Mountain Jim Nugent, John Wesley Powell, William Byers, Abner Sprague,Squeaky Bob, and Enos Mills the park has been visited and explored by some of the hardiest, most interesting and in the case of the Irish Earl, self interested people to visit Colorado and the west. While many of the people listed above helped paved the way towards making the area a destination, none played a more integral part in having the foresight to protect and conserve the area than Enos Mills. Enos Mills is considered the father of Rocky Mountain National Park. His conservation efforts, explorations and writings on the area acted both as a treasure trove of information, but also helped in getting congress to set aside this land for protection in 1915. While Enos was a great outdoorsman and spent countless days wandering the forests that now makeup Rocky Mountain National Park, it was a chance encounter with John Muir, the father of the Sierra Club movement that spurred Enos to champion conservation of what is now Rocky Mountain National Park. There is a clear and distinct line between Rocky Mountain National Park founding and John Muir, the person considered the father of the American conservation movement. For that we have Enos Mills to thank.
5. Last and not least one of my personal favorite things about Rocky Mountain National Park is sharing and experiencing the beauty of the park with friends, family and visitors from all over the country and the world. Rocky Mountain National Park was the first National Park I ever visited when I moved to Colorado in 1998. It had an immediate and indelible effect on me the minute I drove through the entrance. I had spent time all over Colorado prior to visiting Rocky Mountain National Park and had figured the whole state of Colorado is practically a National Park, why do I need to go fight the crowds and cars?. Rocky’s unique and it only took one visit over sixteen years ago in which I had to be egged on by a friend for me to figure that out and fall in love with Rocky. Watch for the change in visitors when you bring them to Rocky to show them around. See how friendly and happy people become as they hike farther from the trailhead and into the backcountry. Once away from their vehicle and the influence of man one can easily see the effect wilderness and wild places have on people. Did you ever notice how almost everybody makes eye contact, says hello and smiles when they are four or five miles from their car?. You can almost gauge how close you are to the trailhead based on how friendly, outgoing and engaging people are on the trail. That’s a powerful effect and one that was not lost those that had the foresight to protect and preserve what I now consider my favorite place on the planet, Rocky Mountain National Park.
Fall in the Rockies is like natures great tease. Golden foliage, warm days and sunshine make it a favorite among many. Then, wham!. Snow, wind and freezing temperatures put a quick end to the beautiful and easy pace of autumn in the high country. As discreetly as autumn weaves its way into the meadows, forests and canyons that make up Rocky Mountain National Park, Old Man Winter arrives with all the subtlety of a canon blast.
This week Rocky has gotten it’s second significant blast of cold winter weather. The first blast which arrived on September 10th was too early to cause any damage to the foliage and in my opinion did nothing to dampen what was a very good color year in Rocky Mountain National Park. This second cold blast however has caused snow to fall over Rocky three nights in a row. Trail Ridge Road has been closed down because of snowdrifts 2-3 ft high according to the NPS and much of the Autumn foliage has either fallen or is now past peak.
There are however, a spotty areas of fall color in Rocky Mountain National Park which may hold up through the end of the week. Higher elevations such as Bear Lake have been past peak for over a week now so I wont go into much detail regarding color status in those areas.
The Bierstadt Moraine is pretty much done. There are a few decent stands near the base of the Moraine but otherwise it’s pretty spotty. Moraine Park will still have some color through the week. There are still a fair amount of aspen stands that are mostly green. The aspens in Lower Beaver Meadows and near the Beaver Meadows entrance station are a past peak. There are a few decent stands with color and one should be able to frame Longs Peak with some color into the weekend. There are a few smaller groves in Upper Beaver Meadows that are just starting to turn and may offer some of the best late color in the park.
The Horseshoe Park area is also now past peak. Most of the larger aspen groves in Horseshoe Park are past peak and have dropped their leaves. There are a few isolated trees and groves hear and there in Horseshoe Park that still look good. If you take your time there is the potential to photograph more intimate scenes of color in and around Horseshoe Park.
I’ve not been over the the west side of Rocky Mountain National Park since Saturday. At that time much of the color was just past peak. I would have to believe that this last storm has stripped many of the tree’s of their leaves in and around the Kawuneeche Valley. The large stand of aspens at the Timber Creek trailhead was well past peak as of last Saturday. Even though the foliage in most of Rocky Mountain National Park is now past peak, many of the grasses in Moraine, Horseshoe and the Kawuneeche Valley are now golden and looking very good.
Lastly the Elk Rut is still underway in Rocky and while the Elk are very active in Moraine, Horseshoe, Beaver Meadows and the Kawuneeche Valley, especially at dusk and dawn their seems to be a noticeable turn down to the intensity of the rut at this point in time. As always theres a million things to do and photograph in Rocky Mountain National Park. Regardless of the seasons or the weather the next few weeks photographers should have little problem staying busy and creative.