When one thinks of Rocky Mountain National Park a few things come to mind. Mountains, snow, lakes, Trail Ridge Road and elk. People come from all of the world to get a glimpse of an elk, drive trail ridge road, hike in the mountains or play in the snow. Photographers come for all over the planet to photograph the mountains, lakes, snow and elk. Most of the time a photographer is not going to be lucky enough to photograph all of these elements and icons of Rocky Mountain National Park in one visit let alone one image.
After years of nearly having all these elements line up for me in a photo but never actually being successful I finally had a short moment in the field where all the stars or elements aligned. After a night of rain in snow in Rocky last Friday, conditions looked pretty promising at sunrise. Lots of fog hung over the Estes Valley as well as RMNP as sunrise approached. Fresh snow covered the pines and mountains above 10,000 ft and a break in the cloud cover to the east of the park would allow for the sun to light the landscape at sunrise.
I headed off to the far west end of Moraine Park to setup for sunrise. There’s a couple of great spots in the west end of Moraine Park where one can photograph landscapes facing both east and west. Furthermore with all the rain and snow we’ve had the past few weeks I knew the area near the beaver ponds west of Moraine Park along the Cub Lake trail would have lots of seasonal ponds and seeps from the spring runoff.
Turning west from Moraine Park I headed to a particular spot I had in mind for sunrise. A small pond with a nice view of Stones Peak and the valley. I could see the pink hues in the skies above the mountains and fog swirling around the hillsides as I rounded the corner on the Cub Lake trail. I was feeling the excitement build as conditions were looking very good already this morning. Things only improved as I rounded the bend in the trail and found a large herd of elk grazing on the far side of the pond I was going to photograph Stones Peak reflecting at sunrise.
With the fog hanging in the valley, fresh snow on the hillsides, the wind calm and the water on the pond smooth as glass I setup my equipment as quietly as possible in an attempt not to disturb or spook the elk in the meadow. As the sun rose the elk continued to move from north to south as they grazed the green meadow and the mountains caught the first beams of warm sunlight through the fog. The moment was short but all the stars aligned and I was able to photograph a handful of elements that symbolize the beauty and spirit of Rocky Mountain National Park.
Of all the different atmospheric conditions that I love to photograph in, fog has to be my favorite. Nothing makes familiar locations and landmarks turn to mysterious unknowns faster than a layer of fog cloaking the landscape. Fog is fluid it ebbs and flows by the minute and opportunities for images and compositions open and shut with its waxing and waining.
In fact, when photographing and observing fog its movement and form mimics a living, breathing being. Like a breathing creature fog will inhale and shrink, than exhale and expand. One minute your standing above the layer of fog in the bright sunshine and the next minute your immersed in the cool gray mist as it covers the sun and sifts through the landscape.
The biggest problem as I see it with photographing fog here in Colorado and in particular in Rocky Mountain National Park is that it’s a fairly rare occurrence. While Moraine Park and the Kawuneeche Valley on the west side of Rocky will occasionally see low lying fog on account of the Colorado River or Big Thompson but normally your best chance to get large amounts of fog in Rocky Mountain National Park come during and inversion or upslope event with your best chances of getting dramatic lighting conditions coming as the low pressure system moves out of the Four Corners region or if you can climb high enough to get above the cloud layer.
Last week after what seemed like day after day of clear blue skies,(I know only us photographers complain about such a thing) we finally had the conditions I had been waiting for. A rainy and snowy few days in RMNP were about to end and the low pressure system behind it was set to move out Thursday morning.
Knowing that the weather was set to improve and that the timing of this coincided with sunrise I knew there would be a good chance for some drama at daybreak. I headed up to Rocky in the rain and fog but just below Estes Park I broke through the cloud cover and could not only see the full moon shining bright but the skies appeared cloudless. This was not what I was hoping for but I headed into Rocky to get a better look. Once above Beaver Meadows and Moraine Park I could see that there was still a nice layer of fog floating over Moraine Park.
I headed out in the darkness to a favorite spot of mine high above Moraine Park on Beaver Mountain. Here one is able to get commanding views of Longs Peak as well as Moraine Park and if the fog stayed in Moraine I hoped my elevation would keep me above it.
The fog stayed in Moraine Park this morning and my vantage point worked out very well. While Longs Peak stayed mostly in the clear, Moraine Park was shrouded with fog. Every corner of Moraine Park yielded a new composition and each one changed by the second as the fog moved in and out. After one battery change and a memory card nearly filled as well as the fog starting to clear out I figured it was time to hike out. All in all it was an amazing morning in Rocky Mountain National Park. Fog is rare and I’m sure if I lived in Northern California or the Pacific Northwest I’d tire of it but here in Rocky Mountain National Park I can never get enough of it.