It continues to be an interesting month of May in Rocky. It feels like we’ve had interesting weather just about every morning for the past few weeks. Sure, I’m not a huge fan of late May snowstorms but it certainly makes for really interesting conditions many mornings with clouds, fog and snow covered peaks.
After another night of rain and or snow depending on what elevation you were at I was doing my normal scouting in the pre-dawn hours looking to be in the best spot when the sun rose. When I first arrived I was thinking Bierstadt Lake or the Bear Lake area. There were some really nice clouds hanging over the peaks of RMNP.
There was lots of fog and clouds just below Estes Park and it appeared to be moving upslope. Unsettled mornings like this can either be amazing for photographers or you can end up losing your view of the mountains when a shroud of clouds rolls over you.
Bear Lake was out of the questions because with the exception of a tiny portion near the outlet, it’s still completely frozen over which is hard to believe for late May. Bierstadt Lake would have been a good spot but at Bierstadt you have to commit to photographing either a westerly view or and easterly view as you cant get around the larger lake in time to photograph both well.
In hindsight I probably would have been in pretty good shape if I had hiked up to Bierstadt Lake. But because the clouds and fog were moving and I was having a hard time figuring out if the light would be best to the east of Rocky Mountain National Park or to the west on the divide itself, I decided to head down Bear Lake Road back to Moraine Park.
Arriving in Moraine Park, Longs Peak was partially covered. There was a huge herd of elk grazing in the meadow along the Big Thompson River and the narrowleaf cottonwoods and some of the aspens had newly budded leaves showing on the trees. At this point there was only about 20 minutes to sunrise so I was committed to photographing from Moraine Park at this point.
The clouds remained fairly consistent at this point and actually cleared from view of Longs Peak. The small break in the cloud cover to the east also remained and at sunrise we had some beautiful light hit a very snow covered Longs Peak. Elk grazing below, fresh greens in the meadow and on the trees and a perfect spring vignette of Rocky Mountain National Park unfolded in front of me.
Saturday and Sunday morning in Rocky Mountain National Park both dawned with little in the way of cloud cover. Memorial Day Monday’s looked like it would see some clouds around at sunrise as a new system moved into Colorado.
That system just dumped a few inches of snow on Rocky Mountain National Park above 9500 ft and there is more predicted for this afternoon and tonight. We just cant seem to break this pattern of cool, wet late season snow’s in the park which have happened with enough regular occurrence the Trail Ridge Road has yet to open from the east side of Rocky to the west side because of the wild weather we’ve been having.
Before our latest system moved in, I headed up to RMNP on Monday morning hoping to capitalize on a nice sunrise. All the weather models that I study before heading out into Rocky looked promising for Monday morning.
When I arrived in Estes and could get a good view of Rocky’s majestic peaks, I could see some nice cloud cover hanging over the continental divide. On my drive up there was no cloud cover over the eastern plains which mean an unobstructed sunrise. This is a perfect setup for a colorful sunrise.
I departed the Cub Lake trailhead about an hour before sunrise. I was not sure exactly where I wanted to end up but spring in Moraine Park and the Cub Creek drainage is always great as there is water everywhere. Seasonal flows from rain and snowmelt form veins of water and small ponds everywhere. All this water can make for great reflections or foreground elements for photographers.
With clouds over the continental divide when I first started my hike in, my plan was to photograph Stones Peak reflecting in a yet to be determined body of water from the runoff. It had been about 10 days since i was last through this area but I knew there would be lots of puddles and tarns to pick from.
I found a nice small pond that would allow for a nice image of Stones Peak reflecting in its water. I setup and waited for sunrise as clouds continued to drift over the top of the mountains of RMNP. Chasing clouds in Rocky Mountain National Park can be a fools errand however.
While setting up and waiting for sunrise, the clouds drifting to the west of me started moving to the east. Within 10 minutes there was no longer clouds over Stones Peak as they had moved to the north and east now. With sunrise about 15 minutes aways I had to scramble to find another location to photograph what would be a colorful sunrise not to my west, but now to my north and east.
After sloshing around through the meadow that more resembled a swamp, I settled on this small pond in the Cub Creek drainage. With Cub Creek moving through the meadow in my foreground while standing in about a foot of runoff that originated mostly from mountain snowmelt I watched and photographed some beautiful clouds on the east side of Rocky Mountain National Park.
This was not the image I had in mind when I first headed out from the trailhead, nor the one I had in mind when I setup my tripod and camera prior to sunrise. But the circumstances and cloud cover changed so I had to adapt. As the color popped and I fired the shutter on my camera I thought to myself, ‘this is something different’. Wet feet and boots notwithstanding, something different worked out ok.
The unofficial start of summer has finally arrived and lots of photographers are loading up their vehicles, packing the camera and camping gear, and heading out to shake the rust off after a long winter.
Theres nothing quite like the anticipation and excitement that comes along with that break in run to start summer. A fair share of landscape and wildlife photographers will be heading up here to Rocky Mountain National Park over the Memorial Day weekend to get their photography fix. For those heading up here to Estes Park and RMNP this weekend here is what you can expect.
First off as it currently stands the weather looks decent compared to the winter like weather we have been experiencing for much of May. With the exception of Monday, the weather in Rocky looks more or less seasonal with partly sunny days. As is often the case with Rocky Mountain National Park it appears the wind will be accompanying photographers much of this weekend so plan accordingly. Mornings look like they will be mostly clear and with higher winds, capturing reflection at many of the lakes and open bodies of water may be tricky.
Photographers will find the lower elevations mostly clear of snow by the time they arrive though trails will be muddy and wet in spots. Higher elevations such as the Bear Lake trailheads will still be packed snow and ice. Traction such as Microspikes or Yak-Trax would be highly recommended. As it warms during the day the snow will soften and post holing through soft snow is likely. Meadows in the lower elevations of the park have just started to green up and the aspen trees in locations such as Moraine Park and Horseshoe Park are just leafing out now. Aspen trees and deciduous plants above 9000 ft are for the most part yet to leaf out.
Roads in the park that are closed seasonally are mostly now open. Upper Beaver Meadows, Wild Basin Road, Inn Keepers Road on the west side of Rocky are now all open. Old Fall River road wont open until July as it stands now which is inline with its normal opening time. As of this writing the road to the end of the Twin Sisters trailhead was still closed which will require parking at the two Lily Lake parking lots.
Trail Ridge Road, the highlight of Rocky Mountain National Park for many visitors will not be open this Memorial Day weekend. The National Park Service crews have been working tirelessly since April in an attempt to open Trail Ridge Road but heavy snowpack over the winter combined with powerful late season snowstorms have made it impossible to safely open Trail Ridge Road from Estes Park through to Grand Lake.
Make sure to enjoy RMNP this weekend as well as the unofficial start of summer. Remember that Rocky has been experiencing record visitation and this weekend will be busy. Be respectful of the park, wildlife and other visitors. Remember to stay on trail and use Leave No Trace principles if you are going to deviate from visiting locations off the beaten path.
In a nutshell remember to leave Rocky better than you found it. Pickup any loose trash, think about visiting areas that are less likely to be crowded and try to be mindful of your impact on the land, wildlife and the park. Most importantly have a great time visiting Rocky Mountain National Park while hopefully coming away with a handful of great images you can add to your portfolio when you get back home.
Here it is May 20th and summer should be just around the corner. The unofficial start of summer begins this Memorial Day weekend but it doesn’t currently appear that it’s going to feel very much like summer in Rocky Mountain National Park when the weekend hits.
As I write this blog post its currently snowing on the east side of Rocky Mountain National Park. The snow will pickup during the day today and continue through Thursday at this point with some clearing and more seasonal weather to settle in on Friday.
The NPS crews plowing Trail Ridge Road reached the Alpine Visitor Center on May 15th and posted some great images of the AVC nearly covered feet of snow. This latest storm is forecast to drop nearly a foot or more of snow on RMNP. It’s looking less likely that the park service will get Trail Ridge Road open before Memorial Day.
It’s been a turbulent May as far as the weather is concerned in Rocky and while its common to get good size snowstorms in May in RMNP, I cant quite remember a recent season in Rocky where we’ve gotten this many consistent snowstorms this late in the season. It seems each week in May we start the week with unsettled weather and snow.
The turbulent weather has been spectacular for photography however. Lots of moody mornings, great sunrises, fog and snow covered landscapes. By June, it’s not uncommon to go 5 or 6 days in a row without a cloud in the sky at sunrise. That’s not been the case so far and nearly every morning this May has had some great potential when it comes to landscape photography.
I’m ready for Trail Ridge Road to reopen for the seasons, to get over to the west side of RMNP and to start planning some long hikes into the backcountry of Rocky. Looks like I’ll be keeping those plans on hold for a few more weeks and I’ll just enjoy the turbulent weather and dramatic conditions it’s creating for us photographers.
I joke with both my clients and other photographers how all I need every morning is 1 minute of really screaming light and I’m good for the rest of the day. My fellow photographers usually chuckle at me when I make this comment and while I say it partially in jest, I’m also mostly serious.
Truth be told there are many types of light and depending on what kind of conditions you are experiencing out in the field it all about adapting your photography to work for the lighting conditions you are currently experiencing.
Diffused cloudy conditions allow you to photograph all day long provided your subject is conducive to diffused light. Fall color, waterfalls, and macro all work well under these conditions. Flat diffused light does not tend to work well for traditional large landscape images. Contrasty, colorful light found right at the start and end of the day tends to work best for dramatic large landscape photography.
This morning while out photographing in Rocky Mountain National Park I got my ‘one minute of light’ moment. Landscape photographers want dramatic clouds in the image in order to add depth and drama to the scene. Clouds are awesome but there is one problem with clouds when trying to photograph large landscape scenes. Those clouds can be both enemy and friend to a photographer. They may light the sky pink and you may hit a home run with a colorful and dramatic image. On the other hand those clouds may play foe to a photographer.
The same clouds that can make a landscape image portfolio worthy may also block the sun out leaving a landscape photographer high and dry with flat uninspired lighting on the landscape. Sometimes its only a small sliver or break in the cloud cover on the horizon thats the difference between going home elated or waiting for your next chance. This is where the ‘one minute of light’ of light comes into play. If that break in the cloud cover is big enough to allow a minute or so of beautiful light on the landscape, everybody goes home happy.
This morning near Lily Lake in RMNP I went home happy. It looked very promising heading up to Rocky Mountain National Park this morning but by the time I arrived in Estes Park, stubborn cloud cover over the plains was not breaking up as anticipated. I had fairly low expectations with the amount of clouds to the east of Rocky but as always make sure I setup and get in place just in case. Nothing is worse than watching a good sunrise from your car or home after talking yourself into believing nothing is going to happen.
I setup near a small seasonal pool and watched and waited. I could see some color forming on the horizon to the east and the clouds east of the Twin Sisters were starting to turn pink. Before I knew it Mount Meeker and Longs Peak started to glow in pink as the clouds above Rocky Mountain National Park’s highest peaks also turned pink. With camera setup and ready to go I was able to fire off about two dozen images before the light faded away and became flat.
The entire light show lasted a minute or less this morning at Lily Lake but it was just long enough that I was able to avoid heading back home empty handed. That minute of light was all I needed today.
Thawed lakes, wildflowers, green grasses, pond lilies. These are the things we can start looking forward too in a few more weeks in Rocky Mountain National Park. Were still not quite there yet and I’d say we are about a week or two behind our usual spring weather.
For example I have images in my files from last May 4th with aspen leafed out in Moraine Park. As of today the aspens in Moraine Park have just started to leaf out. Even so we have had a warm week of weather and this morning felt like the most summer, late spring day yet.
Sunrise looked very promising this morning and the winds were very calm when I arrived in Estes. Mild weather, a nice set of clouds hanging over the continental divide and the east of RMNP and I was ready to get out on the trail and get somewhere in the backcountry for sunrise.
One of my favorite early season locations in Rocky Mountain National Park is always Cub Lake. Cub Lake is at a lower elevation than many of the other lakes in Rocky so it’s thaws early and the trail up to Cub is free of snow much earlier than say the trails emanating from the Bear Lake trailhead. The hike up to Cub Lake is a great early season hike to get your trail legs back and get you back in the flow.
Once Cub Lake has thawed it also has a beautiful vantage point of Stones Peak reflecting in it’s waters if the winds cooperate. When I arrived this morning the wind was starting to pickup but the surface of Cub Lake remained smooth for the first 1/2 hour on sunrise. Sunrise didn’t pop like I had hoped it would be the clouds did take on some pink and purple hues and Stones Peak did catch the glow of sunrise.
Overall it was just about a perfect morning in RMNP. Cub Lake was placid at sunrise, beautiful clouds hung over the peaks of Rocky, and the trail is now free of snow. Were still a ways off from summer but this mornings hike into to Cub Lake felt like a summer morning in RMNP.
It spring in Rocky?. Thats a question I get from many of my photography tour and workshop clients when discussing particulars before heading out in the field. Photography workshop and tour clients are often surprised when scheduling in May to find the weather in Rocky Mountain National Park may be just as likely to be similar to a February day then a warm spring day.
May in Rocky Mountain National Park is an interesting month. It’s a transitional month in the park but that transition in not one from spring towards summer, it’s really more of a tug of war between winter holding on and spring attempting to get a foothold. Oftentimes that struggle between winter and spring seems like a 1 step forward, 2 step back battle with winter often appearing to gain the upper hand.
Late spring in RMNP can feel more like winter, but the dynamic and unsettled weather we get in Rocky in May can lead to some amazing conditions for photographers. Truth be told some of my best winter have been created in May on account of the rough and tumble weather patterns that frequent Rocky and the Front Range of Colorado this time of year.
While some of my favorite images have been captured this time of year, May is also the month that I see the most cancelation from photography tour and workshop clients on account of the weather. I understand my clients concerns with the weather combined with the cost and time involved in getting to Rocky and hiring a photography guide to show them around. I’ll analyze the weather and do my best to provide an straight forward assessment of what potential we may have.
Trying to forecast the weather conditions can be difficult on most days, but attempting to convince a hesitant client that we have a 20% chance of getting epic conditions but an 80% chance of getting skunked can be a difficult sell.
On account of the snow and unsettled weather in Rocky Mountain National Park on Friday, I had my client for that morning cancel and reschedule for later in the spring when the weather hopefully cooperates a little better. While one of my clients rescheduled, another longtime client of mine was all in on taking a chance with the weather.
This client requests that I give them a heads up whenever there is potential for good or great conditions. Because this client has hired my services well over a dozen times previously, we have a very good understanding of what the expectations are when the weather looks dynamic. They understand that there is a good chance conditions wont cooperate while at the sometime understanding that in order to photograph in jaw dropping conditions, one must weigh the risk reward scenario.
I’ve had more exceptional conditions with this client than not but we’ve had a few days in the field that did not materialize quite like we expected. With that said, this client trusts my assessments in the field and greatly enjoys the opportunity to get out when conditions might be rough but extremely rewarding. Taking a chance on the conditions and yesterday and trusting on my assessment my client was rewarded with some spectacular May conditions and came away with some of their best Colorado winter portfolio images. As I always like to tell my clients, ‘bad weather makes for great photography’.
McGregor Mountain is one of those mountains in Rocky Mountain National Park this wont get the praise and adulation that peaks like Hallett Peak, Taylor, Ypsilon, or Longs Peak get. It’s base reside near the Fall River entrance to Rocky Mountain National and most visitors to RMNP will drive right on past it without thinking much of it at all. Certainly there are few photographers who will go out of their way to photograph McGregor Mountain, though the irony is most visitors and photographer to Rocky Mountain National Park will likely capture images of McGregor Mountain when they visit.
At this point, many of you readying this are probably wondering why I’m opining about McGregor Mountain and where this is all headed. I certainly appreciate McGregor Mountain and have many images with it included in my composition. My giddiness with McGregor Mountain and my reason for devoting my first two paragraphs of this blog to it really has little to do with McGregor itself but more to do with the locations I was able to photograph McGregor from yesterday.
One of the best vantage points of McGregor and one where most photographers likely unknowingly frame McGregor in their composition is from Rainbow Curve along Trail Ridge Road. Why is this important?. Because for the past 7 months, Rainbow Curve has been difficult to impossible for most visitors to RMNP to access due to it’s winter closure. Sure, hardy souls have skied and snowshoed up a closed Trail Ridge Road to access Rainbow Curve, but for most the past 7 months, Rainbow Curve is best viewed from way down below in Horseshoe Park.
I giddy about photographing from Rainbow Curve as I did yesterday morning because it harkens the fact that Trail Ridge Road is currently being plowed by NPS crews from the west and east side of Rocky Mountain National Park and that it should open fully in the next few weeks. Trail Ridge Road opening to Rainbow curve is a harbinger of summer arriving in RMNP, kicking off my favorite 5 months for photography as we head through summer than fall.
Whats great about Rainbow Curve is that is gives a commanding and impressive view over the east side of Rocky Mountain National Park, Horseshoe Park and all the way out to the high plains of Colorado.
At 10,289 ft above sea level, Rainbow Curve not only gives impressive views of the east side of Rocky and Estes Park, but it allows easy access to higher elevations of the park again. During the winter months, Many Parks curve at 9640 ft above sea level, and the Bear Lake parking at 9475 ft above sea level are the two most easily accessed high altitude locations in the park.
Adding that nearly 650 ft with the opening of Rainbow curve gives landscape photographers a much better chance of being able to get above the cloud layer on mornings when an inversion is present or weather is moving in over the Front Range of Colorado.
As I’m writing this blog post in my office down here in Erie this morning its currently snowing. I’d rather it not be snowing on May 9th, but the precipitation is always welcome in the arid climate of Colorado. The current wave of moisture moving over Colorado and Rocky Mountain National Park settled into Rocky right at sunrise yesterday.
As the upslope winds from the east northeast moved up from the valley, clouds and fog quickly enveloped the lower elevations of Rocky and obscured the high peaks. With Rainbow Curve now open I was able to quickly drive up to the 10,289 ft overlook and get above the upslope flow quickly enveloping the park.
McGregor Mountain as she always does makes for a great telephoto subject view from Rainbow when there is an inversion. Her distinct oval shape with clouds and fog wrapping around her always makes for an iconic image of RMNP from Rainbow Curve.
Even better at this point is knowing that summer is just around the corner and access to many of Rocky Mountain National Parks great summer locations is quickly accelerating. Rainbow Curve will be closed this morning due to the heavy snow, but the NPS does a great job plowing Trail Ridge Road for its annual seasonal opening. Sure these spring snowstorms may make for a 1 step forward, 2 steps back scenario, but eventually even winter has to temporarily relent in Rocky Mountain National Park.
Rocky’s weather at the back end of April and early May never leaves a dull moment. Warm days, early wildflowers and blizzards can be commonplace. In fact, all these can happen within a few hours of each other in Rocky Mountain National Park during the springtime.
The end of April and the start of May has lived up to the hype that typically comes with springtime weather in Rocky Mountain National Park. While its been cold and rainy down here in the lower elevations of Colorado’s Front Range, Rocky has been getting good amounts of fresh snow. Even with the snow and unsettled weather, the past few mornings in Rocky have yielded some great moments of light intertwined with the rain and snow.
Monday snow started falling in the park by mid morning. It continued throughout the day and by the time it stopped early on Tuesday morning over a foot of fresh snow had fallen on Rocky.
More snow was scheduled to fall later on Tuesday in RMNP and the weather forecasts looked like there may be some break in the cloud cover or a possibility of getting above the cloud layer or inversion.
Inversions being when of my favorite type of conditions to photograph in, I was not going to let the opportunity to possibly catch a break in the cloud cover pass my by after lots of fresh powder had fallen on the park.
Leaving my house early in the morning for Rocky, the snow was still falling at a pretty good clip but predicted to stop about an hour before sunrise. One of my main concerns on a morning after a heavy snow is the conditions of the roads in Rocky. While the park service does and excellent job keeping the roads of Rocky Mountain National Park in great shape, they don’t plow roads from 7:00 PM until 7:00 AM.
This means one of two scenarios are likely to occur. Either the rangers are going to close the gates and access to the park until the roads can be made safe, or you are going to arrive to find unplowed roads and the need to make first tracks to your destination.
I arrived to find the second scenario had occurred. The park and gates remained open over night but the roads in Rocky had 12-14 inches of unplowed fresh snow on them. While I drive a four wheel drive vehicle its important to note that you are on your own when you decide to head into the park in these conditions this early in the morning.
I’ve got a good amount of experience driving in these types of conditions and I know the limitations of my vehicles. That being said I’m always prepared to get stuck or turn around if conditions dictate. If you get stuck at this time of day in the deep snow you will have to wait hours before the park service is able to get the plows to your vehicle and clear the roadways. Keep in mind that if you choose to enter the park in these conditions and you do get stuck, you will be a low priority on the grand scale of park service operations.
I headed into the park plowing through the bumper deep snow on my truck. The cloud layer was low and I kept heading up Trail Ridge Road with the hope that I would be able to avoid getting stuck in the snow and break above the cloud layer before I hit the seasonal road closure at Many Parks Curve. Shortly after Deer Jct. I broke through the cloud and could see Longs Peak glimmering in the distance.
Things looked promising as long as I could continue up the road to Many Parks without getting stuck. Selfishly, I always figure that if I get stuck I hope its at least in a location that will still yield a good vantage point. Its also important to remember that while there may be 12 inches of snow at the Beaver Meadows Entrance station, there could easily be 6 inches more snow by the time one reaches Hidden Valley.
Finally I arrived at the road closure at Many Parks Curve and turned around to head back to the overlook. Longs Peak was still towering high above the clouds and inversion that covered Horseshoe Park, Upper Beaver Meadows and Moraine Park below. I go my camera setup and waited for the sun to clear the lower cloud layer blanketing the Front Range below. Shortly after sunrise the sun rose above the cloud layer and 14,259 ft Longs Peak and The Diamond glowed regally in the early morning light and clouds.
All in all it was a typical late spring morning in Rocky Mountain National Park that resulted in some spectacular conditions for photography. With some help from the sun and a little bit of white knuckle driving behind me, it was the kind of spring morning in RMNP that I won’t soon forget.