While the Cameron Peak Fire continues to burn just outside the boundary of Rocky Mountain National Park (21,000+ acres with 0% containment as of this writing), we finally caught a break the other morning with regards to air quality and smoke which has been ever present since the fire started back on August 13th.
Shifting wind patterns and some nice afternoon and evening rain showers helped to improve the air quality over Rocky Mountain National Park on the morning of August 26th. While I’ve been trying to use the smoke as best I can when out photographing in Rocky, sometimes there is only so much you can do .
Heading out yesterday morning, I was surprised to be able to see the stars as I started my drive north towards Estes Park. The smoke tends to settle in the valleys overnight but its been so heavy of late that its often hard to tell if its cloudy or just smokey in the morning.
The forecast showed clouds moving in over the west side of Rocky Mountain National Park around sunrise yesterday, so I figured I would head up Trail Ridge and over to the Kawuneeche Valley to see if the combination of less smokey skies and haze and clouds at sunrise might yield a good old fashioned morning of photography.
For the past few weeks, The Kawuneeche has be inundated with smoke from both the Cameron Peak Fire and the Williams Fork Fire further to the west. With rain that had fallen overnight and clouds predicted on the west side of the park, I was also hoping that maybe some low lying fog would form in the valley to add to the mood.
While the low lying fog only materialized in a few isolated areas of Kawuneeche Valley, the clouds did just as predicted and started moving in just before sunrise. Best of all, while there was still some smoke present in the valley, the air quality was the cleanest its been in over two weeks.
I took the opportunity to setup along the Colorado River at a location I’ve photographed a hundred times before. It’s a classic west side of Rocky image. The Colorado River a few miles from its headwaters with Baker Mountain looming over Bowen Baker gulch to the west. This time of years the grasses which have been growing all summer in the Kawuneeche Valley are waist high and there are hints of golden autumn hues mixed in with still lush greens.
Great clouds, great scenery and more importantly, some great conditions which included the air quality yesterday morning made for a refreshing change. Cooler weather is predicted for the park starting on Friday and smoke from the fires in both California and Colorado are supposed to abate as well. Here’s to hoping for some great conditions again as we hit the homestretch towards the end of summer and fall in Rocky Mountain National Park.
Lots of photography tour clients have contacted me asking what the current conditions are in Rocky Mountain National Park. Many want to know if their are any signs of fall color or the elk rut starting as we are moving into late August. Others just want to know what the air quality situation is with the Cameron Peak Fire burning just outside the northwestern boundary to the park ongoing.
Before giving an update on the Cameron Peak fire, I’ll give a brief update on the first two questions. The back end of summer has been very dry here in Rocky Mountain National Park. Evidence of this can be seen not only from the fires burning across Colorado, but also in the alpine tundra which has now turned mostly brown instead of it autumnal red. Wildflowers have dried up in most areas of the park and the grasses in the lower elevations are browning. Even with that said, there are certainly signs of autumn appearing now in Rocky. With the exception of a few draught stressed aspens which have started to turn, at or above timberline one will find both the grasses, tundra and willows starting to change. In fact, just last week on Flattop Mountain I was surprised with how far along the willows below the summit had turned yellow. Its possible that both the dry conditions and diluted sunlight from smokey skies will have some effect on Rocky’s fall color season which usually begins in earnest around the second to third week of September.
Secondly, the warm weather has kept most of the elk herds high above the parks so far. While the bulls have been shedding their velvet in preparation for the rut, overall congregation of the males and the females remains separate and even the offset bugling bull elk has been fairly subdued. I would expect this activity to start changing in the next few weeks, especially if some cooler weather moves in.
Lastly, the Cameron Peak fire continues to burn just outside the northern boundary of Rocky Mountain National Park. As of this writing, the Cameron Peak Fire had burned just over 20,000 acres with 0% containment. The National Park Service has closed off access to the northern part of Rocky and one is not able to access anything from along Long Draw Road, the Poudre River Trail or the areas around Mirror Lake and Hagues Creek. As it currently stands there is no reason to believe any of these areas will reopen anytime soon with the fire at 0% containment. Luckily for Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado Highway 14 and Long Draw Road have been acting as a fire break and preventing the fire from moving inside the boundary of RMNP. While there is concern with such a large fire burning just outside the boundary, it appears as it stands today that the biggest impact from the Cameron Peak fire to RMNP will be smoke and poor air quality.
For photographers, smoke is now making photography inside of Rocky Mountain National Park a challenge. The smoke is not only coming from the Cameron Peak Fire, but also from the 3 other large fires burning in Colorado and along with smoke from the numerous California fires.
The smoke is thick enough most morning that getting anything close to full sunlight is very difficult even if there are no clouds present. The smokey haze is causing for diffused lighting and poor air quality. While the smokey skies certainly present some unique opportunities to photograph the park, it certainly makes getting classic vistas like sunrise at Dream Lake, or sunset at the Rock Cut along Trail Ridge Road very difficult as the smoke obscures and diffuses most to the light.
At this point, I find the best strategy is to head into the park and use the smokey skies to ones advantage. I’ve been doing that by getting as much elevation as I can and shooting back into sunrises. The smoke filled valleys and backlighting allowed for one to create moody, layered images with deep blue shadows and warm reds around the rising sun.
I’ll continue to keep the blog updated on the status in Rocky Mountain National Park but with regards to the the Cameron Peak Fire but also the fall color status as well as the elk rut. In the meantime, if you are heading to Rocky for photography, prepare to make adjustments to your shooting itinerary and use the smoke and haze to one’s advantage.
Dry. Thats the operative word for the current conditions in Rocky Mountain National Park. After a winter with above average snowfall and a more or less normal spring, moisture has been tough to come by as summer moves along.
Moisture and active weather patterns are not only good for the ecosystem of Rocky Mountain National Park but dynamic weather is great for photographers. Other than a few gully washers we’ve had in July during the peak of the monsoon season here in Colorado, rain, fog, or just plain cloudy skies have been hard to come by this season.
While out in the backcountry of RMNP camping at Mirror Lake a few weeks back with my friend and fellow photographer Erik Stensland, we were discussing just how mild and placid the weather had been this summer. We both remarked at how we badly needed moisture and then both tried to remember the last time we had an entire day or rainy weather or even upslope conditions and or fog to get out and photograph in. The best we could come up with was sometime during the COVID-19 lockdowns when Rocky was still closed and photography in the park was not possible.
During the conversation it was never stated but its always implied that if we dont get moisture soon the risk of a large fire in or near the park is always looming. Combine all of the pine beetle kill of the last 20 years with the fact that many parts of Rocky Mountain National Park have not seen fires in hundreds of years and you realize our favorite location on earth is also a tinder box.
Fast forward to today and there are now 4 major fires burning across the state of Colorado, with the Cameron Peak fire burning just a few miles outside the remote northwest corner of Rocky Mountain National Park. Ironically, the Cameron Peak Fire is burning only a handful of miles from the Mirror Lake area where Erik and I were discussing our dry weather just a few weeks back. The fires are so close in fact that the NPS has closed the area around Mirror Lake as well as much of the Never Summer Range, The Poudre River headwaters and the Hagues Creek area. If we were back camping in this area today we would have been forced to evacuate the area or cancel the trip.
Currently the park service is only closing these areas of Rocky Mountain National Park out of an abundance of caution. The fire has jumped across Highway 14 near Long Draw Reservoir a few times but luckily firefighters have been able to quickly extinguish the growth and hold the fire line on the north or west sides of Highway 14.
With the 4 large fires burning and one burning only a few miles from the boundary of RMNP, smoke has become a major issue in the Estes Park and Grand Lake area over the past week. The thick smoke which comes and goes based on wind direction and humidity has created very poor air quality in the park but has also made photographing landscapes more difficult as the light is diffused and the visibility is reduced.
It’s difficult to get motivated to wakeup just past midnight and head out 7 or 8 miles into the backcountry when you know the air quality is likely to hinder your quality of light on the landscapes. I find the best thing to do in this situation is to just ‘embrace the suck’ and use the current compromised atmospherics to the best of ones advantage.
strategy is to go high and shoot into the sun when possible. All that smoke and haze not only creates colors and patterns that may not exist on clear days, but it also can enhance mood, texture and obviously the light.
Mountain ridges, the sun rising over the eastern plains of Colorado, every valley and peak take on a different quality when sifting through the blue smoke hovering over the landscape.
While it may not be ideal right now to be out photographing grand landscapes in Rocky Mountain National Park, theres plenty of unique and subtle photography that can still be done that will help to document and capture one phase of life in the Rocky Mountains. So while I’m hoping for a few nice days of rain soon, I’ll still get out there in the smokey air hanging over RMNP and try to get some unique compositions and color palettes not typically present when our air quality and visibility is excellent.
One of the natural evolutions of photographing in a place like Rocky Mountain National Park for so long is the need to continually explore and search for new locations, images and compositions. The natural evolution here is that the more one spends time photographing in Rocky, the farther and longer one will head in from the trailheads to explore new locations.
One location that I’ve been eyeing for years on the map but had yet to visit was the Mirror Lake area in the remote northern section of Rocky Mountain National Park. Mirror Lake is one of those areas that I’ve always wanted to visit but to be honest it quite difficult to get in and out of, especially if you are not spending a few nights in the backcountry.
When the backcountry office of RMNP opened the lottery up this March for backcountry sites, Mirror Lake was on the top of my list. I was lucky enough to secure two nights in early August at the Mirror Lake backcountry sites and had been eagerly awaiting for the day to come to travel back to Mirror Lake to explore and photograph this beautiful area nestled deep in the Mummy Range.
To reach Mirror Lake, the most common entry point is through the Corral Creek Trailhead. The Corral Creek Trailhead is located about 9 miles in on Long Draw Road off of Colorado Highway 14. Its a rough dirt road that heads between Highway 14 at the top end of Poudre Canyon, and Long Draw Reservoir which helps to feed the Front Range and Denver Metro area with its water supply through the Grand Ditch diversion which brings water from the Colorado River through the Continental Divide over to the east side or Atlantic Side of the Rocky Mountains.
From my home here in Erie its a slow 3 hrs and 111 mile drive up to Ft. Collins, than through the beautiful Poudre River Canyon to Long Draw Road and eventually the Corral Creek Trailhead. Once at the Corral Creek Trailhead, I met my friend and fellow Rocky Mountain National Park photographer extraordinaire Erik Stensland who would join me on this two day trip. Erik had been back along Thunder Pass the previous night and after eating a quick lunch at the trailhead, we started the 6.3 mile hike up to Mirror Lake.
After a few hours of hiking with our heavy packs loaded with camping gear, bear canisters and of course tripods and photography gear we arrived at Mirror Lake. There are 3 backcountry sites at Mirror Lake and sites 1 and 2 were already occupied so we took up in site #3 which is the southernmost and farthest site from the lake itself. We setup camp, ate dinner and we each headed off in different directions to photograph what would be a beautiful sunset that evening.
The following morning looked promising once again. Clouds hovered over Mirror Lake and Mount Ikoko with a nice break to the east. As is typical during the morning hours, the clouds dissipated then reappeared shortly after sunrise. This worked out well as the valley that Mirror Lake sits in does not get sun on Mount Ikoko this time of year until a little after 6:30 AM anyway.
With a great sunset and sunrise already in the book it was time for some exploring and climbing. Erik who is one never to squander time or opportunities was looking to climb Mount Ikoko, Revision Peak and Comanche Peak which all rest in the basin above Mirror Lake. We climbed up the scree slope on the north west side of Ikoko and reached the alpine tundra which would allow us to loop around the basin and climb the 3 12,000 ft peaks. With the threat of summer thunderstorms a good possibility we made good time to the summits of Ikoko, Revision and Comanche Peak. As we headed down Comanche Peak and back to the faint trail that is the Comanche Peak trail back towards camp we got down into the forest canopy just as the rain and thunderstorms moved in.
After resting up and grabbing something to eat it was time to head back out again for sunset in the basin. This particular sunset was not quite as dramatic as the one the day prior. There were lots of nice clouds and action going on over the backside of Ypsilon and Fairchild Mountain but sunset was blocked by some clouds and was more on the modest side. Tired from the hiking and climbing it was time to head to bed and get ready for one last sunrise at Mirror Lake.
I was up long before sunrise checking out the skies and making a cup of coffee. When you are out in the backcountry for a few days you only have a 48 hr old forecast to guess on what conditions would be like. I suspected we may have some clouds on this last morning based on the previous forecast before I left, but the last forecast I read showed mostly clear skies and a stiff 8 to 9 mph breeze. Thats not what happened in actuality at all. Instead, there were even more clouds than the day prior and what appeared to be a break in the cloud cover to the east again. There was no wind and conditions were looking close to perfect. I headed up to the tarn above Mirror Lake and waited to see where the sunrise would be most dramatic, either over Mount Ikoko or farther south over Ypsilon and Fairchild.
With great conditions for a second great sunrise in a row, a real rarity in Rocky Mountain National Park, I was able to capture Ikoko reflecting in the placid waters of the tarn above Mirror Lake. Once the sun had risen high enough in the sky it was a quick hustle back down to Mirror Lake for a few more images and then back to break down camp and hike the 6.3 miles back out to the vehicles.
Its always a little easier to hike out with heavy packs and sore legs after a successful few days in the field. We made good time and were back at the vehicles by 10:30, a little over 2 hrs after we left campsite #3 at Mirror Lake. With raindrops starting to fall I said goodbye to Erik and started the slow journey back out on Long Draw Road and then into Poudre River Canyon.
Arriving back in Erie in the early afternoon there is always excitement as one downloads images from the journey. Mirror Lake did not disappoint and we were blessed with both amazing conditions, great weather and a little bit of luck. Mirror Lake may take a little bit of effort to get into than many other locations in Rocky Mountain National Park but I can guarantee I’ll be back as soon as I can.