Thats Fall Folks!

This last weather system that moved over RMNP this weekend pretty much put an end to the fall color seasons in Rocky. Autumn 2020 was a challenging fall seasons for us photographers with smoke, haze, clear blue skies and a pandemic but even with all of that going on, Rocky has some of the most brilliant color I can remember. These aspens above Hollowell Park were just spectacular last week and they turned red and orange. Technical Details: Nikon Z7, Nikkor 200-500mm F5.6 AF-S VR Lens
Sunday we finally had some rain and snow move in through the park in what seems like forever. Snow fell on the Cameron Peak fire and the park got a decent dusting of snow in the higher elevations. When this new system moved in and out of the region it brought lots of wind with it as well.

As it always is with fall in the high rockies, one quick blast of weather and hillsides go from golden brilliance to down and brown. So was the case with this new system which stripped what remaining fall color there was and ushered in the brown season once again. This last system put mostly to an end what was one of the strangest autumns in Rocky I can remember in sometime.

Not only were we in the midst of a pandemic, but late summer into early fall in Rocky Mountain National Park was absurdly dry. We had very little rain and very little in the way of interesting clouds or weather for what I would estimate to be well over two months. Basically from August through October with the one exception being our early season September snowstorm, we were suffering not only from drought like conditions but also severe clear with little in the ways of interesting cloud cover and skies.

The Cameron Peak fire broke out in mid August and the hot and dry conditions allowed it to spread and grow quickly. Smoke from this fire has been hanging over Rocky Mountain National Park and the Front Range of Colorado ever since. Just 19 miles north of the Cameron Peak fire, The Mullen Fire broke out in September and only added to smoke, ash and haze.

Sunrise from the top of the Bierstadt Moraine on Friday looking back down towards Sprague Lake. Smokey skies were mostly a hinderance this fall season in RMNP but on Friday, clouds and smoke helped to create a colorful sunrise over Rocky. Technical Details: Nikon Z7, Nikkor 24-70mm F4 S lens
As a photographer during what is normally considered the best season of the year to photograph, you try to adapt and go with the flow. If 2020 has taught my anything its that you really need to appreciate your time and freedom as well as learning to make the best of a bad situation.

So while the haze and smoke from the fire, combined with clear skies and non-dramatic skies with weather made it difficult to get motivated or find subjects to shoot, I kept pushing myself to get out in the field and see what I could come away with.

As I always say, field time is always better than office time and if you can push aside your preconceived notions of what you think you should photograph and how the conditions should be and instead work with what you have, I think you will find you can come away with quite a few images that you’ll be pleased with.

So while autumn 2020 in Rocky Mountain National Park was the strangest and most difficult year I can remember photographing in the park, We had some of the most vibrant colors I can remember as well. Overall, fall 2020 worked out nothing like I would have imagined but I’m happy to report that even with the difficulties, I came away with many new images that will eventually be added to my portfolio.

Chasing Our Frenetic Fall

With both clear blue skies at play most mornings along with smoke from the Cameron and Mullen fires, photographing large landscapes in Rocky Mountain National Park has been a challenge this year. Friday morning yielded a decent sunrise over the Bierstadt Moraine which still has some pretty decent fall color this late in the season. While the wind was really blowing on Friday morning, the air quality was decent and we had some high clouds which yielded some nice fall color at sunrise. This is one of the few large landscapes I’ve been able to capture this autumn season due to both the smoke and blue skies. Intimate landscapes have certainly been more fruitful this season. Technical Details: Nikon Z7, Nikkor 24-70mm F4s Lens

I apologize for the lack of updates to the blog the past week or so as i’ve been busy spending as much time as possible out in the field. The fall season in Rocky Mountain National Park is without question my favorite time of year but its also the most hectic. Autumn is both short and frenetic and this means lots of time spent trying to not only chase the light, but also chase where the best color and photographic opportunities are located.

While one location on west side of Rocky Mountain National Park may be hitting peak one day, weather events or just time can cause it to be past peak the following day. That likely means another location in Rocky, likely on the complete opposite side of the park may be hitting peak the following day and one spends quite a bit of resources trying to stay on top of the frenetic pace while also enjoying and savoring the season.

As it stands now, we are in the backend homestretch of autumn fall color seasons in RMNP. We have had incredible stretch of warm dry weather in the park. This has been beneficial in the fact that the fall color season has certainly extended a little longer than it normally would in many areas. As of this writing there is still some decent fall color on the Bierstadt Moraine for example. Normally, I would expect this area to be well past peak come the second week of October but the lack of very cold weather and snow has allowed for trees not stripped by the winds to remain golden a little longer.

While the warm weather is helping to extend the autumn color which is now best in the lower elevations of the park such as Moraine Park, Beaver Meadows and Horseshoe Park, the dry weather has allowed the fire situation to continue to be dire. Currently, the Cameron Peak fire continues to burn just north of the park. While its 43% contained at this point, the lack of moisture allows it to continue to flare up while also putting a good deal of smoke into the air over Rocky when wind directions are favorable.

While the clear skies and smoke in the air have been a challenge this fall season in RMNP, working on more intimate scenes has been rewarding. I ventured over to the west side of Rocky last week and spent time photographing in the Kawuneeche Valley. These aspens near Holzwarth looked spectacular as the sun rose over the valley. Backlighting the translucent aspens leaves against a shaded blue backdrop can create some really nice lighting. Technical Details: Nikon Z7, Nikkor 70-200mm F2.8 S lens
Adding a double whammy to the fire situation around Rocky is the Mullen fire which is burning on the Wyoming and Colorado border area. Currently the Mullen fire is burning about 18 miles north of the Cameron Peak fire. The Mullen fire is not contained and this fire is much more active than Cameron and it has also been contributing to very smokey and hazy skies over Rocky.

Last but not least has been the dome of high pressure that has been parked over Rocky for what seems like weeks. This high pressure system with warm days, moderate winds and clear blue skies all day has not been conducive to dramatic sunrise and sunsets. We seem to be regularly going 7 to 10 days with completely clear skies at sunrise. Combine this with smoke from the two fires and capturing grand landscapes in Rocky Mountain National Park this fall season has certainly been a challenge. In fact, in my 22 years of photographing RMNP, I cant recall an autumn season that has been as challenging to photograph as this season has been due to both the smoke and clear skies.

Another example of backlit aspens in the Kawuneeche Valley near Holzwarth Ranch. Again, using the shaded blue lighting present in the Kawuneeche Valley before the sun hit the valley floor added a nice backdrop to these orange aspens on the west side of RMNP. Technical Details: Nikon Z7, Nikkor 70-200mm F2.8 S lens
Even though its been a very challenging fall season (why would we expect 2020 to make anything easy?), there is still plenty to photograph. The autumn color while about average when it comes to the large deciduous trees like aspens and cottonwoods has been average, but the underbrush and scrub has been spectacular this year. Intimate fall scenes are where its best this year as you avoid the clear skies and smoke concentrating on the smaller landscapes less dependent on dramatic lighting.

As it stands I would expect another week of decent fall color in parts of Rocky. The wind is forecast to pickup this week and it does not look like we will have any decent cloud cover until the backend of the week. Currently the best fall color is on the east side of Rocky. The Bierstadt Moraine and Boulder Brook area are decent but look for the lower elevations to provide the best color the next week. So keep an eye on the weather and your viewfinder on smaller, more intimate scenes and you should still be able to come away with some great shots. Lastly, don’t forget the trails area still snow free and the lakes and tarns still open so traditional summer type images may also yield great opportunities once the fall color is past peak.