One of my personal favorite hikes in all of Rocky Mountain National Park is the Flattop Mountain Trail. While it can be a strenuous climb to the top of Flattop, the views are well worth it. The Flattop Mountain trail also connects to many of the parks other formal and informal trail systems at the summit. It’s a gateway to access much of Rocky Mountain National Park and in particular a gateway that allows hikers the easy access to the west side of Rocky Mountain National Park short of driving over Trail Ridge Road.
My good friend and fellow photographer extraordinaire Erik Stensland likes to call trails like the Flattop Mountain trail, the ‘Superhighways’ of Rocky Mountain National Park. It’s a great analogy and I think its a perfect description of for trails like the Flattop Mountain Trail.
With smoke from forest fires all over the western United States still affecting the air quality in and around RMNP, It’s been tricky getting out and photographing Rocky in what is one of the best times of year. Smoke and an overall lack of colorful sunrises to start the month of July has me getting itchy to get out and do something. When I dont have photography clients out in the field in Rocky, and if I am conditions for dramatic landscape photography are not cooperating, I do what anybody else does and just like to get out for a good hike and enjoy the trails and scenery.
Yesterday morning with that in mind, I did just that and headed up Flattop Mountain about an hour and half before sunrise. The smoke was not as bad as it had been but it was still present. There were actually clouds hanging over Rocky this morning but the predicted break in the cloud cover did not appear to be forming as thunderstorms from the previous night still hung over the eastern plains of Colorado as I got a clearer view heading up the trail.
Regardless, the hike in of itself was more than enough to keep a smile on my face as I headed up the switchbacks before sunrise. Three miles from the Bear Lake parking lot, I reached the Emerald Lake overlook with a few minutes to spare. Sunrise was more or less blasé with the clouds obscuring the sun enough to color the sky, but about 15 minutes after sunrise, enough light scattered through the clouds and smoke to photograph some nice warm light on the flank of Hallett Peak.
I made a few images of the light on the side of Hallett and a touch now on the Diamond of Longs Peak. Even with less than perfect conditions, surveying the views and familiar peaks from this location a thousand feet above Emerald Lake is always one of my favorite spots to take in a sunrise. Lets hope the next time I’m up here the smoke has cleared and sunrise is one to remember. Even so, its hard to beat summer mornings on Flattop.
With the fourth of July holiday now in the rear view mirror, summer in Rocky Mountain National Park is in full swing. The park doesn’t get much better than the period from early July through September as access, wildflowers, foliage and overall weather are just about as good as its going to get. Think verdant meadows filled with wildflowers, placid lakes reflecting mountain peaks and miles of trails in the high country now free of snow.
I’ve been busy guiding photography clients in the park the past few weeks as my summer photography tour season volume coincides with the great conditions and opportunities Rocky Mountain National Park provides this time of year. Guiding photography tour clients in the field means early starts and long days in the park. While I’ll occasionally get to squeeze in a few images while guiding clients, the focus is on them coming away with images of RMNP that make their visit and time worth it.
Conditions have been mixed to kick off the summer season so far. Wildflowers in the lower elevations are really looking spectacular. The grasses are as ever and wildflowers seem to be blooming in every corner and nook of the park right now.
Weather wise we’ve had a feast or famine setup. We’ve had some stretches of unsettled weather with some cloudy and rainy mornings but we also have had stretches of mornings where nary a cloud can be found anywhere near Rocky. This is more or less a common setup this time of year in Rocky, though sometimes it feels like we are experiencing more mornings of of clear sky setups than one usually expects.
Regardless, its an amazing time to visit Rocky Mountain National Park and any morning, cloudless or not is going to provide photographers with plenty of opportunities to find lots of interesting subjects to photograph if they keep and open mind and take time to cultivate new images. As always, stay tuned as I expect lots of great mornings ahead as the always abbreviated summer season in Rocky gives us a few short months to enjoy one of the best times of year in the mountains.