It’s always good to be back home after a long trip. While I love traveling, sometimes you need to do so not for fun but for personal or family matters. Two weeks ago I lost one of my closet aunts and had to speed back to New York to be with family and attend services.
With the current price of rental cars and airline fares, I had been planning on a family road trip back east this summer. My Aunts passing just expedited the trip and a few hours we had packed up the car on short notice and were driving across eastern Colorado on a Wednesday, needing to be on the east end of Long Island by Friday afternoon.
Even though the trip back was not exactly as planned, I was able to spend sometime in the Finger Lakes at my wife’s parents home enjoying the gorges and waterfalls for a few days before we headed back out onto the road, back home to Colorado.
We arrived back on Wednesday, and even though I was tired, and had enough windshield time to last me a month, I couldn’t let the potential for a good sunrise in Rocky pass after missing some good ones the past two weeks.
I’m a creature of habit and I love my routine. Being on the road and away from home gets me out of my routine. Some would argue thats a great thing and while they are probably right, once I get back home, I try to get back on my routine as quickly as possible. Besides my work out regimen, diet and other parts of my daily routine, one of the most important ones is getting up early and getting out into Rocky Mountain National Park to photograph as often as possible.
So with the alarm going off at midnight on Wednesday morning, it was back to my routine of working out, walking the dog and then heading up to RMNP long before the sun would rise. With the wind blowing pretty good on the east side of Rocky, I was going to have to drive a little farther over to the west side of the park and the Kawuneeche Valley to see if I could take advantage of what looked to be a great sunrise shaping up.
With the overwhelming smell of the pines on the west side and the Kawuneeche Valley as green as I’ve seen it in a longtime, I setup just above the Colorado River and waited for sunrise. Even knowing if sunrise was a bust, being back in Rocky while a large bull moose grazed along the river and the sky exploded with color over Baker Mountain and the headwaters of the Colorado River made the effort all the more worth the while. All I could think is ‘its good to be home!’.
Every landscape photographer gets a special tingle when they start talking about using their widest angle lens. Shooting at 11mm or 14mm with a field of flowers in the foreground and a stream winding through the scene with beautiful mountains, clouds and light filling up the background is enough to make any us want to print up a 40×60 inch print to hang on the wall.
While very wide lenses are awesome, here is a little secret. Many of my best landscape images are taking with my mid range zoom of 24-70mm and if not with that lens, something longer like my 70-200 or now recently added 100-400mm lens.
Being able to compress the landscape and focus in on the nooks, crannies and other nuances of light have saved my bacon more than once on an outing into the field. This morning up in Rocky was no exception and I was more than thrilled to rack out my 100-400mm lens to capture some interesting light that would have otherwise been to far away.
To make a long story (and blog post) short, my morning up in Rocky Mountain National Park started with an inversion or low lying cloud layer of the park. As is usually the case, when an inversion is present, I try to get above it. This morning is was up Trail Ridge Road and then a few miles out on the alpine tundra and Ute Trail to get an interesting vista.
The only problem was, these inversions layers can be quite fickle. The rise and fall like a wave but also ebb and flow just like a tide. This morning, the beautiful layer of clouds that filled Moraine Park, Horseshoe Park and Forest Canyon below me had moved on out to the east by the time I arrived at my vantage point.
Sunrise was beautiful but there were almost no clouds left and for the most part, much of the landscape while spectacular and beautiful, was not all that interesting from a photography perspective.
There was one exception however. The Needles across the valley in the Lumpy Ridge section of Rocky had some awesome light beams coming down as the sun rose over RMNP. Even better, some fog and clouds hung over the lower peaks.
Off went my 24-120mm lens and on went the 100-400mm lens. At 400mm, I was able to compress the landscape to accentuate the light beams, capture the fog and clouds around the Needles and come away with dramatic light. If I only had my 70-200mm on me I would not have been able to compress the scene enough to keep it interesting. Even so, one more time my long lens landscapes with my 100-400mm saved my bacon!.
Believe or not, I actually made my first run up Trail Ridge Road for the season this morning. It’s not that I haven’t wanted to get out on Trail Ridge but both weather and timing have made it impossible to find a morning to head up since Trail Ridge Road opened for the season just before Memorial Day on May 27th.
For those unaware. Trail Ridge Road is the highest continuous paved road in the United States. It tops out just over 12,000 ft in elevation above the Lava Cliffs overlook and connects the towns of Estes Park on the east side of Rocky Mountain National Park, with Grand Lake on the west side of the continental divide and Rocky Mountain National Park.
Each year, millions of visitors come to Rocky Mountain National Park to drive over the hairpin turns and switchbacks of Trail Ridge Road to take in the views and enjoy the alpine scenery and tundra. It’s a great way for visitors to RMNP to be exposed to multiple mountain ecological zones including the alpine tundra above timberline.
Trail Ridge Road also offers photographers lots of opportunities for iconic vistas of snow covered landscapes as well as wildlife such as Marmots, Pika, Ptarmigans, Big Horn Sheep, Elk and just about every other creature in Rocky that at some time or another will migrate up or down from the higher elevations.
To date, I had not made my ‘seasonal’ first migration over Trail Ridge Road but when I awoke this morning to rain falling, it seemed like a perfect time to head on up and see what opportunities for photography might exist.
Like I always say when I head up to RMNP, I never really have any idea what I’ll come away with photography wise. I try to keep an open mind and look for opportunities, while using my 20 plus years of photographing in the park to put myself in locations that are likely to have the most interesting conditions or lighting.
That was the case this morning as I cruised past Forest Canyon Overlook and started to notice snow on the hillsides. Soon that snow became snow and ice on the road itself and by the time I had driven to the Rock Cut, there was a decent layer of snow and ice over the road.
Taking it very slowly so as not to end up at the bottom of Forest Canyon I made my way to the Gore Range overlook where the Never Summers had some fresh snow but so did the alpine tundra in the foreground. While I had originally planned to make it down the Kawuneeche Valley, the snow and ice slowed me down enough that the Gore Range overlook was as far as I was going to make it anyway before sunrise.
By the time the sun actually hit the mountains, most of the clouds had dissipated as they so often do in Rocky, but the great thing about this spot is earth shadow this time of year over the Never Summer creates a nice band of color above the peaks as can be seen in the image above.
So I’ve got my first trip over Trail Ridge behind me for the seasons and it was a fun one. Getting some fresh snow on June 7th makes it even more fun and I cant wait to get over to the west side of the park as soon as time allows, which is hopefully sooner than later. Regardless, with Trail Ridge Road now open for the season its really starting to feel like Summer in RMNP, even if there is snow!.
Some quick RMNP park updates for everybody. Trail Ridge Road has reopened after being closed on May 27th due to inclement weather and snow. There was a rockslide just above Rainbow Curve so there are lane closures which means traffic might be backed up at times while they remove rocks from Trail Ridge.
Hopefully, this is the last time this summer season that Trail Ridge Road is closed until we start getting snow again in September. I have not yet had a chance to even drive over Trail Ridge Road this year as it was only ope a few short days before the snow closed it again.
With Trail Ridge Road still closed on Friday, and lots of snow still on the trails above 10,000 ft, I was pleased to arrive long before sunrise to find low hanging fog hovering over the Big Thompson. Fog is just about my favorite weather to shoot in, so if there is fog in Rocky Mountain National Park, more than likely thats where you will find me.
Chasing fog in Rocky Mountain National Park can be a fickle pursuit. The fog will either dissipate just before sunrise, or engulf you so that it blocks both the sun and much of the landscape. But when you get yourself placed in the right spot, its hard to beat fog for adding drama to your landscape photography images and changing familiar landscapes into otherworldly and mystical places.
Fog also ebbs and flows like the tide going in and out of the ocean. One minute your fully engulfed and seconds later the fog moves out and the landscape is revealed. That was the pattern on Friday morning in Moraine. First, almost the entire moraine was covered in fog, then as the sun began to rise it receded.
Luckily for me after it receded, it increased again just as the sun began to crest the ridge north of Eaglecliff mountain. There’s a lot of season ponds and water in Moraine Park right now from both the runoff as well as the snow and rain from our two recent storms so maneuvering around can be a soggy adventure.
With the elk all over the meadow, I spent sunrise taking in the views, sounds and smells of spring. Hard to get much better than the conditions on Friday morning, but as the melt continues I’ll be spending less time in Moraine Park and more time in the higher elevations of the park.
As is always the case, regardless of the season, I’m going to be out photographing the areas of RMNP that are most conducive to dramatic lighting and conditions. On Friday, the fog in Moraine Park made it the place to be, so thats where I was and maybe again if the weather down the road decides to make it so.
After going months of what seemed like pedestrian weather in Rocky, May and the start of June appear to really have stepped up their game. The weather fronts have been moving through and we have had some much needed moisture in the mountains of Colorado along with great (see bad) weather for us photographers.
While May is always an active month in Rocky Mountain National Park, and a month that often mimics winter more than it does the backend of spring, bigger snows are usually wrapping up by the time the calendar is getting to memorial day. Sure the higher elevation peaks of Rocky can get a good dusting anytime of year, but the mid elevations of the park are usually greening up with wildflowers starting to bloom in places like Moraine Park and Upper Beaver Meadows.
So when the calendar turned to June, I’m ready to put on my shorts, put away my insulated hiking boots for my lightweight shoes and start heading out on mostly snow free trails. We had two weather impulse pass over Rocky at the end of May with the second and more powerful storm hitting the park on the last day of May and extending into the morning of June 1st.
The first weather impulse left a nice dusting of snow on the mountains above 8500 ft. The second and more powerful storm that just moved, dumped a lot of heavy wet snow at 8500 ft and above and left the hillsides in Estes Park covered with a light dusting.
Snow and winter imagery are certainly not the way one thinks of starting off the month of June after dusting off the grill, eating burgers and hot dogs and having a few beers while enjoying Memorial Day outings. But as is always the case in Rocky, expect the unexpected.
So as I headed up into the park on the first morning of June, I was wondering what my best prospects would be and what I would really end up photographing. If you have followed my blog and photography, you know I love getting out in the bad weather. Inversions are one of my favorite types of conditions to photograph in, and one of the easiest way to experience and photograph is to drive Trail Ridge Road as high in elevation as one needs to get above the cloud deck.
While Trail Ridge Road was opened on the Friday before Memorial Day this year, the two weather systems closed Trail Ridge down to its winter closing points of Many Parks Curve and the Colorado River Trailhead so my normal plan was not going to work.
When Trail Ridge is closed, your next best option is to hike above the inversion layer. This requires a little more ‘work’ than simply driving above the clouds and in the case of snow, moving on the trail also requires a little more work than say summer hiking conditions.
I headed up to the Bear Lake parking lot just after 4:00 AM to start my hike up Flattop Mountain to see if I could slice through the fog and snow that was still falling. From both experience and visual observations, the cloud deck looked to be right around 10,000 ft or so. Flattop Mountain would give me the pathway to get above the clouds if I could muck through the 5+ inches of heavy wet spring snow that had fallen around Bear Lake.
So off into the dark I headed, trudging up Flattop Mountain in the fog and snow. While the Emerald Lake overlook on the Flattop Mountain trail offers a better vantage point than the Dream Lake overlook below it, my goal this morning was to get to the Dream Lake overlook and see if that would cut the mustard and get me over the clouds.
Working up a good lather through the fresh powder, I was just below the Dream Lake overlook when I spied Longs Peak for a brief moment through the clouds. As I turned the corner I could see Hallett Peak and Thatchtop Mountain through the clouds. In a few minutes I was at the Dream Lake overlook setting up my tripod.
With official sunrise at 5:38 AM, I had about 15 minutes or so before any light might start to appear on the peaks. In summer I might have hustled the additional mile or so up to Emerald Lake, but in the 5 inches of snow which covered a still very snowy Flattop Mountain trail, I thought it best to just stay put and see what developed.
Sunrise came and went, and the inversion layer swept over the overlook like a wave. I was covered in clouds and fog and could not longer see the mountains. While I was growing impatient and kicking myself for not giving myself enough time to get up to the Emerald Lake overlook, the inversion moved out and revealed the mountains again, this time bathing in sun through the fog and mist.
I had a good 15 minutes or so before the clouds again moved back in and the lighting was starting to turn harsh. Regardless, my start to June in Rocky Mountain National Park sure looked more like January, but as always I’ll take that kind of weather of bluebird skies any day. While it looks like more summer like weather is on the way the rest of the week, lets hope the pattern of active weather over the park continues as we move into June.