I’ve been busy the past week guiding other photographers to some of the most beautiful spots in Rocky Mountain National Park. Combine that with the 4th of July holiday here in the States and I’ve not been had quite as much time to get out alone in the field to photograph for my own portfolio of late.
What I can tell you is we are now entering primetime summer photography season in Rocky Mountain National Park. Mid July through early September is going to produce some of the best conditions for summer photography in Rocky.
I’m happy to report that we made it through a few weeks here in Rocky and Trail Ridge Road has remained opened and we have not had any new snow to speak of. I say that tongue and cheek of course but thats its felt like up until this past week. Fall River Road did not open by July 4th as is normally the case but will see a delayed opening of July 13th as the NPS is still dealing with all the snow in the valley.
The monsoonal weather pattern of late afternoon thunderstorms has not really kicked in yet this summer but we are now having warm weather during the days. The remaining snow on the trail is quickly melting and wildflowers are really start to show. Indian Paintbrush, Golden Banner and even Alpine Sunflowers are starting to bloom depending on location and altitude.
As is always the case with Rocky Mountain National Park and the summer seasons it seems to take a long time to get going and always seems to be much too short in duration. But as I tell my photography tour clients, you have to make the most of summer in Rocky while it’s here.
That means lots of early morning starts, sore legs from long hikes, and a backlog of images to process during the shorter days of winter. Now is the time to get out and take advantage of the ever improving conditions in RMNP and capture all that awesomeness that is summer in Rocky with your camera.
When I take photography tour/workshop clients out in the field they often ask me what my favorite locations or conditions to photograph in are in Rocky Mountain National Park. Choosing a favorite location is like trying to pick out which child of yours is the favorite. When asked this question as to which is my favorite location in RMNP my response is usually ‘any and all’.
As far as specific conditions go, I do have a favorite. That would be any and all types of fog or low cloud deck. Fog is a fairly rare occurrence in Rocky Mountain National Park, so anytime we have fog around I’m likely to be out attempting to photograph it.
While fog will occur on both the east and the west sides of RMNP, it’s a little more common to find it on the west side of Rocky in the Kawuneeche Valley. The Kawuneeche Valley is wetter and cooler than the east side of Rocky and combine that with the large bodies of water nearby (Grand Lake,Shadow Mountain Reservoir and Lake Grandby) and you have a better chance of finding fog in the Kawuneeche Valley then say Moraine Park or Horseshoe Park on the east side.
Yesterday morning I decided to head over to the west side of the park as the infra-red satellite picture indicated better cloud cover for sunrise on the west side of RMNP. The night before both Grand Lake and Estes Park had strong thunderstorms with a good amount of rain. Because of this I was hopeful the west side would have some fog mixed in with the cloud cover above for sunrise.
When I arrived at Fairview Curve and got my first look at the Kawuneeche Valley that morning I wasnt disappointed. I could see a good portion of the valley had fog. Not enough fog to obscure sunrise or block the mountains, but enough low lying fog to help enhance the mood and atmospherics for sunrise. On top of that the pines and bright green grasses in the valley had plenty of dew and moisture on them which really helps make the color pop.
I worked my way up valley from south to north working a bunch of different compositions before and after sunrise. Like any of these beautiful mornings in Rocky, the conditions are fleeting. Within an hour or so of sunrise all the fog had dissipated and the sun was shining brightly. While one wishes the fog would have stuck around for a little longer its always a treat to get a few hours of fog in RMNP to transform the landscape into a mysterious and ethereal location ripe for landscape photographers.
Finally!. After what seemed like a winter that would just not go away, it’s really starting to feel like summer is upon us here in Rocky Mountain National Park. We’ve now almost gone an entire week without any new snow and it looks like we are finally out the water for awhile.
I say that tongue and cheek of course but we did have nearly 3 inches of snow(above 9500 ft) last weekend which occurred after the official start of summer. While I was guiding clients and photographing the last storm, I have not yet posted any images from our summer snow in RMNP on the blog as of yet.
The June 22nd storm managed to close Trail Ridge Road for nearly 5 days I promise I’ll get around to posting an image or two but to be frank, with the wildflowers really starting to bloom and the temperatures warming up, I thought it might be best to wait a post or two before revisiting snow.
As stated earlier, summer is really starting to officially settle into Rocky. Most lakes below 10,500 ft are now free of ice. Snow on the trails can still be found above 10,000 ft but its melting pretty quickly at this point. Wildflowers are blooming in Moraine Park and Horseshoe Park and the grasses at the lower elevations are a beautiful green.
The wildlife seems to be enjoying the warmer weather as well. The elk which will move to the higher and cooler elevations of Rocky are still lingering in many of the lower elevations enjoying the verdant grasses.
While out photographing sunrise this morning along the Cub Creek drainage just west of Moraine Park, I had a large herd of elk overtake me as I was setup. In this large herd of elk which was grazing the green grasses were a handful of newborn elk calves. These little guys who have had a rough introduction to weather in Rocky Mountain National Park seemed to be enjoying themselves in the summer like conditions.
Before they moved up the drainage, they relaxed and grazed giving me just enough time to capture a few images of the herd while staying a safe distance from the calves and of course mama. While enjoying both the sunrise in Rocky Mountain National Park as well as photographing this elk herd, it was hard to decipher who was having more fun, me or the newborn elk.
Sundance Mountain in Rocky Mountain National Park does not have the cache and name recognition of many of the other iconic high peaks in Rocky. Ironically, most visitors to Rocky Mountain National Park drive right on past it on Trail Ridge Road.
It’s not that Sundance Mountain isn’t a beautiful peak. It’s granite face, pyramid like summit and beautiful cirque high rising high above Hanging Valley is impressive. The reason why most visitors to RMNP don’t get a chance to admire Sundance Mountain like many of the others is it’s location along Trail Ridge Road.
Just above Rainbow Curve, Trail Ridge Road really starts to test the faint of heart or those for whom fear of heights and exposure to heights is difficult. Winding past Rainbow Curve, Trail Ridge Road quickly continues it’s climb towards timberline. Here, high above Hanging Valley Trail Ridge clings to the side of the mountain with a thousand foot plus drop below with only a rock wall between the road and the drop.
This spot on Trail Ridge Road is exactly the spot where many visitors simply freak out. The exposure and height and is just too much for many and their reaction is to close their eyes or turn away from the drop off. At this location, I’ve encountered many other visitors to Rocky who will literally be driving in the middle of Trail Ridge Road to avoid the edge. Of course a collision with an oncoming vehicle is just as dangerous as sliding off the edge but to many, the fear of heights outweighs rational thought.
What does this have to do with the beauty of Sundance Mountain you might ask?. Well its at this very spot along Trail Ridge Road where one gets the best view of Sundance Mountain rising high above the very valley and drop off that frightens drivers along Trail Ridge Road. Many drivers at this spot are too busy concentrating on the road to take in the view of Sundance Mountain and it’s beauty. So for many, admiring Sundance is secondary to keeping the car on the road.
While driving past Sundance can be difficult, photographing it can be a challenge as well. For one, there’s not many good locations on Trail Ridge Road to stop and get out to take and image. The road is narrow here with no shoulder and only a small pull off. Secondly, there is no lake, stream or tarn here to frame Sundance in. Essentially, one needs some dramatic lighting and conditions on aptly named Sundance Mountain to make her shine.
With our wild spring weather continuing in Rocky Mountain National Park, Sundance Mountain was bathed in just the right kind of light as a late June snow squall cleared timberline. With fresh snow on her summit on June 19th, and some beautiful dappled sunlight coming through the clouds. Sundance Mountain showed why you should take a minute to admire and photograph her beauty, even if it means getting over one’s fear of heights for a few short moments.
With all the snow Rocky Mountain National Park received this winter, the park service was finally able to open Trail Ridge Road for the season on June 5th. Thats quite a bit later than the week of Memorial Day which is typically the unofficial opening date the NPS attempts to have the Trail Ridge Road open.
So our large storms stymied a late my opening on Trail Ridge Road but nonetheless the road is open from Estes Park to Grand Lake and that means getting back over to the west side of Rocky just got much easier for many of us.
Between photography tours and a quick trip to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon via Moab, I had not yet had a chance to make a run over to the west side. I was able to remedy that earlier this week and made a trip over at sunrise to check on things.
As it is every year, getting back over to the west side of Rocky early in the season is always a treat. It’s like revisiting with an old friend. Most years I make a few trips over to the west side of Rocky during the winter months, but this year I was unable. This meant the last time I had actually been over to the west side of Rocky was in late September, just before snows closed Trail Ridge Road for the season.
Arriving on the west side of the park, I found the Kawuneeche Valley greening up nicely. Moose and elk were abundant in the meadows and wet lowland areas. Most interesting was the Colorado River snaking through the Kawuneeche Valley. With all the snowmelt and precipitation, the Colorado River is running at capacity. Many of the adjacent meadows are now flooded with the excess snowmelt being carried down from the high peaks.
These flooded meadows create perfect reflecting pools in witch to capture reflections of Baker Mountain in locations it’s not normally possible. This is true of not only the area along the Colorado River on the west side of Rocky Mountain National Park but also along the East Inlet area just outside of Grand Lake.
Conditions were perfect last week when I photographed this scene along the Colorado River. It won’t be long before these pools of excess water start to recede and dry up. Obviously, now is the time to take advantage of both access to the west side of RMNP, but also the benefits of all our excess moisture is providing.
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.