Farewell 2020, hello 2021. Most are more than happy to bid 2020 adieu and welcome in the new year. Many forsee the return of normalcy or at least more normalcy than we have all experienced in this previous year which will be one for the record books.
I dont think anybody has the slightest idea on what 2021 holds in store for us, but I think most of us are just hopeful that turning the page on 2020 will be in and of itself a positive momentum changing occurrence that many are looking for.
Truth be while 2020 was a challenging year for me, photographically speaking it was actual a very positive year. Business was more difficult with COVID, lockdowns and Rocky Mountain National Park being closed both due to the pandemic as well as the two large wildfires that affected swaths of the park. Even with the pandemic and wildfires making operations more challenging, I was able to narrow down my focus and work on accomplishing goals and projects I had been putting off.
While my Rocky Mountain National Park photography tours and guiding services were down for the year, I was able to use any spare time I had to photograph and backpack into areas of Rocky Mountain National Park that I had not been able to access previously.
Having this time to concentrate on my personal portfolio along with being able to create work that I wanted to was sorely needed. I started running my photography guiding service in RMNP back in 2015. While I very much enjoy getting clients out into the field and sharing with them the beauty of Rocky Mountain National Park, I had not been able to get out in the park and photograph where and when I wanted to the extent I was able to do so in 2020.
This has allowed me to reflect on how I will conduct business and photography tour services going into 2021. It will also allow me to continue to offer photography guiding services to my clients with a renewed passion and energy for both photography, Rocky Mountain National Park and my clients going forward.
So with 2021 underway, I look forward to continuing to photograph Rocky Mountain National Park while also meeting new clients, seeing some old friends and continuing to act as an advocate for protecting and sharing the beauty found in Rocky Mountain National Park.
Rolling into the Bear Lake parking lot long before sunrise always brings excitement. So many of Rocky Mountain National Park’s most scenic and beautiful locations emanate from the Bear Lake Trailhead. Bear Lake itself is a classic iconic Colorado location in itself and its only a few hundred yard walk from the parking.
As somebody who photographs RMNP a lot, its really easy to take the accessibility and beauty found in the Bear Lake area of Rocky for granted so after the entire area was closed for the past few weeks due to fire activity from the East Troublesome Fire, it was great to be able to get back up to Bear Lake for a sunrise.
Even better than getting back up to Bear Lake for sunrise was fining a small portion of Bear Lake with open water and clean ice. Normally by the end of November Bear Lake would be covered with snow and lots of footprints.
Warm weather had kept a small portion of the east side of Bear Lake open and free of snow making for a nice welcome back and a short trip from the parking lot. As I write this snow is falling on Bear Lake so it will now remain covered until late spring when the thaw starts.
While access is still limited on many of the trails around Bear Lake, including the Fern Lake section, its good to see snow falling on the dry landscape and access to Rocky Mountain National Park opening back up once again.
It’s been quiet here on the blog for the past few weeks. After a busy summer and autumn season here in Rocky Mountain National Park, both the Cameron Peak Fire and the East Troublesome Fire’s played spoiler to the end of the fall season.
The two fires which exploded at the end of October and burned nearly 30,000 acres of RMNP as well as large areas outside of Rocky. Snow finally appears to have brought both fires under control and each day that we move closer towards the winter season and snow cover on the ground is positive. In fact other than a few hot spots, there has been no growth of the two fires in the past week.
While the damage is still being assessed, we do know the fires caused significant damage both inside Rocky Mountain National Park as well as outside. Since this blog relates to photographing Rocky Mountain National Park, I’ll stick with what I know as of this writing.
On the west side of the park, the NPS office at the entry station burned down. Somehow, the two kiosks did not sustain any damage. The seasonal employees cabins across from the Green Mountain Trailhead also burned down as well. Portions of Trail River Ranch in Rocky Mountain National Park also sustained damage but Little Buckaroo Barn is ok as is the Holzwarth property.
On the east side of the park, the East Troublesome Fire made a run over the continental divide through Spruce Canyon and down into Upper Beaver Meadows and Moraine Park. To date, the only structure that I know that was damaged by the fire on the east side of Rocky is the Fern Lake patrol cabin which was destroyed.
Small portions of Rocky Mountain National Park are now open again outside the zones where the firefighters are still monitoring the fire, building containment and putting out any hot spots. Currently, the entire west side of RMNP remains closed with no known date of when it will reopen.
The east side of the park is open through the Fall River Entrance through Horseshoe Park and then up Trail Ridge Road to the Many Parks overlook. US 36, Bear Lake and The Beaver Meadows Entry station are currently closed. Old Fall River is open for hiking and bikes until December 1st at which point it will return to a trail until spring. Wild Basin is open to the winter gate and access along Highway 7 including Lily Lake and the Twin Sisters and the Longs Peak trailhead is currently open.
I was able to make a quick run up to the park earlier in the week just to kick off the rust and get out and explore for a morning. While much of the park is not currently accessible, its good to have portions of it back. We’re basically now in the winter season in Rocky, so Trail Ridge will remain closed.
With that being the case, the best locations for photography are going to revolve around smaller areas with access to much of the backcountry of Rocky currently being limited. I’ll keep things updated here as locations open up or I get any new information pertinent to the fires and damage inside of RMNP.
We’ve all done it. It could be something as simple as taking the garbage out, changing the oil in a vehicle or paying a bill. Procrastinating or putting things off for another day is just part of the human condition. Most of these items we put off will are not life or death and other than ending up in the dog house with your significant other, most of these are trivial.
This same dynamic can affect photographers as well. As is the case with our day to day responsibilities, it’s easy to pack up the camera after a good morning or evening and head back to the house, hotel, bar, coffee shop and call it a day. In fact, I would argue that much of the time this is an important process in allowing artists to refresh, relax and reflect on the process and allow for the creative process to rejuvenate itself for another sunrise or sunset.
Even though I’m a believer in moderation in all things, there are times when one needs to push a little harder, work one more composition or explore one more mile of trail. Why?, none of us is promised tomorrow so it’s important to take advantage of the moment.
This has become abundantly apparent the past few weeks up here in Rocky Mountain National Park. Fall is by it very nature fleeting. Now combine the ever retreating autumn season in Rocky Mountain National Park with two of Colorado’s largest wildfires burning through portions of RMNP.
The threat from both the Cameron Peak Fire as well as the East Troublesome Fire seemed to be abating as fire season was winding down. In short order, both these fires unexpectedly grew and exploded right as the autumn season was wrapping up. Both the towns of Estes Park and Grand Lake have been severely affected by the growth and destruction of these two fires. Overnight, peoples lives have been turned upside down. Over 25,000 acres of Rocky Mountain National Park has now burned and the park will remain closed until further notice. Photography is the last thing on many of our minds right now, and that changed in an instant.
Whats a beautiful image one day is often gone the next. But its not just fall that is fleeting, our existence on this planet is fleeting from the day we are born into this world. Autumn and the fires emphasize why one should live in the moment and not take for granted whatever time one gets to spend doing what they love. Change is a constant companion, dont put off for tomorrow what you can do today.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Its been a rollercoaster week in Rocky Mountain National Park. With late summer continuing its trend of hot and dry weather, exacerbated by the Cameron Peak fire which entered Rocky Mountain National Park last week and burned up along the Hagues Creek and Cascade drainage, one could only expect the year of 2020 to continue with oddities and disruptions.
With the park service closing Trail Ridge Road, Old Fall River Road and access to pretty much all of the north eastern and western portions of Rocky Mountain National Park due to the Cameron Peak fire, the weather took a dramatic turn after the Labor Day holiday weekend.
A strong early season cold front dropped in the night of September 7th, plummeting temperatures and kicking off 3 days of unseasonably cold and wet weather which was badly needed over Colorado.
Most of us probably don’t envision waking up the day after Labor Day, the unofficial end to the Summer Season to find temperatures in the 20’s and snow falling hard but thats in fact what we were greeted with.
Snow fell on Rocky Mountain National Park along with the Cameron Peak Fire from the night of Monday the 7th all the way the through the early hours of Friday morning. In total nearly a foot of snow fell over portions of RMNP and the needed moisture helped to at least temporarily stop the explosive growth of the fire.
The dramatic shift from summer to winter also allowed for the skies to clear of all the smoke and ash that had been falling over the past few weeks and flip the script from summer type photography conditions to winter landscapes.
I took the opportunity to get out the back end of last week and enjoy the snow covered landscapes in Rocky and get into some areas that are usually very difficult in the winter months due to heavy snows and cold conditions. These early season storms in Rocky typically offer photographers a chance to capture the landscape of Rocky covered in fresh snow without the brutally cold temperatures one would find in the middle of winter while also needing only minimal equipment such as micro spikes to access the backcountry and trails.
While I had 3 great mornings out in the park, the morning of September 9th offered the most dramatic conditions and I took advantage of them by hiking up to the top of Flattop Mountain for sunrise. While the sunrise was obscured by clouds, breaks in the cover did happen latter in the morning make for some dramatic lighting over a snow covered Longs Peak.
The reprieve to cooler weather was only temporary as this week looks once again to be warm and dry. Hopefully the moisture from last week can keep a handle on the Cameron Peak fires spread into Rocky and we can get some more moisture over the park by the end of the week. Either way it was a welcome change even if I’m not quite ready for the snow and winter just yet.
2020 continues to be the year that fails to be dull. The year that never fails to surprise and amaze, and not always in good ways continues on with more surprises. The current surprise being a post labor day snowstorm that is now hitting Rocky Mountain National Park after a week of near record temperatures and the exponential growth of the Cameron Peak Fire which has now entered the northeastern section of Rocky Mountain National Park.
With ash raining down on the park all weekend, and smoke so thick that the NPS had to close Trail Ridge Road due to poor visibility, the Cameron Peak fire exploded and nearly tripled in size from a few days ago to just under 100,000 acres. Even more upsetting is that the fire managed to cross over Highway 14 and make a run up the Hague Creek drainage in Rocky Mountain National Park.
Reports on how much damage the fire has actually caused in RMNP are still vague as most of the news reporting has been focused on the areas outside the park where there is housing and buildings to direct resources to.
The fire incident mapping which is updated once a day now shows that the drainages up Hagues Creek and just below Cascade Creek and Mirror Lake have now burned. This hits close to home for me not only because the fire is now inside Rocky Mountain National Park, but also because I just recently spent a few days backpacking in the Mirror Lake getting to explore the beauty in this remote section of the park. As is always the case, when one visits and area it just leads one to plan on exploring larger and different areas on future visits. This was certainly the case with the Hagues Creek drainage which is a beautiful and remote section of the park just asking to be photographed.
The good news with regards to the Cameron Peak Fire is that the current snowstorm that is blanketing the park, should help with much needed moisture. Fire officials do not believe this will be a season ending event and think the fire will continue to burn even after the predicted 8-14 inches falls on Rocky in the next few days, but it will certainly help with what has turned into an unbelievably dry summer.
I’ll certainly welcome some cooler weather and hopefully smokeless skies moving forward. Hopefully the NPS will be able to reopen Trail Ridge Road, Old Fall River Road and some other northern sections of the park after all the moisture falls. While it would be easy enough to complain about the early season snowfall and the impact it is likely to have on fall color and late summer season photography, it really could not come at a better time considering the spread of the Cameron Peak Fire.
Summer continues to fly by here in Rocky Mountain National Park. August has now come and gone and one of the best months for photographers has now arrived. With the calendar page flipping over from August to September, the first day of September left little to the imagination on what lies in store for us as we begin to say goodbye to summer.
After having an above average temperatures for the months of July and August, and the Cameron Peak fire burning just outside the northeastern boundary to the park since August 13th, the morning of September 1st brought some much needed relief.
The first of two strong cold fronts moved in through the park on the night of August 31st into September 1st. Rain fell over most of Rocky Mountain National Park but just above 11,500 ft, that rain turned to snow. For the first time this season, the high peaks of RMNP had a nice dusting of snow on them.
The combination of snow along with the alpine tundra that is found at nearly the same elevation made for a nice combination of color and contrast. Snow dusting the peaks and reds and yellow alpine tundra displaying its fall glory helped to change the scenery for a change. No smokey or cloudless skies this morning, just some light snow on the peaks and the tundra looking colorful as it was amplified by the moisture on the grasses.
While its hard to know if this is the start of a weather pattern change here in Rocky Mountain National Park or a one off, it was an unmistakable change in the weather that could be felt as we moved into what is regarded by many, as the best month of the year in the 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.