The Colorado River is one of the American West’s great rivers. It’s undoubtedly the West’s most well known icon’s as it meanders through 7 states on it’s way to Mexico and the Gulf of California. The Colorado helped form the canyons of Canyonlands National Park in Utah. The Colorado is the force behind the formation of the Grand Canyon. The Colorado has also been a bone on contention for many as it’s water’s no longer flow freely from the numerous Dam’s the have been built to divert it’s water away to growing cities such as Los Angeles and Phoenix. One of my favorite book’s, ‘The Monkey Wrench Gang’ by Edward Abbey details at length the supposed fictional account of a group of what we would loosely call environmentalists attempt to blow up the Dam at Lake Powell and free the Colorado again.
Of course all of this is relevant because the headwaters of the Colorado River begin in Rocky Mountain National Park. Above La Poudre Pass, The Colorado begins as a small dribble on a mountainside. As the Colorado makes its way down into the Kawuneeche Valley of Rocky Mountain National Park, it grows in size as it meanders unpretentiously through the Valley. The portion of the Colorado River that travels through Rocky has a unique style and personality. It’s subtle, small and placid. It’s nothing like the river it will become downstream.
In many ways the Colorado River should be a highlight of Rocky Mountain National Park but is in fact an afterthought to most visitors. It does not travel through majestic canyons in Rocky, nor does it plunge over dramatic falls. The Elk and Moose whom inhabit the Kawuneeche Valley and graze along the banks of The Colorado garner much more attention from Park visitors than the famous river itself. I’ve been just as guilty as the next photographer when it comes to photographing this icon. There areas of Rocky Mountain National Park in which the scenery is far more dramatic. There are few areas of Rocky however, which hold as much historical and iconic value as the Colorado River does. It deserves more attention, and I for one plan on taking more time to photograph along it’s serene banks.
It’s getting to be that time of the year awful quickly. Wildflower season has passed and Colorado’s fall color season is quickly fading away. Were heading into the dreaded ‘photographers offseason’. The circled dates on the calendar are running out, no trips planned to far flung reaches of the state to hunt down the best wildflower patches or to find peaking golden aspen groves.
All photographers and artists will go through ebbs and flows of creativity. Many of us seem wired to be affected by the changing seasons. This is evident in our moods and reflected in our creative output. It’s beneficial for photographers to recharge their batteries, take inventory and unwind from field work a bit. It’s ok to spend a weekend working on a backlog of images while sipping on one of Colorado’s finest microbrews.
It’s also important at this time of the year not to get to complacent. Celebrate your wins, update your portfolio, print and frame some of your best shots from these last months of creative bliss. It’s also important at this point to keep your goals in view, and your skill set sharp. Make sure to continue to get out in the field to shoot and discover subjects. This will help keep your eye trained and your senses alert. Dedicate yourself to a new project and make sure you keep getting out into the field regardless of the weather or the subjects closet at hand. Even if you dial your creativity and photograph back a bit, stop the cobwebs from forming and the dust from settling. Before we all know it, wildflowers will be blooming once again.
Working within the elements goes hand and hand with being a landscape photographer. My best images are made during weather events or on the front or back end of weather events. Weather makes photographs more dynamic and unique. In a world filled with pretty landscape images photographed under cobalt blue skies, weather events can help separate your images from the rest of the pack by helping to create unique circumstances that cant be easily replicated and may occur infrequently.
I’ve had a very productive fall color season up here in Rocky Mountain National Park even though the weather by layman’s standard has been for the most part bland. I’ve been eagerly keeping an eye on the weather report each day looking for signs of change. While the San Juan’s and the southern Colorado mountains got pounded with snow starting on Wednesday, things looked very promising around Rocky Mountain National Park for this weekend. A Winter Weather advisory was in affect and Rocky was anticipating between 5-10 inches of snow starting on Saturday morning. I was in the Park on both Saturday and Sunday.
Saturday was exactly my kind of weather day. Light snow fell all day in Rocky Mountain. Even better was there was still a good amount of fall color amongst some of the Aspen trees. Saturday turned out to be a great day to photograph snow on Aspen trees and along the banks of streams and creeks that have yet to freeze over. I’ll post some of those images in the near future, but Sunday morning yielded another good sunrise image. I’ve photographed Longs Peak from upper Beaver Meadows many time. I’ve been lucky enough in the past to be able to shoot Longs Peak with fresh snow and Aspen trees in their full golden splendor.
Because of the dynamic weather conditions on Sunday, I was able to photograph Longs Peak and Autumn Aspens all covered in fresh snow as Saturday’s storm started was clearing out. Surprisingly, other than a large photography workshop group that showed up briefly to shoot this scene, there were very few other photographers present this morning to witness this awesome event. While the image is not unique and is a popular locations to photograph Longs Peak, I can say with certainty the conditions present on Sunday morning occur on occasions few and far between. Luckily, I was in the right place at the right time and have to say I’m glad I was able to capture this photograph because It’s unlikely the stars will align with the elements to allow for an image like this for some time.
So far this fall color season I have spent all my time in Rocky Mountain National Park. There are a couple of locations in Rocky that I have been attempting to photograph for some time. I’ve been lucky enough in the last week to capture some of these images. I’ve also been unable to check them all off my list and it looks like a few of these locations will require attempts again next season(cue the violins). Don’t mistake this for whining, I’ve had a great week in the Park, and I’ve been able to capture some new images that I basically stumbled upon. While I plan on making a few more attempts for some of these illusive images, time and weather may not cooperate with my attempted photographic endeavors in Rocky and I’ll just have to attempt these again next year.
The fall color in Rocky Mountain National Park is past peak in almost all areas except the lowest elevations. Because of the warm weather, lots of yellow leaves remain on the trees but wind and high based thunderstorms are quickly removing much of the foliage from the Aspen trees in the Park. In particular the Bear Lake area is quickly losing it foliage and the Bierdstadt Moraine is not far behind.
Regardless, there are still many opportunities for fall color in the Park. Harkening back to my September 25th, 2011, I employed fall foliage ‘tip 2’ to work to my advantage this morning. It’s certainly easy to wander through an Aspen grove and just stare upwards and the golden leaves and branches. But following my own advice, I headed over to Boulder Brook after shooting sunrise from the Bierdstadt Moraine.
While the Aspen trees around Boulder Brook are past peak, the trees are in the process of shedding their leaves which are currently landing all around the Brook and on top of the vibrant green moss that lines the banks of the stream. Boulder Brook is one of my favorite locations in Rocky Mountain National Park. Having grown up on the east coast amongst forests of deciduous trees with lots of moisture and flowing creeks, Boulder Brook seems out of place along the typically drier eastern slopes of Rocky Mountain National Park. Boulder Brook has a unique and refreshing feel to it. Hiking along the stream covered with Aspen leaves is in my mind, one of the best experiences one can have in the Park. Water, moss, rocks and falling leaves make for a great photographic subject, especially for those willing to look on the ground for interesting subjects and compositions.
I just wanted to give a quick update on the fall color up here in Rocky Mountain National Park while I’m back in my office. Let’s just say fall is in full swing in Rocky Mountain National Park. Most areas with the exception of the Aspens in the lower elevations of the park are at peak or just past peak. That being said there will certainly be sporadic color in many areas of the park for the next seven to ten days at least.
The Aspens in Moraine Park and Horseshoe Park proper are mostly still green with hints of yellow just appearing. The more popular areas of the park such as the Bear Lake area and the Bierdstadt Moraine are just past peak with some good color still but the leaves are starting to drop in those areas. Our warm and sunny weather the last few weeks is certainly helping to extend the fall color season. While the warm, mild weather has been nice, there has not been much in the way of dramatic weather, fresh snow on the peaks, or dramatic sunrises and sunsets as its been mostly blue sky days. Here are a few samples of fall color from the last few days up in the park. I’ll certainly be out in the field with my camera as there are still many opportunities to be had. We all just need to keep our fingers crossed and hope for some weather and clouds to make it to this part of Colorado.
Finally, fall has officially arrived. Photographers from all over the United States and the World are arriving in Colorado to photograph our beautiful fall foliage. While Colorado does not have the same range of colors the Northeast has, Colorado is famous for it’s large Aspen tree groves. Aspen’s make for great fall foliage subjects. The Aspen tree’s leaves with turn a golden yellow as the cooler temperatures set in and more importantly, the amount of daylight lessens. These displays of color along the mountainsides can make for impress landscape photographs. It’s important to remember that there is a lot more to photographing fall color in Colorado then just the Aspen groves. I’ve put together a short list of tips and recommendations for photographing the colors of Autumn in Colorado.
Tip 1(Use a Polarizer) – One of the easiest ways to make your photographs pop and capture the autumn color is to use a polarizing filter. A polarizer while help to cut down on the glare that comes from shiny and wet surfaces. Autumn leaves, especially when wet, will give off a glare. This glare will tone the color of the subject down and rob you of that ‘pop’ your looking for. Keep in mind that with a polarizing filter you will lose two stops of light. Because of this, when using a polarizer keep an eye on your shutter speed and ISO to prevent motion blur on the subject from a breeze or wind.
Tip 2(Look up, but more importantly look down) – Walking into a large Aspen grove its hard not to start at golden canopy of leaves above your head. Make sure you pay attention to what’s going on around the base of the Aspen trees and along the forest floor. In many areas of Colorado, the Aspen tree’s grow in and around Scrub Oak and Ferns. The Scrub Oak and Ferns will often be peaking at different times then the Aspen trees but using the Aspen boles as part of the subject of the image still conveys fall. Lastly, when the Aspen tree’s have peaked or have been subject to high winds, lots of leaves and color will cover the forest floor and rocks.
Tip 3( Colorado Fall Color is not just about the Aspens!) – While Autumn Aspen groves make for great subjects and are by far my favorite subject in the fall there are other trees and plants which make for great Autumn subjects. Scrub Oak will turn red and orange, Mountain Ash trees in the Canyons will display a vibrant orange color. Ferns located in the wetter areas will turn yellow or orange and don’t forget about the grasses. Many of the grasses of Colorado will turn golden as well.
Tip 4(Remain flexible and be prepared to break from your itinerary) Typically fall color in Colorado peaks from the northern reaches of the state and then moves it’s way through the southern portion of the state. Elevation also has a major role in when areas begin to turn and peak. Many photographers will travel here to capture iconic scenes such as the Maroon Bells from Maroon Lake or the San Juans from the Dallas Divide. It’s important however, to be prepared to give up on attempting to shoot iconic locations if the color or weather are not ideal and move on to locations that have more favorable shooting conditions. While it’s pretty hard to get a bad shot of the Maroon Bells from Maroon Lake, some years the area wont yield ideal conditions. We may have a dry late summer and early fall and the Maroon Bells wont have any snow cover. An area may be subjected to high winds and the leaves may be stripped from the trees. Regardless, it’s important to be prepared to move on and find where the color’s at.
Tip 5 (What is Peak color?, It’s subjective) – I kind of laugh at the term ‘peak’ fall color. I think to myself, what exactly is ‘peak’? Is it when 90% of the trees are yellow?, 50%?. The point is there really is no such thing as peak fall color. People will have varying ideals on what they consider peak. The important thing to remember when photographing fall color is that dramatic images can be capture at 20% peak color, and long past peak fall color. That’s what so great about fall color photography, there are opportunities not only at every iconic location, but also in every nook and cranny as well. It’s important to keep an open mind and look for unique opportunities and compositions.
Follow these tips and you should be able to improve your success rate when out photographing Colorado’s fall color. Lastly, one important thing all photographers need, is just a little bit of luck and serendipity. Sometimes you just end up in the right place at the right time. But like the slogan for the New York lottery states, ‘you got to be in it, to win it’. So regardless of what fall color reports say, get out in the field and make images because before you know it, the season will have passed.
If you were expecting a shot of aspen groves along the Bierdstadt Moraine awash in color, were going to have to wait a few weeks. While this is technically the last weekend on summer, autumn is quickly approaching in Rocky Mountain National Park. The tundra is starting to turn red and lots of the ground cover and foliage along some of the creeks is starting to turn yellow. Currently there is very little doing with the Aspen tree’s in Rocky. Sure there are a few rogue trees spread apart that are starting to get a hint of yellow, or the occasional branch of a tree that has peaked but I would say we have at least another 7 days or so until we see any significant color around the Bear Lake area. Other areas of Rocky such as the Bierdstadt Moraine are still 99% green and have a long ways to go before they peak.
My goal this morning was to not only to see what was doing as far as the color change goes, but also to try to photograph Two Rivers Lake. The weather looked promising this morning with clear sky to the east and clouds overhead. The hike towards Two Rivers Lake started out placid enough. There was a slight breeze at the Bear Lake trailhead but by no means gale force winds. It was at about the 1.5 mile mark that it started snowing lightly. By the time I made it to the Marigold Pond area it was spitting snow and rain and the winds were howling. I arrived at Two Rivers Lake about 45 minutes prior to sunrise. While many landscape photographers like to highlight their travails and difficulty accessing and producing their photographic work, I generally find it to be part of the job and fodder for good stories down the road.
This morning however, was different and required all my will to sit still and see how the sunrise would develop. It seemed pretty apparent to me that Notchtop Mountain would not be making much if any of an appearance this morning, and that the wind would continue to ratchet up until all areas of the lake had small whitecaps making a reflection impossible. Most of the clear sky to the east had been covered by clouds and a decent sunrise was looking more and more like a bust. After standing along the shores of Two Rivers Lake for what seemed like an eternity in the rain, snow and relentless wind, the sunrise lit the base of Notchtop Mountain for a minute or so. I managed to get off 6 frames of this scene before it disappeared. It was certainly challenging holding my neutral density filter still while the 4 second exposure elapsed. Even more difficult was keeping the driving snow and rain of the front element of my lens and filter. The other 5 shots were ruined by the rain droplets on the lens, but one of the six frames was not. I cant say it was the shot of Two Rivers Lake I envisioned, nor can I say I’m ready for the colder weather that’s starting to bear down on the park, but I can say I’m glad I reluctantly pulled my camera out of my bag at the last second to capture this view.
Becoming a successful nature photographer requires many things including technical skill, passion, vision, persistence and sometimes just good old fashion luck. While luck certainly comes into play with photography, you have to make sure you put yourself in a position to benefit when luck may strike. Sometimes when it comes to photographing a certain image or location, a photographer can feel like Captain Ahab hunting for his illusive white whale. I may visit locations hundreds of time in all different types of lighting conditions and never capture an image I am completely satisfied with or feel resonates my vision of the said location.
Dream Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park has always been one of those white whale locations for me. I have visited this iconic Colorado locale many times over the last 13 years. I have a handful of portfolio worthy images from Dream Lake, but I’ve always envisioned being at Dream Lake with epic lighting conditions. Colorado weather has been pretty vanilla this summer and the opportunities for dramatic sunrises have been few and far between of late. Last week we finally had a good day of rain and cool weather. I headed up to Rocky Mountain National Park hoping the clouds and low hanging fog would stick around for sunrise.
I was debating in my head where I would go for sunrise as I drove through the fog I was encountering driving through Estes Park. It was going to be one of the lakes reached from the Bear Lake trailhead for sure. I first decided on Emerald Lake. I had photographed Dream Lake many times before and frankly there are so many great images of this location I wanted to try and attempt something a little different. As I was hiking towards Emerald Lake, things were looking good. There was no wind, clouds swirled overhead and fog sifted in and out of the crags of Flattop and Hallet Peak and there was a small gap on the eastern horizon where the sunrise should peak through for a few minutes.
I was hiking passed Dream Lake and saw that the shoreline was void of any other people. The pre-dawn scene was to difficult to resist. I setup along the eastern shore of Dream Lake and watched this light show unfold before me. It was quick and only lasted a few minutes before the sun ducked back into the cloud cover. I was able to capture a dozen or so images before the light was gone. To my surprise, I only shared this once in a lifetime light show with one other photographer visiting Rocky Mountain National Park from Atlanta. There was a bit of luck involved here as Hallet Peak never received full sunlight. If I had gone to Emerald Lake as I had planned, I would have been above the light show and missed this seen. I could not help but feel I had gotten my white whale as I hiked back down to the parking lot this morning.
Anyone who has spent a significant amount of time in Rocky Mountain National Park can tell you stories about the wind. Rocky Mountain National Park can be one of the windiest locales on many days of the year. Winters tend to be windier then the summer but nevertheless I’ve arrived at many locations in the Park to find photographic conditions less than ideal.
One of the locations in Rocky Mountain National Park that I have visited many times to photograph, only to come away with nothing due to the wind is Emerald Lake. Emerald Lake sits .8 miles above the ever popular Dream Lake. It is not photographed as often as Dream Lake for a few reasons. First, it’s hard to walk by the iconic Dream Lake and pass up that view. I suspect many photographers who only make occasional visits to the Park cant resist the lure of Dream Lake’s classic view of Hallet Peak. Secondly, Emerald Lake sits right at the base of Hallet Peak and Flattop Mountain. Photographers need a very wide lens in the 14-20mm range on a full frame 35mm camera to be able to capture the entire scene. Lastly, even on a perfectly calm day down the trail at Dream Lake, the area around Emerald Lake will often generate enough of a breeze to foul the surface of the waters and prevent the classic peak and reflection type image.
Earlier this week I was able to get up to Emerald Lake on one of these such days when there is no wind. Due to the lack of clouds this morning I played around a bit with my compositions. While I was able to capture the classic peak and reflection image with a cloudless sky above Hallet, I used my 16-35mm lend to isolate the reflection of Hallet Peak in Emerald Lake along its rocky talus shores while minimizing the cloudless blue sky.
I’ve been spending a fair amount of time this summer in the Bear Lake area adding some additional locations to my Rocky Mountain Portfolio. While there has been little discussion about the issue, photographing the Bear Lake and Glacier Gorge areas is going to be getting significantly more difficult in the near future due to a second phase of road construction on the bottom portion of Bear Lake road. Back in 2004 the National Park Service completed a fairly large road construction project on the upper portion of Bear Lake road. The 2004 road construction project made access to the Bear Lake and Glacier Gorge trailheads difficult.
At the time, Park shuttles were the only way to access those trailheads at the time and unfortunately, they started running at 5:00 AM if I recall correctly. Sunrise in the middle of Summer occurs around 5:30 AM so even if your on the first shuttle, your not likely to even get to Bear Lake in time for first light and you can pretty much forget hiking into locations farther in the back country like Dream Lake or the Loch. The Phase II portion of road construction is slated to begin in mid October and last through the Summer of 2012. While it appears the 5.1 miles of Bear Lake Road that will be under construction will be closed during the night to traffic, it also appears that it will be closed during much of the day with the exception of some holidays. Either way its going to make photographing these areas more difficult for foreseeable future starting in the middle of October.
Photography much like other pursuits, can have good and bad days. Check that, with photography there are really good days, and days when its great to be out in the field, but maybe the actual photography did not work out as planned. Today was one of those days when everything came together just right.
As is typical, I started my day by squinting out my bedroom window at 3:00 AM trying to see what the atmospheric conditions in the sky would be. I was heading up to Rocky Mountain National Park regardless of the conditions, but checking the sky as soon as I wake up is now second nature to me. I’ll be the first to admit it may sound a bit odd, but looking out into the dark of night and seeing the orange glow of suburbia reflecting off the evenings clouds cover gets my blood pumping. I always have an extra spring in my step when I’m heading out the door to shoot, but when there are clouds and the chance for some epic lighting conditions may present itself, I get even more pumped up.
On the ride up to Rocky Mountain I keep checking the sky to make sure the clouds were still with me. Colorado’s dry air can play cruel tricks on the photographer banking on morning clouds after a night of thunderstorms and the associated cloud cover. The cloud cover can quickly dissipate right before sunrise leaving clear blue skies above. I arrived at the Bear Lake parking lot, turned off the lights on my truck and quickly jumped out to confirm those clouds were still floating above the mountain peaks. Sweetness!, lots of clouds floating over Longs Peak, Otis Peak, Hallet Peak and Flattop Mountain. Even better I could see the orange glow of dawn starting to light the horizon along the eastern plains. This mornings cloud cover was in all the right places, over the peaks but clear on the high plains.
I threw on my backpack and raced up the trailhead. There was a slight breeze this morning and although I contemplated shooting Dream Lake with what was looking like an epic sunrise, I told myself I’m not going to shoot a scene I along with countless others have photographed successfully many times before. Besides, I figured I would have to share the lake shore and the image with a half dozen other photographers who would be swarming one of Rocky most iconic locations. I figured my destination this morning would be Dragon Tail falls. With a slight breeze blowing, I figured the falls were a safe bet because the breeze would have to no impact on the image.
I raced past Nymph lake which is somewhat sheltered from the wind and remained smooth as glass as I passed by, next stop Dream lake. Surprisingly, there were no photographers amassed along the east shore of Dream lake but the breeze would prevent a mirrored reflection image. Ironically, this actual made me feel a bit better as I knew I would not pass up that once in a lifetime shot at Dream Lake on this morning. I passed Tyndall falls and headed off trail to Dragon Tail falls. With my heart pumping for the sprint up the trailhead I setup my camera and waited for sunrise. I arrived with plenty of time but the excitement of the pending sunrise had me moving at a good clip along the trail. 20 minutes after I arrived, I was able to shoot Dragon Tail falls in some beautiful light with clouds over Flattop Mountain. I quickly headed up Tyndall creek and waded into a small tarn and again was able to capture Flattop Mountain with clouds skirting over head. As quickly as the light show began, it faded behind the clouds. I took my time hiking back down the trail and spent some time photographing the lilly pads at Nymph Lake. While I was slowing down at Nymph Lake taking in the beautiful morning, that familiar feeling of euphoria swept over me. Much like a golfer who always returns to the course because of that one great shot during their round, I could wipe away the dozens of times I had attempted to capture similar conditions only to have things not pan out as I had planned. So it is with photography, and mornings like today keep me pursuing my craft with as much excitement as the first time I photographed a sunrise in Rocky Mountain National Park.