Well its happening. Summer is quickly transitioning into autumn in Rocky Mountain National Park. While the fall is my favorite season in RMNP, with over 23 years of photographing the fall color in Rocky behind me, I’m always sort of shocked out how quickly we transition from summer to fall in the park.
Autumn in Rocky Mountain National Park is sly. It slides in slowly, covertly than all at once. Subtle color changes in the grasses and underbrush portend to the looming changes in weather and seasons and then just like that, were full on with the fall season here in Colorado.
It’s been and incredibly challenging year for photography in Rocky. We’ve had smoke and poor air quality nearly from the get go of summer. Smoke settled in over the park in early June and with a few short durations, it’s remained entrenched over RMNP. Top that off with a very placid weather pattern and weak monsoonal impulse most of the summer and we have had lots of warm, clear mornings and evenings in Rocky. Great for hiking and camping, not so great for us photographers yearning for dramatic light and weather.
With that said, fall always brings a newfound enthusiasm for photographers in RMNP. The season is short and we want to take advantage of as much of its gifts and bounty as possible before the abrupt and crashing decent into winter.
I’ll try my best to keep the blog updated as we move into fall. I can tell you the elk rut is starting in earnest and they herds have begun moving towards the lower elevations. The bull’s are active and bugling and there are already lots of opportunities to photograph the rut if you happen to be in the right location.
A few aspen trees here and there are starting to turn golden and I would expect by next week some of our traditional early turning areas (west side of the park) will be looking decent. As always, keep and eye out for the smaller details as much of the autumn color in RMNP will be in the subtle nooks and crannies of the park before unveiling their full autumn splendor.
Regardless, even after a difficult summer of photography in the park, the oncoming fall season in Rocky Mountain National Park has renewed my vigor and has me excited for the great potential and beauty each fall season holds in Rocky.
Spending a few days in the backcountry of Rocky Mountain National Park really helps to bring some clarity and purpose back to the forefront. In what has been one of the more challenging summers to photograph the park due to both the persistent smoke for western wildfires and mostly placid weather conditions, just getting out for a few days to enjoy the quiet of the backcountry gives you time to reflect and appreciate the summer months even when it has not been as fruitful to ones photography goals.
While summer 2021 feels a lot more normal than summer 2020 did, norms are still off and everything is different. This year Rocky Mountain National Park went to an online only reservation system for backcountry permits. The computer system RMNP had in place was overwhelmed by the volume and after multiple attempts to correct the problems, the park ended up using a lottery system based on email submittal to determine who got what backcountry sites on which days.
I missed out on getting many of the spots I had been coveting all winter due to the growing pains with the newer system, but I did manage to score a few nights at the Solitaire backcountry site up the East Inlet on the west side of Rocky. Keep in mind that much of Rocky’s backcountry is still closed off and damaged from the East Troublesome and Cameron Peak fires from last year so one did not have the selection from years past.
Air quality and smoke have been the biggest hinderance to photographers this year in RMNP, and this would be the case for this two night trip up to the Solitaire site. Clear skies most of the time also looked like they would be and issue as well.
One always has grand plans for where they will end up shooting, but based on the smoke and clear skies, I ended up photographing Spirit Lake one of the two nights I spent up the East Inlet. Spirit Lake is a spectacular lake above Lake Verna and photographing while photographing here requires a good bit of effort, it’s a little easier than some of my favorite locations further up the East Inlet.
On my second night in, the smoke cleared out enough later in the afternoon and we even had a few clouds show up to help add some interest to the scene. While this trip was not as productive photographically speaking, it was great in refocusing and gaining perspective on what has been a tricky summer to navigate.
One of my personal favorite hikes in all of Rocky Mountain National Park is the Flattop Mountain Trail. While it can be a strenuous climb to the top of Flattop, the views are well worth it. The Flattop Mountain trail also connects to many of the parks other formal and informal trail systems at the summit. It’s a gateway to access much of Rocky Mountain National Park and in particular a gateway that allows hikers the easy access to the west side of Rocky Mountain National Park short of driving over Trail Ridge Road.
My good friend and fellow photographer extraordinaire Erik Stensland likes to call trails like the Flattop Mountain trail, the ‘Superhighways’ of Rocky Mountain National Park. It’s a great analogy and I think its a perfect description of for trails like the Flattop Mountain Trail.
With smoke from forest fires all over the western United States still affecting the air quality in and around RMNP, It’s been tricky getting out and photographing Rocky in what is one of the best times of year. Smoke and an overall lack of colorful sunrises to start the month of July has me getting itchy to get out and do something. When I dont have photography clients out in the field in Rocky, and if I am conditions for dramatic landscape photography are not cooperating, I do what anybody else does and just like to get out for a good hike and enjoy the trails and scenery.
Yesterday morning with that in mind, I did just that and headed up Flattop Mountain about an hour and half before sunrise. The smoke was not as bad as it had been but it was still present. There were actually clouds hanging over Rocky this morning but the predicted break in the cloud cover did not appear to be forming as thunderstorms from the previous night still hung over the eastern plains of Colorado as I got a clearer view heading up the trail.
Regardless, the hike in of itself was more than enough to keep a smile on my face as I headed up the switchbacks before sunrise. Three miles from the Bear Lake parking lot, I reached the Emerald Lake overlook with a few minutes to spare. Sunrise was more or less blasé with the clouds obscuring the sun enough to color the sky, but about 15 minutes after sunrise, enough light scattered through the clouds and smoke to photograph some nice warm light on the flank of Hallett Peak.
I made a few images of the light on the side of Hallett and a touch now on the Diamond of Longs Peak. Even with less than perfect conditions, surveying the views and familiar peaks from this location a thousand feet above Emerald Lake is always one of my favorite spots to take in a sunrise. Lets hope the next time I’m up here the smoke has cleared and sunrise is one to remember. Even so, its hard to beat summer mornings on Flattop.
With the fourth of July holiday now in the rear view mirror, summer in Rocky Mountain National Park is in full swing. The park doesn’t get much better than the period from early July through September as access, wildflowers, foliage and overall weather are just about as good as its going to get. Think verdant meadows filled with wildflowers, placid lakes reflecting mountain peaks and miles of trails in the high country now free of snow.
I’ve been busy guiding photography clients in the park the past few weeks as my summer photography tour season volume coincides with the great conditions and opportunities Rocky Mountain National Park provides this time of year. Guiding photography tour clients in the field means early starts and long days in the park. While I’ll occasionally get to squeeze in a few images while guiding clients, the focus is on them coming away with images of RMNP that make their visit and time worth it.
Conditions have been mixed to kick off the summer season so far. Wildflowers in the lower elevations are really looking spectacular. The grasses are as ever and wildflowers seem to be blooming in every corner and nook of the park right now.
Weather wise we’ve had a feast or famine setup. We’ve had some stretches of unsettled weather with some cloudy and rainy mornings but we also have had stretches of mornings where nary a cloud can be found anywhere near Rocky. This is more or less a common setup this time of year in Rocky, though sometimes it feels like we are experiencing more mornings of of clear sky setups than one usually expects.
Regardless, its an amazing time to visit Rocky Mountain National Park and any morning, cloudless or not is going to provide photographers with plenty of opportunities to find lots of interesting subjects to photograph if they keep and open mind and take time to cultivate new images. As always, stay tuned as I expect lots of great mornings ahead as the always abbreviated summer season in Rocky gives us a few short months to enjoy one of the best times of year in the mountains.
June is stacking up to be an interesting month here in Rocky Mountain National Park. With a few great sunrises early in the month, the weather did its thing and we had lots of warm, clear and dry June days. Not a whole lot of stuff for us photographers to get excited about.
It’s always a bummer to check out the forecasts and see lots of clear days predicted with little to no cloud cover. Makes you quickly start thinking about creative ways to keep the camera from getting dusty in the closet. Of course there is always that one day on the extended forecast lineup that looks like it could be interesting.
This time around after about 10 straight days of ‘severe clear’ conditions, Monday looked like it was going to be that day. The weather models looked like we might be setting up for a cooler, wetter morning to start the week off. In fact, as I assessed the weather forecast for Rocky Mountain National Park it looked like we would have a good chance of having an inversion on Monday morning.
Inversions occur here in Rocky when we get an upslope flow or winds out of the northeast. The shear and flow off the east facing peaks creates clouds and moisture on the east side of the continental divide. Because of the wind direction and shear, the cloud cover and rain tends to hover over lower elevations of the Front Range, usually below 12,000 ft or so in elevation.
The trick here when photographing in conditions like these is finding a way to get above the cloud layer and then finding some interesting ways to take advantage of what are for the most part, fairly rare conditions in RMNP.
Once Trail Ridge Road opens fully for the season, getting above the cloud layer is fairly easy. Finding good locations to photograph can be a little more tricky, but Longs Peak is always as good a subject as any in the park. Photographing the waves of fog and light and they filter through the pines is also a good way exercise the shutter and I spent time doing both.
If we can just get rid of this pesky smoke from wildfires which seems to have plagued us at the end of last summer, and now the start of June, I’d say conditions in Rocky Mountain National Park are just about perfect for photographers now.
It’s June in Rocky Mountain National Park and that means the arrival of summer is right on our doorstep. Trail Ridge Road is now open for the season and the much needed snow that we were blessed with its starting to melt quickly in the higher elevations of RMNP. Best of all the lakes and streams with the exception of only the highest are thawing out and open.
It’s hard to find a better subject to photograph than snow covered mountains reflecting on the calm surface of a pristine mountain lake. When I take clients out in the field, this is what they request and hope to photograph more than any other subject in the park. Of course for this to work you need a few factors to work in your favor.
First you need there to be little to no wind. That in itself can be a difficult task in Rocky Mountain National Park. Secondly, you need some nice light at sunrise or sunset. This is probably the most consistent variable in RMNP as we get lots of clear and sunny days. Lastly, you need some clouds. Not only do the clouds add interest to the landscape and add dimensionality, they often add color.
With June now here, landscapes of mountain reflecting in water are once again back on the table in Rocky Mountain National Park. Last week, I made the short hike up to Bierstadt Lake for sunrise. Bierstadt Lake had one of my favorite views of the continental divide in all of Rocky Mountain National Park. Its just a spectacular location to photograph a sunrise.
When all three variables come together, you have what I call the Rocky trifecta. Well the Rocky trifecta work out just right for me on this particular morning last week. The wind was calm at Bierdstadt, clouds hung over Otis, Hallett, Flattop and Notchtop and the lighting was otherworldly. Even the Mallards that hang out at Bierdstadt and have a propensity for swimming around in your reflection and foreground right at sunrise only made a few appearances before heading off to the other side of the lake.
Overall, I cant think of a much better way to start a morning in Rocky Mountain National Park than this particular one at Bierdstadt last week. I’ve photographed many sunrise at Bierdstadt Lake over the past 22 years, but this ranks up there as one of the best. While this sunrise was awesome, I’m eagerly looking forward to many more spectacular ones this season as we move into summer.
One of the things I love most about spending so much time in Rocky Mountain National Park is that no matter how many times I visit, I always see, find or experience something completely new. It’s why my mantra has always been you just have to be out in the park as much as you can be as a photographer. No matter what you think you may see, or how you believe the conditions or atmospherics will unfold, you will likely be off the mark.
Being wrong can lead to being pleasantly surprised as long as you just remember to keep pushing, keep heading out even when it looks like things wont break like you want. Earlier in the week I had another experience that just reinforces the need to ‘get out there’.
Winter just wont give up the ghost this season, and earlier in the week the park had snow dumped on it from another late spring barnstormer. While I’m looking forward to warmer days and summertime conditions in RMNP, I cant ever pass up the opportunity to photography Rocky when its covered in the white stuff.
With this latest storm clearing, I headed up to the park hoping to catch something good. I had another photographer friend in town who wanted to get out to shoot, and to be honest if he had not been in town I may have passed on heading out this particular morning as it looked like the clouds and storm would have cleared out.
When I got into to Rocky and performed my usual due diligence, things did indeed look less than promising. While the trees and landscape were covered with beautiful, paste like spring snow, the skies were pretty much clear. There was some fog around Lake Estes and Lumpy Ridge and I thought that might make for an interesting opportunity, I noticed Moraine Park appeared to have a low hanging layer of ground fog over the Big Thompson River.
My buddy Robert and I decided we would hang in Moraine Park and hopefully the ground fog would stick around and give us some decent atmospherics to photograph with all the fresh snow. As luck would have it, the ground fog did stick around long enough to make for some nice landscapes. Even better, Longs Peak had a string of clouds trailing over the top of it adding a little excitement.
After capturing a nice image of Longs Peak covered in fresh snow with ground fog settling just below the south lateral moraine in Moraine Park, I was feeling pretty good when out of the corner of my eye I thought I saw the snow moving along the banks of the Big Thompson down below me.
Doing a quick double take, I realized that the snow was not indeed moving but that a pod of American White Pelicans had hunkered down along the banks of the Big Thompson to wait out this latest storm before heading east, down towards the plains. While I’ve seen pelicans on Lake Estes and Grand Lake, I cant recall ever seeing them in Rocky proper before.
Getting over the initial excitement of seeing this pod of pelicans in Moraine Park, I was able to get some nice shots of the birds as they started moving around and coming to life. On top of finding the birds, the snow covered landscape and ground fog clearing only made for an even more amazing experience this morning in Rocky Mountain National Park.
Once again, my well worn mantra of ‘just go’ let me experience something new and exciting I had not expected to see and photograph. Who knows if photographing White Pelicans along the banks of the Big Thompson will be the highlight of this spring, but I’ll certainly be spending as much time as I can hoping to have more of just these kind of mornings in RMNP.
Most photographers when thinking about May, think of green landscapes, flowering trees and warmer weather. Thats true for many areas of the United States this time of year, but for Rocky Mountain National Park, reality is quite a bit different.
While hints of spring, greening grasses and warming temperatures can be seen starting to emerge in the lower elevations of Rocky Mountain National Park, May in much of RMNP feels an awful lot like March or April.
Tuesday morning was a good example of the reality of spring in Rocky. Heavy wet snow starting falling on Sunday and continued right through Monday in the park. The snow struggled to accumulate at the lower elevations but above 8500 ft it was as much winter in Rocky as it was the middle of spring.
While I’m ready for summer in the high country, these late spring snowstorms in Rocky offer some of the best opportunities for landscape photographers. While access and travel can be tricky this time of year, often these warmer late spring storms end up with a lot of melting, especially on pavement and roads in the park. If it was the middle of winter, Bear Lake Road might be closed after a storm like this, but this time of year there were only a few areas of pavement in Rocky where the snow actually stuck,
The same is also mostly true for cross country travel on trails in Rocky this time of year. The heavier wet snow compacts on the trail and with snowshoes or micro spikes, one can usually get around without the need for skis.
I took the opportunity to head up to Bierstadt Lake this time around and see if I could catch the sunrise over the continental divide as the storm was clearing. While I trudged up the Bierstadt Moraine in 6 to 7 inches of fresh snow, I was hoping some of Bierstadt Lake might be open for a reflection with clouds and fog to boot.
Arriving at the west end of Bierstadt Lake first, my wish for open water was quickly squelched. Even still Bierstadt Lake looked awesome. Heavy wet snow was pasted over the pines lining the lake. Fog was starting to clear just as the sun rose and within a few minutes of arriving at Bierstadt I could make out a hazy Hallett Peak and Flattop Mountain.
The fog quickly cleared just as the sun lit the peaks but some great clouds hovered and moved over Otis, Hallett and Flattop. It was just about as perfect a winter morning as there could be. Of course it was actually spring but whose counting.
Regardless, be ready for a few more coating of snow on the higher elevations of Rocky Mountain National Park before we put this winter season to rest. Trail Ridge Road should be opening in only a few short weeks and summer will be here before we know it. Even so, be ready for a few more of these spectacular ‘spring’ mornings in RMNP.
Just a quick update here on what is turning out to be a very wintry and snowy month of April in Rocky Mountain National Park. It’s seems like we have been getting snow just about every other day this month with more inbound today and tonight.
It continues to be a great time to head up to Rocky to capture some winter imagery and mother nature has been cooperating with both fresh snow and lots of good atmospherics, clouds and fog as these storms move in and out of RMNP.
Saturday morning in the park was another good opportunity as our latest spring snowstorm moved out of the park right as the sun was rising. Estes Park and elevations below 9000 ft were pretty much cloaked in clouds and fog. I did as I almost always do in these cases and tried to get up above the cloud layer before sunrise.
Being in a little less ambitious mode on Saturday morning I headed up to Many Parks Curve hoping I could get high enough to be above the cloud layer. It’s always a gamble and on mornings like this you would love to be able to be in three of four locations all at once.
When I first arrived at Many Parks Curve along Trail Ridge it was still socked in with fog. Having spent years chasing conditions like this I know that these cloud layers and inversions act almost like waves in the ocean. While they often seem still, they are usually moving in and out, up and down slowly. Find a location near the cloud layer and wait and there’s a good chance the clouds will at least open up and clear out long enough for you to capture some dramatic imagery.
While waiting for sunrise, I quickly spied the massive hulk of Longs Peak through the clouds. I could also now see the stars above me so I had a good feeling I was right on the edge of the cloud layer.
As sunrise approached, first the Mummy Range revealed itself, than 14,259 ft Longs Peak and finally areas to the east of Rocky Mountain National Park started opening up with Deer Mountain and parts of Lumpy Ridge dipping in and out of the fog as the warm sunlight exposed the snow covered landscape of RMNP.
Mornings like Saturday are some of my favorite. I never know exactly what I’m going to photograph, but harbor excitement the entire time knowing that if things just break right I’m going to have some awesome conditions. Thats exactly what happened this Saturday in Rocky and maybe with a little luck there will be a few more before April turns into May.
In many parts of the country right now spring is in full bloom. Grasses are greening up, trees are budding out or already have leaves and freezing temperatures and snow are quickly becoming a distant memory. What does this portend for landscape photographers?. Maybe you want to take a trip out to the desert, find some wildflowers or warm weather. I’d be right there with you but if you want to photograph Rocky Mountain National Park in it’s winter glory, April is just about one of the best months of the year to do it.
After a feast or famine week or so with no new snow, mild weather and really not a whole lot of interesting subjects to photograph in RMNP as we transition between seasons, the weather this week into next week has shifted decidedly wintry. We seem to have put the weather machine in reverse and entered late February or early March based on the current weather in Rocky Mountain National Park but in reality, this is quite normal. April is typically the 2nd or 3rd snowiest month of the year in RMNP so its a good time if one is looking for winter images of Rocky.
It’s hard to believe that Trail Ridge Road is likely to open in another four to six weeks which signals the unofficial start of summer in Rocky Mountain National Park, but judging by this weeks weather it’s hard to picture oneself driving at 12,000 ft on Trail Ridge in just over a month or so.
April not only see’s a lot of snow in Rocky, but its a good month to photograph the landscape covered in fresh powder for a couple of reasons. First off, April tends to be more mild temperature wise than the middle winter months. This makes it more manageable to get out in the elements without feeling like you will loose fingers and toes to the gold. Dont get me wrong, April can be plenty cold, especially at or near timberline but often it is more mild with temperatures moderating much more quickly during the day.
Secondly, the high moisture content of the snow in April means that it sticks to just about everything. Like cake batter, the heavy wet snow of April with cover the trees, pine needles and ground making for dramatic and clean looking photographs. High winds, which are common as weather systems exit the park tend to blow the dry and light snow right off the trees and landscape in the middle of winter.
Speaking of wind, this is a third reason why photographing winter landscapes in RMNP is great in April. These springs storm tend to move more slowly and hang over the region for longer periods during the spring months. This means not only larger amounts of snow, but it also means less violent swings in the weather and much calmer winds in between the ebbs and lows of these springs storms.
Water is also starting to flow again come April. Moderating temperatures means that streams and ponds below 9500 ft will start to break free from ice. Small openings may start to form in some of the higher alpine lakes, though I would only really expect this is we have a really warm streak. Even still, waterfalls at lower elevations as well as streams will allow for reflections or strong composition lines in one’s photographs. This is a good time to remind people to be careful around all water this time of year as the ice can be both unstable, and water that is moving is not only frigid, but moving very fast. A simple mistake around water this time of year can be fatal.
Traveling around the park is a little easier as well. Snow tends to melt on the roads during the day and pull offs and parking lots with the exception of monster blizzards tend to be clear and free of snow sooner than the middle of winter when the radiant effect of the sun is not nearly as powerful as it is now.
Lastly, the most important part of all photography is light. The light in Rocky Mountain National Park in April is some of the most conducive to photography on the east side of RMNP as it is all year. As the sun swings farther and farther to the north as we approach the summer solstice the lighting becomes optimal for some of Rocky’s best locations. The northeast facing peaks around Bear Lake and Glacier Gorge are now getting beautiful lighting again. These are popular locations all year, but for photographers, the lighting will be best in the Bear Lake corridor between now and September.
So there is a quick run down of the current status of Rocky Mountain National Park in the middle of April. If you love snow and you love to photograph in winter, April is as good a time as any to come visit Estes Park and RMNP.