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.
While the Cameron Peak Fire continues to burn just outside the boundary of Rocky Mountain National Park (21,000+ acres with 0% containment as of this writing), we finally caught a break the other morning with regards to air quality and smoke which has been ever present since the fire started back on August 13th.
Shifting wind patterns and some nice afternoon and evening rain showers helped to improve the air quality over Rocky Mountain National Park on the morning of August 26th. While I’ve been trying to use the smoke as best I can when out photographing in Rocky, sometimes there is only so much you can do .
Heading out yesterday morning, I was surprised to be able to see the stars as I started my drive north towards Estes Park. The smoke tends to settle in the valleys overnight but its been so heavy of late that its often hard to tell if its cloudy or just smokey in the morning.
The forecast showed clouds moving in over the west side of Rocky Mountain National Park around sunrise yesterday, so I figured I would head up Trail Ridge and over to the Kawuneeche Valley to see if the combination of less smokey skies and haze and clouds at sunrise might yield a good old fashioned morning of photography.
For the past few weeks, The Kawuneeche has be inundated with smoke from both the Cameron Peak Fire and the Williams Fork Fire further to the west. With rain that had fallen overnight and clouds predicted on the west side of the park, I was also hoping that maybe some low lying fog would form in the valley to add to the mood.
While the low lying fog only materialized in a few isolated areas of Kawuneeche Valley, the clouds did just as predicted and started moving in just before sunrise. Best of all, while there was still some smoke present in the valley, the air quality was the cleanest its been in over two weeks.
I took the opportunity to setup along the Colorado River at a location I’ve photographed a hundred times before. It’s a classic west side of Rocky image. The Colorado River a few miles from its headwaters with Baker Mountain looming over Bowen Baker gulch to the west. This time of years the grasses which have been growing all summer in the Kawuneeche Valley are waist high and there are hints of golden autumn hues mixed in with still lush greens.
Great clouds, great scenery and more importantly, some great conditions which included the air quality yesterday morning made for a refreshing change. Cooler weather is predicted for the park starting on Friday and smoke from the fires in both California and Colorado are supposed to abate as well. Here’s to hoping for some great conditions again as we hit the homestretch towards the end of summer and fall in Rocky Mountain National 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.
Hard to believe that the 4th of July holiday has already come and gone but here we are. It’s now officially summer season in Rocky Mountain National Park. Although Estes Park and Grand Lake both had to cancel their fireworks shows this year, both towns along with RMNP have remained relatively busy as we sort our way through the COVID-19 pandemic.
We are officially now in the summer season in Rocky. With a few exceptions, conditions are turning to prime in the higher elevations of the park. Grasses have greened and wildflowers are not starting to take hold. Paintbrush is filling meadows and it looks like we are going to have a great year for alpine sunflowers on the tundra.
While there is still some snow present on some trails, especially above 11,000 ft, conditions are rapidly improving and with a few exceptions, trails are snow free and travel on trails is for the most part snow free and easy. One of Rocky Mountain National Park’s oldest harbingers of summer opened on the afternoon of July 3rd. Even in the midst of the current pandemic, the National Park Service did a great job getting Old Fall River Road open for the season right on schedule.
Rocky like many National Park has been facing a shortage of seasonal workers, so maintaining large parts of the park has been a challenge. Wild Basin reopened in mid June, and now with Old Fall River Road opened for the season, pretty much all of Rocky Mountain National Park is open and accessible. What seemed questionable only a few months ago, has been reopened and restored allowing for a sense of normalcy along with access to places in the park that have become a summer tradition to so many of the visitors of Rocky Mountain National Park.
While I have not posted quite as much as I typically do, its only because I’ve been getting out more this year than years past. With the COVID-19 pandemic still in the background, my photography tour business has been much slower than in years past. While I miss seeing old clients as well as showing new clients around RMNP, from a personal portfolio standpoint, I have not been able to spend this much time during the summer months photographing Rocky Mountain National Park in years.
I’ve got lots of locations on the bucket list that I will try my best to get to this summer and I also have two backpacking trips planned to locations in Rocky that I have previously not photographed. I’ve got a whole lot of processing to complete in the backlog and more to come as we move into the heart of the summer season. Stay tuned, and hopefully you get a chance to get out and photograph Rocky Mountain National Park this summer to enjoy what in my opinion is one of the best times of year in the park.
Rocky is finally opening back up and while things are much different this year in the park due to the coronavirus pandemic, there is finally a tinge of normalcy that appears to be settling into the park.
Crowds and visitors are smaller than a typical year, but I’ve been surprised by the volume of visitors to Rocky Mountain National Park even with the timed entry permit system in effect. To me, people are looking forward to getting back out into nature and returning to normalcy after a long period of stay at home orders throughout the United States this past spring.
Not all of Rocky Mountain National Park is currently open. The National Park Service is dealing with staffing issues as many of the seasonal workers they come to count on each summer season have opted to remain in their home states and towns. For example, the Wild Basin section of the park still remains closed with no known date of reopening at this point. Trail Ridge Road was closed all week after another June snowstorm dumped a half of foot of snow on the road earlier in the week. Old Fall River Road remains closed as it traditionally does until July and the park service is working on making an attempt to open the road sometime this summer.
For us photographers who love visiting Rocky Mountain National Park it just feels great to be able to get back out into Rocky and soak in all the beauty and opportunities the park presents for landscape and wildlife photographers. It’s a great time to work those legs out on the trail and to shake the rust of your cameras. Here’s a couple of suggestions for subjects and locations to currently photography in Rocky Mountain National Park.
1. As always the landscapes of Rocky Mountain National Park are a personal favorite of mine as well as many other visitors and photographers. Lots of traditional summer locations are now moving into prime season for photography. While there is still some snow on the trails in the Glacier Gorge and Bear Lake areas, lakes are free of ice below 11,000 ft and travel is for the most part summer like. Lower elevations in the 9000-10,000 ft ranges are coming are rounding into form and grasses lining lakes are greening up and wildflowers such as Wild Iris and Golden Banner are flourishing.
2. The west side of Rocky is also starting to look great again. The Kawuneeche Valley is nice and green right now and as always Moose are plentiful anywhere in the valley. Best time to spot Moose in Rocky Mountain National Park is always at dawn or dusk. Look for them grazing in the willows along the Colorado River. For landscapes on the west side of the park, look for lots of opportunities with water as the Colorado River is currently running over its bank in many areas and flooding low lying areas with water.
3. Babies!. Lots of new life to be found everywhere in the park right now. Elk are still dropping calves and if you are lucky enough to stumble on a group of females and sub adults you will see plenty of newly born elk taking in their new surroundings. Moose have new babies with them as well now and Marmots and many of the cavity nesting birds in Rocky Mountain National Park also have newborns they are attending to. While its fun to photograph the little ones its extremely important that you give these creatures space for both their well being and your safety. Animals such as Elk and Moose are extremely protective of their young. Birds can become extremely stressed by your presence near a nest so be aware and limit your time spent with any of these creatures. From first hand experience, I can tell you one experience you dont want to have is to be caught out on a trail with a female elk protecting her calf.
So things are different in Rocky right now then they have been during past summers. That being said, the sense of normalcy that nature and these sacred places provide will endure over whatever turmoil is enveloping our human world. It’s time to get out and visit some old friends again.
Just like seeing and old friend, heading back up into Rocky Mountain National Park after a nearly 70 day hiatus felt great. In one sense it felt surreal heading back into the park after all the craziness of the past two plus months of closures and lockdown. In another sense it felt just like riding a bicycle again.
While the park reopened on Wednesday May 27th, I did not head up until the morning of Thursday May 28th for my first visit since the lockdowns occurred from the pandemic. NPS did not remove the barriers and get the roads opened until after 6:00 AM on 5/27 so it was not possible to be inside the park for sunrise which occurred at 5:38 AM.
Much of Rocky is still closed and there is limited access to other locations. I expect more things to open in the near future but the park service is dealing with limited staff and housing for its seasonal workers as they filter back. Currently Trail Ridge Road is not open (Rainbow Curve on the east side on the Colorado River Trailhead on the west side). Wild Basin remains closed and its unsure if Old Fall River road will open to automobile traffic this year.
Starting next week, June 4th to be exact, Rocky Mountain National Park will have a timed entry permit system enacted between the hours of 6:00 AM and 5:00 PM. If you are planning on visiting the park between those hours you will need to go online, pay a $2 fee and reserve a time slot to enter Rocky Mountain National Park. The park is allowing about 13,000 visitors a day to enter. 90% of the reservations need to be made 48 hrs in advance although the park will allow a small amount of passes to be released 24 hrs before entry.
I’m still trying to figure out my photography tour service into Rocky Mountain National Park and how I will be conducting photography tours moving forward. My commercial use permit to operate in RMNP will allow me access to the park anytime so this will benefit clients of mine who would like access to the park and possibly were unable to secure a permit in time.
Figuring out how to maintain social distancing both in a vehicle and on the trails where I often have to assist clients hiking and climbing over obstacles is more difficult. Much of this will come down to prospective clients comfort level, photographing, hiking and traveling through the park with me. I’m telling all prospective clients to contact me and we can discuss the difficulties and realities of scheduling a photography tour in Rocky Mountain National Park during the current pandemic.
With that said, my tour business has taken a big hit already due to the closure and pandemic. I plan on being out in Rocky Mountain National Park as much as I can be this summer and will use the free time I now have to explore and photograph areas of the park I have not visited recently or have wanted to revisit. I’ll do my best making lemonade out of lemons and hope we will see some return to normalcy by the end of the season and hopefully into next year. In the meantime I’ll be photographing and enjoying getting back out into Rocky more than you can imagine. Stay tuned here and I’ll update conditions and status often. If you would like to schedule a photograph tour feel free to drop me an email with your questions and I’ll be happy to answer any and all questions.