Actually, it’s most definitely summer. Even after our cooler and wetter than usual summer here in Colorado, it feels like August. My current muse or passion in Rocky Mountain National Park has been the Never Summer Mountain Range where the lighting and scenery have been spectacular.
It’s a secret I’ve shared with my readers and clients I guide in the park, that I often go back multiple times to the same location to both capture images in ideal light I may have missed during my initial visit, or just to capture the scene in different lighting or weather conditions. Often, one has a preconceived idea how they image the shot will look, thats often not how it shakes out in the end however.
The Never Summer Range is situated both inside Rocky Mountain National Park as well as extending north and west outside the park boundaries. It’s a prominent and distinctive range and one that most visitors to RMNP admire from along Trail Ridge Road, specifically the Gore Range Overlook, the Alpine Visitor Center and Medicine Bow Curve.
The Never Summer range takes its name from the Arapaho tribes who referred to the range as the Never No Summer range as snow could almost always be found on the range. The Never Summers as they are affectionately referred to now, where also once considered part of the Medicine Bow range but in deference to the indigenous people of the region, renamed the Never Summer Mountains back in the 1920’s.
I’ll always check the weather forecast before heading out, loosely basing what I’m planning on photographing based on where and when I think the best light, clouds and atmospherics will be. These past few weeks, the best lighting in the morning has been over the Never Summers and thats where I’ve spend a good deal of my past mornings enjoying the scenery so to speak.
Familiarity with an area breeds success, so don’t be afraid to keep working a certain location so that you can become acquainted with the light, landscape and local. One of the keys to making better images is to connect and truly know your subject. So while we all want to photograph new locations and see new exotic places, spend time getting to know and area and your photography will begin to see improvements and gains in both your photography and images of that location.
Some quick RMNP park updates for everybody. Trail Ridge Road has reopened after being closed on May 27th due to inclement weather and snow. There was a rockslide just above Rainbow Curve so there are lane closures which means traffic might be backed up at times while they remove rocks from Trail Ridge.
Hopefully, this is the last time this summer season that Trail Ridge Road is closed until we start getting snow again in September. I have not yet had a chance to even drive over Trail Ridge Road this year as it was only ope a few short days before the snow closed it again.
With Trail Ridge Road still closed on Friday, and lots of snow still on the trails above 10,000 ft, I was pleased to arrive long before sunrise to find low hanging fog hovering over the Big Thompson. Fog is just about my favorite weather to shoot in, so if there is fog in Rocky Mountain National Park, more than likely thats where you will find me.
Chasing fog in Rocky Mountain National Park can be a fickle pursuit. The fog will either dissipate just before sunrise, or engulf you so that it blocks both the sun and much of the landscape. But when you get yourself placed in the right spot, its hard to beat fog for adding drama to your landscape photography images and changing familiar landscapes into otherworldly and mystical places.
Fog also ebbs and flows like the tide going in and out of the ocean. One minute your fully engulfed and seconds later the fog moves out and the landscape is revealed. That was the pattern on Friday morning in Moraine. First, almost the entire moraine was covered in fog, then as the sun began to rise it receded.
Luckily for me after it receded, it increased again just as the sun began to crest the ridge north of Eaglecliff mountain. There’s a lot of season ponds and water in Moraine Park right now from both the runoff as well as the snow and rain from our two recent storms so maneuvering around can be a soggy adventure.
With the elk all over the meadow, I spent sunrise taking in the views, sounds and smells of spring. Hard to get much better than the conditions on Friday morning, but as the melt continues I’ll be spending less time in Moraine Park and more time in the higher elevations of the park.
As is always the case, regardless of the season, I’m going to be out photographing the areas of RMNP that are most conducive to dramatic lighting and conditions. On Friday, the fog in Moraine Park made it the place to be, so thats where I was and maybe again if the weather down the road decides to make it so.
After going months of what seemed like pedestrian weather in Rocky, May and the start of June appear to really have stepped up their game. The weather fronts have been moving through and we have had some much needed moisture in the mountains of Colorado along with great (see bad) weather for us photographers.
While May is always an active month in Rocky Mountain National Park, and a month that often mimics winter more than it does the backend of spring, bigger snows are usually wrapping up by the time the calendar is getting to memorial day. Sure the higher elevation peaks of Rocky can get a good dusting anytime of year, but the mid elevations of the park are usually greening up with wildflowers starting to bloom in places like Moraine Park and Upper Beaver Meadows.
So when the calendar turned to June, I’m ready to put on my shorts, put away my insulated hiking boots for my lightweight shoes and start heading out on mostly snow free trails. We had two weather impulse pass over Rocky at the end of May with the second and more powerful storm hitting the park on the last day of May and extending into the morning of June 1st.
The first weather impulse left a nice dusting of snow on the mountains above 8500 ft. The second and more powerful storm that just moved, dumped a lot of heavy wet snow at 8500 ft and above and left the hillsides in Estes Park covered with a light dusting.
Snow and winter imagery are certainly not the way one thinks of starting off the month of June after dusting off the grill, eating burgers and hot dogs and having a few beers while enjoying Memorial Day outings. But as is always the case in Rocky, expect the unexpected.
So as I headed up into the park on the first morning of June, I was wondering what my best prospects would be and what I would really end up photographing. If you have followed my blog and photography, you know I love getting out in the bad weather. Inversions are one of my favorite types of conditions to photograph in, and one of the easiest way to experience and photograph is to drive Trail Ridge Road as high in elevation as one needs to get above the cloud deck.
While Trail Ridge Road was opened on the Friday before Memorial Day this year, the two weather systems closed Trail Ridge down to its winter closing points of Many Parks Curve and the Colorado River Trailhead so my normal plan was not going to work.
When Trail Ridge is closed, your next best option is to hike above the inversion layer. This requires a little more ‘work’ than simply driving above the clouds and in the case of snow, moving on the trail also requires a little more work than say summer hiking conditions.
I headed up to the Bear Lake parking lot just after 4:00 AM to start my hike up Flattop Mountain to see if I could slice through the fog and snow that was still falling. From both experience and visual observations, the cloud deck looked to be right around 10,000 ft or so. Flattop Mountain would give me the pathway to get above the clouds if I could muck through the 5+ inches of heavy wet spring snow that had fallen around Bear Lake.
So off into the dark I headed, trudging up Flattop Mountain in the fog and snow. While the Emerald Lake overlook on the Flattop Mountain trail offers a better vantage point than the Dream Lake overlook below it, my goal this morning was to get to the Dream Lake overlook and see if that would cut the mustard and get me over the clouds.
Working up a good lather through the fresh powder, I was just below the Dream Lake overlook when I spied Longs Peak for a brief moment through the clouds. As I turned the corner I could see Hallett Peak and Thatchtop Mountain through the clouds. In a few minutes I was at the Dream Lake overlook setting up my tripod.
With official sunrise at 5:38 AM, I had about 15 minutes or so before any light might start to appear on the peaks. In summer I might have hustled the additional mile or so up to Emerald Lake, but in the 5 inches of snow which covered a still very snowy Flattop Mountain trail, I thought it best to just stay put and see what developed.
Sunrise came and went, and the inversion layer swept over the overlook like a wave. I was covered in clouds and fog and could not longer see the mountains. While I was growing impatient and kicking myself for not giving myself enough time to get up to the Emerald Lake overlook, the inversion moved out and revealed the mountains again, this time bathing in sun through the fog and mist.
I had a good 15 minutes or so before the clouds again moved back in and the lighting was starting to turn harsh. Regardless, my start to June in Rocky Mountain National Park sure looked more like January, but as always I’ll take that kind of weather of bluebird skies any day. While it looks like more summer like weather is on the way the rest of the week, lets hope the pattern of active weather over the park continues as we move into June.
Ok I admit it. I was wrong. I put a fork in the autumn season in Rocky Mountain National Park and declared it officially ‘brown season’. I was wrong but still mostly right. It most certainly is brown season in RMNP but there are still some minuscule pockets of autumn hanging on in Rocky which I happily discovered yesterday while out hiking in Moraine Park.
With my new 105mm Micro S lens freshly delivered from Allens Camera in my pack, I headed out looking to find some nails to try my new hammer on. Small intimate fall color scenes always work well with macro scenes, I figured we were passed that and was thinking more along the lines of frozen water and ice to test this new lens on.
After photographing a beautiful sunrise from Moraine Park, I headed off in search of something to point the shiny new 105mm macro lens out. It was a pleasant morning, mild with a slight breeze and lots of fresh snow on Stones Peak in the distance. As I ringed the perimeter of Moraine Park looking for intimate scenes and small subjects, there were still lots of signs of our just departed fall season.
Scanning the hillsides lots of brown leaves still clinging to the bushes and underbrush but no signs of any lingering color until finally I spotted a tinge of orange and red along the base of pine. There it was, a few vines creeping along the ground with a mix of brown and red leaves.
While not the highlight of the fall season, I dropped my backpack and broke out the 105mm macro to break it in and enjoy what will surely be the last of the fall color I will photograph in Rocky in 2021, or will it?.
It’s a wrap. Sure its still technically autumn in Rocky Mountain National Park but we’ve pretty much moved on to the down and brown season here. It’s always a sobering watching summer move to autumn in the park and then within a few short weeks its over and done with.
Fall 2021 in Rocky was awesome however. The colors were spectacular, the weather was mild but also interesting. We had a nice dusting of snow on the high peaks, fog, some rain and very vibrant reds and oranges along with our traditional yellows and golds. With the mild weather much of the underbrush turned in unison with the aspens and cottonwood trees.
From my perspective of photographing RMNP over the past 23 years, I cant remember a season with such great color, weather. To build on those two great factors, I also cant remember a time that fall color hung around for as long as it did this season either. The first week of October still had great fall color on places like the Bierstadt Moraine which is typically long past peak by this time.
I’m still working through a backlog of images from the fall and I’ll have plenty of material and images to post here as we move into winter. Hoping many of you were able to get out and enjoy what was an amazing few weeks for us landscape photographers.
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.