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.