Spring has arrived in Rocky Mountain National Park and summer wont be far of it’s heels. As I write this we are a little over a week away from Memorial Day which is the traditional unofficial start of the summer season here.
Both winter and spring here have been for the most part mild and more or less seasonal. Snowpack is at about 90% of average so we are a little behind but not much off the mark. We had some good late season snows as well as some good rain in the lower elevations the first few weeks of May so things are starting to green up nicely in the meadows and lower elevations of the park. Pasque Flowers and now Mountain Ball Cactus are blooming and more of the traditional wildflowers will begin appearing in the next few weeks in the lower elevations of Rocky.
Trail Ridge Road has not yet opened for the season but barring any crazy weather should open right before Memorial Day weekend. Trail Ridge Road has been open above Many Parks Curve where it is closed for the winter season all the way to Rainbow Curve for the last two weeks. Having Trail Ridge Road open to Rainbow Curve just above 10,800 ft allows the more adventurous to hike up the plower road and get above timberline with a little more ease and a lot less people than during the summer season when the road is open.
Ponds and lakes are really starting to open up as well. Many of the lakes around 10,000 ft are starting to open up large sections of ice on their surface. Lakes below 10,000 ft are ice off and good for photographing reflections on calm days. Lots of spots of hard packed snow on trails above 9500 ft but lower elevations like Lumpy Ridge Moraine and Horseshoe Park are great for hiking right now with the usual muddy spots.
Overall, Rocky is in great shape and becoming more accessible each day. While there will still be snow and ice around until late June and early July in the highest reaches of the park, access is already great and only getting better. This is one of my favorite times of years and as always I’m looking forward with great anticipation at getting out into the park and exploring new areas as well as visiting old stalwarts.
I get asked often what motivates me to get up five, six or seven days a week to head out at an ungodly hour of the morning for most people and head out into nature ready photograph whatever is in store that particular day. It’s a good question without an easy answer.
Head over to social media, podcasts or other photographers blog and this subject comes up often with some photographers while others never discuss it at all. Some photographers feel strongly that if your motivations behind your photography and the reasons you connect with nature and discussed openly than you are discrediting your imagery and craft. While sharing your images with other is important too many that is not enough.
Photographers on the opposite side of the argument may feel the need to share and detail all their personal feelings and motivations each time the create and share and image is necessary. In the modern age of ever shrinking privacy and autonomy, sharing one’s personal feelings, beliefs and motivations each day beyond the image itself may not only make them uncomfortable but may leave them feeling narcissistic and overly self important.
Where do I fall in the discussion? Not to be a cop-out but I would say I fall somewhere in the middle. We as nature and landscape photographers get to witness untold beauty on an almost daily basis. For many the beauty of the light, landscape, journey and discovery is what drives and motivates us to keep returning and communing with the landscape and light. This certainly motivates me but so does the entire process motivate me.
I enjoy waking early long before most. I take great satisfaction in working out after I wake so that I can stay trail ready whether I’m hiking or not. I taking the dog on a walk in the neighborhood at 2:30 AM so I can survey the sky and conditions before I drive to my location. I love my hour long drive from my home in Erie up to Estes Park in the dead of night so I can think quietly, listen to bad music or have long conversations with myself about who knows what. Most importantly I love that I have the freedom to do not only what I love doing, but have locations such as Rocky Mountain National Park that have been preserved, protected and kept open to the public so that I can for the most part, still freely access large swaths of wilderness. Lastly and most importantly I enjoy the entire process. From start to finish each day each step along the way exciting or boring I enjoy. The minute I stop enjoying the entire process is the minute I stop taking photos. I doubt many other photographers would find my routine and process enjoyable like I do.
With that said, some days I’m motivated to write something thoughtful and engaging, and other days I may feel the image stands alone with little need or desire to delve deeper on sharing the personal intricacies that go into my love and motivation behind my craft.
In the world of art there is certainly not a need to conform to what others are doing. In fact conformity is looked down upon and discouraged. No two artists or photographers will travel the same paths nor will they ever arrive at the same destination. We should not only appreciate the difference between individuals, but embrace it.
Being original should be a goal, but it should not be the be the only goal. The goal should be staying true to yourself but remembering to enjoy and love both the experience and process while championing in a responsible manner the subjects you photograph.
As a final thought on motivation, I see many photographers today railing about photographing original compositions and shooting locations or subjects that are rarely photographed. When posting their original composition they often choose to preface it with a quote from an author or historical figure. It’s probably a quote you’ve seen many times before on the internet, in books, calendars and other forms of media. I’ll admit that I’m a sucker for these quotes and often find them interesting and amusing. But in the interest of originality, is it ok to post a never before photographed composition while recycling somebody else’s writing? If we are going to tout the importance of originality shouldn’t the quote used to describe the photograph be held to the same standard as the image and also be original?. Just a thought.
It’s been a little quiet around here on the blog the past few months. While I’ve been busy posting to my social media feeds on Facebook and Twitter most days I’ve somewhat neglected updating my blog for which I apologize. Having recently moved into a new house it’s taken more effort than I’d care to admit just to be able to get time out in the field in Rocky Mountain National Park.
Good news is that I’m finally settled in and I’m quickly getting myself back on track and back into my routine which some would say borders on obsessive compulsive.
Overall, conditions along the Front Range of Colorado this winter have been fairly bland. In fact we’ve not had much weather to speak of since October and this winter so far has been mild and dry. Rocky Mountain National Park has had some snow, but i’m keeping my fingers crossed that the weather pattern shifts as we head towards spring and we get a good run of storms and moisture to not only make for dramatic conditions for us photographers, but also to increase the snowpack and keep the park from drying out.
Besides the mild winter we have been experiencing so far, a few other notable items have been happening in Rocky. We’ve already had one government shut down this year in which contrary to past years funding shut downs did not close Rocky completely. Many services were limited for the few days the federal government shut down but Rocky was able to operate on a limited basis with the exception of being able to plow snow which lead to the park being closed one day due to dangerous road conditions.
Another hot button issue has been the proposed increased entry fee for 2018. While the final decision has not yet been made, daily entrance fee’s at Rocky Mountain National Park along with over a dozen other popular National Park’s look to be increasing dramatically. Rocky’s proposed daily entrance fee would increase from $20 a day to $70 a day. While the overall trend in visitation to Rocky Mountain National Park continues to increase (with a less than 2% decrease in 2017) these newly proposed increase in daily fee’s are striking most as excessive.
These increase in fee’s are likely to have an impact on my guiding and photography tour services in Rocky Mountain National Park as well. Not only will participants in my tour services have to pay additional fee’s to enter the park, there is another proposed fee to holders of Commercial Use Agreement guide passes or CUA’s of $170 a tour. This proposal is also still being discussed but if you combine the cost of my photography tour services, a $70 entry fee along with another $170 fee for guiding each client or group in the park, the cost of my services my become prohibitive to many of my participants.
Currently, I’m keeping an eye on how these shakes out and at this point are still booking photography tours for 2018. I’ve renewed my CUA pass for 2018 but if these fee’s do come into effect and greatly affect my photography tour services and guiding, I may no longer be able to offer those services in 2019.
Lastly, I plan on doing a better job in 2018 keeping my blog updated. Keeping my social media feeds updated on Twitter and Facebook while effective, take away time from posting on my blog. I only have time to update so many feeds and blog posts and currently my social media feeds have been winning that battle. With Facebook’s new policy changes regarding business accounts being more or less hidden unless one pays to advertise on the site, I’d like to continue to shift my content and energy back to keeping this site updated. I’ll still be updating Twitter and Facebook as often as I have in the past, but I’m going to prioritize keeping my site updated with my content.
So while its been a quiet season in Rocky so far, there have been many a beautiful winter sunrises (Rocky has some of the best). I’ll be out and about in the field as often as I can get out and I’ll keep all of you updated on the new fee proposals and what the final outcome is along with how it will impact my photography tour services in RMNP.
Autumn in Rocky Mountain National Park is one of my favorite times of year. I look forward to the fall season in Rocky all year only to find it both arrives and departs much more quickly than I am ever comfortable with. It’s a spectacular time of year to visit RMNP and its also and amazing time of year to photograph the park. The autumn hues, golden aspens and elk rut make it a very popular place to be once mid September rolls around. Even with autumn being one of my most favorite times of year to get out in the field, the harried pace of the season in Rocky can make the autumn seem like a blur.
No two fall seasons in Rocky are ever alike. The colors are different each year, the location of the best and most vibrant color are different each year, the timing of peak colors in areas of the park are different each year and the total duration of the autumn season is different each year. Some autumn seasons linger on and on with little to no early season snow or windstorms to expedite the end of autumn.
Some years it’s just the opposite. For one reason or another the fall color may never really pop. Snow and high winds may also rake across the park quickly stripping the trees of their leaves as well as making access to locations more difficult. As is always the case when dealing with mother nature, you just don’t know and there’s not much you can do even if you do know.
This makes it important to take advantage of the conditions whenever they are favorable. If there is one thing I’ve learned in photographing fall in Colorado and Rocky Mountain National Park it’s get the shot while you can. Waiting for better conditions or planning on coming back at a later date is often a fools folly. I’ve personally missed a few opportunities thinking I’ll come back to a location a little later only to have wind, snow or weather decide otherwise.
Autumn season is Rocky has pretty much wrapped up for the year. We’ve had a very dynamic fall season in RMNP and one that offered many great opportunities for photographers even if I would rate the color this season as average to below average. Weather was the story this season along with snow dropped on the park almost once a week since the colors began changing. While the snow and cool autumn hampered some of the fall color, it did allow for some really neat opportunities to photograph the clash of the seasons.
Overall the season was both short and awesome. The frenetic pace of autumn and the need to maximize your time in the field with your subjects while the getting was good takes precedent over sleep, rest and contemplation. Now with the season waining the pace can slow and we can begin looking forward to winter in Rocky Mountain National Park.
How quickly time seems to fly. Seems like only a few weeks ago I was lamenting a late spring blizzard in Rocky that dumped 3 feet of snow on the park while awaiting summer. While that late season May blizzard dropped a load of snow on Rocky it was only a temporary obstacle to the oncoming summer season in the park and all the glorious beauty that comes along with the thaw out of the high country. Now here I am lamenting the fact that summer is already on its way out and the autumn season and fall colors that grace Rocky Mountain National Park each season are quickly nearing their peak.
Of course lamenting is not really the right word as the transition from summer to fall in Rocky leads us into my favorite time of the year in the park as well as one of the most fruitful times for any photographer visiting Rocky. The only issue most photographers have with the fall season is that like the summer seasons its too short so one needs to take advantage of every opportunity as you may or may not got a second chance with the fleeting and frenetic nature of autumn in RMNP.
As of this writing, many area of Rocky are just starting to dawn their fall colors. There are some areas of Rocky Mountain National Park that are currently at peak but for the most part the color show will really start unfolding starting this week.
A few area of aspens on the west side of Rocky are at peak. Those include the groves near the west entrance of the park at Grand Lake, and the hillsides below the Never Summer Mountains. The tundra grasses have taken on their red hue and many of the small ground plants and brush near timberline are now peaking.
On the east side of Rocky the autumn colors are just starting to look good at the higher elevations. The areas around Bear Lake which tend to peak right around the 20th of September (give or take a few days on either side) now are showing color. The Bierstadt Moraine is showing hints of color though we have at least 10 days to go before peak. The area around Boulder Brook is starting to get some nice color but should remain fruitful for the next two weeks.
As a reminder the fall color in Rocky Mountain National Park tends to peak in the higher elevations first and then will move its ways down to the lower elevations which include the meadows and parks. One can easily photograph fall color in Rocky from about September 15th all the way through mid to late October depending on temperatures, snowstorms, and cold temperatures so its important to keep an eye on the weather and remain flexible.
So get outside and enjoy the autumn season in Rocky Mountain National Park because like summer, it wont last long and its only a matter of time before the snow starts flying and accessing some locations in RMNP become a lot more difficult.
Notchtop Mountain is one of Rocky’s most iconic features. While Notchtop can be seen from portions of Trail Ridge Road and Bear Lake Road it takes a little more effort to view and photography it up close and personal. The best way to view and photography Notchtop is to hike the moderate three plus miles to the area around Lake Helene from the Bear Lake trailhead.
This area around Lake Helene is filled with potential for photographers. Besides the spectacular views of Notchtop Mountain from Lake Helene, there are many other beautiful more secluded locations to photography both Notchtop Mountain, Grace Falls and the Odessa Gorge.
I often recommend this hike to photography tour clients who are both fit and looking to explore off the beaten path. It’s a great destination in Rocky Mountain National Park for sunrise and most of the time you will be the only photographer within miles. Last week I lead a client up to the area near Marigold Ponds for a beautiful sunrise shoot. As always the area did not disappoint and Notchtop looked glorious as the sunlight and high cirrus clouds filtered onto the dramatic face of the peak.
A quick rundown on the current conditions in Rocky Mountain National Park for all of you heading out to Rocky to explore and photograph the park. Rocky is now entering primetime as far as summer photography is concerned. Most of the snow has now melted, runoff has slowed and both the meadows and alpine tundra have now turned green. Wildflowers can be found at all elevations of Rocky now and with a few exceptions ice is off all but the highest of the lakes in the park. In my opinion we are now entering the best time of year for photography in Rocky.
While the park is busy, heading out on the trails to get away from the roadside visitors will help increase your chance of finding some unique compositions along with the likely probability that you will be all by your lonesome when photographing. Besides dealing with the crowds at some of the roadside attractions and iconic locations such as Dream Lake, there are a few other minor issues affecting access and photography in the park right now.
As is typical this time of year, wildfires across the western United States may cause some haze from the smoke depending the wind direction. The smoke may slightly affect sunlight late in the day and early in the morning but it can also add color and mood to images.
While much of the snow has melted off the last four weeks, the creeks and streams in Rocky are still running at a very brisk pace. For photographers this can make photographing some of the water features and waterfalls in the park difficult. Spray and mist from the water can make it difficult to keep your lens elements clean. Photographers all have different opinions on the speed that they like to photograph water. That being said, my personal opinion is that many of the waterfalls in the park are still running a little to fast. Each day most of these water features are slowing down and experiencing less runoff. Give it a week or so and most of the streams and waterfalls should be nearing a perfect pace for photography.
So overall Rocky Mountain National Park is just about perfect right now for photographers. Access is great, wildflowers are blooming, lakes are open and free of ice as are most hiking trails and the streams and waterfalls are getting better each day to photograph. If your heading out here to RMNP it’s darn near perfect right now.
Of all the different atmospheric conditions that I love to photograph in, fog has to be my favorite. Nothing makes familiar locations and landmarks turn to mysterious unknowns faster than a layer of fog cloaking the landscape. Fog is fluid it ebbs and flows by the minute and opportunities for images and compositions open and shut with its waxing and waining.
In fact, when photographing and observing fog its movement and form mimics a living, breathing being. Like a breathing creature fog will inhale and shrink, than exhale and expand. One minute your standing above the layer of fog in the bright sunshine and the next minute your immersed in the cool gray mist as it covers the sun and sifts through the landscape.
The biggest problem as I see it with photographing fog here in Colorado and in particular in Rocky Mountain National Park is that it’s a fairly rare occurrence. While Moraine Park and the Kawuneeche Valley on the west side of Rocky will occasionally see low lying fog on account of the Colorado River or Big Thompson but normally your best chance to get large amounts of fog in Rocky Mountain National Park come during and inversion or upslope event with your best chances of getting dramatic lighting conditions coming as the low pressure system moves out of the Four Corners region or if you can climb high enough to get above the cloud layer.
Last week after what seemed like day after day of clear blue skies,(I know only us photographers complain about such a thing) we finally had the conditions I had been waiting for. A rainy and snowy few days in RMNP were about to end and the low pressure system behind it was set to move out Thursday morning.
Knowing that the weather was set to improve and that the timing of this coincided with sunrise I knew there would be a good chance for some drama at daybreak. I headed up to Rocky in the rain and fog but just below Estes Park I broke through the cloud cover and could not only see the full moon shining bright but the skies appeared cloudless. This was not what I was hoping for but I headed into Rocky to get a better look. Once above Beaver Meadows and Moraine Park I could see that there was still a nice layer of fog floating over Moraine Park.
I headed out in the darkness to a favorite spot of mine high above Moraine Park on Beaver Mountain. Here one is able to get commanding views of Longs Peak as well as Moraine Park and if the fog stayed in Moraine I hoped my elevation would keep me above it.
The fog stayed in Moraine Park this morning and my vantage point worked out very well. While Longs Peak stayed mostly in the clear, Moraine Park was shrouded with fog. Every corner of Moraine Park yielded a new composition and each one changed by the second as the fog moved in and out. After one battery change and a memory card nearly filled as well as the fog starting to clear out I figured it was time to hike out. All in all it was an amazing morning in Rocky Mountain National Park. Fog is rare and I’m sure if I lived in Northern California or the Pacific Northwest I’d tire of it but here in Rocky Mountain National Park I can never get enough of it.
If you have read my blog or social media posts long enough then you know I get least excited when the skies are blue and cloudless. Odd as it may seem, clear and cloudless days are some of the most difficult days to photograph as the light can be harsh with little drama occurring above the landscape to add intrigue to a photograph. Clear, cloudless deep blue skies are perfect for just about any other activity other than photography. Out here in the western United States, clear, cloudless deep blue skies are affectionately referred to as ‘Bluebird Skies’.
In this post, I’m not about to go on about the best way to handle capturing quality images during a cloudless day in Rocky Mountain National Park. While thats a good idea for a future post, I just going to post an image of a Mountain Bluebird.
Each spring Mountain Bluebirds return to the meadows and open spaces of Rocky Mountain National Park and are a harbinger of warmer weather to come. These beautiful birds can be found foraging for grubs on the ground, flittering from rock to rock and branch to branch. This time of year, the male Mountain Bluebirds will turn a deep blue in color with the more mature males displaying more intensely then the younger birds.
The best places to find Mountain Bluebirds in Rocky Mountain National Park are any of the open meadow and sage areas. Hollowell Park, Moraine Park, Beaver Meadows and Horseshoe Park are all good places to find Mountain Bluebirds. Drive one of the park roads that traverse these areas and keep an eye out on the ground and rocks for these colorful creatures. I find its best to use your vehicle as a blind and combine that with the use of a longer telephoto lens and its relatively easy to photograph the Bluebirds.
Each day more signs of spring and summer appear in Rocky Mountain National Park. The return of the Mountain Bluebirds to the meadows of Rocky are one sign but if you pay attention the signs of spring are becoming more obvious each day. Of course in typical Rocky fashion don’t count out a few more good dumps of snow before all is said and done with.
Saturday in the park. I’m channeling a line from the band Chicago here as it was the tune playing in the back of my head as I both attempted to stay warm as well as trip the shutter on my camera in between blasts of wind yesterday morning in Rocky Mountain National Park. Coincidently, the band Chicago recorded many of its songs just down the Peak to Peak highway from Rocky Mountain National Park at Caribou Ranch just north of Nederland.
Saturday’s sunrise was typical of what we often find in Rocky during the winter months. The high peaks of Rocky shrouded in clouds and high winds keeping things interesting below. It snowed the previous day but as is often the case in RMNP, the window is short before the winds and sun make quick work of the freshly fallen snow.
Pro tip for mornings like these which are common in Rocky is to turn your back on the mountains and point your camera in the opposite direction. I know it sounds like some heck of a tip I’m giving but hear me out. Mornings like these often have great cloud cover to the east. You may not be able to include Rocky Mountain National Park’s impressive and iconic high peaks in your image, but weather conditions would have prevented it anyway.
Find a subject to photograph and work in the great skies and more subtle landscapes that are found just east of the high peaks. It will save the angst of feeling like your journey out in to the windy wilds of Rocky Mountain National Park have been for naught and who knows, you might actually come away with some exceptional images. This options surely beats sitting in your vehicle sulking over the conditions and complaining once again RMNP left you empty handed.