It’s Memorial day so we now have the official start to summer upon us. Summer seasons in Rocky Mountain National Park is here and much of the terrain in Rocky Mountain National Park will soon be more accessible and easier to access.
Trail Ridge Road officially opened for the season a day late on Saturday, May 28th after being delayed a day due to snow falling on the road on Friday. As of this writing, Trail Ridge Road is typically cleared each night and closed at 8:00 PM due to the potential for ice on the road. Depending on the conditions in the morning, the rangers usually reopen Trail Ridge Road around 8:00 AM the following morning. Within a few weeks Trail Ridge Road will once again be open 24 hrs a day as the snow melts away from the shoulder of the road. Fall River Road won’t be open until July 4th as it typically is each year.
The high country trails and lakes are starting to thaw out and melt. Sloppy intermittent snow covered trails can be found now above 8000 ft. From about 10,000 ft on down most lakes are open or partially covered with ice. You can expect to be postholing on portions the trails and if you plan on going much higher in elevation than 10,000 ft expect near winter travel conditions in Rocky.
It’s an exciting time in RMNP now as summer finally begins to descend upon the park. Access gets easier and the potential for landscape photographers increases on a daily basis as temperatures warm and last winters snow melt. Have fun out there and make sure to take advantage of this all too short but sweet time of year.
People often ask me if I ever tire of photographing Rocky Mountain National Park. After all, I spend the majority of my time in the field photographing in Rocky. When I field this question people assume that I most get bored photographing in the same locations in RMNP time and time again. In reality I find the opposite actually holds true. The more time I spend photographing in Rocky Mountain National Park, the more I realize just how much there is to photograph and just how much of a folly it is to every think once can photograph an amazing location like Rocky to the point of no longer being able to find new or unique compositions.
While I still photograph many of the well known locations in RMNP, I’m constantly on the lookout for new viewpoints or scouring my topographic maps trying to figure new locations which may hold great potential. New locations, varying lighting conditions, changes in seasons all make it easy to find new locations and opportunities for photography in Rocky Mountain National Park.
This past Friday I was able to get to a location I’ve been eyeing quite a few times but had yet to shoot. High above Moraine Park on the side of Beaver Mountain are some nice vistas of Longs Peak, Chiefs Head Peak, Thatchtop, Otis and even Hallett. I’ve been waiting for the right cloud setup before photographing from this location. As the high country of Rocky Mountain National Park thaws out I’ll end up spending much of my time photographing from those locations so I have a somewhat short window to photograph from this area before I start dedicating much of my time to locations that become more accessible as the temperatures warm.
Conditions where just about perfect on Friday from the side of Beaver Mountain and I was able to capture the image I had been envisioning for sometime. I have quite a large list of locations like this one on Beaver Mountain that I have yet to photograph from, so I don’t think I’ll be running short on locations to photograph in Rocky anytime soon.
Leaves are starting to bud on the tree’s, early season wildflowers have begun to make an appearance, the grass is turning green and the days get longer and longer. Spring is in the air here in Colorado and what better way to enjoy a mid April spring weekend with anything other than a nice big drop of fresh snow. It would not be a true Colorado spring if it was not for the warm weather head fake that the Front Range of Colorado is so well versed at performing.
As I write this, heavy wet spring snow is falling hard outside my office window and the mountains are covered with snow reminiscent of a scene straight from a Christmas movie. While meteorologists were calling for some of the areas of the foothills to receive between two and four feet of new snow, warmer temperatures seem to have kept the snow totals down in many areas. Even so, there is a significant amount of snow that has fallen over the higher elevations of Rocky Mountain National Park as well as the foothills just west of Boulder. So while my excitement grows each day as we move towards my favorite season (summer) in the Rockies, we photographers get another chance to get out in the field and enjoy this white winter landscape that now sits before us.
So when the weather gives you lemons, it’s best to make lemonade as they say. Break out the winter parka’s, snow boots and gloves and get out and make some new images. These spring storms often offer the best opportunity to photograph your favorite landscapes covered in snow.
I spent the early part of the storm enjoying a beautiful hike up Flagstaff Mountain in Boulder. I love to get on Flagstaff Mountain when its snowing. Not only is it a great hike, but Flagstaff Mountain has in my opinion some of the most beautiful sets of Ponderosa Pines in all of Colorado. Ponderosa’s and there red colored bark make for beautiful subjects when their pine bows are crusted in snow. Before you know it we will quickly resume are melt off and the snow will once again be gone. With mild weather and temperatures predicted to near 80 degrees by the end of the week, this opportunity to photograph the snow wont last long. So while many of us are looking forward towards summer, unfrozen lakes and wildflowers have fun with the weather curveball we are so often thrown here during spring. Who knows, maybe we will get a few more chances at snow before its all said and done for the season.
Photographers are constantly seeking to create new images and content. Creating new images and photographing in different locations feeds our creative spirit and helps us to grow as artists. This involves scouting, searching and traveling to new locations looking for that next image. Or does it?.
Most photographers I know love to travel to far flung locations around the globe looking to expand their portfolio and feed that ‘traveling jones’ that most of us seem to have embedded in our DNA. Iceland and Chile being the current favorites amongst landscape photographers. While I love to travel to far flung locations just as much as the next guy, I still find photographing and exploring locations close to home the most rewarding exercise.
If you are a frequent visitor to my site or my social media feeds you know that approximately 85% of my landscape photography takes place in either Rocky Mountain National Park or in and around Boulder, Colorado. This is done deliberately and with purpose. While these locations are very close to my home and are without question my favorite subjects to photograph, visiting the same locations and areas over and over again gives me a knowledge and understanding of my subject that I do not posses when I visit a location for the first and possibly only time.
Photographing the same locations time and time again in different seasons or carrying weather conditions and light allows me to not only capture the moment that is unfolding in front of my camera on that day, but it also allows me to anticipate and plan future visits to a given location with the expectation of a different result. Knowing these subjects well so close to my home allows me to adapt and plan based on atmospherics, weather conditions and lighting. Oftentimes we think a subject can only be photographed from one location, in one direction at one optimal time of day. I think many photographers would be surprised to see just how many different interpretations of a subject one can create when they are able to visit at different times in varying conditions.
I realize most peoples styles and motivations are different than mine and my approach may not work or interest other photographers. That being said I strongly recommend finding a local area, or one close to your home and becoming intimately familiar with it. The location may not be as exotic or sexy as some far flung location around the globe, but embarking on a journey to really get to know a local subject or location over time will have just as great a reward to your portfolio and creative process as would a trip to a location you may only visit once in your lifetime.
It’s brown season here again in Rocky. While it’s been a very mild autumn it apparent that winter is about to make its appearance in the park. After nearly a month and a half of chasing the colors through different part of the park it can be difficult to make a transition towards photographing the oncoming winter season. Photographing Rocky during the fall season gives one a bonanza of choices. While Autumn is short lived you still have the choice of photographing unfrozen lakes, tarns and streams while simultaneously being able to photograph the fall colors. So in essence autumn season in Rocky Mountain National Park means you can still opt to pursue summer like images while still being able to chase the colors of fall. Throw in the occasional early season snowstorm and you might actually be able to photograph three of the four seasons all in the span of a few days.
So when the fall winds down and the foliage in the park is no more motivation to get out in the field may drop like an aspen leave on a windy day. Making things more difficult is the fact that once the snows start to fall in the higher elevations in late October or early November access to many locations becomes difficult to impossible. With that being said its time to adjust your mindset and remember there are still plenty of great opportunities to be found even if they require a little more work. Here are some suggestions on why photographing during the brown season in Rocky Mountain National Park can be both productive and fun.
1. Clouds. Photographing landscapes with clouds in Rocky is a lot more difficult than it looks. We have lots of bluebird blue sky mornings in Rocky, especially during the summer months. As the season shifts towards winter, Rocky sees some of its most dramatic sunrises. While winds may increase, lenticular clouds hanging over the eastern slope of the Front Range of Colorado become much more common. These lenticular clouds at sunrise with set the skies ablaze with color. This of course will add lots of color and spice to the otherwise brown landscape.
2. Water. Much of the water found in streams and mid level lakes is still unfrozen or only partially frozen. By mid winter pretty much all the lake surfaces will be covered in ice and snow. Streams with moving water will typically freeze later than lakes and ponds but they to will also freeze at some point during the winter. Once the bodies of water freeze over catching reflections becomes impossible. Combine colorful skies, lenticular clouds and water that is yet unfrozen or only partially frozen and you still have some pretty good foreground subjects to work with.
3. Snow. The lower elevations may be covered with brown grasses but the high peaks will have a nice covering of snow. By late summer most of Rocky’s peaks have little to no snow on them with only granite showing. With snow once again falling the high peaks will have more character covered in the white stuff.
4. Wildlife. Unlike the trees and foliage, wildlife is actually at its peak during the brown season. The larger ungulates such as elk, moose, mule deer and big horn sheep are all in various stages of their annual mating rituals or rut. This means most of the animals look the healthiest and strongest they will all year. Furthermore they tend to congregate in open areas and are less distracted by human presence as hormones are calling the shots. Hang around the parks in the lower elevations and it’s quite easy to capture beautiful images of a bull elk or mule deer buck in their prime.
So while most photographers I know tend to get a little depressed and down when when the brown season takes hold, there are still plenty of good opportunities to be had when it comes to photographing Rocky this time of year. Lastly one other great thing about getting out during the brown seasons is the lack of crowds. Most of the time you will easily be able to find peace and solitude easily while in one of the most beautiful places on earth.
Which lens or focal length to use when photographing a particular scene or image is a vital function to creating to compositionally coherent image. Browsing through my landscape image catalogs it’s apparent that approximately 75% of my images are taken between the focal length range of 16mm and 105mm. This is more or less in line with my style of photography and works well to convey and translate my vision of the landscapes I enjoy photographing.
With that being said I still look to put my longer lenses to good use whenever possible. While many of my photographs have been created with wide to moderate focal length lenses, some of my favorite images have been taken with longer focal lengths which allow for the isolation or compression of the subject or landscape.
I recently purchased a Sigma150-600mm 5-6.3 DG HSM OS C lens for my Nikon system. I purchased this lens primarily to be used to photograph wildlife in Rocky Mountain National Park. With the Elk,Big Horn Sheep, and Moose rut approaching I was hoping I would get a few opportunities to photograph wildlife at longer focal lengths. While most of my photography revolves around the landscapes of Rocky Mountain National Park, I do enjoy photographing wildlife when the opportunity presents itself.
Ironically, I have not had as many opportunities to use this lens on wildlife as I had previously hoped. At the same time I have found more opportunities to use this lens for landscape photography then I had previously anticipated. I’ve found the long end (300-600mm) range of this lens can help to foster unique and creative images. I plan on continuing to experiment and employ the longer focal lengths for both wildlife and landscape photography in the future. The caveat with this lens of course is that is both large and heavy so it’s not a piece of equipment I plan on backpacking around the backcountry with. Even so, I’ve been impressed with both the image quality of the lens and the new opportunities it’s affording me when in the field photographing landscapes.
Peak fall color season is upon is here in Rocky Mountain National Park. After a beautiful late summer that was for the most part warm and dry, the signs of autumn are everywhere in the park. With the exception of the lower elevations of Rocky Mountain National Park, most locations at the mid to higher elevations are at or just a little bit past peak. No need to panic, there is plenty of fall color to be found in Rocky right now and I suspect that will be the case for at the least the next two weeks.
As stated above, we have had a very warm and mild late summer in Rocky and that pattern looks like it’s going to continue through next week. The mild weather appears to be not only enhancing some of the fall color in Rocky Mountain National Park, but it is allowing for the color to linger. Colorado is famous the world over for it’s beautiful stands of aspens which turn golden in autumn. It’s what many visitors to the area come to see. While Rocky may not have some of the large towering stands of aspens that some of the famous western slope towns of Aspen, Crested Butte and Ridgway boast, there are still plenty of them to admire and photograph.
With that said regarding the hillsides of golden aspens don’t overlook all the more subtle foliage that are currently resplendent in their autumn glory throughout the park right now. The color at or near timberline in the park is currently as colorful and beautiful as I can recall. The warm days have allowed for beautiful reds, yellows and orange hue’s. I hiked up to timberline just below Longs Peak yesterday and was astounded by how colorful and beautiful the autumn conditions are. The scenes are reminiscent of autumn on the Alaska tundra.
There are too many potential locations to list right now which hold great potential for fall landscape photography in Rocky. The usual suspects such as the Bierstadt Moraine and the Bear Lake area all look great as of this writing. But if you want to avoid the crowds as well as other photographers, head for the higher elevations while the warm temperatures last and enjoy the colorful show currently unfolding near timberline.
There are expectations and then there is reality. In photography this is especially true when I look back at the end of the week and review how I did and what kind of images I was able to create. It’s always fun at the start of a new week to browse the weather forecasts and try to guess if its going to be a productive and dynamic week for photography. Sometimes the weather cooperates and you can get three, four or even five days of beautiful sunrises, clouds in the sky or other elements like rain and snow to help with your image making. Other times you may go four or five days with nary a cloud in the sky to help out. Usually I find that you end up somewhere in the middle. Never as many dynamic mornings as you would like, and often you can get at least one or two better than expected sunrises.
Last week in Rocky Mountain National Park fell more or less on the tame side of dynamic weather and conditions. For the most part last week mornings were clear and cloudless in Rocky Mountain National Park. These are beautiful conditions for visitors and hikers, but not exactly the kind of conditions photographers hope for in Rocky. It’s hard to get motivated to get out there in the field if it looks as if there is not a cloud within 800 miles of Rocky Mountain National Park. Even with conditions less than ‘photographer perfect’ one should still be able to capture some dynamic images. With a bit of planning, some luck and a few clouds floating in the right location things may break your way.
While last week was more difficult and less productive than I would like, I was still able to come away with images I was pleased with two of the three mornings I managed to get out in the field. On those two productive mornings clouds were present in the sky but not over the high peaks and continental divide. This is a fairly typical setup for Rocky Mountain National Park. In fact, if I had to venture a guess I would say well over 60% of the time one is more likely to have clouds to the east of Rocky then over the high peaks and continental divide. This is an important fact to keep in my when photographing Rocky Mountain National Park.
I stress this in my blog often and also do so when out with other photographers or students on photo tours in the park. While its true that many of the iconic images in Rocky Mountain National Park are of locations where clouds over the peaks benefit the image, more often than not mother nature and the weather will hand you lemons of which you will need to make lemonade. In this case you need to make lemonade by losing preconceived notions of what you want to photograph and do the following. Look at whats going on behind you or the east of your preferred morning location. If you are going to successfully photograph in Rocky Mountain National Park you are going to need to incorporate images that may not include some of the well known iconic peaks such as Longs and Hallett Peak. Remember, more than likely your going to have clouds and dynamic lighting east of your location.
By all means head out to Rocky with the intention of photographing clouds over the iconic peaks and mountains. This is Colorado after all and we all aspire for images of brilliant clouds floating over jagged peaks while reflecting in mirror like lakes below. The reality of photographing Rocky Mountain National Park is that these conditions are difficult to achieve often but with a backup plan and willingness to throw convention out with the trash, photographers can make stunning imagery with an open mind and a willingness to point the camera opposite of the icons. On what otherwise would have been an unproductive week of photography, this strategy worked well for me last week as it would have for others.
It’s happening one again. The seasons of change are sweeping over Rocky Mountain National Park and our summer season is transitioning towards autumn. Whether it be the sounds of a bull elk bugle in a meadow or sets of aspen leaves turning golden yellow it’s becoming more apparent by the day that summer in Rocky Mountain National Park is nearing it’s conclusion.
For photographers this is both and exciting time of year as well as a hectic time of year. For many landscape photographers, fall is their favorite time of years. The changing seasons, the vibrant fall color, shorter and cooler days all tend to energize and inspire landscape photographers to get out and create images.
While this transition season is an exciting and inspiring time of year, it’s also hectic. Speaking for myself I find that I am both trying to extend the summer season and anticipate the coming fall season. Access to Rocky’s backcountry is still easy before snow and freezing temperatures set in allowing for me to continue to work on summer like images and access much of the park. At the same time I’m keeping an eye on the subtle and not so subtle changes associated with the onset of fall. It’s certainly great to have a lot of options at hand, but it creates stress in that decisions need to be made on what subjects to photograph.
One would think that having lots of options would be a good thing, and for the most part it is. What makes the decisions difficult is not having options, but trying to time and guess just how long one will have these options available. Timing is everything this time of year and one early season snowstorm or cold snap can quickly alter both your options and your plans.
A cold snap, wind storm, or snow can strip the leaves from the trees, cover the trails in snow and cause the surface of the lakes to freeze. In one fell swoop both your options to photograph summer like scenes as well as autumn scenes and fall color can vanish for the year. This urgency to beat out the unknown is what makes the transitional season from summer to autumn so tricky to time out and photograph.
Worrying aside, right now is about as good as it gets to photograph in Rocky Mountain National Park. Leaves are starting to change on aspen trees, streams are flowing freely and access to Rocky’s backcountry as well as Trail Ridge Road is unfettered. It’s time to take advantage of this great time of year and make the most of the photographic opportunities.
I’ll keep one eye to my cameras viewfinder and the other on the weather reports and fall color reports. As always it will be hectic, stressful, fun and a productive time to photograph in Rocky. But as they say in sports, it’s crunch time.
This time of year photographers are always anticipating the upcoming autumn season. For many photographers this is their favorite time of year. Trips are planned, notes on locations are exchanged with other photographers and topographic maps are scoured in an attempt to find new vistas and locations to photograph. Typically by mid August there is a detectible change in the air in Colorado. While it’s still quite warm during the day, the nights begin to cool quite a bit. The sun rises and set’s a little earlier each day, grasses begin to turn from vibrant greens to browns and golds. The Elk begin to migrate back towards the lower elevations in anticipation of the ‘Autumn Rut’ and the sounds of bugling in the meadows increases in frequency. Even the quality of light begins to noticeably change. The shadows grow longer in the valleys and canyons while the sunlight burns a little warmer lower in the sky. If your paying attention this slow turnover of seasons becomes readily apparent.
I’ve been watching this change play out in Rocky Mountain National Park over the course of the last few weeks. An aspen branch here turning yellow, and Elk Bugle off in the distance there followed by a hard frost here or there. I did not expect however, to be greeted by a nice dusting of snow in Rocky Mountain National Park on the morning of August 19th!. Sure it’s possible to get snow in Rocky Mountain National Park pretty much any month of the year. I’ve seen a light dusting of snow before near the summit of 14,259 ft Longs Peak in both July and August but typically it’s hardly noticeable and it melts off well before the sun even reaches the mountainsides.
So imagine my surprise when in the predawn hours of August 19th, I rounded the sharp curve near the Forest Canyon Overlook on Trail Ridge Road to see the hillsides coated in what looked like snow. My first reaction was to do a double take. I thought to myself, ‘that cant be snow, its mid August?’. It had rained hard during the night and the temperature in Estes Park was thirty-seven degrees fahrenheit when I made my way through town but it was after all still August. I then thought to myself that must just be dew on the grasses and small pines at this elevation. After a night of rain, pines take on a silvery like sheen when wet, surely thats what this had to be. Confirmation that it was snow quickly arrived as my tires began making the unmistakable crunching noise tires make when driving on granular frozen snow and ice.
After thinking to myself thats its just to darn early for snow, I next had to decide where to shoot. Trail Ridge Road was slick and dicey as it was covered with snow and ice above Forest Canyon. Typically the National Park Service would have closed Trail Ridge Road at either Rainbow Curve or Many Parks Curve when they expected snow or icy conditions early in the morning from a previous nights storm. I have to believe much like myself, The National Park Service was not expecting snow this early in the seasons either and Trail Ridge Road remained open.
This created what I’d consider a rare circumstance. While Trail Ridge Road was icy and slick, it remained open which would allow for images that typically would be nearly impossible to capture. When the NPS was anticipating dangerous road conditions on Trail Ridge Road because of incoming weather. The road was open and I should with some careful driving by able to get to whichever overlook was yielding the most dynamic conditions.
The overlook that appeared to be yielding the most favorable conditions was Medicine Bow Curve. Specimen Mountain as well as The Never Summer Range had a good coating of snow combined with some residual clouds that still remained. Furthermore the pines in this area had nice dusting of snow and there was some fog still hanging above the Poudre River valley below. So after diligently navigating Trail Ridge Road I setup my tripod and camera and worked the compositions as the light and clouds rapidly changed with the approaching sunrise.
It was a cold morning standing at the Medicine Bow Overlook. Certainly much colder than one would typically expect during the month of August in Rocky Mountain National Park. The cold fingers were certainly worth it and it will be a morning in Rocky I wont soon forget. Hopefully were now back to Summer and I cant start dreaming about what I want to photograph in Rocky when Autumn arrives much sooner than later.