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.