It’s a good time to check in and take inventory as we move closer to wrapping up 2016. For many photographers its a time to stash away the camera gear, revisit images and files made over the course of the summer and fall and start dreaming of next years journeys. As the autumn season draws to a close and summer begins to feel like a distant memory it’s easy to lose some motivation and move onto things other than landscape photography.
After some reflection on the speed at which summer and fall grace us with their beauty, I like to embrace this time of year and enjoy it for what it is. Some call it the ‘brown season’, others refer to it as ‘shoulder season’ while some just think of it as the end of the year.
I find that lowered expectations this time of year help me to relax in the field and enjoy the experiences for what they are. Unquestionably access to some of my favorite locations in Rocky Mountain National Park becomes more difficult this time of year, and weather conditions such as snow and wind can make photography challenging I find the quality of light on the landscape to be spectacular.
Furthermore I also believe that some our most colorful and dramatic sunrises and sunsets tend to occur this time of year. The landscape maybe turning brown but the skies will often be ablaze as the sun rises and sets. Because of these colorful sunrise and sunsets I like to refer to this time of year in Rocky as ‘Neon’ season.
This end of the autumn season here in Rocky Mountain National Park is shaping to be a bit of an anomaly as well. As I write this Trail Ridge Road is still open which is on average later than it would typically be. While Trail Ridge is often subject to nightly closings, we have had a very mild fall and only minimal amounts of snow on the mountains it has remained open to this point. While I expect that this pleasant and dry weather will abruptly end at some point in the near future, many locations in Rocky are still snow free, unfrozen and easily accessible.
In other words while it may be ‘shoulder season’ in Rocky Mountain National Park, I would recommend photographers ‘shoulder’ their camera bags and backpacks and avoid putting the finishing touches on their 2016 portfolios just yet.
Autumn always seems to come to end in Rocky Mountain National Park to quickly. While its a wonderful time of year in the park, photographing the fall season is a challenge. Photographers are at the mercy of the weather and trying to be in the right place at the right time always mixes preparedness with a little bit of luck and maybe a dash of serendipity.
The coming crescendo of the autumn season in Rocky Mountain National Park will be met with satisfaction and enjoyment of the season, but also a little bit of sadness as we watch the landscape begin its transformation from the brilliant colors of autumn moving towards its long winter slumber. It’s a both a humbling and somewhat frightening experience to watch winters grip removed by the growth and warmth of spring and summer only to see it wiped away in such a short amount of time. Though I wont say I appreciate the coming of winter and the end of fall, it does allow one sometime to recharge and reflect on the beauty of the past season.
So while the fall season in Rocky Mountain National Park is quickly moving towards and end, there are still some opportunities to photograph the last hold outs of autumn. As of this writing there are still a few stands of aspens in the lower elevations of Rocky Mountain National Park that have some color. Moraine Park, a few areas around Upper and Lower Beaver Meadows as well as Horseshoe Park can still yield beautiful fall photographs. Higher elevations such as the Bierstadt Moraine and the Boulder Brook area are now far past peak.
Dont give up quite yet on fall in Rocky Mountain National Park. There are still a few areas that can yield some nice autumn images over the next week or so in the park. Enjoy the last vestiges of fall while they are still able to be enjoyed.
A quick update on fall color change in Rocky Mountain National Park as we head into the weekend. During a typical season one can find fall color in different locations of Rocky Mountain National Park from late August through late October depending on weather and wind. The changes typically start at the higher elevations of the park with the tundra grasses changing over from green to brown and red, followed by some of the small ground cover in different locations of the park.
Aspen tree’s which is what most people and photographers are interested in when it comes to fall color in Rocky Mountain National Park will have a few outliers here in there which begin to change in August but the first real significant signs of fall color amongst the aspens of Rocky typically happens as we move into the second week of September.
During this second week of September, aspen trees will start turning in ernest in locations around Bear Lake, Glacier Gorge as well as some of the groves on the west side of Rocky Mountain National Park near Grand Lake. As the weeks progress, locations such as the Bierstadt Moraine will peak concluding with lower elevations like Moraine Park, Beaver Meadows and portions of Horseshoe Park.
As of today, there is noticeable change occurring in and around Bear Lake. The aspens on the hillside above Bear Lake are still probably a week or so out from peak. That being said, some of the aspens above Bear Lake along the Flattop Mountain TH/Fern Lake TH have turned. Some areas near the Glacier Knob’s are at peak but overall there is still a lot of green trees.
I also visited the Lake Helene area yesterday with a photography tour client and only small portions of the smaller brush surrounding the lake shore had turned. It’s probably another 5 days or so before the brush around Lake Helene peaks.
Overall there is now perceptible color changes occurring in Rocky Mountain National Park. As a rough estimate I would guess we have about 15-20% color change occurring with the majority of it occurring at elevations over 9000 ft. Photographers can certainly find color to photograph now in Rocky but for the most part it will be more intimate scenes as the large landscape type views are still lacking when it comes to large amounts of color change.
No sooner had I finished writing and posting my previous blog post about current conditions in Rocky Mountain National Park and the subtle changes in the seasons before the weather in RMNP does what it’s famous for, change dramatically again.
True to form, not only are there signs of autumns impending arrival, but the weather in Rocky Mountain National Park on Friday morning decided to remind us that not only is fall right around the corner, but so is winter. While rain had fallen overnight in most elevations of RMNP on Thursday night, it was cold enough to put a light but healthy dusting of fresh snow on the landscape above 11,500 ft.
I drove up Trail Ridge Road early Friday morning looking to see if there would be any breaks in the cloud cover that morning for sunrise. Approaching the Forest Canyon overlook I could see it was more than just droplets of dew on the grasses and tundra and that there was a light dusting of snow right near timberline. Taking a moment to take a good look at Longs Peak in the predawn light, I could see it was also coated in fresh snow. While its a little early, snow in late August on the high peaks is fairly common. Heck it makes for some nice photographs as well so I’m certainly not complaining, I mean whats better than photographing 3 seasons all in the course of a couple of days?
So lets recap the current conditions in Rocky Mountain National Park. It’s still summer. Most of the park is still green, lakes are free of ice and trails are clean and clear. Signs of autumn have started to rear their head in the nooks and crannies of RMNP. A few aspen trees here and there are showing some color and some of the smaller ground foliage has turned red and orange. Lastly, even though it August, we can and do get occasional snow events covering the summer landscape with a winter like cloak.
Changes are starting to take place in Rocky Mountain National Park as they always do towards the backend of summer. Summer never seems to stick around as long as one would like and as soon as summer is upon us here in Rocky Mountain National Park, it seems like it’s back on its way out. It’s a conflicted period for me as on one hand while I love photographing the summer season in Rocky, Fall narrowly pulls ahead of summer as my favorite time to photograph RMNP.
It’s still summer and it’s still a bit on the early side (though not that early) to be talking about fall color conditions in Rocky Mountain National Park. With that said and keen observer will already notice that impending signs of autumn have begun to settle into the park.
The tundra grasses above timberline have turned brown and red high on the mountainsides, Bull Elk have shed their velvet and the bulls are starting to collect harems and bellow that beautiful and haunting bugle. Some of the aspen trees which typically turn golden yellow early in the season are showing yellow leaves. Lastly heavy frost has coated the meadows of Rocky Mountain National Park and some of the smaller deciduous ground cover have started to display their intense autumn colors.
On the west side of RMNP this morning fog drifted through the Kawuneeche Valley and a heavy frost covered the grasses of the Kawuneeche. Taking a minute to study the frozen grasses in the meadow I found not only the remnants of summer in the form of some frozen wildflowers, but also some beautiful reds, orange and yellow brush on full display. While there is no need to panic and things are very much on schedule, when in Rocky, take a minute to inspect the hidden and oft overlooked and you will be amazed at the autumn beauty you can already find.
One last note: I still have a few opening for photography tours in Rocky Mountain National Park during the end of September into early October. Availability is quickly filling up and if you think you would like to book a tour date it would be a good idea to do so soon.
Dream Lake, The Rock Cut, The Loch, Chasm Lake, Moraine Park all these constitute some of the most beautiful locations in Rocky Mountain National Park. These qualify as icons and as such photographers flock to these locations when visiting Rocky Mountain National Park. These locations are iconic because they are stunningly beautiful locations with or without a camera in hand. We all love photographing these icons of RMNP, but what about photographing locations in Rocky that are less iconic but have their own unique beauty and aura to them?.
Photographing non-iconic locations is by far more challenging then setting up along the shore of Dream Lake to photograph sunrise. For me at least, every nook and cranny of Rocky Mountain National Park holds beauty. That beauty may be more subtle than the knock your socks off, in your face beauty of Dream Lake but its there if you look for it. I find some of my most rewarding images of Rocky Mountain National Park are ones taken in locations that other photographers feel are either blasé or ones other photographers consider somewhat pedestrian when it comes to the landscape.
Every location in Rocky is beautiful and for me it’s about finding the right conditions and light to bring out the beauty and mood of a given location. Take for example the image above. Big Meadows on the west side of Rocky Mountain National Park is an often visited location. That being said you wont find many images of Big Meadows in books, calendars or postcards. For the most part, hikers and photographers to Big Meadows will travel right on through on their way to what they consider more scenic areas of Rocky.
I’ve done this very thing many times myself but each time I pass through Big Meadows I think what a beautiful location it is and what conditions would I need to be able to convey the mood and spirit of this location. Big Meadows is exactly what the name describes it as. It’s a large grassy, marshy meadow surrounded mostly by some of Rocky more nondescript and less iconic peaks. There is no lake here, no giant granite mountain face towering over the the meadow. It’s a more subtle beauty, one where you are more likely to be photographing alongside a moose grazing along Tonahutu Creek then alongside another photographer.
So while its fun photographing the iconic locations of Rocky Mountain National Park, I feel it is just as important if not more so to photograph the beauty of the less iconic locations. A few weeks back conditions were perfect for what I had envisioned would be necessary to successfully photograph Big Meadows. Clouds drifted over the mountains and fog was present in the meadow. I had made a mental note to myself that the next time conditions unfolded like these I should make an attempt to hike into Big Meadows and see if I could capture the feel and mood of this beautiful spot.
I’m sure Dream Lake would have yielded a beautiful image as well this particular morning, but squishing around the wet grasses and soil of Big Meadows on this magical morning was not only worth it, but I was rewarded with an image of Big Meadows that I think perfectly captures the beauty of this location.
It’s primetime right now for summertime photography in the high country of Rocky Mountain National Park. The snow has melted, wildflowers are peaking and the alpine tundra above timberline is green and vibrant. This is the time of year many photographers wait in anticipation for during the long winter months. For many photographers, this is the time of year they head out into the backcountry and try to capture some iconic Colorado landscapes adorned in their summer splendor.
With this comes all the planning, logistics and 2 AM wakeup calls in order to be in that perfect spot along an alpine lake or tarn, camera on tripod waiting for that decisive moment when the sun breaks the horizon and casts it’s warm beautiful glow on the mountains. All is going swimmingly until one problem arises. The peaks are still not illuminated and your watch says the sun should have risen 20 minutes ago.
You scramble to a high point and see that a thin layer of clouds on the eastern plains of Colorado is holding back that intense color the first few minutes of light produce and the light you have been dreaming about photographing all year. Dread starts to set in and you start to question your plan, waking up at 2 AM and hiking a handful of miles in the dark of night just to get here in time. You can see the sun is about to make it above the thin layer of clouds on the horizon but you are disappointed you wont have the screaming, intense light you dreamed about.
My advice in this situation?, don’t fret and stay ready to fire the shutter. Maybe the internet is full of images that picture this location in conditions that rival even the most dramatic Albert Bierstadt painting. Guess what the reality is?. Even 20 minutes after sunrise the lighting can be nearly as dramatic as first light. In many cases I find more subdued lighting to be more pleasing and for many non-photographers, the lighting is more relatable to what they may see(normal people think early means 6 AM). I want to photograph those first few minutes of light just as much as the next photographer, but I find it important to stay in the moment, find a strong composition and allow mother nature to do the heavy lifting, even if its 20 minutes after sunrise.
I just wrapped up a busy week of photography and photo tour/guiding. Summer season is in full swing both weather and visitation wise. Lots of people in Rocky Mountain National Park again enjoying all she has to offer and lots of opportunities in Rocky for photographers.
In between 3 really good sunrises last week I was reminded of something I preach to clients and those seeking advice on photographing Rocky Mountain National Park. Make sure you remember to look behind you. All to often we head out into Rocky dead set on capturing the perfect iconic Colorado view of a jagged mountain peak reflecting perfectly in the still waters of a tarn or lake.
When the conditions are right and you have the opportunity to photograph peaks reflecting in still mountain lakes you should cherish and take advantage of the situation. While I have many of these images in my Rocky Mountain National Park portfolio, many have taken years and years and dozens of visits to these locations to capture. Wind, clouds, lack of clouds and poor lighting can all work against you in Rocky’s alpine environment. Whats important is to keep and open mind and be prepared to look for alternative images to what you planned on photographing.
Last Sunday I had just this type of scenario unfold before me. As I always am, I was up long before dawn checking out conditions. Cloud cover was ample and there were nice breaks to the east of Rocky Mountain National Park. I had a short amount of time but decided that I would head up to some mountain lake and see how sunrise unfolded. As I approached the Bear Lake parking lot it became apparent that the cloud cover was mostly east of the mountains and not directly over them.
This is a common setup for clouds in Rocky. Winds aloft will often cause the skies directly over the peaks to be clear of cloud cover while the skies just to the east of the mountains will have cloud cover or lenticular clouds that will explode with color as the sun rises. When conditions are like this you should look to play the hand your dealt and find a shot that is going to maximize the drama and conditions unfolding before you.
While Dream Lake may be one of the top five most iconic images in all of Colorado, the traditional image from the outlet of Dream Lake on the it’s east side was not going yield an average image with clear blue skies and some nice color on the peaks. I opted to head to the inlet of Dream Lake and photograph looking east. The cloud layer east of Dream Lake would explode with color and better yet, the west side of Dream Lake was mostly sheltered from the winds that were raking the surface on the east side of the lake, hence ruining ones chance for a reflection.
All in all It worked out to be one of the more dramatic mornings I’ve spent at Dream Lake. If I had stayed with my original plan I would have captured Dream Lake with a choppy lake surface and little color. As I always like to say, have a good game plan for your morning shoot, but be prepared to find an alternative image or location if conditions don’t materialize like you intended them to do. Doing this will open up many more opportunities for photography in Rocky Mountain National Park as well as add new imagery to your portfolio.
The wildflower parade is now well underway in Rocky Mountain National Park. Lots of flowers blooming all over the park and it’s only June. Golden Banner, Wild Iris, Calypso Orchids, Marsh Marigolds, Aster and many others can now be found. I’m always amazed at not only how quickly the weather can change in Rocky Mountain National Park, but also how a week of mild weather can catapult us so quickly to summer like conditions in the park. Higher elevations are mostly covered with snow but even areas where the snow is rapidly melting, wildflowers can be found. My advice is to enjoy this time of year in Rocky and quickly take advantage of the rapidly changing season. Enjoy the start of the wildflower bloom, because I’m sure I’ll be commenting sooner than later about golden aspen leaves.
With Trail Ridge Road opened late last week, all that stood in the way of being able to easily return to the west side of Rocky Mountain National Park was the nightly 8:00 PM closure that was in place. On Wednesday June 1st, the NPS removed the nighttime closure of Trail Ridge Road and with that a whole lot of options opened up for photographers visiting Rocky.
With the removal of the nighttime closure of Trail Ridge I headed out first thing the next morning for sunrise on Trail Ridge Road and then I figured a few nights camping on the west side of Rocky to survey the conditions and photograph some areas I had not visited since last October prior to Trail Ridge closing for the season.
I spent most of my time this trip photographing mainly in the Kawuneeche Valley and along the East Inlet just outside of Grand Lake. There is still a fair amount of snow to be found along some of the trails especially as you move higher up in elevations but the both the Kawuneeche Valley and the East Inlet are clear of snow. As of this writing, snow could be found on the trails above Lone Pine Lake and I found trails covered in patches of snow starting near Big Meadows.
Moose were plentiful on the west side and while the grasses have just started to green, wildflowers such as Marsh Marigolds and Calypso Orchids were plentiful. The highlight of my trip over to the west side of Rocky Mountain National Park was watching a large cinnamon colored black bear amble across Harbison Meadows and into the trees. I made an attempt to photograph this healthy bear but he managed to cross the road behind my vehicle and quickly scamper up the hillside before I could photograph the bear.
Even though I did not manage to photograph the bear it was a productive trip nonetheless will a nice sunrise and two beautiful sunsets mixed in. I’m already planning my next trip over to west side and I only expect ease of access and conditions to improve with each passing day.