Brown Season Blues

The tweener season between autumn and fall in Rocky Mountain National Park is known as the 'brown' seaons. It's easy to see one's motivation wane when it comes to photography. Even during the brown season there are lots of interesting landscapes and wildlife oppurtunities to photograph. Hiking up to Chasm Falls on a snow morning last week provided a unique opportunity to photograph what would be a very busy place when Fall River Road is open. This day, not another soul to be found. Technical Details: Nikon D810, Nikkor 24-120mm F4 ED AF VR
The tweener season between autumn and fall in Rocky Mountain National Park is known as the ‘brown’ seaons. It’s easy to see one’s motivation wane when it comes to photography. Even during the brown season there are lots of interesting landscapes and wildlife oppurtunities to photograph. Hiking up to Chasm Falls on a snow morning last week provided a unique opportunity to photograph what would be a very busy place when Fall River Road is open. This day, not another soul to be found. Technical Details: Nikon D810, Nikkor 24-120mm F4 ED AF VR

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.

Wildlife in Rocky Mountain National Park is at its prime during the 'brown' season as it coincides with the mating or rut. This beautiful mule deer buck keeps a watchful eye on another buck across the meadow. Technical Details: Nikon D810, Sigma150-600mm 5-6.3 DG HSM OS C lens
Wildlife in Rocky Mountain National Park is at its prime during the ‘brown’ season as it coincides with the mating or rut. This beautiful mule deer buck keeps a watchful eye on another buck across the meadow. Technical Details: Nikon D810, Sigma150-600mm 5-6.3 DG HSM OS C lens

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.

Long Lens Landscapes

With the recent addition of a Sigma150-600mm 5-6.3 DG HSM OS C to my lens kit, I've been putting it's longer focal lengths to good use when photographing landscapes in Rocky Mountain National Park. I purchased the lens to use primarily for wildlife in Rocky but have found the longer focal lengths to be very useful at compressing and isolating portions of the landscape. I found this to be the case when photographing low lying fog in Moraine Park from the Many Parks Curve overlook along Trail Ridge Road. Using the 600mm focal length on the lens, I was able to isolate this portion of Moraine Park as the fog moved out. Technical Details: Nikon D810, Sigma150-600mm 5-6.3 DG HSM OS C lens
With the recent addition of a Sigma150-600mm 5-6.3 DG HSM OS C to my lens kit, I’ve been putting it’s longer focal lengths to good use when photographing landscapes in Rocky Mountain National Park. I purchased the lens to use primarily for wildlife in Rocky but have found the longer focal lengths to be very useful at compressing and isolating portions of the landscape. I found this to be the case when photographing low lying fog in Moraine Park from the Many Parks Curve overlook along Trail Ridge Road. Using the 600mm focal length on the lens, I was able to isolate this portion of Moraine Park as the fog moved out. Technical Details: Nikon D810, Sigma150-600mm 5-6.3 DG HSM OS C lens

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.

Autumn At Timberline

Landscape photographers will flock to Rocky Mountain National Park this time of year to capture the autumn in all her glory. Most photographers will be looking to photograph golden hillsides of aspens trees. Dont overlook the beautiful autumn color currenlty unfolding at or near timberline in Rocky. I photographed these beautiful fall colors just below Longs Peak on the alpine tundra yesterday. Our mild nights have allowed for the colors to really pop in the higher elevations of the park. Technical Details: Nikon D810, Nikkor 16-35mm F4 ED VR
Landscape photographers will flock to Rocky Mountain National Park this time of year to capture the autumn in all her glory. Most photographers will be looking to photograph golden hillsides of aspens trees. Dont overlook the beautiful autumn color currenlty unfolding at or near timberline in Rocky. I photographed these beautiful fall colors just below Longs Peak on the alpine tundra yesterday. Our mild nights have allowed for the colors to really pop in the higher elevations of the park. Technical Details: Nikon D810, Nikkor 16-35mm F4 ED VR

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.

The Week That Was

As photographers we often have preconceived notions of how and what we want to photograph. Often the weather conditions will not cooperate with our plans. When photographing in Rocky Mountain National Park its important to be willing to throw convention out the window and be willing to look both figuratively and literally in the opposing direction. There was an inversion over the eastern plains of Colorado this morning. Only a few clouds hung over the sky to the east of Rocky. While I did not plan on photographing from Rainbow Curve along Trail Ridge Road, weather conditions dictated that this would be where the best lighting at sunrise would be. Technical Details: Nikon D810, Nikkor 70-200mm F4 ED VR AF
As photographers we often have preconceived notions of how and what we want to photograph. Often the weather conditions will not cooperate with our plans. When photographing in Rocky Mountain National Park its important to be willing to throw convention out the window and be willing to look both figuratively and literally in the opposing direction. There was an inversion over the eastern plains of Colorado this morning. Only a few clouds hung over the sky to the east of Rocky. While I did not plan on photographing from Rainbow Curve along Trail Ridge Road, weather conditions dictated that this would be where the best lighting at sunrise would be. Technical Details: Nikon D810, Nikkor 70-200mm F4 ED VR AF

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.

Sunrise on the morning of Labor Day was spectacular from the shores of Bierstadt Lake. That is if you photographed looking towards the east as clouds had not yet moved over the high peaks and continental divide and blue skies would have prevailed. Technical Details: Nikon D810, Nikkor 16-35mm ED VR AF
Sunrise on the morning of Labor Day was spectacular from the shores of Bierstadt Lake. That is if you photographed looking towards the east as clouds had not yet moved over the high peaks and continental divide and blue skies would have prevailed. Technical Details: Nikon D810, Nikkor 16-35mm ED VR AF

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.

Crunch Time

This time of year one has many options when photographing in Rocky Mountain National Park. With the seasons transitioning from summer to fall one can chose to photograph summer like scenes as well as scenes more representative of autumn. Of course the trick this time of year is doing so before the weather sets in and alters ones plans. Last week I was able to photograph this summer like sunrise at Ouzel Lake in Wild Basin, while at the same time photographing some early fall color as well. Technical Details: Nikon D810, Nikkor 16-35mm F4 ED VR lens
This time of year one has many options when photographing in Rocky Mountain National Park. With the seasons transitioning from summer to fall one can chose to photograph summer like scenes as well as scenes more representative of autumn. Of course the trick this time of year is doing so before the weather sets in and alters ones plans. Last week I was able to photograph this summer like sunrise at Ouzel Lake in Wild Basin, while at the same time photographing some early fall color as well. Technical Details: Nikon D810, Nikkor 16-35mm F4 ED VR lens

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.

On the hike out of Ouzel Lake I was able to find quite a bit of fall color in the forests of Wild Basin like this group of aspen trees. Technical Details: Nikon D810, Nikkor 24-120mm F4 VR ED lens
On the hike out of Ouzel Lake I was able to find quite a bit of fall color in the forests of Wild Basin like this group of aspen trees. Technical Details: Nikon D810, Nikkor 24-120mm F4 VR ED lens

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.

Rocky’s Summer Snow

Storm clouds roll off the high peaks of the aptly named Never Summer Range in Rocky Mountain National Park. The calendar says its August 19th, but the conditions in Rocky this morning appear more winter like. While it can snow at anytime in Rocky Mountain National Park, this is the earliest I've been able to photograph a healthy dusting of snow on the high peaks. Technical Details: Nikon D810, Sigma C150-600mm F5.6-6.3 DG OS HSM lens.
Storm clouds roll off the high peaks of the aptly named Never Summer Range in Rocky Mountain National Park. The calendar says its August 19th, but the conditions in Rocky this morning appear more winter like. While it can snow at anytime in Rocky Mountain National Park, this is the earliest I’ve been able to photograph a healthy dusting of snow on the high peaks. Technical Details: Nikon D810, Sigma C150-600mm F5.6-6.3 DG OS HSM lens.

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.

The Earth's shadow paints the sky over Specimen Mountain and The Poudre River in pastels after and August 19th snowstorm has coated the mountains and hillsides with snow. Techncial Details: Nikon D810, Nikkor 24-120mm F4 AF VR lens
The Earth’s shadow paints the sky over Specimen Mountain and The Poudre River in pastels after and August 19th snowstorm has coated the mountains and hillsides with snow. Techncial Details: Nikon D810, Nikkor 24-120mm F4 AF VR lens

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.

Rare and beautiful all at the same time. A fresh August 19th snowstorm coats the Never Summer Range in Rocky Mountain National Park. Technical Details: Sigma C 150-600mm F5.6-6.3 DG OS HSM lens.
Rare and beautiful all at the same time. A fresh August 19th snowstorm coats the Never Summer Range in Rocky Mountain National Park. Technical Details: Sigma C 150-600mm F5.6-6.3 DG OS HSM lens.

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.

Summer’s Back Nine

The summer photography season in Rocky Mountain National Park is currently in full swing. To borrow a golf phrase we are entering summer's back nine in Rocky. Wildflowers still look great in the park and now is the time to get out and hike to your favorite backcountry destination. I photographed this beautiful sunset last week on the west side of Rocky Mountain National Park. The beautiful colors of sunset reflect in the placid waters of the Colorado River as seen from the Kawuneeche Valley. Technical Details: Nikon D810, 16-35mm F4 ED VR
The summer photography season in Rocky Mountain National Park is currently in full swing. To borrow a golf phrase we are entering summer’s back nine in Rocky. Wildflowers still look great in the park and now is the time to get out and hike to your favorite backcountry destination. I photographed this beautiful sunset last week on the west side of Rocky Mountain National Park. The beautiful colors of sunset reflect in the placid waters of the Colorado River as seen from the Kawuneeche Valley. Technical Details: Nikon D810, 16-35mm F4 ED VR

I apologize for the recent lack of postings to my blog in recent weeks. It’s full on summer seasons here in Rocky Mountain National Park and it’s been keeping me quite busy. Between guiding clients on photography tours, or getting very early morning starts to head up and out to some of the lakes far in the backcountry it’s been difficult finding sometime to sit down and write up a blog post.

In a nutshell Rocky Mountain National Park is absolutely spectacular right now. Rocky is still very green from all the moisture we had this spring and early summer and the wildflowers in the higher elevations are still looking very good. Wildflowers such as Columbines and Paintbrush look spectacular in the higher elevations and I highly recommend getting out and searching for them while you still can. It may be hard to believe but I’ve already seen frost on the grasses in the higher elevations above treeline and on the alpine tundra already. This means it’s only a matter of time before the wildflowers bid adieu for another season.

Sooner than later autumn color will start to settle into the park and the Elk rut will be underway. Any day now somebody is going to post an image of an aspen tree turning yellow early and make a proclamation that fall season is underway early this year. As is the case every year there is always one or two trees that will begin to show their autumn colors early in Rocky Mountain National Park. So before the autumn season settles in and we begin to lament just how quickly summer comes and goes I highly recommend that you get out into Rocky Mountain National Park and enjoy the back nine of the summer season.

Black And Green Lakes

It was July 10th at Green Lake deep within the backcountry of Glacier Gorge but the lake still has yet to completely thaw out. The Spearhead formation rises above Green Lake as clouds streak above and over this famous formation. Technical Details: Nikon D810, Nikkor 16-35mm F4 VR
It was July 10th at Green Lake deep within the backcountry of Glacier Gorge but the lake still has yet to completely thaw out. Residing in the shadow of 14,259 ft Longs Peak prevents sunlight from reaching this glacial basin and slows the thawing process. The Spearhead formation rises above Green Lake as clouds streak above and over this famous formation. Technical Details: Nikon D810, Nikkor 16-35mm F4 AF VR

Summer is officially in full swing in Rocky Mountain National Park now. The trails are nearly snow free and almost all the lakes in Rocky have thawed. Wildflowers are out in abundance and the display this year of flowers is by far the best I’ve witnessed in years. It’s a great time to get out into parts of Rocky Mountain National Park that are difficult to access much of the year when covered with snow and ice.

While summer has officially arrived, the dynamic weather that has benefited the streams and wildflowers continues to make conditions for photographers interesting as well. Last week was filled with dramatic sunrises, rain, wind and clouds. All the elements landscape photographers keep their fingers crossed for when planning an outing.

After spending a week in New York visiting with family it was time for me to get out into the backcountry and take advantage of the summer conditions in Rocky’s backcountry. Black and Green Lake deep within Glacier Gorge seemed like the perfect jaunt to check out conditions.

Green Lake has been on my list of locations to photograph for sometime. I’ve photographed Black Lake numerous times before but had not yet made it up to Green Lake. Green Lake requires quite a bit more effort to access than Black Lake as most of the hike above Black Lake is cross country travel without a defined or maintained trail. Green Lake lies at the base of the famous Spearhead formation which I’ve also wanted to photograph close up.

So I started up the Glacier Gorge trailhead at 3:30 AM to give myself ample time to make the 5:40 AM sunrise at Black Lake. While I would have been happy to hike all the way to Green Lake for sunrise, the area around Green Lake proper does not receive the first rays of sun because it resides directly below and behind Longs Peak. Even during the summer months it takes sometime for the sun to get high enough above Longs Peak to illuminate the Spearhead.

When I started my hike up to Black Lake it was raining lightly. The forecast showed the skies would clear and the rain would stop by sunrise. Basically conditions looked promising for both the chance of clouds and possibly some breaks with sun.

Before heading up to Green Lake, I first photographed Black Lake at sunrise. Some nice clouds partially obscured McHenry's Peak as it reflected in the smooth waters of Black Lake. Technical Details: Nikon D810, Nikkor 16-35mm F4 AF VR
Before heading up to Green Lake, I first photographed Black Lake at sunrise. Some nice clouds partially obscured McHenry’s Peak as it reflected in the smooth waters of Black Lake. Technical Details: Nikon D810, Nikkor 16-35mm F4 AF VR

The weather as it had most of the week did not disappoint. Sunrise was stunning at Black Lake and the wind held off just long enough so that a reflection was possible, that changed shortly after sunrise however. As the wind picked up and the sun ducked in and out of the cloud cover I left Black Lake and continued on towards Green Lake.

When I arrived at Green Lake I was surprised to find much of the lake still had ice and snowpack on it. While most of the lakes in Rocky Mountain National Park had already thawed, Green Lake still was partially frozen as of July 10th. The wind was howling pretty good and the clouds were whipping over and around the Spearhead. The sun would periodically move in an out of the clouds illuminating the Spearhead in dappled lighting. While it was raw and chilly in the winds at Green Lake the conditions were just about perfect for spotlighting and photographing the Spearhead. Because your not going to get first light on the Spearhead, these kind of dynamic conditions with the clouds and light are about the best one can ask for.

So after spending an hour or so photographing the varying light and clouds at Green Lake I packed up my gear and headed back down towards the parking lot. With the streams running and wildflowers of all varieties to be found it finally felt as if summer, my favorite season in Rocky had indeed arrived.

Cruising Trail Ridge Road

A beautiful end to and evening on Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park. The sun is seen setting over Shipler Peak as clouds and some virga drift over the Colorado skies. The snowpack still present on the mountains of Rocky Mountain National Park this late into June was an added bonus for photographers. Technical Details: Nikon D810, Nikkor 28-300mm F4.5-5.6 ED VR lens
A beautiful end to and evening on Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park. The sun is seen setting over Shipler Peak as clouds and some virga drift over the Colorado skies. The snowpack still present on the mountains of Rocky Mountain National Park this late into June was an added bonus for photographers. Technical Details: Nikon D810, Nikkor 28-300mm F4.5-5.6 ED VR lens

Last week I was able to spend a few evening on Trail Ridge Road for the first time this season since it opened on June 2nd. Normally the National Park Service tries to have Trail Ridge Road open the Friday of the Memorial Day holiday but because of all the snow and inclement weather, the opening was delayed by almost two weeks.

Even with the delayed opening it was a few more days before the National Park Service allowed Trail Ridge Road to stay open through the night. With all the snow melting along the road and with nighttime temperatures still hovering around the freezing mark, Trail Ridge was closed each night for through travel by 8:00 PM due to the potential for ice on the roadway. With sunset occurring after 8:30 PM this made shooting last light on Trail Ridge Road pretty much impossible. Finally, after a few days of night closings, temperatures moderated enough that Trail Ridge Road was deemed safe to remain open through the night.

Another beautiful sunset for the Gore Range overlook looking down Forest Canyon towards Longs Peak. Technical Details: Nikon D810, Nikkor 24-120 F4 ED VR lens
Another beautiful sunset for the Gore Range overlook looking down Forest Canyon towards Longs Peak. Technical Details: Nikon D810, Nikkor 24-120 F4 ED VR lens

So finally after nearly a two week delay waiting for Trail Ridge Road to remain open for the night as well as a few nights open without clients to guide I was able to get up above treeline for a few sunsets.

While the weather had indeed moderated here over the first two weeks June, the weather pattern regarding moisture and storms remained very active. Of course as landscape photographers we want unsettled weather patterns. Clouds, rain, lighting all can add drama to the landscape. Furthermore, a lot of snow remained above 11,000 ft for the second week of June. While not a rarity per se, there was more snow on the peaks and above 11,000 ft this late in the season than I can remember in sometime. This was welcome because it offered the opportunity to cruise Trail Ridge Road while photographing the still snow covered peaks and mountains of Rocky Mountain National Park.

The Never Summer's live up to their name as they remain coated in snow even into June. Technical Details: Nikon D810, Nikkor 28-300mm F4.5-5.6 ED VR lens
The Never Summer’s live up to their name as they remain coated in snow even into June. Technical Details: Nikon D810, Nikkor 28-300mm F4.5-5.6 ED VR lens

A good deal of snow remaining along Trail Ridge Road, it was just as impressive to watch how much snow actually melted in a few short days. Literally entire hillsides covered with snow the day prior, had nearly melted out the following evening. The window to photograph these snow covered landscapes is short. Nearly fifteen hours of daylight combined with the high sun angle leaves only the shadiest of spots free from a furious melt off. Frankly, it’s astonishing to see just how much snow melts and pace at which it occurs this time of year.

For a few days the peaks towering over Forest Canyon as well as the Never Summer Range looked glorious. Clouds dotted the landscape along Trail Ridge Road and conditions where ideal for shooting. There was nearly any wind above treeline, the temperatures were pleasant and the combination of snow, clouds and beautiful late evening light made it a total joy to be out photographing some of Rocky Mountain National Park’s most beautiful locations. With the snow melting quickly Trail Ridge Road will remain just as beautiful. Next up will be green rolling hills and alpine wildflowers blooming on the Tundra. The season on Trail Ridge is too short, but there is never a dull moment for photographers and visitors alike who venture up on Trail Ridge Road.

Little Gem’s

Sometimes certain locations fail to inspire us on our first or second visit. For whatever reason this locations may not click with landscape photographers. Sometimes we have our own preconceived notions on how locations should look and photograph. Essentiall we attempt to exert our will on the landscape instead of allowing the landscape to speak to us. I had previously had this very experience at Gem Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park. Learning to relax and let go of the way I thought Gem Lake should photograph allowed me to open up to all the possibilities present. Technical Details: Nikon D810, Nikkor 24-120mm F4 AF VR
Sometimes certain locations fail to inspire us on our first or second visit. For whatever reason this locations may not click with landscape photographers. Sometimes we have our own preconceived notions on how locations should look and photograph. Essentiall we attempt to exert our will on the landscape instead of allowing the landscape to speak to us. I had previously had this very experience at Gem Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park. Learning to relax and let go of the way I thought Gem Lake should photograph allowed me to open up to all the possibilities present. Technical Details: Nikon D810, Nikkor 24-120mm F4 AF VR

I’m guessing that most landscape photographers can relate to this phenomena. You arrive at a naturally beautiful location but have difficulty conveying the location through your images. In other words, the place is just not speaking to you. Two things may occur when this happens. You end up trying really hard to photograph the location only to feel disappointment once you review your images back home. Contrary to the first approach, the second approach may be that you feel completely uninspired by the location, never take your backpack off and you leave your camera packed never to see that light of daylight at said location. Both approaches often leave you feeling frustrated, neither are right or wrong approaches.

I’m a big believer in both visiting a location without a camera when possible as well as an advocate that even if you’re feeling uninspired by a location you should take your camera out and make an attempt to photograph something. It may be difficult to do but sometimes just going through the process of examining and composing fires one’s creative juices and you will find yourself again inspired.

Gem Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park has been one of these locations for me. Gem Lake rests of a small shelf 1.7 miles from the start of the Lumpy Ridge trailhead. It’s a beautiful location in it’s own right and it’s one that many visitors to Rocky Mountain National Park will visit. Gem Lake is very close to Estes Park and the 1.7 mile hike is a fairly easy one. Guidebooks and locals will often recommend this hike to visitors because of the beauty, location and elevation that is lower than many of the other lakes in Rocky Mountain National Park. I often get asked by clients if I have images of Gem Lake in my portfolio for sale, of which I did not. This is because I personally find Gem Lake a difficult location to photograph.

While not your typical grand landscape, the rock walls of Gem Lake offered endless possibilities for photography. Technical Details: Nikon D810, Nikkor 24-120mm F4 AF VR
While not your typical grand landscape, the rock walls of Gem Lake offered endless possibilities for photography. Technical Details: Nikon D810, Nikkor 24-120mm F4 AF VR

Earlier this week there was a nice low layer of fog hanging over Estes Park before sunrise. I decided to hike up along Lumpy Ridge to get above the fog layer and photograph Longs Peak at sunrise rising above the fog and the town of Estes. I’ve been waiting quite awhile for conditions like this and it’s a fairly uncommon occurrence to get a fog layer low enough to cover Estes Park, but not high enough to obscure Lumpy Ridge. So I was fairly excited as I took off up the trail in the fog. As I’ve written before, fog is one of my favorite conditions to photograph in, but fog is a fickle friend. Minute changes in temperature or wind can cause the fog to move or dissipate so it’s always a gamble trying to figure out where to photograph from.

More often than not fog is not going to do what you want it to do. That was the case this particular morning. By the time I was up above town, most of the fog had cleared off from west to east. Fog remained over Lake Estes and I was even able to capture some moody images of the Stanley Hotel as the fog moved eastward. Beautiful clouds hung over the divide and although I was not going to be able to photograph Longs Peak rising above the fog, I was still able to capture a beautiful sunrise, just not the one I had envisioned. The light on the peaks lasted only about 10 minutes or so before it disappeared again behind some clouds. I was about 1/2 mile from Gem Lake at this point and I decided to continue onward and hike up to Gem Lake if only for an excuse for some more exercise and time outdoors.

I arrived at Gem Lake with no intention of taking off my backpack or photographing the lake. For starters the light was fairly blasé as it was now overcast and about an hour after sunrise. Secondly I had visited Gem Lake numerous times in the past with the intention of photographing this popular location and had come away with less than inspiring results. When I arrived at the lake I did what I normally do when I’m out exploring and hiking. I sat along the shoreline, surveyed my surroundings and just enjoyed the quite and solitude.

The unique coloring and striations of the rocks around Gem Lake are unlike any other found in Rocky. Technical Details: Nikon D810, Nikkor 24-120mm F4 AF VR
The unique coloring and striations of the rocks around Gem Lake are unlike any other found in Rocky. Technical Details: Nikon D810, Nikkor 24-120mm F4 AF VR

For those that have not visited Gem Lake it’s a unique location in Rocky Mountain National Park. It’s located on the top of a shelf and surrounded by rocky walls that rise up from its sand and gravel shoreline. It has neither and inlet or outlet stream and is essentially a shallow pool of water in a sandy depression. As I sat on the shoreline relaxing I started to study the rocky walls that rise up out of Gem Lake. The striations, colorations and patterns on the rock is unique and each small section of rock had beautiful and intricate patterns. I started to see potential images everywhere and within minutes had my camera and tripod out and I was now inspired and entrenched, photographing the surface of the lake and the rocky walls that rise above its shore.

So after arriving with no intention on breaking out my camera, I was both busy photographing Gem Lake and inspired. This in a location where I had previously found little to photograph. The combination of lowered expectations combined with time spent on locations relaxing and enjoying the scene instead of trying to photograph allowed a breakthrough so to speak. I’ve experienced this many times in the past and found that being able to relax as well as releasing any preconceived notions of how the scene should look and photograph can allow for a creative breakthrough. Although it may sound somewhat corny to some, sometimes you need to let the location speak to you, not the other way around in order to truly see the beauty and uniqueness these natural places all have.