Sunrise At Mills Lake

I headed up to Mills Lake on Tuesday morning for sunrise. Mills Lake is without a doubt one of the most impressive and beautiful locations in all of Rocky Mountain National Park. That being said, its a difficult location to photograph. Some clouds gliding over Glacier Gorge make for ideal conditions to photograph Mills Lake in the morning. Technical Details: Nikon Z7, Nikkor 24-70mm F4 S lens

On Tuesday morning of this week I took a quick trek up to Mills Lake for sunrise. In my opinion Mills Lake, located in Glacier Gorge is one of Rocky Mountain National Park’s most spectacular and jaw dropping locations. One of the reasons Mills Lake does not get quite as much attention from photographers as do some of RMNP’s other dramatic locations is that Mills Lake can be difficult to photograph.

With Mills Lake resting at the bottom of Glacier Gorge. It’s nestled in and around some of Rocky Mountain National Park’s most impressive and iconic peaks. Longs Peak, Rocky’s tallest peak at 14,259 ft towers above the eastern shore of Mills Lake along with Half Mountain and Pagoda Peak. To the south rests Chiefs Head Peak and the iconic Spearhead. On the west side of Mills Lake, Thatchtop Mountain rises high above with the Arrowhead down valley. With all of these impressive and iconic peaks of RMNP rising above Mills Lake, it makes for one of the most dramatic and visually impressive locations in all of Rocky.

These same peaks however, make Mills Lake difficult to photography because more times than less, they are overshadowing and blocking the sunlight in and around Glacier Gorge. This is especially true early in the morning and late in the afternoon when the sun is low in the sky.

Mornings at Mills Lake means that only the summit of Longs Peak will catch sun. In the middle of summer Chiefs Head Peak will catch first light. It still takes awhile for the sun to reach the Spearhead even during the longest days of the year.

Afternoons are best at Mills Lake but even with that said sunlight can be sparse. The backside of Longs Peak otherwise known as The Keyboard of The Winds will glow at sunset. That’s all well and good but many summer afternoons produce strong thunderstorms and cloud cover over Rocky Mountain National Park meaning you have a good chance of not getting any light at sunset. Wind is also an issue with a large lake like Mills and both the afternoon and mornings have a good chance of having a breeze flowing down Glacier Gorge.

With that said, my strategy at Mills Lake has been to look for heavy cloud cover over Longs Peak and hope there break in the cloud cover to the east. They way I see it when it comes to photographing Mills Lake, is that while I would call it more of an afternoon shot than a morning shot, a good set of clouds over Glacier Gorge can help even the score.

Tuesday morning I headed up the 2.8 miles to Mills Lake with decent cloud cover of the Gorge. That cloud cover thinned out as the sun rose, but enough white puffy clouds hung around after sunrise to make for a beautiful scene. Even better, the northern end of Mills Lake remained calm enough to allow for a great reflection. Not exactly how I had drawn up the morning in my mind, but regardless the results were still more than satisfactory.

One other note in closing here not related to photography at Mills Lake but to my tour and workshop schedule in late summer and fall. My schedule for photography tours this fall is quickly filling up. Many of my clients book these autumn dates nearly a year in advance. That being said if you are looking to take a photography tour or workshop with me at the end of August or through September and the fall color season, I still have some openings. Please contact me sooner than later and I’ll be happy to let you know what open dates I still have for summer and fall photography tours in Rocky Mountain National Park.

Late August, September and the first half of October is some of the best times to photograph Rocky Mountain National Park. It’s a great time to take a photography tour and I’’m happy to try and accommodate anybody who is interested in heading out with me in the next few months.

Catching Clouds At Little Buckaroo

Over the course of the last 60 years, the park service has made a concerted effort to return much of Rocky Mountain National Park back to it’s original condition. Because of this, many manmade structures in RMNP have been removed. There are still quite a few historical structers present in Rocky these days, a Little Buckaroo Barn on the west side of RMNP is my favorite. With a nice set of popcorn clouds skirting over the Kawuneeche Valley, I quickly headed out to the Little Buckaroo Barn to take advantage of clouds. Technical Details: Nikon Z7, Nikkor 24-70mm F4 S lens

When it comes to photographing western icon, Moulton Barns along Mormon Row in Grand Teton National Park. Unlike Grand Teton National Park, Rocky Mountain National Park has made a concerted effort to remove many of the man made structures and lodges in the park over the years. Many are surprised to discover that RMNP actually has it’s own barn that is nearly as photogenic at some of the structures in the Tetons.

While Rocky Mountain National Park was once lined and dotted with lodges and inn’s, none of these structures remain standing. Moraine Park, Horseshoe Park, Beaver Meadows, Deer Mountain and the Kawuneeche Valley all had numerous lodges and structures that once hosted visitors to the area.

While the NPS has made an effort to remove many of these structures and restore the landscape to it’s natural state, there are still quite a few historical buildings standing in Rocky Mountain National Park, particularly on the west side of the park.

For photographing man made structures, its hard to beat the Little Buckaroo Barn. This barn located on the west side of RMNP in the Kawuneeche Valley certainly gives the Moulton Barns of the Grand Teton’s a run for its money.

Part of Trail River Ranch, the Little Buckaroo Barn dates back to 1942. Built in a style that is typically found in southern Louisiana it’s unique one off. With the Never Summer Mountain of Rocky Mountain National Park as a backdrop, and building materials sourced from the area, the Little Buckaroo Barn is a small but stunning piece of construction.

Typically when I head into RMNP to photograph the landscape, I normally have a particular destination in mind. This can all change if the clouds or weather dictate that certain locations are more optimal with the current conditions.

This was the case on Wednesday morning when shortly after sunrise a nice set of clouds slid over the Kawuneeche Valley. Once I saw those clouds gliding over the valley, I quickly set out to Little Buckaroo hoping to use them as a backdrop. The clouds didn’t stick around long, but they stuck around just long enough for me to capture a handful of beautiful images of summer at Little Buckaroo Barn.

Untouched Rocky

In the middle of July, I had the opportunity to spend 3 days backpacking deep in the backcountry or Rocky Mountain National Park with fellow photographer and good friend Erik Stensland. It was a spectacular experience and one in which I was able to photograph areas of Rocky Mountain National Park that very few others have. Technical Details: Nikon Z7, Nikkor 24-70mm F4 S lens

Summer keeps rolling along in Rocky. It’s short and sweet and summer never lingers long. In fact, one can already start to see that the transition from summer to fall won’t be that far off. In fact, for my daughter, summer is over for her as I just walked her to the bus stop for her first day in third grade.

Early this summer I had the amazing opportunity to explore and photograph some very remote sections of Rocky Mountain National Park with my good friend and photographer extraordinaire Erik Stensland, owner of Images of RMNP Nobody has photographed more of Rocky Mountain National Park then Erik. Furthermore, few people have a greater appreciation for the beauty of Rocky Mountain National Park nor a reverence for nature than Erik does.

Over coffee earlier this winter we had thrown about the idea of going backpacking for a few days somewhere in the park. We were ambiguous in our plans as each year when the Backcountry office of RMNP opens up the permits for the backcountry sites it’s done on a first come first serve basis.

Because its first come, first serve, you have your list of sites and locations you want to visit but theres a good chance some of them will already be reserved by the time you make it to the front of the line.

Luckily we were able to secure a great backcountry site for 3 nights of the west side of Rocky. Erik, always the man with grand plan had some great ideas on where we should head and what we should attempt to photograph.

It would involve lots and lots of miles hiking over difficult terrain, thousands of feet of elevation gain in a day but would allow us to experience some of Rocky’s most beautiful and remote locations.

The trip did not disappoint. It took my legs about a week to recover from all the cross country travel and climbing but the weather was perfect, the locations visited were pristine and untouched.

The three day jaunt into the backcountry of RMNP was just about as perfect as one could ask for. I greatly appreciated Erik’s company, knowledge and friendship. It’s certainly and experience I won’t soon forget. As an aside as I get time I’ll continue to publish images from the trip in future blog posts.

Upwards To Chasm Lake

Late last week I had to rare opportunity to guide one of my photography tour clients up the challenging hike to Chasm Lake for sunrise. Photographing Longs Peak and The Diamond at sunrise from Chasm Lake is one of the greatest experiences one can have in Rocky Mountain National Park. With favorable conditions and a great sunrise, everything came together as planned and we left we some amazing images. Technical Details: Nikon Z7, Nikkor 14-30mm F4 S lens

Late last week i had the opportunity to head up to Chasm Lake at the base of 14,259 ft Longs Peak and its iconic northeast face the ‘Diamond’. As some of you know Chasm Lake is probably my favorite location in all of Rocky Mountain National Park.

Typically, I try to hike up to Chasm Lake at least once during the summer season but with so many amazing places in Rocky Mountain National Park to photograph and only so many opportunities and beautiful sunrises it doesn’t always work out. Travel, weather and leading photography tours and workshops in RMNP can make the logistics difficult some years.

I’ve had a photography workshop/tour client that has wanted to visit Chasm Lake for the past few seasons. He’s been preparing for the physical and difficult 4.2 mile hike and the nearly 2400 ft vertical gain required to reach Chasm Lake for the past few years. I’ve been able to lead him to a few other similar and difficult hikes in Rocky so I felt confident enough to take this particular person up to Chasm Lake when it looked like conditions may be optimal for photography.

With a few aborted attempts late last season due to poor weather, Chasm Lake has been on my clients ‘must do’ list for awhile. This client lives in the Denver metro area so when I have openings in my schedule available and the weather looks good I’ll contact him and let him know it might be a good day to attempt this particular location.

As it turned out, I had another client cancel their photography tour at the last minute. With a promising weather forecast for the potential of low winds and good light, I gave him the heads up that this might be one of our best chances to give Chasm Lake a shot this season.

Chasm Lake sits just below 12,000 ft above sea level. So getting a calm morning at that elevation with little wind, some clouds over Longs Peak and some nice sunrise light can be much more challenging than it appears.

We took off from the Longs Peak trailhead just after 3:00 AM. There was the usual gaggle of fellow hikers departing the trailhead at the same time headed for the summit of Longs Peak. As is the case with the Longs Peak trailhead in the middle of summer, it’s both busy and full of excitement even at 3:00 AM as visitors to RMNP head off to challenge themselves and attempt to make it to the summit of Longs Peak long before the afternoon thunderstorms begin to build.

We made it up to Chasm Lake a little before 5:30 AM. The last scramble up to Chasm and the long up hill hike had challenged my client. While he was bemoaning the long, steep uphill trek from the Longs Peak trailhead, he ignored his cramping legs once Chasm Lake came into sight and he started straight up at Longs Peak and The Diamond.

The early morning pre-dawn light was just starting to cause The Diamond, Longs Peak and the Ships Prow to take on a beautiful orange and red glow. Most of the surface of Chasm Lake was placid and there were some beautiful clouds hanging over Longs Peak this morning.

We quickly setup our tripods, set or compositions and starting photographing the spectacular light unfolding right in front of us. The Rocky ‘trifecta’ was in full effect this morning as we had sunlight, a reflection and clouds making for near perfect conditions.

I spent the rest of the morning above timberline showing my client some of the other tremendous spots in this awesome portion of RMNP. Being able to share the experience of visiting Chasm Lake for sunrise was awesome as was the ability to guide my client up to a location I dont often get to visit with other clients. Either way you cut it, it’s hard to beat a beautiful morning up at Chasm Lake.

Say Hello To Summer

Conditions in Rocky Mountain National Park are just about perfect right now for photography, hiking or any other outdoor activities you have in mind. After a long, slow transition to summer, its has now arrived in full force in RMNP. Hit the trail and enjoy great weather, trail conditions, wildflowers and weather in Rocky while it lasts. Technical Details: Nikon Z7, Nikon 24-70mm F4 S lens

I can’t believe it but the end of July has already arrived. Summer in Rocky Mountain National Park typically flies by at light speed but this summer seems to have set a new speed record.

I’ll chalk it up to cool weather this spring that just wouldn’t yield to summer along with the fact that I’ve been spending lots of time in the field photographing Rocky Mountain National Park both on my own as well as with lots of great photography tour clients who have been lucky to enjoy lots of beautiful sunrises on the east side of the park.

The conditions right now in Rocky Mountain National Park are really hitting full stride. While there are still a few snowfields to melt in elevations over 11,000 ft, most of the high meadows have now greened up and wildflowers (although late) are really starting to bloom.

It’s going to be interesting this year to not only see if in some areas of RMNP wildflowers just don’t bloom at all because of our late spring, along with how long wildflowers linger on this year right into fall color season in Rocky in mid to late September. It’s been such a strange year we might have fall colors and wildflower season dovetailing right into one another.

Not to get to far ahead of ourselves, conditions in Rocky Mountain National Park are just plain awesome right now. Streams have settled down from the spring runoff but area still brimming with water. Meadows are green, and wildflowers on the alpine tundra along with wildflowers in the mid elevations are still going strong. Lakes, ponds and tarns look great and sunrise conditions have really been cooperating this year.

As we move from July into August in Rocky, it’s certainly a great time to get out and take advantage of the late summer conditions that are just rounding into mid season summer form.

Time To Get Summer Started

With the July 4th holiday now past, summer season in Rocky Mountain National Park is upon us. Summer is always to short in my opinion but now is the time to get out behind the camera and capture RMNP in all her splendor. Baker Mountain was glowing this July morning a week back and the Colorado River was still flowing at full capacity from all the snowmelt and moisture Rocky has recieved so far this year. Technical Details: Nikon Z7, Nikkor 24-70mm F4 S lens

I’ve been busy the past week guiding other photographers to some of the most beautiful spots in Rocky Mountain National Park. Combine that with the 4th of July holiday here in the States and I’ve not been had quite as much time to get out alone in the field to photograph for my own portfolio of late.

What I can tell you is we are now entering primetime summer photography season in Rocky Mountain National Park. Mid July through early September is going to produce some of the best conditions for summer photography in Rocky.

I’m happy to report that we made it through a few weeks here in Rocky and Trail Ridge Road has remained opened and we have not had any new snow to speak of. I say that tongue and cheek of course but thats its felt like up until this past week. Fall River Road did not open by July 4th as is normally the case but will see a delayed opening of July 13th as the NPS is still dealing with all the snow in the valley.

The monsoonal weather pattern of late afternoon thunderstorms has not really kicked in yet this summer but we are now having warm weather during the days. The remaining snow on the trail is quickly melting and wildflowers are really start to show. Indian Paintbrush, Golden Banner and even Alpine Sunflowers are starting to bloom depending on location and altitude.

As is always the case with Rocky Mountain National Park and the summer seasons it seems to take a long time to get going and always seems to be much too short in duration. But as I tell my photography tour clients, you have to make the most of summer in Rocky while it’s here.

That means lots of early morning starts, sore legs from long hikes, and a backlog of images to process during the shorter days of winter. Now is the time to get out and take advantage of the ever improving conditions in RMNP and capture all that awesomeness that is summer in Rocky with your camera.

A Foggy Morning In The Kawuneeche Valley

Foggy mornings in Rocky Mountain National Park are some of my favorite conditions to photograph the landscape in. Yesterday, the Kawuneeche Valley was covered with low lying fog at sunrise. It’s great to take advantage of these condtions as the fog will transform the landscape into a moody and ethereal location. Technical Details: Nikon Z7, Nikkor 24-70mm F4 S lens

When I take photography tour/workshop clients out in the field they often ask me what my favorite locations or conditions to photograph in are in Rocky Mountain National Park. Choosing a favorite location is like trying to pick out which child of yours is the favorite. When asked this question as to which is my favorite location in RMNP my response is usually ‘any and all’.

As far as specific conditions go, I do have a favorite. That would be any and all types of fog or low cloud deck. Fog is a fairly rare occurrence in Rocky Mountain National Park, so anytime we have fog around I’m likely to be out attempting to photograph it.

While fog will occur on both the east and the west sides of RMNP, it’s a little more common to find it on the west side of Rocky in the Kawuneeche Valley. The Kawuneeche Valley is wetter and cooler than the east side of Rocky and combine that with the large bodies of water nearby (Grand Lake,Shadow Mountain Reservoir and Lake Grandby) and you have a better chance of finding fog in the Kawuneeche Valley then say Moraine Park or Horseshoe Park on the east side.

Yesterday morning I decided to head over to the west side of the park as the infra-red satellite picture indicated better cloud cover for sunrise on the west side of RMNP. The night before both Grand Lake and Estes Park had strong thunderstorms with a good amount of rain. Because of this I was hopeful the west side would have some fog mixed in with the cloud cover above for sunrise.

When I arrived at Fairview Curve and got my first look at the Kawuneeche Valley that morning I wasnt disappointed. I could see a good portion of the valley had fog. Not enough fog to obscure sunrise or block the mountains, but enough low lying fog to help enhance the mood and atmospherics for sunrise. On top of that the pines and bright green grasses in the valley had plenty of dew and moisture on them which really helps make the color pop.

I worked my way up valley from south to north working a bunch of different compositions before and after sunrise. Like any of these beautiful mornings in Rocky, the conditions are fleeting. Within an hour or so of sunrise all the fog had dissipated and the sun was shining brightly. While one wishes the fog would have stuck around for a little longer its always a treat to get a few hours of fog in RMNP to transform the landscape into a mysterious and ethereal location ripe for landscape photographers.

Enjoying The Warm Up

While out photographing sunrise west of Moraine Park this morning. I was overtaken by a large herd of elk which was grazing on the lush green grasses now abundant in Rocky Mountain National Park. While I was enjoying the warm up and the start of summer, these newborn elk calves also seemed to be enjoying the warmer weather. These little guys have had a rough introduction to Rocky Mountain National Park’s weather earlier this spring. Technical Details: Nikon D500, Nikkor AF-S 300mm f/4E PF ED VR lens w/1.4 TC III.

Finally!. After what seemed like a winter that would just not go away, it’s really starting to feel like summer is upon us here in Rocky Mountain National Park. We’ve now almost gone an entire week without any new snow and it looks like we are finally out the water for awhile.

I say that tongue and cheek of course but we did have nearly 3 inches of snow(above 9500 ft) last weekend which occurred after the official start of summer. While I was guiding clients and photographing the last storm, I have not yet posted any images from our summer snow in RMNP on the blog as of yet.

The June 22nd storm managed to close Trail Ridge Road for nearly 5 days I promise I’ll get around to posting an image or two but to be frank, with the wildflowers really starting to bloom and the temperatures warming up, I thought it might be best to wait a post or two before revisiting snow.

As stated earlier, summer is really starting to officially settle into Rocky. Most lakes below 10,500 ft are now free of ice. Snow on the trails can still be found above 10,000 ft but its melting pretty quickly at this point. Wildflowers are blooming in Moraine Park and Horseshoe Park and the grasses at the lower elevations are a beautiful green.

The wildlife seems to be enjoying the warmer weather as well. The elk which will move to the higher and cooler elevations of Rocky are still lingering in many of the lower elevations enjoying the verdant grasses.

While out photographing sunrise this morning along the Cub Creek drainage just west of Moraine Park, I had a large herd of elk overtake me as I was setup. In this large herd of elk which was grazing the green grasses were a handful of newborn elk calves. These little guys who have had a rough introduction to weather in Rocky Mountain National Park seemed to be enjoying themselves in the summer like conditions.

Before they moved up the drainage, they relaxed and grazed giving me just enough time to capture a few images of the herd while staying a safe distance from the calves and of course mama. While enjoying both the sunrise in Rocky Mountain National Park as well as photographing this elk herd, it was hard to decipher who was having more fun, me or the newborn elk.

Dancing With The Sun

Sundance Mountain yesterday looked spectacular as a late June snow squall cleared Trail Ridge Road early in the morning. Sundance Mountain often is overlooked by visitors to Rocky Mountain National Park as the best location to view this peak in is also one of the more nerve wracking sections of Trail Ridge Road for many drivers. Technical Details: Nikon Z7, Nikkor 24-70mm F4 S lens

Sundance Mountain in Rocky Mountain National Park does not have the cache and name recognition of many of the other iconic high peaks in Rocky. Ironically, most visitors to Rocky Mountain National Park drive right on past it on Trail Ridge Road.

It’s not that Sundance Mountain isn’t a beautiful peak. It’s granite face, pyramid like summit and beautiful cirque high rising high above Hanging Valley is impressive. The reason why most visitors to RMNP don’t get a chance to admire Sundance Mountain like many of the others is it’s location along Trail Ridge Road.

Just above Rainbow Curve, Trail Ridge Road really starts to test the faint of heart or those for whom fear of heights and exposure to heights is difficult. Winding past Rainbow Curve, Trail Ridge Road quickly continues it’s climb towards timberline. Here, high above Hanging Valley Trail Ridge clings to the side of the mountain with a thousand foot plus drop below with only a rock wall between the road and the drop.

This spot on Trail Ridge Road is exactly the spot where many visitors simply freak out. The exposure and height and is just too much for many and their reaction is to close their eyes or turn away from the drop off. At this location, I’ve encountered many other visitors to Rocky who will literally be driving in the middle of Trail Ridge Road to avoid the edge. Of course a collision with an oncoming vehicle is just as dangerous as sliding off the edge but to many, the fear of heights outweighs rational thought.

What does this have to do with the beauty of Sundance Mountain you might ask?. Well its at this very spot along Trail Ridge Road where one gets the best view of Sundance Mountain rising high above the very valley and drop off that frightens drivers along Trail Ridge Road. Many drivers at this spot are too busy concentrating on the road to take in the view of Sundance Mountain and it’s beauty. So for many, admiring Sundance is secondary to keeping the car on the road.

While driving past Sundance can be difficult, photographing it can be a challenge as well. For one, there’s not many good locations on Trail Ridge Road to stop and get out to take and image. The road is narrow here with no shoulder and only a small pull off. Secondly, there is no lake, stream or tarn here to frame Sundance in. Essentially, one needs some dramatic lighting and conditions on aptly named Sundance Mountain to make her shine.

With our wild spring weather continuing in Rocky Mountain National Park, Sundance Mountain was bathed in just the right kind of light as a late June snow squall cleared timberline. With fresh snow on her summit on June 19th, and some beautiful dappled sunlight coming through the clouds. Sundance Mountain showed why you should take a minute to admire and photograph her beauty, even if it means getting over one’s fear of heights for a few short moments.

Reflections Along The Colorado River

With Trail Ridge Road opening for the season on June 5th, it’s finally easy to get back over the west side of Rocky Mountain National Park. Like visiting with and old friend, getting back over to the west side of RMNP is always refreshing and inspiring when it comes to landscape photography. All of our snowmelt has the Colorado River running at capacity which is causing meadows to flood. This makes for great pools of water to capture reflections of Baker Mountain like this one from Thursday morning. Technical Details: Nikon Z7, Nikon 24-70mm F4 S lens

With all the snow Rocky Mountain National Park received this winter, the park service was finally able to open Trail Ridge Road for the season on June 5th. Thats quite a bit later than the week of Memorial Day which is typically the unofficial opening date the NPS attempts to have the Trail Ridge Road open.

So our large storms stymied a late my opening on Trail Ridge Road but nonetheless the road is open from Estes Park to Grand Lake and that means getting back over to the west side of Rocky just got much easier for many of us.

Between photography tours and a quick trip to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon via Moab, I had not yet had a chance to make a run over to the west side. I was able to remedy that earlier this week and made a trip over at sunrise to check on things.

As it is every year, getting back over to the west side of Rocky early in the season is always a treat. It’s like revisiting with an old friend. Most years I make a few trips over to the west side of Rocky during the winter months, but this year I was unable. This meant the last time I had actually been over to the west side of Rocky was in late September, just before snows closed Trail Ridge Road for the season.

Arriving on the west side of the park, I found the Kawuneeche Valley greening up nicely. Moose and elk were abundant in the meadows and wet lowland areas. Most interesting was the Colorado River snaking through the Kawuneeche Valley. With all the snowmelt and precipitation, the Colorado River is running at capacity. Many of the adjacent meadows are now flooded with the excess snowmelt being carried down from the high peaks.

These flooded meadows create perfect reflecting pools in witch to capture reflections of Baker Mountain in locations it’s not normally possible. This is true of not only the area along the Colorado River on the west side of Rocky Mountain National Park but also along the East Inlet area just outside of Grand Lake.

Conditions were perfect last week when I photographed this scene along the Colorado River. It won’t be long before these pools of excess water start to recede and dry up. Obviously, now is the time to take advantage of both access to the west side of RMNP, but also the benefits of all our excess moisture is providing.