Rocky Mountain National Park has one beautiful lake and peak after another. Study at Topo map of Rocky Mountain and one can attempt to imagine the beauty of the location and surrounding peaks before ever setting foot in the area.
People often ask me what’s my favorite area of Rocky Mountain National Park, or what area do I think is the most beautiful. It’s not a question I can even attempt to answer thankfully. There are just too many beautiful places and locations in Rocky Mountain National Park. Photographing in any area of Rocky will keep me satisfied.
That being said, there are some areas of Rocky Mountain National Park that have an almost other worldly quality to them. The layout of the land, the peaks, the way the light filters in through the valleys give certain areas a look and feel that can only be truly appreciated in person.
One of these ‘slam dunk’ areas of Rocky is the Sky Pond and Lake of Glass area. A moderate hike of 4.5 miles leads you through Loch Vale and some of the most spectacular scenery found anywhere in Colorado. The Lake of Glass and Sky Pond area sit on a high shelf above Loch Vale and the view from the cirque is impressive in all directions.
This area which is world famous for it’s rock climbing formations such as the ‘Sharkstooth’ and the ‘Petit Grepon’ make up the Cathedral Spires which border Sky Pond and Lake of Glass. Along with Taylor Peak, these formations and peaks make the photography very enticing as well.
With that being said, my favorite view from the Sky Pond area is looking northeast back over Lake of Glass and Loch Vale. It’s a classic Colorado alpine scene at sunrise. It has all the elements, lakes, mountains, valleys and lighting that make the 4.5 mile hike well worth the effort.
Before I start out to photograph a certain location, I often research the area. Staring at a Topo map I make and attempt to anticipate how that given location is going to look, what might be the best areas to photograph from etc.
Exploring new areas of Rocky Mountain National Park is always exciting. I’m lucky enough to be photographing in Rocky Mountain National Park, so it’s always a thrilling experience for me and I’m certainly not complaining. There are times however, when areas of Rocky impress me even more than I could imagine.
Last week was one of those experiences. I have never photographed Black Lake, but it’s been on the ‘to-do’ list for some time. In fact, I’ve never spent much time in Glacier Gorge beyond Mills and Jewel Lake. I have seen some other photographers images from the area and had been told by many how beautiful the Black Lake area is.
It’s a pretty good slog up to Black Lake. It’s a little under 5 miles one-way just to reach Black Lake which is nestled deep in Glacier Gorge. The area I planned on shooting above Black Lake would make the one-way mileage exceed 5 miles, and the total elevation gain exceed 1800 ft.
I set off from the Glacier Gorge parking lot a little before 4:00 AM for Black Lake. The trail can be a little difficult to follow in some areas and a wind event over the winter months has created large areas of blown down timber which can be navigation a little tricky in some areas but I was able to forge ahead fairly easily.
As I neared Ribbon Falls and the shore of Black Lake, some nice clouds and pre-dawn light started to fill the sky to the north and east. I had only a few minutes until the sunrise but things were looking promising. I scurried around the side of Black Lake and followed Black Lake’s inlet stream to a vantage point up above Black Lake with a commanding view of McHenry Peak and The Arrowhead.
I found a nice location along the creek looking back over Black Lake and began to setup my camera. After hiking 5 miles in the dark, it’s somewhat easy to develop tunnel vision and not to observe your surroundings as you normally would. After setting up my gear, I was able to take a deep breath and take in my surroundings.
It’s hard to describe in words how beautiful a location this area is. I can hope to convey that through my images from this particular morning, but this area is so beautiful one needs to experience it first hand to fully appreciate the location and experience.
Black Lake is one of those areas that far exceeded any and all of my expectations. It’s a location I will return to photograph again. And even though I managed to drop my $2400 24mm tilt shift lens into the creek during the shoot, I had one of my best Rocky Mountain National Park experiences on this expedition.
Finally the hot dry weather pattern broke. It broke in a big way in fact. Record heat and nary a drop of moisture gave way to cool wet weather this week in Rocky Mountain National Park thanks in part to the summer monsoon finally kicking in.
It’s been so hot, dry and windy in Rocky that I was really starting to believe that photography may end up being a lost cause for the season. It’s been unbelievably hot and dry in Colorado for the last few months and these couple of days of cool temperatures and rain are just what the doctor ordered.
I preach it all the time, but dynamic weather like this is also key to capturing unique images in Rocky Mountain National Park. During a typical summer season, a photographer might be lucky to capture dynamic weather conditions like these half a dozen times or so.
It’s very tempting to hit snooze on the alarm clock and head back to bed. There is a very good chance you might end up being skunked after hiking 3 miles in the dark and rain, but if the elements come together, there are few better places to be as a photographer than on the edge of weather.
One tip I often give fellow photographers when photographing Rocky Mountain National Park is to hang in there no matter how poor the conditions appear to be. I cant tell you how many times I’ve headed out into conditions that I thought in no way would allow for extraordinary first morning light.
Mountains and peaks can be socked in by fog and clouds, as can be the eastern horizon. Somehow however, the sun may manage to peek through the bank of clouds just long enough for the ‘oh wow!'(profanity removed) light to bathe the peaks.
Saturday and Sunday both produced ‘oh wow!’ lighting for me. I started Saturday intending to photograph Timberline Falls in Loch Vale. I figured if the clouds and sun did not cooperate I’d still have Timberline Falls to photograph.
On my way up to Timberline Falls, I setup at The Loch to see what sunrise would bring. As is typical, the conditions seemed poor. I hiked up to The Loch in a light mist and I could see no break in the clouds cover over the eastern horizon. I waited patiently at sunrise and just as I was about to pack my bag, the Cathedral Wall and part of Loch Vale lit up all for about 5 minutes or so. It was just enough time for me to capture a half a dozen images of the dynamic and changing light conditions that morning.
So when the lighting appears less than promising, just remember to fight off the urge to pack up your camera bag and leave. ‘Oh wow’ lighting happens a few times a year, but for every ten ‘oh heck’ moments, one ‘Oh wow’ moment will keep you from hitting snooze on that alarm clock and out on the trail even in poor conditions.
Treeline in Colorado occurs on average just above 11,000 ft above sea level. The determining factor for treeline is an average mean temperature of fifty degrees. Hiking or driving through the transitions from the montane zone, to the sub alpine zone and lastly the alpine zone can be a thrilling experience. The transition zones in these particular areas make for amazing places for photography.
Most visitors to Rocky Mountain National Park get their first taste of this other worldly experience when they drive over Trail Ridge Road. Trail Ridge Road being the highest continuous paved road in the continental United States allows visitors to Rocky the experience of this beautiful but difficult existence with fairly little effort and from the comfort of their vehicles. Stop at one of the many pull offs along Trail Ridge Road even and one is likely to find shorts and a t-shirt offer little comfort even in the middle of a summer afternoon.
The sub alpine zone in Rocky Mountain National Park hosts a wide variety of interesting photography subjects. Wildflowers such as blue columbines, red paintbrush and alpine sunflowers amongst the talus slopes, boulders and stunted plants. What really peaks my interest in these sub alpine areas are the tree’s. The limber pines and krummholz trees which are in a constant struggle for life against the harsh elements.
These limber pines and kummholz tree’s are often contorted and twisted by the wind and elements. The constant air flow at these high altitudes prevents the tree’s from growing in a windward direction. They are often only able to grow in a leeward direction. These tree’s will eventually succumb, sometimes after hundreds of years of existence. Even at this point, mother nature is not quite done sculpting and bleaching there remains.
I’ve been spying this particular pair of dead limber pines near Trail Ridge for sometime. This particular area of Trail Ridge has quite a few limber pine skeletons littering the ridgeline. Finally on Wednesday, the lighting and conditions came together perfectly. The winds were blowing at a pretty good clip, but would subside just long enough to allow me to capture these two tree’s free of any motion blur caused by the high winds. There are limber pines like these two scattered all over the high ridges near treeline in Rocky Mountain National Park, and I’ll continue to scour these ridges for new and interesting subjects.
One final shameless self promotion tidbit. One of my images of Watermill Beach was used for this week’s online edition of Vogue magazine. You can find a link to the article here. Vogue Magazine Watermill Beach Image
It’s been a difficult couple of weeks here in Colorado. We’ve had a very dry Winter, which turned into a very dry Spring and has continued on as an even hotter and dryer Summer. The conditions have made photography in Rocky Mountain National Park a challenge. The hot weather, combined with a general lack of clouds and persistent winds oftentimes means my Plan A agenda, quickly turns into a Plan B outcome.
Regardless of how challenging the photography has been in Rocky this Summer, it’s been a real life and death struggle for many Colorado residents. As of this writing, there are 8 wildfires burning in the State.
The second largest fire in the history of Colorado, the High Fire, is burning 20 miles or so northeast of Estes Park and has already claimed 191 homes and one life. To compound that, a house fire in Estes Park yesterday, just a few hundred yards from the Beaver Meadow entrance to Rocky Mountain National Park quickly burned 21 homes before being brought under control. Lastly, the Waldo Canyon fire is burning out of control just outside of the Garden of the Gods and Manitou Springs.
The atmosphere along the northern Front Range has been filled with smoke for a few weeks now. Because of the smoke, much of the early morning light reaching the mountain peaks is diffused and lacks intensity and pop. Today, the smoke was as thick as it has been in weeks.
In an ironic twist, the smoke combined with high clouds rewarded me with a beautiful sunrise. Just above Nymph Lake, I was able to capture this image of the Sun rising through the smoke from the High Fire and clouds to the east. The colors were spectacular and the Sun rose as a blood red orb over the high plains.
While the sunrise was spectacular this morning, I’m keeping my fingers crossed that the heat subsides and rain falls from the sky. Let’s hope the weather pattern changes and we start to see some moisture out here in the tinderbox that Colorado has become.
It’s hard to put into words exactly what it is about the Wild Basin section of Rocky Mountain National Park that feels so different and unique from others areas of Rocky. Wild Basin certainly does not get the fanfare other areas of Rocky Mountain National Park get such as Bear Lake Road, Dream Lake or Trail Ridge.
Perhaps it’s the lack of parking at most of the trailheads, or the windy and narrow dirt road used to get to the trailheads. It’s more likely its the fact that you cant drive a car right up to the many hidden treasures to found in Wild Basin. To me at least, Wild Basin has a much more understated beauty than many of the other areas of the park.
Wild Basin makes you work before revealing itself. The alpine lakes of Wild Basin are some of the most beautiful in all of Colorado, let alone Rocky Mountain National Park. Want to see Mount Alice and Lion Lake up close?. Well then your going to have to commit to a 14 mile round trip hike to do so.
Even for those not feeling spry enough for a 7 mile hike up into the beautiful alpine wilderness of Wild Basin, the lower regions are beautiful in their own right. The North Saint Vrain emanates out of this Basin on the south side of Longs Peak. The banks of the North Saint Vrain as well as many of the other creeks and streams found in Wild Basin are loaded with more subtle photographic opportunities.
Wild Basin is packed with great water features for photography. The trick is trying to find compositions that are not to busy or cluttered. The Pine Beetle infestation has felled many tree’s along the banks of the creeks. This means lots of log jam’s and dead tree’s strewn in and along the creeks, which of course can make photography of Wild Basin’s water features both interesting and difficult.
Copeland Falls, Calypso Cascades and Ouzel Falls are some of the more popular water features in Wild Basin. I settled on Ouzel Falls when I headed into Wild Basin last week. Wildflowers are starting to bloom along the creeks now and the spring runoff is starting to ebb making photography of the North Saint Vrain a bit more manageable.
I finally settled in on this image just below Ouzel Falls. It certainly does not have that smack you in the face beauty as a location such as Dream Lake, but images like this typify Wild Basin to me. Wildflowers, water, downed timber and rock’s entrenched deep within a subtle but beautiful area of Rocky Mountain National Park.
Each time I hit the road at o’dark thirty and head up to Rocky Mountain National Park the excitement of what I might photograph is palatable. Fortunately, that excitement remains just as palatable for me as the first time I headed up to Rocky Mountain National Park in the pre-dawn hours to capture sunrise.
Some of my friends, family and fellow photographers wonder why the fixation with photography and in particular Rocky Mountain National Park. I don’t have a perfect answer for them, but both photography and Rocky Mountain National Park continue to be an obsession of mine.
For me, it’s the thrill of the unknown. Even though Rocky is a location I spend much of my time exploring, I leave feeling like I have not even scratched the tip of the iceberg. The possibilities are endless and no two days or sunrises are ever the same.
I had no idea what I would walk away with this morning at Cub Lake. Rocky was quite breezy when I arrived and the outlook for clouds in the sky or a colorful sunrise did not look promising.
Regardless, I was still pumped up for the hike and the potential on the ride up. Getting out on the trail in the pre-dawn hours regardless of the ultimate outcome is therapeutic to the soul. Rocky Mountain National Park is just to majestic a location to walk away empty handed, image or not. It’s mornings and experiences like these that keep me mesmerized with photography and Rocky Mountain National Park. What get’s you out of bed at 2:30 AM?
Yucca plants are symbolic of the dry landscape of the American West. They are hardy plants that can survive in climates that are dry and experience great temperature swings. On the Front Range of Colorado, and in particular many of the hillsides around Boulder and on Open Space properties they are quite prevalent.
Native peoples have utilized Yucca plants for all sorts of helpful purposes. From cooking skewers to fibers for baskets and clothing, the Yucca plant provides a hearty staple. For photographers, Yucca plants make for equally interesting subjects in their many forms.
This particular Yucca was located on a hillside of Flagstaff Mountain in Boulder. The flower bloom on the Yucca plants this year has been quite spectacular in this section of Colorado. For the most part, the bloom has peaked, but I still figured I’d explore this hillsides to see if I could find anything of interest to photograph.
I eventually settled on this composition of these Yucca leaves fanning outward from the flower stalk. It was actually quite a challenge to find a clean composition. I attempted a similar composition on over a half a dozen other plants before finally finding this particular plant.
The Moraine Park area of Rocky Mountain National Park is a photographers hot spot. Moraine Park is easily accessible, host to beautiful scenery and trailheads, and sports a good diversity for photographers.
Landscape photographers love Moraine Park for it’s impressive views of the snow covered Continental Divide. The Big Thompson river meanders through Moraine Park making for great subject matter. Moraine Park is also host to an abundance of wildflowers which will begin to bloom in early June.
Wildlife photographers flock to Moraine Park during the fall Elk rut. Hundreds of photographers line the roadway’s and trails in and around Moraine Park to photograph the herds of Elk and this put on their mating display early in the morning, then late again in the evening. Mule Deer, Coyote, Fox and a large variety of Avian life keep Moraine Park popular with photographers all year.
Moraine Park has an interesting past as well. Moraine Park was homesteaded by some of the Estes Valley’s earliest settlers. Abner Sprague’s, one of Estes Park’s earliest settlers, guide, and hotelier, had his original homesteading plot located in Moraine Park. During this period of time, Moraine Park was known as Willow Park.
Abner Sprague eventually sold his homesteading plot to a cousin and settled a new claim opening a lodge near present day Sprague Lake. Abner Sprague would eventually reclaim the property he had sold in Moraine Park to his cousin and there he would run Steads Ranch and Inn as well as Sprague’s Lodge.
Spending a morning hiking through present day Moraine Park it’s hard to imagine that not all that long ago Moraine Park was a vacationers paradise. Steads Ranch had it’s fare share of modern world amenities and billed itself as a resort hotel. Steads had a large in ground pool, a golf course, stables, croquet, beautiful lobby and restaurant. Paradise at Steads could be had for a mere $8.75 a night or $58.20 for the week for a single room in 1953. The National Park Service eventually reclaimed this property in the early 1960’s and began restoring the area to it’s natural state.
It must have been an amazing experience to have visited Steads Ranch. While modern world amenities are nice, I have to say I much prefer Moraine Park restored to it’s natural setting. For the most part, very little signs remain of Willow or Moraine Park’s past history. Moraine Park’s biggest threat today are from the overabundance of Elk which eat and damage much of the fauna in the Park.
One of the old vestiges that harkens back to the Steads Ranch days are some of the older Ponderosa Pine tree’s that remain. There is one particular Ponderosa in Moraine Park that has always fascinated me. It’s divides into two sections and has been twisted and twirled by winds and weather. Large branches have been remove by lighting but even still, this sentinel of Moraine Park stands tall and beautiful.
This tree has stood witness to many events in it’s day. It stood watch when Steads hosted thousands of tourists at it’s swimming pool, golfers played rounds near it’s base, and fisherman walked the banks of the Big Thompson searching for trout. On this cool spring morning, with a fog and dew lifting over Moraine Park this tree now stands over a setting more becoming of it’s beauty and dignity.
As I mentioned in my entry last week, I had some epic conditions last week in Rocky Mountain National Park. As such, I figured I’d save the best for last.
Having the photography Gods shine down on you can be one of the most rewarding experiences one can have in the field. Of course you have to make sure your actually in a position to take advantage of the conditions your presented with. There is not a worse feeling than watching an amazing sunrise a half mile short of your intended destination, and I’ve been party to that on more than one occasion.
The end of last week was cloudy, cool and rainy on the Front Range. It was cool enough that the snow line was hovering around 9000 feet. Above 9000 feet, heavy wet snow was falling, even though the temperature was right around the freezing mark. It was supposed to stay cool and wet from Friday right through Sunday.
Knowing full well, that’s it’s hard to keep the Colorado Sun hidden behind clouds for an entire 3 days, I figured we could have an interesting sunrise. Even if a good Sunrise failed to materialize, I love shooting water features and other more intimate landscapes under the diffused and cloudy light. All the conditions were setting up for a no lose situation for photography.
With the conditions in mind I planned on hiking up to Emerald Lake above Dream Lake to photograph sunrise. This summer, I’m trying to avoid Dream Lake like the plaque. Not because Dream Lake is not one of the most beautiful alpine locations in all of Colorado, but very much for that reason.
So starting my hike from the Bear Lake trailhead, I had no intention of stopping or photographing Dream Lake. There was a nice fresh layer of snow coating all the tree’s and the Ranger cottage leaving Bear Lake. Fog and clouds were present over the lower lying areas of the Plains below, but clear blue sky was present above Rocky Mountain National Park.
Arriving at Emerald Lake after the 1.5 mile hike in, I found the surface of the lake to be frozen over with a thin layer of ice and snow. I would not be getting a reflection shot of Hallet in Emerald Lake, but the lake’s frozen surface with fresh snow looked intriguing enough. I was disappointed that it was looking like a cloudless, clear blue sky morning. As if on queue with my shutter firing off at first light, some clouds started to appear above Hallet.
I photographed at Emerald for 25 minutes or so. I was able to capture a beautiful red hue lighting Hallet, with clouds skating overhead. A small band of fog even formed over the surface of the frozen lake making for some nice images. Satisfied with the images I had captured of Emerald Lake, I packed up and headed back out towards my vehicle, the hike of course, would take me right past Dream Lake.
I’ve photographed Dream Lake plenty, for photographers Dream Lake can be like a moth to a flame. It’s hard not to be tempted by it’s idyllic scenery, symmetry of Hallet Peak and Flattop Mountain rising above. As I hiked around Dream Lake on my way out from Emerald, I half heartedly attempted to ignore the unfrozen and placid lake surface. I looked for some images of snow covered trees reflecting in Dream Lake, but found none that interested me.
I was making every attempt to photograph images other than the iconic image of Dream Lake from the eastern outlet. As I neared the eastern outlet, the moth in could no longer resist the flame. This was especially true when I stopped to look back at Hallet and Flattop and noticed that the early morning cloud cover was quickly intensifying over the Lake.
It was at that point, that I could no longer resist temptation. I hastily flung my backpack off and quickly started making images of this beautiful morning. As soon as I framed Hallet and Flattop reflecting in the glass surface of the lake, I was grateful I temporarily at least ended my Dream Lake embargo.