Spending time on the west side of Rocky Mountain National Park in the offseason is one of my favorite things to do. The crowds are long gone from the west side of the park and Grand Lake. Trail Ridge Road is closed at the Colorado River trailhead and for all intents and purposes the west side of Rocky becomes an island on to itself with miles of open trails and light traffic on the roads.
Snow has begun to coat the high peaks of Rocky Mountain National Park and the meadows and valleys are also seeing the snow accumulate over their trees and grasses. Ice is forming along the edges of the streams and on top of the boulders and winters coming grip is slowly ebbing the flow of water downstream. In short order, feet of snow will begin to accumulate over the land and the streams and waterfalls will completely freeze over.
The transition time between autumn in Colorado and winter is brief and manic. Warm sunny days can quickly morph into full on blizzards which cover the peaks with snow and freeze the many streams and waterfalls.
Some years however, the transition from autumn to winter is slow and more pronounced. Ironically, with all the historic weather we’ve had leading up to autumn, this has been one of those years in Rocky. So before winter fully settles into Rocky, I spent time venturing around the west side of the park photographing some of the creeks and falls before they completely freeze over for winter. The combination of freshly fallen snow and ice was perfect. There were still open areas of water, but winter is methodically creeping over the landscape of Rocky Mountain National Park.
The next time I photograph the west side of Rocky, the transition from autumn to winter will be complete. Winter will have asserted her grip on the park and sealed the peaks and streams with a coating of snow and ice, only making for more opportunities to photograph the ever changing seasons.
It’s been nearly ten years since I’ve been able to get back east to photograph fall color. It certainly was not from a lack of desire to do so, but sometimes life and schedules get in the way making what was once commonplace, rare.
So finally after nearly a decade and a less than stellar autumn color season here in Colorado, I was able to make the trek back east to New York to photograph the fall colors and visit with family. The visit was shorter than I would have liked, but still a very productive and fun one.
Autumn was in full swing throughout the Hudson Valley and Finger Lakes region while I was back photographing so the timing was just about perfect. For the most part most days were mild but overcast. Perfect weather in my opinion to shoot the colorful fall canopies under nicely diffused light.
Since it’s be awhile since I had photographed fall back east, I was very much like a kid in a candy store. The vibrant reds, oranges and yellows all looked spectacular along the hillsides and streams I hiked explored and hiked along. Even in New York, autumn seems to slows the bustling pace allowing one to contemplate and enjoy the colorful surroundings.
There’s a different pace to fall in the east as opposed to fall out west. The colors in the east peak more slowly than out west. Barring a nor’easter or hurricane, leaves stay on the trees longer and fall more slowly. In the west the transition from fall to winter is much more pronounced. One day it can be sunny and seventy degrees and the next day there can be a foot of snow, bare tree’s welcoming winters arrival.
I spent most of my time photographing Harriman State Park in the Hudson Valley and the area around Watkins Glen in the Finger Lakes region of New York. Like most expeditions there are plenty of places you want to photograph but run out of time to visit.I’ve got scouted out some new areas and have plenty of ideas for my next fall visit, I just hope it’s not ten years in the making.
I’ve just returned from a short but very productive trip back east to photograph the fall colors. I’ll be posting some of these images in the near future so stay tuned. Even more exciting is the fact that I was able to get up to an open and welcoming Rocky Mountain National Park for a beautiful sunrise.
It always feels good to be home after traveling and it feels like forever since I’ve had a productive morning photographing Rocky. Being a creature of habit means I have a fairly regimented routine. While traveling and exploring new places is essential to learning, creating and improving your craft, photographing on your home turf always feels rewarding.
While it takes a little longer to get up to Rocky Mountain National Park than it did previously the trip over the Peak to Peak highway is worth the extra time involved. With the government shutdown out of the way for the time being, Rocky is open and Estes Park is bustling and busy again with visitors. It’s as great a time as ever to get back up to the park and spend time with old friends.
In a nutshell, the last few weeks have been a hard go here on the Front Range of Colorado. In what is typically my favorite time of year for photography, conditions and circumstances beyond control have placed a damper on many of the places and locales I often photograph between Estes Park and Boulder.
At time like these, landscape photography can seem trivial compared to the damage and devastation the flooding in and around Boulder has caused to peoples homes, business and communities at large. Even so, I look to my photography as a temporary diversion to the reality of the situation that will now accompany us for sometime.
A triple whammy would be the best way to describe what’s happened here this autumn. First the historic flooding that inundated Boulder and Estes Park which in turn closed roads and trails. Secondly, a spate of wet, cold and windy weather over the Front Range at the end of September combined with an above average year for moisture tempered the fall colors rendering many tree’s leafless, brown or still green. And the lastly, our good friends in government provided us with first hand kabuki theater and shut down the government, or at least thirty percent of it making access to National Parks and in particular Rocky Mountain National Park, impossible.
I can only describe the last month in one word, frustrating. It would be hard for me to believe that cabin fever could settle in over the month of September, but that’s what its felt like for me. Not being able to access places I find vital to my soul has been difficult. I daydream in envy thinking of the herds of elk, or solitary black bear trudging through the meadows or back country of Rocky Mountain National Park with nary a human for miles. A return to primal times is what it must feel like in all these once so easily accessible locations.
Things are starting to look up however. Roads are starting to reopen including Colorado highway 119 through Boulder Canyon. This will make getting to the Peak to Peak highway and Estes Park much more convenient. I’m holding out hope that our federal government can come to some sort of compromise on funding and Rocky Mountain National Park can reopen sooner than later.
So until Rocky Mountain National Park reopens and many of the trails on Open Space and Mountain Park property in Boulder are repaired, I’ll be looking for other opportunities to photograph and keep the rust off, including a quick trip back east for fall color. Patience will be paramount, but sooner than later we can all put these bumpy few months behind us and start returning to our usual haunts.
Estes Park and Rocky Mountain National Park are back open for business. Repairs will be ongoing for quite sometime and were all going to have to get acquainted with flashing signs and orange cones great progress has been made in getting things up and running.
Nearly all of Estes Park is open for business again. Most likely you will need to take a less direct routes to get to Estes Park, but nonetheless the stores and restaurants and hotels welcome your visit.
As far as the roads go, timelines have now been set and repairs have started to the major routes in and out of Estes Park. While it looks like US 34 through the Big Thompson will be out of service for the foreseeable future, road contractors along with Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper have set a December 1st deadline for US 36 to reopen to traffic albeit in a state that makes it passable. Colorado 119 through Boulder Canyon is also slated to reopen by mid October making for another alternative route to the Peak to Peak highway and Estes Park.
Rocky Mountain National Park has now reopened much of the east side of the park for travel and hiking. There are still numerous closures in effect but a large area of the park was reopened on Thursday including Bear Lake Road. Many area of the park including Old Fall River Road are closed and will remain so for the considerable future as damage is severe in areas.
Snow also fell above 8000 ft twice in the last week. Trail Ridge Road was closed mid week, then reopened and now closed again. Warmer weather allowed the National Park Service to reopen Trail Ridge again, but its seasonal closure is rapidly approaching with each new storm that enters the state.
The folks in the foothills communities as well as the northern Front Range have endured a lot of hardship over the last few weeks. Residents of Estes Park are now living by the credo of ‘Mountain Strong’. I’ll be heading up there over the next week to photograph the autumn colors and elk rut and I would suggest it’s as good as time as ever for to reconnect with Rocky Mountain National Park and Estes Park and help the business and services of the community dig out and get back on the path to recovery. Now lets keep our fingers crossed that Congress can come to an eleventh hour resolution that avoids shutting the government and National Parks down by as early as tonight.
When my alarm sounds long before dawn to wake me for a morning in the field, I’m tempted to hit snooze or shut the alarm off. There is a little voice in the back of my head however, that pushes me out of bed and gets me moving. Part of that voice is telling me not to take for granted the opportunity before me. It reminds me that nobody promises you tomorrow.
When out photographing and hiking it’s always there in the back of my mind. It’s the big ‘what if’. What if a major forest fire destroyed large areas of Rocky Mountain National Park, or Chautauqua in Boulder?. What if a microburst sends 4 inches of rain down one of these mountain canyons?. What if these public lands were no longer public or accessible?
Over the last few years we’ve had a little of all of these things happen periodically. Threats to shut down park operations through sequestration and budget shortfalls, The Fern Lake fire in Rocky Mountain National Park, and then the disaster of this past week cemented my worst fears.
Beginning on September 8th, rain started falling over Boulder, Estes Park and the foothill communities of the northern Front Range. It rained and rained and over the course of the next few days it became apparent that this was going to be more than just a wet week. Over the course of the week Boulder received over 16 inches of rain, blowing away the previous record of just under 8 inches. Communities in the foothills received over 20 inches of rain in this same timeframe.
The amount of rain falling on the mountains over the course of the week was nothing short of biblical. The water streamed down mountainsides and funneled into the nearest stream, creeks and rivers which quickly became raging torrents sweeping downhill obliterating everything in it’s path.
The amount of destruction caused by the flood is staggering. Entire neighborhoods have been destroyed by the flooding. The roads in the foothills are in total disarray. Many canyon roads are washed out for miles and miles. This has nearly isolated communities such as Estes Park from the outside world and has made travel to these areas impossible except for residents and essential services.
Currently there are no timelines regarding repairs to roads and highways. Engineers have yet to survey the damages but its a safe bet it will be years until Boulder, Estes Park and the foothill communities are returned to pre-flood condition.
My photography will take a back seat for awhile as things sort themselves out and a clearer picture of the devastation unfolds. There is lots of help required here in Boulder and until the road situations improve, Open Space proprieties reopen along with Rocky Mountain National Park, there are few options available for photography.
Towns such as Estes Park are faced with a difficult predicament. Access is limited, and the town needs time to cleanup, reopen and cope with the loss in the community. At the same time Estes Park business depend heavily on seasonal tourist travel with the month of September being one of the towns busiest. People visit Estes Park from all around the country this time of year to view the fall colors and watch the Elk rut. It appears that much of that business will be lost for the season, leaving many business owners to fend for themselves over the slower winter and spring months.
When access to towns like Estes Park improves all of us who love visiting the town and Rocky Mountain National Park need to do our best to help the local business out. We need to show support by visiting the town, spending money and letting people know Estes Park is open for business.
Down the road, the damages will be repaired, towns will reopen for business and visitors and homeowners will return to their normal routines. Nobody will forget the flood of 2013, but Colorado has a long history of hardy inhabitants who weather the forces of nature, brush the dust off and climb right back on their horse and move forward. I expect things will be no different this time.
The plan was to hike up to Chasm Lake at the base of Longs Peak for sunrise. Chasm Lake is both a favorite location to photograph and also a favorite hike of mine in Rocky Mountain National Park. As I often emphasize in my blog, plans change and one needs to remain flexible. This morning was no different.
It’s rare for me to see other people out and about on most of my pre-dawn hikes into a given location. Occasionally, I’ll see a climber or two prepping at the trailhead on my way out but mostly its solitary adventure.
The hike to Chasm Lake shares the same the route to the summit of Longs Peak for over three miles. Because this route is shared with one of the most popular hikes in Rocky Mountain National Park, it differs from most of my pre-dawn adventures in that I’m hiking the route along with a lot of other hikers, even at 3 AM. Most of these other adventures have their sights set on summiting Longs Peak, Rocky’s only fourteener and highest peak.
An early morning hike from the Longs Peak trailhead is one of the most unique experiences visitors can have in Rocky Mountain National Park. The parking lot and trailhead buzz with activity and excitement long before sunrise as hikers and climbers prepare to ascend this Colorado landmark in time to avoid violent late afternoon weather common to the area.
I broke through the hustle and bustle of the parking area and pushed on past the ever lit trail register at the start of the trail and off into to the darkness of the forest. The hike was uneventful as I passed a few parties resting and eating breakfast along the side of the trail.
In less than an hour I was above tree line. I could see the silhouetted mantle of Longs Peak ahead. Just below Mount Lady Washington I could see a string of lights bobbing along the alpine tundra headed towards the summit of Longs Peak. The view of headlamps emitting light like fireflies along the trail is a sight to behold. It’s hard to imagine there are this many other people out and about at this time of morning.
As I neared Chasm Junction, the clouds that had filled the air on the hike up had quickly begun to dissipate over the peaks. The wind was picking up in strength as well and I quickly started to assess my ‘Plan B’ options. Without clouds over Longs Peak and with a stiff breeze blowing Chasm Lake was becoming less than optimal for the morning shoot.
Luckily, there are no shortages of choices when it comes to alternate locations to photograph in the area. Chasm Meadows was and option but as I scanned the skies, there were still clouds over the eastern plains of Colorado. Columbine Falls looked like just the place to be for sunrise.
I often photograph Columbine Falls on my way back down from Chasm Lake as you essentially hike right over the top of Columbine Falls on your way to and from Chasm Lake. One shouldn’t short change Columbine Falls however, as it deserves to be a destination all its own.
Columbine falls essentially runs west to east. Being orientated as such, it’s a good location to work in varying conditions as you increase your chances for dramatic lighting when you can photograph in both directions. This is what makes it such a great fallback location when things are not coming together as planned.
Sunrise unfolded over the plains of eastern Colorado and although clouds had pushed away from the divide, Columbine Falls was a better location to be in this day then Chasm Lake from a photographers standpoint.
Hot streaks and slumps. Athletes all go through them from time to time, particularly baseball players and golfers. Like athletes, photographers are not immune to these circumstances either.
As photographers we’ve all had trips in the field where it seems like everything is falling in to place for us. Sunrise and sunsets are beautiful, winds are calm and we always seem to be in the right place at the right time. The opposite holds true as well. Any photographer worth their salt has spent countless hours in the field waiting for sunrises and sunsets that never materialized.
Like most athletes who are slumping, the key is to stay persistent and work through the slump. Everyday is a new day and if you keep putting yourself in a position to be successful, your persistence will pay off and your slumping ways will reverse.
I’m lucky enough to be on a streak at the moment. The conditions in Rocky Mountain National Park the last few weeks have been nothing short of spectacular. There seems to be rain showers every afternoon and evening and the additional moisture means clouds have been hanging around the peaks most mornings. Streams are still running well and the winds have been calm most of the time, a rarity for sure.
The streak continued for me as I headed up to Mills Lake in Glacier Gorge one morning last week. Typically, Mills Lake is photographed in the afternoon. In the afternoon the sun illuminates the backside of the Longs Peak and much of Glacier Gorge making it more favorable on paper at least. I’ve been planning for sometime to shoot Mills Lake in the morning when the conditions and clouds would be such that dramatic sunrise was light the sky above Glacier Gorge.
Arriving at Mills Lake I found the water smooth as glass. Fog curled over the ridge between Pagoda Mountain and The Spearhead and some hung in the valley itself. Most importantly, the clouds in the sky were looking perfect for a dramatic sunrise. A beautiful sunrise unfolded and I hiked back down from Mills Lake satisfied and still feeling the rush of the mornings sunrise.
Mornings like these make you feel blessed and when I arrived back at my truck in the parking lot, I wanted to pinch myself to make sure this was all real. A quick check on the display of my camera dispelled any chance that the morning was imagined. I’m on a good streak I thought to myself, here’s hoping that I can continue on this streak for just a little longer.
Rocky Mountain National Park is filled with hundreds of named waterfalls as well as unnamed bubbling cascades. You can find these waterfalls all over Rocky from just above the meadows to high above treeline.
It’s fun to look at a topo map and try to guess what a location or waterfall is going to look like when you finally get to the location. I find these places often appear nothing like I think they will when just trying to imagine them on a map. It makes the adventure to the falls more fun and as a photographer keeps you on your toes.
One of these particular locations I’ve been eyeing on my map for quite sometime was Lyric Falls. Lyric Falls is formed by Hunters Creek just below Sandbeach Lake in the Wild Basin region of Rocky Mountain National Park. A perfect sunrise at Sandbeach Lake followed by overcast conditions made for a great opportunity to explore Lyric Falls on my hike out from Sandbeach Lake a few weeks back.
There is only a social trail which follows more or less along the banks of Hunters Creek to reach Lyric Falls. It’s certainly not difficult to locate, but as always you should be prepared when exploring off trail. Legendary Rocky Mountain National Park Ranger Jack Moomaw is responsible for naming Lyric Falls, passing it on his many adventures, rescues and climbs up and around Longs Peak.
Lyric Falls itself is a tiered waterfall that is not so much impressive in its size which is modest, but in the beauty of the cascade itself. Lyric Falls tumbles and cascades over boulders and chutes making for a beautiful symmetrical cascade. The detour from the main trail along with the exploration of Hunters Creek is well worth the effort.
Most would consider the center point of Rocky Mountain National Park to be Longs Peak. At 14,259 it’s massif dominates much of Rocky’s skyline. Longs Peak was also a great point of interest to early pioneers who settled and travelled through the region. Many of those early pioneers believed reaching the summit of Longs Peak was impossible, and there failed efforts only reinforced that idea.
These early pioneers were a different breed however. Failures and challenges were embraced. Obstacles could be overcome and opportunities in the pioneering west were limitless to these early explorers. Few personified these traits more than John Wesley Powell and its fitting that it would be Powell who would summit Longs Peak first.
John Wesley Powell’s ascent of Longs Peak on August 23rd, 1868 would lead him on an even greater adventure the following year. Powell would become the first American of European to discover and travel through the Grand Canyon.
Upon summiting Longs Peak with his party, Powell is said to have unfurled an American Flag on the summit of Longs Peak and then proceeded to give a speech in which he stated that the adventure of summiting a peak which the summit was thought to be unreachable was to be one of only many challenges that the future would hold.
Before summiting Longs Peak, Powell and his party setout from Grand Lake on August 21st, 1868. The night before they made their famous ascent they are said to have camped near Sandbeach Lake on the south side of Longs Peak and Mount Meeker.
It was from the vicinity of Sandbeach Lake that one of Powell’s assistants, L.W. Keplinger found the route that would lead to the successful first ascent up Longs Peak the following day.
Visiting Sandbeach Lake today, it’s apparent why the area served as a base camp for the Powell expedition in 1868. Sandbeach Lake holds on commanding view of Mount Meeker, Longs Peak and Pagoda Peak. Keplingers and Powell’s first route (Keplinger Coulier) is situated in the basin next basin from Sandbeach Lake.
Sandbeach Lake is certainly a unique gem. Since Powell visited the area, It’s been damned and used as a water supply for Longmont and farmers on Colorado’s eastern plains. The Park Service has since restored Sandbeach Lake to it’s original state. It’s sandy north shore makes for a perfect beach in this mountain setting.
Like most places in Rocky, Sandbeach Lake can be very windy. That’s compounded even more by its close proximity to Rocky Mountain National Park’s two highest peaks. So I was pleasantly surprised to arrive before sunrise to find Sandbeach Lake smooth as glass. Clouds were floating over the top of Mount Meeker, Longs and Pagoda.
As a stood along the shores of Sandbeach Lake photographing a beautiful sunrise over these famous peaks I could not help but think it John Wesley Powell and his party
observed similar conditions when they conquered and climbed Longs Peak nearly 145 years ago from this date.