Fall in the Rockies is like natures great tease. Golden foliage, warm days and sunshine make it a favorite among many. Then, wham!. Snow, wind and freezing temperatures put a quick end to the beautiful and easy pace of autumn in the high country. As discreetly as autumn weaves its way into the meadows, forests and canyons that make up Rocky Mountain National Park, Old Man Winter arrives with all the subtlety of a canon blast.
This week Rocky has gotten it’s second significant blast of cold winter weather. The first blast which arrived on September 10th was too early to cause any damage to the foliage and in my opinion did nothing to dampen what was a very good color year in Rocky Mountain National Park. This second cold blast however has caused snow to fall over Rocky three nights in a row. Trail Ridge Road has been closed down because of snowdrifts 2-3 ft high according to the NPS and much of the Autumn foliage has either fallen or is now past peak.
There are however, a spotty areas of fall color in Rocky Mountain National Park which may hold up through the end of the week. Higher elevations such as Bear Lake have been past peak for over a week now so I wont go into much detail regarding color status in those areas.
The Bierstadt Moraine is pretty much done. There are a few decent stands near the base of the Moraine but otherwise it’s pretty spotty. Moraine Park will still have some color through the week. There are still a fair amount of aspen stands that are mostly green. The aspens in Lower Beaver Meadows and near the Beaver Meadows entrance station are a past peak. There are a few decent stands with color and one should be able to frame Longs Peak with some color into the weekend. There are a few smaller groves in Upper Beaver Meadows that are just starting to turn and may offer some of the best late color in the park.
The Horseshoe Park area is also now past peak. Most of the larger aspen groves in Horseshoe Park are past peak and have dropped their leaves. There are a few isolated trees and groves hear and there in Horseshoe Park that still look good. If you take your time there is the potential to photograph more intimate scenes of color in and around Horseshoe Park.
I’ve not been over the the west side of Rocky Mountain National Park since Saturday. At that time much of the color was just past peak. I would have to believe that this last storm has stripped many of the tree’s of their leaves in and around the Kawuneeche Valley. The large stand of aspens at the Timber Creek trailhead was well past peak as of last Saturday. Even though the foliage in most of Rocky Mountain National Park is now past peak, many of the grasses in Moraine, Horseshoe and the Kawuneeche Valley are now golden and looking very good.
Lastly the Elk Rut is still underway in Rocky and while the Elk are very active in Moraine, Horseshoe, Beaver Meadows and the Kawuneeche Valley, especially at dusk and dawn their seems to be a noticeable turn down to the intensity of the rut at this point in time. As always theres a million things to do and photograph in Rocky Mountain National Park. Regardless of the seasons or the weather the next few weeks photographers should have little problem staying busy and creative.
It’s hard to believe it but we are now well into fall in Rocky Mountain National Park. It seems like just weeks ago the lakes were thawing and the snow was melting. The Elk rut is well on it’s way and as of this writing, we are for the most part at peak, or just past peak for fall color in most of the higher elevations of Rocky. As always, fall is fleeting and much to short.
This years colors were spectacular. We survived an early season snowstorm on September 11th through the 12th which did little damage to the trees or the vibrance of the colors. I’m not exactly sure why, but many of the aspen groves in Rocky Mountain National Park had vibrant reds and oranges along with your more typical yellow coloration. So here are the latest observations and recommendations regarding the current status of fall colors in Rocky Mountain National Park.
Overall, fall color in Rocky appears to be peaking three to five days earlier than an average year. In my opinion the higher elevations of the park, specifically the Bear Lake, Glacier Gorge and Bierstadt Moraine peaked somewhere around Sunday 9/21 to Monday 9/22. Starting on Sunday 9/21, the weather became a bit more unsettled in the park. Rain and gusty winds on Sunday, Monday and Tuesday have stripped many of the aspen tree’s around Bear Lake of their leaves. Bierstadt Moraine, while just past peak still was holding on fairly well as of Tuesday.
Lower elevations of Rocky Mountain National Park such as Moraine Park and Horseshoe Park are certainly showing their colors as well with much of the scrub and underbrush having already turned. The aspens in the lower elevations are starting to turn as well, and barring that the wind does not wreak to much havoc on the leaves, should be looking good into next week.
So what would I recommend as far as photographing the fall colors in Rocky Mountain National Park over the next week?. There are still plenty of opportunities but I would emphasize looking past grand landscape type views and instead concentrate on photographing the remaining autumn color on a smaller scale. Locations such as Boulder Brook look great right now. This is one of those locations that looks better when the aspens have dropped from the tree’s and line the forest floor and banks of Boulder Brook with gold. I could spend hours and hours right now photographing along Boulder Brook.
Bierstadt Moraine still has quite a few stands of large aspens that are still looking good. Instead of looking to photograph the entire moraine, concentrate on finding batches of golden aspen trees and work those areas. The ferns along the moraine are looking very good right now so look low for compositions of colorful ferns and fallen aspen leaves. Beaver Meadows, Moraine Park and Horseshoe Park will also be providing ample fall color over the next week. Instead of looking to spend time around Bear Lake and Glacier Gorge, look for locations in the lower elevations to provide a colorful backdrop.
So while the fall colors may be just past peak now in most of the areas of Rocky Mountain National Park, there still should be plenty of opportunities to photograph fall color for the next few weeks. Stay open and flexible and if the grand landscapes are past peak, look to smaller scenes to find unique compositions.
The first significant snow of the season fell over the lower elevations of Rocky Mountain National Park last week. By significant I mean about an inch or less fell over area around Bear /Lake, Sprague Lake, Moraine and Horseshoe Park. It’s significant in that it that September 11th is fairly early to see the white stuff at the lower elevations of Rocky. Meanwhile, at the same time the snow began to fall the night of September 11th into the morning of the 12th, fall color in the park is just starting to show signs of beautiful autumn color in amongst the aspen leaves, mountain maples and underbrush. I’d be remiss if I was to mention I did not find some irony in the fact that on the anniversary of last years historic flooding in Estes Park and the Front Range, snow fell instead of rain.
So as they often happens this time of year two seasons collided. This collision of course resulted in stunning conditions for photography. When the weather changes this quickly and it causes winter to overlap fall it can be somewhat bittersweet. While it creates great opportunities to pick up the camera and capture imagery of overlapping seasons, it’s also likely to mean the fall season may be shortened by the cold snap and snow. Many of the aspen trees were still green when the storm hit so at this point it will be a bit of waiting to see how this early season storm affected the fail foliage in Rocky Mountain National Park.
Looking to maximize both my chances to photograph sunrise as well as a combination of the fall color and fresh snow on the landscape, I hiked up to Bierstadt Lake the morning of the 12th to see what sunrise had in store. I knew it would be too early in the seasons for Bierstadt Lake to have frozen over, so I had my hopes on being along the shores of Bierstadt Lake when the inversion broke and the clouds cleared the sky and revealed the Continental Divide covered in fresh snow. These kinds of opportunities to photograph snow covered peaks with lakes not yet frozen over are rare and short lived in Rocky Mountain National Park.
Hiking up to Bierstadt Lake takes you up and over the Bierstadt Moraine. This is one of the better locations to photograph stands of aspens turning yellow in Rocky. My plan was to photograph sunrise at Bierstadt Lake and then hustle back over to Bierstadt Moraine and see if I could find some color along the hillsides.
I hiked up to Bierstadt Lake with it still spitting snow from the sky. I could still see the nearly full moon behind the clouds so I had hope that the inversion and clouds would clear as sunrise approached. It was peaceful and silent as I made my way through the forest at the top of moraine. Only when I arrived at the east end of Bierstadt Lake was there any signs of activity in the untouched snow. A fresh set of black bear tracks lead the way around the south end of Bierstadt Lake. While I did not see the bear, the tracks had been laid very recently. The Bear tracks in the snow only added to the mystique and aura as fog and snow drifted through the pines along the shore. Knowing a good size bear was ambling around the woods somewhere close by only enhances the experience of wild places and wilderness.
I setup along the south shore of Bierstadt Lake and waited for the clouds to lift and the sun to shine. Sunrise came and went and the clouds remained. There were a few breaks in the cloud cover from time to time but never enough to let the sun through or reveal the snow covered peaks to the west. Even without the sun peeking through at sunrise the scene at Bierstadt Lake was magnificent. The fog, snow covered pines, and unfrozen lake made for nearly limitless potential. Truth be told, these kinds of conditions along with diffused lighting are some of my favorite to photograph in. After spending over 2 hrs photographing various compositions along the shore of Bierstadt Lake in the 26 degree weather, I spent some more time photographing a few of the aspen trees on the Bierstadt Moraine that had already turned.
So even though the shot of snow covered peaks reflecting in the still, and unfrozen water of Bierstadt Lake did not materialize the way I had hoped, the resulting images and experiences that morning were equally as rewarding. Now I’m just keeping my fingers crossed that fall will hang on a little while longer so I can photograph golden aspen leaves against Colorado bluebird skies.
It happens like clockwork every year around this time. Somebody spots an aspen grove changing colors somewhere in Colorado and then loudly proclaims on the internet that fall is coming early. Photographers from all over the country chime in to the forum in a panic, fearing that their year long trip planning or vacations have now gone awry In my experience, while there are sometimes small changes in peak fall color, especially due to weather, the timing is fairly predictable and consistent year in and year out. So let me just be perfectly clear. I don’t want to be that person proclaiming fall in Colorado is coming early this year, but I can say signs of autumn are quickly starting to appear in Colorado and Rocky Mountain National Park.
Everywhere you look, the subtle signs of autumn approaching are becoming less subtle. Temperatures are certainly starting to noticeably cool. The alpine tundra has turned red and orange in Rocky Mountain National Park along with some of the ground cover in the lower elevations. Even a few aspen tree’s and maybe a grove here or there in the park has started turning from green to yellow, red and orange. The Elk rut has really ramped up in the last week and the sound of Elk bugling in the morning is now nearly as common as chirping birds. As for subtlety in change, last Friday, Longs Peak received a healthy dusting of snow on it’s summit while many of elevations of the park above 11,000 ft received enough of a dusting today that Trail Ridge Road was closed overnight.
As I write this, the National Weather Service is predicting a cold front from the north that will bring snow again to Rocky Mountain National Park Thursday night into Friday night. Let’s keep our fingers crossed that the snow coats the peaks but leaves the aspen trees still in good shape once the storm moves out. Because as we all know, fall color and snow capped mountains look pretty darn good.
It’s been an age old issue in landscape photography since it’s inception. When conditions are dynamic but changing should you settle on one location or perhaps move to another location that may yield an even better image. Even more difficult, should you make an attempt to photograph two locations in a hurried fashion?. The second approach leaving one essentially attempting to try and both have your cake and eat it. The risk may pay off in multiple images in conditions that are rare and often no duplicated, or of course it may backfire and leave you scrambling around with nothing to show for frenetic efforts once the dust settles.
Generally speaking I advocate taking a more methodical, contemplative, mindful and less hurried approach to photography. There are times however, when spectacular conditions combined with equally spectacular locations transcend one’s contemplative approach and we throw caution to the wind and let our excitement overrun our sensibilities.
I’ve run into this quandary often when out photographing in the field. Conditions for dynamic landscape photography look perfect. The stars are aligning in your favor. The earlier morning hike to an alpine lake 4 miles from the trailhead looks like its going to reward your hard work in getting to the remote location long before sunrise.
Of course there’s that pesky little voice inside your head that both harbors doubt,questions your original intent and begins suggesting different or more favorable destinations. For me, I may find myself questioning whether my original location is really going to be ‘the shot’. Maybe a seed of doubt has now been planted, maybe that next alpine lake another mile higher will be even more dramatic. And for those now concerned for my health, don’t worry this is all part of the creative process for me. It’s my discussion with my muse, it’s my attempt at rationalizing something that most rational people wont attempt to accomplish. Somewhat counterintuitive as it may seem, it can actually be a way for me of being more immersed in the moment. I’m sensing, feeling, moving all the while attempting to anticipate how the ‘moment’ is going to unfold before my eyes and camera.
I found myself in this very situation a few weeks back. The plan was to get to the Glacier Gorge trailhead early so that I could be up at Sky Pond for sunrise. Arriving at the trailhead a little after 4:15 AM I found the skies over Rocky Mountain National Park still covered with clouds. Skies to the east over the plains of Colorado were clear so the conditions were shaping up to be perfect for this four and half mile trek up to Sky Pond. Sunrise was around 6:15 AM, so this particular morning so I had a good amount of time to make it to my destination but not so much that I could dilly dally along the way.
I set out from the trailhead with my headlamp lighting the way feeling pretty good about my prospects. Clouds drifted overhead and the wind was still as I bounded along the trail. I made it to western edge of The Loch in good time. I stopped briefly to survey the eastern horizon to confirm there were still nice breaks in the clouds. Sure enough it looked great, maybe too much so. It was not even 5:30 AM but the pre dawn colors had already begun to explode in the sky and The Loch was still as glass. While I was set on photographing Sky Pond, the little voice inside my head said ‘you have to photograph this!’. Anyone who has attempted to photograph Loch Vale enough times knows windless mornings are rare, and windless mornings with beautiful clouds even more so. I glanced at my watch and attempted to reason with myself. If I was going to photograph from Sky Pond and give myself enough time to setup, I really needed to keep moving. I’ll be quick I figured, Just a few exposures and I’ll be on my way.
So I quickly setup my tripod and camera and started making images of this beautiful and tranquil scene unfolding before me. Photographers of course know that photographing in predawn light often requires very long exposure times. So even ‘a couple’ of exposures was taking much longer that I had anticipated. But I could tell from reviewing the display that these images were worth making. My five minute pit stop quickly turned into fifteen minutes and I forced myself to pack up and start heading up the trail towards my original destination.
It was now 5:40 AM and I was still one and a half miles from my final destination. The sky looked great, the clouds looked great and I was beginning to strongly question my decision to stop at The Loch. The last 1.5 miles to Sky Pond include a fairly steep ascent from The Loch as well as a scramble up and over Timberline Falls. I knew I was cutting it much too close for comfort at this point. Worst case scenario I figured I would stop short of Sky Pond and shoot Lake of Glass just below Sky Pond. So I pushed onward at a very fast pace huffing and puffing as I ascended the steep switchbacks just below Timberline Falls.
As I started the scramble up the side of Timberline Falls, the sky was really starting to explode with color. There was no way that I was going to be able to get to the western edge of Sky Pond for sunrise and the last thing I wanted to be doing was hiking along the trail as an epic sunrise unfolded over the peaks and lakes. As I crested the top of Timberline Falls and arrived at Lake of Glass it was apparent that I would have to setup here if I wanted to catch first light.
Tired and sweaty from the final push up Timberline Falls I setup along the shore of Lake of Glass just as the sun started to illuminate Taylor Peak and the Cathedral Spires. Sunrise was beautiful and if only for the fact that my original intent was to be at Sky Pond for sunrise I was quite pleased with my results from Lake of Glass.
I again packed up my camera gear and hiked up to my final destination along the western edge of Sky Pond. The clouds that had made sunrise so beautiful earlier had now obscured the sun. There were still a few breaks in the cloud cover so I again setup and waited to see if the sun would make a brief appearance as it rose in the sky. Shortly thereafter the sun illuminated for one last time the bottom half of The Cathedral Spires before again being blocked out by the cloud cover for the remainder of the morning.
What a morning it had been. A little more excitement and hustling around then I had anticipated but I felt good about the images I had created. It felt like not only did I have my cake, but I was able to eat it as well. While there’s a small part of me that wonders what sunrise would have been like at Sky Pond if I had not stopped at The Loch and Lake of Glass I’m pleased with my how the morning turned out. The next time I’m heading to Sky Pond however, there will be not pit stops made along the way regardless of what that little voice suggests.
Another busy week photographing Rocky Mountain National Park. The weather has been unsettled resulting in lots of interesting and dynamic images. Each morning this week has brought forward unexpected conditions and lighting, all different, each dramatic in their own way. I personally cant recall another stretch when we’ve had so many continuous days of dramatic weather and changing conditions.
The changing weather conditions are certainly a harbinger of summer ending and autumn quickly settling in over the park. Everywhere you look you can see signs of fall approaching. A few aspen leaves here and there have turned, the tundra above tree line is turning red, the Elk rut has begun in ernest and bugling can now be heard in the meadows and valley, and more importantly snow fell on the Alpine Visitor Center along Trail Ridge Road for a short period on Thursday. So even though its not even the end of August, as the weather and conditions attest, change is coming quickly to Rocky Mountain National Park.
been spending quite a bit of time in the field these last 3 weeks. I’ve made it a priority to get out and photograph as much as I can this summer. Summer is my favorite season in Rocky Mountain National Park. In my opinion you just cant beat hiking to alpine lakes, the smell of the pines when hiking through the forrest and the sounds of brooks babbling over rocks.
Since setting aside this time in the field to shoot, two things have become apparent to me. First off, perhaps all the time I’ve been able to spend photographing Rocky has skewed my recollection, but as far as I’m concerned we’ve had some of the best sunrise and sunsets on a consistent basis that I can even remember. Not to jinx my string of good luck, but it seems that we have consistently had beautiful sunrises filled with colorful clouds three to four days a week. In the past I can remember going eight or nine straight days with nary a cloud in the sky, especially during our drought years in the early 2000’s. Without a doubt this is tied to the increased moisture thats been present over Colorado the last year or so.
The second thing thats apparent, and is something I stress often is the need to assess and photograph locations both looking towards the peaks and mountains, as well as looking away from the peaks and mountains. For example, some of the best color in the sky occurs over the eastern plains of Colorado during sunrise. While it’s tempting to always want to point your camera towards the mountains, don’t neglect the opposite view.
This morning for example I used this principle to photograph sunrise over Dream Lake. While this image did not include iconic Hallett Peak or Flattop Mountain and in fact did not include any of the prominent peaks associated with Dream Lake, I came away with one of my favorite images of a subject I shoot often. So go ahead and take advantage of both the colorful sunrises and sunsets, but also take advantage of the opportunity to try something new when photographing in Rocky Mountain National Park.
Being above tree line in Rocky Mountain National Park is one of those special and unique experiences that come with exploring the park. While there are many places in Colorado where one can get above tree line, Trail Ridge Road allows easy access by car and trailheads found along Trail Ridge Road such as the Ute trail allow visitors and photographers the ability to get out on the alpine tundra and explore the world above tree line.
The Ute trail in particular is popular with visitors and it offers some of the best views of Rocky Mountain National Park and many of its high peaks. Because of this its a favorite location of mine to photograph, especially in the summer when the conditions are favorable, which at over 11,000 ft above sea level is often easier said then done.
It is often told that the Ute trail was one of three crossings of the Continental Divide in Rocky Mountain National Park used by Native Americans prior to the arrival of European-American settlers and travelers to the region. While there is no doubt the Ute Indians used this area for travel and game hunting the name itself is mo it’s more likely the route was named by the Colorado Geographic Board as a tribute to one of the two native tribes, the Ute and Arapaho whom inhabited this area prior to the discovery by early European-American settlers.
The Ute trail is a very interesting area to explore and it’s geographic orientation allows for good lighting and photography in both the mornings and afternoons. Whenever hiking above tree line in Rocky, one should be mindful of the weather and avoid being out on the alpine tundra if there is any chance whatsoever of lighting from electrical storms. Lighting storms above tree line are no joke and people are struck and killed by lighting almost every year in Rocky, especially in areas of the park above tree line.
If one is looking for opportunities to photograph some of the finest alpine scenery in all of Colorado, hiking along the Ute trail can make for a very rewarding day. Even a short excursion along the Ute trail will allow one to move away from the crowded and busy overlooks along Trail Ridge Road such as the Rock Cut and Forest Canyon overlook. So be it sunrise or sunset one the Ute trail is one of the best vantage points a photographer can choose to capture some of Rocky Mountain National Park’s best scenery.
The west side of Rocky Mountain National Park is one of my favorite locations in all of Colorado for photography. While I spend eighty percent of my time photographing the east side of Rocky Mountain National Park, the logistics of photographing the west side are much more difficult and therefore I do not get to spend as much time as I would like on the west side of the park. Whether real or perceived, the west side of Rocky Mountain National Park has a distinctive and different feel and flavor to it then does the east side of the park.
The west side of Rocky feels more primal. It’s forests appearing darker and more expansive than other areas of the park. There’s more moisture on the west side of the park so water is more plentiful and cascades and falls seem to be around every bend in the trail. Much of the west side of Rocky is hidden from view. With a few exceptions driving Trail Ridge Road past Fairview curve and the Kawuneeche Valley gives you only brief glimpses of the jagged and towering peaks located on the west side of the park. In fact for most visitors, driving through the Kawuneeche Valley is more about spotting Moose or Elk in the meadows then it is about admiring the mountain scenery on the west side of the park.
I make every attempt to spend time exploring the west side of the park when possible. Last week I had the opportunity to spend part of the week in Grand Lake so naturally I spent a few mornings on the west side of the park photographing some locations I’ve been eyeing for sometime.
Both Cascade Falls along the North Inlet trail as well as the Colorado River through the Kawuneeche Valley have been on my list for quite sometime. While I’ve attempted images at these locations before, I had yet to really come away with anything worthwhile. Luckily for me the conditions were very favorable this time for both dramatic lighting at sunrise as well as cloud cover and overcast conditions later on which where perfectly conducive for waterfall photography.
As the problem always is with these kind of opportunities, one only has so much time to explore and photograph all the locations on one’s list. So while I’m already plotting out my next outing over to the west side of Rocky, I’ll still be spending the majority of my time closer to home on the east side of the park.
Did you ever have an image you were trying to capture for years but have yet to have the conditions and the timing work out in your favor?. You visit the location as often as is possible yet you just don’t seem to be able to capture the image as your perceive and put your stamp on it? I believe most landscape photographers can relate to this sentiment. Essentially you become Captain Ahab and the location your photographic white whale.
Some of us are probably better than others at moving on to other locations and subjects, but I suspect many photographers like myself are often driven by compulsion and need to continue to create an image from a given location until they capture an image similar to what they had perceived.
There is a strong likelihood that we may never capture an image as we have imagined, but when the stars finally align and your determination and grit and compulsions pay off, the feeling can be grand. I have a list of locations that I continue to visit time and time again attempting to improve on prior attempts.
For some of these locations I have images that I’m very pleased with but have a nagging desire to further improve on previous attempts. Some locations I have no images whatsoever. Some of these locations I’ve attempted to photograph span the entire length of the sixteen years I’ve been practicing landscape photography.
This past week a culmination of being at the right place at the right time combined with a little bit of luck helped me metaphorically spear a few of my own personal white whales. A meet up with some friends from back east allowed me to spend sometime in the Aspen area. While I’ve photographed the Maroon Bells numerous times before, I’ve never had anything but mostly clear skies at sunrise. This time however, I was able to photograph the Maroon Bells on consecutive mornings with dramatic lighting.
Both Saturday and Tuesday I had great luck in Rocky Mountain National Park at both Odessa Lake and Two Rivers Lake. I’ve had difficulty in the past being at both these locations when the conditions were dramatic. After many visits to these locations over the last sixteen years, these last visits finally allowed me to capture images I had been envisioning for years. So my perseverance paid off, now its time to keep moving on down the list!.