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!.
If there is one particular combination that can put a damper on landscape photography it’s clear skies combined with smoke from wildfires. While it’s always about working with the light to compliment your subject, I find it to be quite difficult to work with a hazy atmosphere caused by smoke, especially if the skies are clear.
Unfortunately, late in the week smoke from large fires burning in Washington State managed to drift over Colorado and Rocky Mountain National Park. The smoke was thick and seemed to have embedded itself right along the Front Range which meant I would need to scrap my plans to hike into the backcountry and remain flexible.
In the predawn hours I drove up over Trail Ridge Road hoping I might be able to get up and away from the smoke embedded below. No such luck would be had, the smoke was still thick and plentiful on Trail Ridge. The smoke was thick enough so that my headlamps on my truck almost appeared as if I was driving through fog.
I was starting to be resigned to the fact that this just might not be my morning when I noticed some think waif like clouds forming in the skies. This gave me a little more hope as I figured I just might be able to get some color in the sky aided by some of the smoke particulates.
Down towards Milner Pass I headed. Either Poudre Lake or Lake Irene would be my destination depending on where the clouds were situated. Driving by Poudre Lake and over Milner Pass the clouds were looking quite nice. An orange glow to the north and east hung over the outlet to the lake.
A quick stop at Lake Irene was all I needed to see that Poudre Lake held much better potential with the clouds setup favoring the headwaters of the Poudre. Arriving back at Poudre Lake the skies were taking on colorful hues. I’ve always found Poudre Lake to be difficult to photograph because Trail Ridge Road runs right along the outlet to the lake and it’s difficult to keep it from becoming a distraction in an image. The conditions this morning were perfect for a silhouette of the lake which easily remedies the issue of having the road in the photograph. So even though I could do without the smoke and haze the conditions allowed me to create an image I previously had little luck pulling off.
During the long winter months, there are times when I’ll sit around daydreaming about some of my favorite hikes and locations in the park during the summer months. Rushing streams, the sweet smell of the pines, and alpine wildflowers growing between the rocks and scree of the tundra will fill my head. The anticipation waiting for these locations to thaw out and for the summer to roll in becomes palatable.
The hike up to Lake of Glass and Sky Pond is one of those hikes I sit and day dream about over the winter. It’s one of my favorite in Rocky Mountain National Park as it is with countless visitors to Rocky who trek to this beautiful location each summer. The area comprising Glacier Gorge and Loch Vale and Andrew Glacier was once owned by Abner Sprague. Sprague guided tourists from all around the world who stayed at his lodge which was located next to Sprague Lake through this beautiful area. Even before this beautiful cirque was purchased by the National Park Service from Sprague, the locals and guides understood the majestic beauty of the area.
So when summer finally does arrive in Rocky Mountain National Park, a hike up to Sky Pond for sunrise is always high on my priority list. Last week I finally had the opportunity to make the trek to Sky Pond for sunrise. Even better was on the particular morning of the hike the weather conditions were looking very promising. It had rained hard the night before and when I departed the trailhead at 3:40 AM the skies above the divide were still covered with clouds while to the east of the Colorado high plains there were good size breaks developing.
The hike was uneventful but beautiful as always. The ‘super moon’ would make periodic appearances through the cloud cover shining white rays of moonlight down on The Loch and the Cathedral Wall. I wasn’t sure how much snow to expect as I neared Timberline Falls. I figured there would still be some good patches of snow hanging around the shaded areas of the trail but my main concern was being able to safely navigate the scramble up and over Timberline Falls.
Below Timberline Falls there were two decent size patches of snow still enduring as holdovers from the long winter. They were both easy enough to cross over and one at the base of Timberline Falls the scramble to the top was also clear and free of snow. Arriving at the Top of Timberline Falls and the east outlet of Lake of Glass I was met as I often am in this location with a strong breeze. It did not appear the Lake of Glass would be living up to it’s name this particular morning.
Breeze and all, the conditions were looking just about perfect for sunrise. I arrived at Lake of Glass shortly after 5:00 AM. When I arrived the skies over the lake were already beginning to take on the pre glow pastels of sunrise. Photographing the sunrise from along the rock outcropping on the south side of Lake of Glass, I quickly packed up my gear and sprinted over to Sky Pond to photograph the Sharkstooth while the light was still good. Within a few minutes the clouds obscured the peaks and sun disappeared behind the clouds.
By the time the sun ducked back behind the clouds, I was able to photograph both Lake of Glass and Sky Pond in beautiful light. I’ll take the hike to Sky Pond and Lake of Glass anytime but one’s legs feel a little less sore and a little more springy on the hike back out after such a beautiful and productive morning.
Nothing quite says summer in Rocky Mountain National Park like a drive across Trail Ridge Road. Once the road opens up for the season, It’s on the to do list of most visitors to Rocky and the road itself is considered to be one of the icons of the park. Trail Ridge Road which is the highest continuous paved road in the continental United States is the highlight for many visitors to the park.
The winding, curving roadway not only gives visitors and photographers spectacular views of the mountains but also lets one experience the harsh but beautiful world that survives above tree line. Topping out at 12,183 ft above sea level, a good eleven miles of the road runs above or near tree line which in Rocky Mountain National Park occurs around 11,500 ft. Trail Ridge Road with its steep drop offs lack of guardrails and shoulders can turn even the best drivers into white knuckle drivers who end up gripping the steering wheel like their trying to squeeze juice from an orange.
So while I generally prefer to be out on a trail when heading out to photograph the park, the short window that Trail Ridge Road is open each season makes spending time traveling the road each summer a priority. July in particular is a great time to explore Trail Ridge Road. The alpine tundra will have turned green, much of the snow will have melted and wildflowers will sprouting and growing on the tundra and between the rocks.
I spent a few days last week on Trail Ridge Road and was lucky enough to catch two stunning sunrises. Rocky Mountain National Park has been pestered by smoke from fires in the far north of Canada the last week. With the weather pattern changing and the winds shifting to a more southerly and westerly direction, the smoke from the Canadian fires quickly was moved out of the park. Wildflowers are blooming all over the tundra and the alpine sunflowers are growing the thickest I’ve seen them in the last 10 years or so.
The conditions right now on Trail Ridge are great. Plenty of green, plenty of wildflowers, still some good snow cover on the highest peaks. Many of the Elk have migrated above tree line from the valley’s below so there is plenty of large wildlife to observe. So enjoy Trail Ridge while it’s open, accessible as beautiful as it will be all season.
I’ve just arrived back from another annual summer whirlwind tour of New York State. Now to be honest, this trip was taken to visit family and to take my daughter to the beach to frolic in the oceans with her cousins, make sand castles and search for sea shells. Being a mountain girl she doesn’t often get to do these things. Luckily for me, my wife and daughter like to sleep in a little late most mornings when on vacation which allows me time to sneak out and photograph for an hour or two before everyone else starts waking for the day at more civil hours.
Because my family lives downstate, and my wife’s family lives upstate I get to work my way through some of the very diverse scenery New York State has to offer. One of my favorite locations downstate is Harriman State Park and the area around Bear Mountain State Park. While Bear Mountain State Park has commanding views of the Hudson River and Hudson Valley, Harriman State Park is chock full of beautiful lakes, tree’s and bubbling brooks and streams. This year there has been plenty of moisture of late, so Harriman was green and the brooks and streams where all still running. Harriman State Park is an amazing location with endless possibilities for photographers. I’ll be back again in the fall which is my favorite time of year to photograph Harriman State Park.
After a few days at my Mom’s house north of New York City, it was off to the east end of Long Island for a few days at the beach. I’m lucky enough to have a few relatives who invite us to stay with them each summer so we can spend time out east in Southampton, New York. If it was not for their generosity, I doubt we would have the opportunity to spend time in this beautiful location.The beaches and bay’s around the area are spectacular. Access and parking can be difficult around some of the beaches and waterways but with sunrise around 5:15 AM this time of year one can photograph sunrise long before any of the parking patrol’s go on duty. It’s fun for me to go from shooting 10,000 to 11,000 ft above sea level to shooting at sea level.
Lastly, we spent the end of the week along New York’s Southern Tier and Finger Lake region with Holly’s family. The Finger Lake region is one of my favorite locations to photograph. The gorges, waterfalls and large lakes are a photographers dream come true. I have not even scratched the surface on exploring this area. With only 2 mornings to photograph I spent my time in Watkins Glen, Havana Glen and around Tughannock Falls north of Ithaca. I’m looking forward to returning to this area this fall to photograph this area amongst the fall foliage.
With our trip back to New York successful and feet planted safely back on Colorado soil, I’m looking forward to getting out and devoting most of my time this summer that of photographing Rocky Mountain National Park and continue to add to my growing portfolio of the park. I’ll be back again this fall, but until then I’m looking forward to getting back into the mountains and breathing the thin air.
been a whirlwind week for me. I’m currently back on the east coast visiting with family as well as taking some time early in the mornings to get out, explore and photograph landscapes that are very different from my usual Colorado haunts. Waterfalls, beaches and lots of green stuff to shoot here in New York which makes for a nice change of pace.
I flew out to New York from Colorado just after 9:00 AM on Saturday. Before I left I had to get one more morning sunrise in Rocky Mountain National Park. I was limited to where I could go shoot because I would only have a short amount of time before I needed to hustle to Denver International Airport to make my flight. With sunrise at 5:30 AM I figured I would have just enough time to get somewhere for sunrise but of course hiking long distances was out of the question.
I find it easy to overlook some of the areas of Rocky Mountain National Park that don’t require long hikes or huge efforts to access come summertime. It’s fun opening a map of the park and finding far away lakes to explore and photograph but sometimes this approach leads me to neglect some of my favorite, more easily accessible locations.
Restrictions placed on your photography oftentimes can be the most beneficial. It can keep you focused and forced to work within your limitations. So with all that said, Lily Lake made for a perfect spot to spend a truncated morning in Rocky. Of course having an amazing sunrise made it all the more worthwhile and made the rush back down to the airport to catch my flight.
landscape photographers I know strive to create images that are beautiful, dramatic and as close to technically flawless as possible. With the amount of talented landscape photographers exponentially increasing and the endless ways of showcasing and sharing images both on online and in print, viewing beautiful landscape photography is a click or page away. The quantity and quality of images has never been greater. Being bombarded with this constant flow of spectacular images can make it feel as if attaining images of similar caliber is like trying to catch lighting in a bottle.
This overload of imagery leads many photographers down a path thats simply not attainable, nor healthy for their artistic pursuits, that of the search for perfection. The search for the perfect image, perfect conditions, perfect sunrise detracts from being in the moment, from appreciating fully the time at hand. It’s a difficult concept for some but let me spell it out. There is no such thing as a perfect image, perfect camera, perfect lens or perfect location. We may be able to achieve near perfect images that are compelling, pleasing or even near technically perfect, but they will never in actuality be perfect. The inherent flaws of the artist and the medium are what make the image unique and compelling. Over the last 20 years I have seen many talented photographers burn themselves out and put their cameras away for good all because they were searching for the unattainable goal of perfection.
Why the rant on perfection?. Mostly because I found myself falling into the trap a little more than I was comfortable with last week. Success in landscape photography seems to come in ebbs and flows. Some weeks it seems you cant miss. Every sunrise is dramatic, beautiful clouds hover over the peaks and the wind is calm. Inevitably, the tide will turn and things wont go exactly as you want them to. Clouds may obscure the sunrise that looked so promising, or the wind may be blowing as a gale when you arrive at that alpine lake after a 6 mile predawn hike. I find it’s as easy to fall into the trap when things are breaking your way just as much as when there not. Either way I’ve gotten better over time in recognizing when the search for perfection starts affecting my enjoyment in the field and being present in the moment regardless how successful an outing is.
It was a combination of sunrise at Chautauqua Park and a morning in Rocky Mountain National Park in conditions that I thought were less than ideal that had me pressing a little more than I was comfortable with. Funny enough, both morning yielded images that I’m very pleased with. Stepping back, sticking with it and more importantly being present in the moment helped wrestle the perfection bug back to the ground and off my back.
Somebody needs to send the memo to Mother Nature that summer is just around the corner. Mother nature seems a bit confused as to how she is supposed to start behaving, it just wont be me. Rain, snow, fog and wind have all made regular appearances into June making for some very interesting conditions for photography.
One of my favorite locations in Rocky Mountain National Park is The Loch, and when the weather is unsettled it always lives up to its billing. Abner Sprague is credited with giving the Loch and Loch Vale area its name. On a foggy or rainy day the landscape is certainly reminiscent of a Scottish lake though this is not exactly how the Sprague came up with the name.
Abner Sprague guided many of the early adventurers through what was to become Rocky Mountain National Park. During one of these trips Sprague and his client Mr. Locke were hunkered down in a snowstorm overnight near Fern Lake. After surviving the night near Fern Lake with Mr. Locke, Sprague named a lake in his honor. Sprague named The Loch after Mr. Locke but instead altered Mr. Locke’s name more fittingly to that of a Scottish lake.
There are unlimited scenic wonders in Rocky Mountain National Park. That being said, anytime I have an opportunity to return to The Loch while dramatic weather conditions are unfolding I jump at the chance. It’s hard to pass up The Loch’s dramatic beauty which is only compounded when fog and clouds cloak the peaks surrounding The Loch in a veil like fashion. So when I arrived at The Loch last week and found the waters still and the peaks shrouded I took a good few moments to just sit and enjoy the silence and serenity before watching the fog and clouds lift from the valley while the peaks bathed in the warm morning sun.