Here it is September 20th and one would have to guess that signs of autumn must be all over Rocky Mountain National Park at this point in time. Usually by now, the Bear Lake area is nearing peak and good hints of color are showing along the Bierstadt Moraine. The elk are deep into the rut and the underbrush around Lake Helene and The Loch are now a striking yellow and red.
This would be a spectacular weekend to visit RMNP and take in all of the beauty of fall right?. Not so fast. While I would love to tell you that Rocky is currently covered in fall splendor, it actually looks a lot more like Labor Day right now than one’s typical impression of Rocky Mountain National Park is autumn.
Here’s an update on the fall color status of RMNP as it stands today. As far as color change goes when it comes to deciduous trees go there is little to report. It appears that we are at least a week behind historical fall color change in Rocky.
For example, there are only a handful of aspen trees that have started to change at Bear Lake. Normally, this weekend would be expected peak color at Bear Lake. There is almost no color change along the Bierstadt Moraine and only a few splashes of color around Glacier Gorge. Some of the River Birches in Moraine Park have started to change as have the smaller willows at higher elevations. With that said, there is still only minimal color change to report as of today.
The elk rut however, is well on its way. While many of the elk are still up in the higher, snowless elevations of the park, many are starting to fill into the meadows of Horseshoe Park and Moraine Park. As always, early mornings and late evenings when the temperatures cool, the elk become much more active and leave the shaded cover of the forest.
While fall is slowly showing up in Rocky Mountain National Park, a photographers best bet right now is to either delay their visit to RMNP a few days or figure on concentrating on photographing the elk and fall rut.
One last note regarding my RMNP Photography Tours. While I am nearly booked the next two weeks I do still have a few openings for Rocky Mountain National Park Photography tours. Shoot me an email and I’m happy to let you know if I have availability to help you photograph all the wonders of Rocky Mountain National Park. I have a few sporadic openings the next two weeks and more openings during the second and third weeks of October. Feel free to contact me and I’m happy to help with scheduling a photography tour or just giving a quick update on currnet conditions.
With fall running behind schedule, we should have great conditions for photography well into the middle of October. Looks like this year we will just need to excercise a little paitence waiting on mother nature to cooperate.
It’s been a beautiful week here on the east side of Rocky Mountain National Park. There is a definite change in the air as late summer unfolds over the park. Subtle signs of the completion of summer and the entrance of autumn can be found if you know where to look.
The summer crowds and families have thinned out a bit during the mid week (weekends are still very busy). Elk can be heard starting to bugle in the meadows of the Kawuneeche Valley and up on the tundra though I would not say the elk rut has officially started as of yet.
Frost can be found on the grasses in the valley and low lying areas and the ground cover is changing color. This is also true of the alpine tundra above 11,000 ft where the short lived green grass is now quickly turning golden and auburn welcoming in fall at this highest elevations of RMNP.
The question most people have, and of course the one most photographers want to know is if there are any signs of fall color amongst the aspen trees of Rocky Mountain National Park as of yet.
There are in fact subtle signs of aspen trees starting to change color in some locations of Rocky. Some aspens above Hanging Valley near Trail Ridge Road are showing some golden leaves now as are some aspens roadside near Hidden Valley. No need to panic as this is typical for any given year and its not uncommon to find a few trees here and there changing color even as early as Labor Day weekend.
While I enjoy seeing the signs of autumn filter in RMNP, I’m still quite focused on working on adding to my portfolio of summer images of the park. The season in the high country is so short, that summer flies by in a blink of an eye each year and before you know it these beautiful and sacred places are covered over in snow and difficult if not impossible to access until next May or June depending on the winter.
We still have at least a month or so of good weather to look forward to. Sure, we could have a snowstorm or two mixed in but access to Rocky Mountain National Park’s higher elevations should be good for another 4-6 weeks.
With that in mind I headed out on the alpine tundra on Tuesday morning to photograph what was one of our best sunrises of the summer. Alpine tarns reflecting the beautiful colors of the sunrise combined with majestic mountains and thick summer grasses are some of my favorite subjects. These are also some of my favorite locations to spent time in during the summer months in Rocky.
Watching a late season summer sunrise unfold over the high landscapes of Rocky Mountain National Park and understanding how fleeting these moments are is both intoxicating and bittersweet. You never forget mornings like this one, while at the same time you understand well that summer is coming to a close and this precious moments in the park are fleeting as always.
One last note. I still have a few morning openings left for my Rocky Mountain National Park Photography tours this fall. As of this writing I still have the morning of 9/16,9/18,9/24, 10/2,10/3 and 10/4 open. If you are interested in any of those dates or dates before or after for a photography tour of Rocky Mountain National Park please contact me via email or phone.
Whether you are a beginner when it comes to landscape photography, or a seasoned veteran of the craft, we’ve all been there. You have a location you’ve been dying to photography for months or years and the stars finally align and you have now arrived at the said destination.
You’ve played the scenario through in your head multiple times, you have all your camera gear dialed in, you know just what lens you need to use, you’ve been working out and training so you can make the long difficult hike before sunrise and the weather forecast looks promising.
You’ve now done it, you’ve arrived. Only problem is you’ve arrived to find clouds blocking the first rays of sunlight over the landscape. How could this be?. You’ve put in all this time and effort and now that you are standing behind your camera and tripod waiting to trip the shutter the light is not cooperating. Those dreams of alpenglow hitting the mountaintops, while the sky turns pink and red at sunrise will now remain in your imagination only.
For landscape photographers, this scenario plays out all the time. Having a sunrise or sunset busted by by light or no clouds or other weather related factors that take away from our perceived bias on how the scene looks is one of the most frustrating parts of being a landscape photographer.
While I have no actual numbers to base this claim on, I would bet tarnished expectations is one of the leading causes of burnout amongst landscape photographers. There’s no doubt about, putting all that time, effort and money into making an attempt at capturing a dramatic scene can begin to feel like a fools folly when it doesn’t work out.
As a professional photographer and a photography guide in Rocky Mountain National Park I see this scenario unfold often when I have clients out in the field. I’m rooting for my clients to get killer light and conditions more than anyone and when it doesn’t happen I feel for them and empathize with them as I’ve been there as many times in the exact same situation.
For many landscape photographers, the perfect window of light is the 15 minutes before and after sunrise and sunset. No doubt about it that this is the most dramatic window of light during the day. One can build a career off being in the right place at the right time while the light breaks and the landscape is filled with dramatic otherworldly lighting. The truth however, is this happens quite rarely.
When I have photography tour clients out in the field with me in RMNP, I try to manage their expectations and keep them in a positive frame of mind. Sure, we may not get that perfect image of Dream Lake at sunrise, but the light thats appeared a half hour after sunrise once its cleared a cloud bank to the east is pretty darn nice as well.
One of the things I constantly like to reinforce with my students and photography tour clients, is that you can’t only hit homeruns. Sometimes you need to hit singles, doubles and triples to set the tone or in our case our portfolios.
Just last week this very scenario unfolded. I had a client out in Rocky Mountain National Park for a sunrise photo tour. This client was hoping to capture some great images of Odessa Lake and Fern Creek at sunrise. We started early with a 2:40 AM departure from the Boulder area which culminated in the 4.3 mile long hike into Odessa Lake for sunrise.
Conditions looked promising this morning and there were clouds hanging over the divide and Rocky Mountain National Park. All landscape photographers love to have clouds in their composition unless they are blocking the sun. After our moderate hike into Odessa Lake long before sunrise, this is exactly what happened.
6:25 AM came and went and there was no alpenglow on the landscape. No fire red clouds over The Little Matterhorn or Notchtop Mountain. My client while enjoying the experience, the location and the hike in was disappointed that the sun was not shining. I tried to assure him that I thought the sun would make an appearance and while it might not be exactly the light he had envisioned, even the light a little after sunrise can look really good when you are framing Odessa Lake, The Little Matterhorn and Notchtop Mountain through your camera viewfinder.
Finally, after about 35 minutes past sunrise, the sun started to shine down on our location. While there was some disappointment, going through the motions of shooting the scene in front of you can quickly change ones mood. We spend the next 15 minutes photographing various composition at Odessa Lake until we once again lost the sunlight behind the clouds.
The light was moody once it did make an appearance and I could tell that we would be able to capture some really nice images of Odessa Lake and Fern Creek. While it wasn’t exactly the light my client had hoped for, he was very pleased with his images once he was able to get back home and get them downloaded on his computer.
As I try to reinforce with my clients, photography is all about the light. Sometimes the light may not be exactly what you had hoped for, but sometimes the light is just good enough to work.
On Tuesday morning of this week I took a quick trek up to Mills Lake for sunrise. In my opinion Mills Lake, located in Glacier Gorge is one of Rocky Mountain National Park’s most spectacular and jaw dropping locations. One of the reasons Mills Lake does not get quite as much attention from photographers as do some of RMNP’s other dramatic locations is that Mills Lake can be difficult to photograph.
With Mills Lake resting at the bottom of Glacier Gorge. It’s nestled in and around some of Rocky Mountain National Park’s most impressive and iconic peaks. Longs Peak, Rocky’s tallest peak at 14,259 ft towers above the eastern shore of Mills Lake along with Half Mountain and Pagoda Peak. To the south rests Chiefs Head Peak and the iconic Spearhead. On the west side of Mills Lake, Thatchtop Mountain rises high above with the Arrowhead down valley. With all of these impressive and iconic peaks of RMNP rising above Mills Lake, it makes for one of the most dramatic and visually impressive locations in all of Rocky.
These same peaks however, make Mills Lake difficult to photography because more times than less, they are overshadowing and blocking the sunlight in and around Glacier Gorge. This is especially true early in the morning and late in the afternoon when the sun is low in the sky.
Mornings at Mills Lake means that only the summit of Longs Peak will catch sun. In the middle of summer Chiefs Head Peak will catch first light. It still takes awhile for the sun to reach the Spearhead even during the longest days of the year.
Afternoons are best at Mills Lake but even with that said sunlight can be sparse. The backside of Longs Peak otherwise known as The Keyboard of The Winds will glow at sunset. That’s all well and good but many summer afternoons produce strong thunderstorms and cloud cover over Rocky Mountain National Park meaning you have a good chance of not getting any light at sunset. Wind is also an issue with a large lake like Mills and both the afternoon and mornings have a good chance of having a breeze flowing down Glacier Gorge.
With that said, my strategy at Mills Lake has been to look for heavy cloud cover over Longs Peak and hope there break in the cloud cover to the east. They way I see it when it comes to photographing Mills Lake, is that while I would call it more of an afternoon shot than a morning shot, a good set of clouds over Glacier Gorge can help even the score.
Tuesday morning I headed up the 2.8 miles to Mills Lake with decent cloud cover of the Gorge. That cloud cover thinned out as the sun rose, but enough white puffy clouds hung around after sunrise to make for a beautiful scene. Even better, the northern end of Mills Lake remained calm enough to allow for a great reflection. Not exactly how I had drawn up the morning in my mind, but regardless the results were still more than satisfactory.
One other note in closing here not related to photography at Mills Lake but to my tour and workshop schedule in late summer and fall. My schedule for photography tours this fall is quickly filling up. Many of my clients book these autumn dates nearly a year in advance. That being said if you are looking to take a photography tour or workshop with me at the end of August or through September and the fall color season, I still have some openings. Please contact me sooner than later and I’ll be happy to let you know what open dates I still have for summer and fall photography tours in Rocky Mountain National Park.
Late August, September and the first half of October is some of the best times to photograph Rocky Mountain National Park. It’s a great time to take a photography tour and I’’m happy to try and accommodate anybody who is interested in heading out with me in the next few months.
When it comes to photographing western icon, Moulton Barns along Mormon Row in Grand Teton National Park. Unlike Grand Teton National Park, Rocky Mountain National Park has made a concerted effort to remove many of the man made structures and lodges in the park over the years. Many are surprised to discover that RMNP actually has it’s own barn that is nearly as photogenic at some of the structures in the Tetons.
While Rocky Mountain National Park was once lined and dotted with lodges and inn’s, none of these structures remain standing. Moraine Park, Horseshoe Park, Beaver Meadows, Deer Mountain and the Kawuneeche Valley all had numerous lodges and structures that once hosted visitors to the area.
While the NPS has made an effort to remove many of these structures and restore the landscape to it’s natural state, there are still quite a few historical buildings standing in Rocky Mountain National Park, particularly on the west side of the park.
For photographing man made structures, its hard to beat the Little Buckaroo Barn. This barn located on the west side of RMNP in the Kawuneeche Valley certainly gives the Moulton Barns of the Grand Teton’s a run for its money.
Part of Trail River Ranch, the Little Buckaroo Barn dates back to 1942. Built in a style that is typically found in southern Louisiana it’s unique one off. With the Never Summer Mountain of Rocky Mountain National Park as a backdrop, and building materials sourced from the area, the Little Buckaroo Barn is a small but stunning piece of construction.
Typically when I head into RMNP to photograph the landscape, I normally have a particular destination in mind. This can all change if the clouds or weather dictate that certain locations are more optimal with the current conditions.
This was the case on Wednesday morning when shortly after sunrise a nice set of clouds slid over the Kawuneeche Valley. Once I saw those clouds gliding over the valley, I quickly set out to Little Buckaroo hoping to use them as a backdrop. The clouds didn’t stick around long, but they stuck around just long enough for me to capture a handful of beautiful images of summer at Little Buckaroo Barn.
Summer keeps rolling along in Rocky. It’s short and sweet and summer never lingers long. In fact, one can already start to see that the transition from summer to fall won’t be that far off. In fact, for my daughter, summer is over for her as I just walked her to the bus stop for her first day in third grade.
Early this summer I had the amazing opportunity to explore and photograph some very remote sections of Rocky Mountain National Park with my good friend and photographer extraordinaire Erik Stensland, owner of Images of RMNP Nobody has photographed more of Rocky Mountain National Park then Erik. Furthermore, few people have a greater appreciation for the beauty of Rocky Mountain National Park nor a reverence for nature than Erik does.
Over coffee earlier this winter we had thrown about the idea of going backpacking for a few days somewhere in the park. We were ambiguous in our plans as each year when the Backcountry office of RMNP opens up the permits for the backcountry sites it’s done on a first come first serve basis.
Because its first come, first serve, you have your list of sites and locations you want to visit but theres a good chance some of them will already be reserved by the time you make it to the front of the line.
Luckily we were able to secure a great backcountry site for 3 nights of the west side of Rocky. Erik, always the man with grand plan had some great ideas on where we should head and what we should attempt to photograph.
It would involve lots and lots of miles hiking over difficult terrain, thousands of feet of elevation gain in a day but would allow us to experience some of Rocky’s most beautiful and remote locations.
The trip did not disappoint. It took my legs about a week to recover from all the cross country travel and climbing but the weather was perfect, the locations visited were pristine and untouched.
The three day jaunt into the backcountry of RMNP was just about as perfect as one could ask for. I greatly appreciated Erik’s company, knowledge and friendship. It’s certainly and experience I won’t soon forget. As an aside as I get time I’ll continue to publish images from the trip in future blog posts.
Late last week i had the opportunity to head up to Chasm Lake at the base of 14,259 ft Longs Peak and its iconic northeast face the ‘Diamond’. As some of you know Chasm Lake is probably my favorite location in all of Rocky Mountain National Park.
Typically, I try to hike up to Chasm Lake at least once during the summer season but with so many amazing places in Rocky Mountain National Park to photograph and only so many opportunities and beautiful sunrises it doesn’t always work out. Travel, weather and leading photography tours and workshops in RMNP can make the logistics difficult some years.
I’ve had a photography workshop/tour client that has wanted to visit Chasm Lake for the past few seasons. He’s been preparing for the physical and difficult 4.2 mile hike and the nearly 2400 ft vertical gain required to reach Chasm Lake for the past few years. I’ve been able to lead him to a few other similar and difficult hikes in Rocky so I felt confident enough to take this particular person up to Chasm Lake when it looked like conditions may be optimal for photography.
With a few aborted attempts late last season due to poor weather, Chasm Lake has been on my clients ‘must do’ list for awhile. This client lives in the Denver metro area so when I have openings in my schedule available and the weather looks good I’ll contact him and let him know it might be a good day to attempt this particular location.
As it turned out, I had another client cancel their photography tour at the last minute. With a promising weather forecast for the potential of low winds and good light, I gave him the heads up that this might be one of our best chances to give Chasm Lake a shot this season.
Chasm Lake sits just below 12,000 ft above sea level. So getting a calm morning at that elevation with little wind, some clouds over Longs Peak and some nice sunrise light can be much more challenging than it appears.
We took off from the Longs Peak trailhead just after 3:00 AM. There was the usual gaggle of fellow hikers departing the trailhead at the same time headed for the summit of Longs Peak. As is the case with the Longs Peak trailhead in the middle of summer, it’s both busy and full of excitement even at 3:00 AM as visitors to RMNP head off to challenge themselves and attempt to make it to the summit of Longs Peak long before the afternoon thunderstorms begin to build.
We made it up to Chasm Lake a little before 5:30 AM. The last scramble up to Chasm and the long up hill hike had challenged my client. While he was bemoaning the long, steep uphill trek from the Longs Peak trailhead, he ignored his cramping legs once Chasm Lake came into sight and he started straight up at Longs Peak and The Diamond.
The early morning pre-dawn light was just starting to cause The Diamond, Longs Peak and the Ships Prow to take on a beautiful orange and red glow. Most of the surface of Chasm Lake was placid and there were some beautiful clouds hanging over Longs Peak this morning.
We quickly setup our tripods, set or compositions and starting photographing the spectacular light unfolding right in front of us. The Rocky ‘trifecta’ was in full effect this morning as we had sunlight, a reflection and clouds making for near perfect conditions.
I spent the rest of the morning above timberline showing my client some of the other tremendous spots in this awesome portion of RMNP. Being able to share the experience of visiting Chasm Lake for sunrise was awesome as was the ability to guide my client up to a location I dont often get to visit with other clients. Either way you cut it, it’s hard to beat a beautiful morning up at Chasm Lake.
I can’t believe it but the end of July has already arrived. Summer in Rocky Mountain National Park typically flies by at light speed but this summer seems to have set a new speed record.
I’ll chalk it up to cool weather this spring that just wouldn’t yield to summer along with the fact that I’ve been spending lots of time in the field photographing Rocky Mountain National Park both on my own as well as with lots of great photography tour clients who have been lucky to enjoy lots of beautiful sunrises on the east side of the park.
The conditions right now in Rocky Mountain National Park are really hitting full stride. While there are still a few snowfields to melt in elevations over 11,000 ft, most of the high meadows have now greened up and wildflowers (although late) are really starting to bloom.
It’s going to be interesting this year to not only see if in some areas of RMNP wildflowers just don’t bloom at all because of our late spring, along with how long wildflowers linger on this year right into fall color season in Rocky in mid to late September. It’s been such a strange year we might have fall colors and wildflower season dovetailing right into one another.
Not to get to far ahead of ourselves, conditions in Rocky Mountain National Park are just plain awesome right now. Streams have settled down from the spring runoff but area still brimming with water. Meadows are green, and wildflowers on the alpine tundra along with wildflowers in the mid elevations are still going strong. Lakes, ponds and tarns look great and sunrise conditions have really been cooperating this year.
As we move from July into August in Rocky, it’s certainly a great time to get out and take advantage of the late summer conditions that are just rounding into mid season summer form.
I’ve been busy the past week guiding other photographers to some of the most beautiful spots in Rocky Mountain National Park. Combine that with the 4th of July holiday here in the States and I’ve not been had quite as much time to get out alone in the field to photograph for my own portfolio of late.
What I can tell you is we are now entering primetime summer photography season in Rocky Mountain National Park. Mid July through early September is going to produce some of the best conditions for summer photography in Rocky.
I’m happy to report that we made it through a few weeks here in Rocky and Trail Ridge Road has remained opened and we have not had any new snow to speak of. I say that tongue and cheek of course but thats its felt like up until this past week. Fall River Road did not open by July 4th as is normally the case but will see a delayed opening of July 13th as the NPS is still dealing with all the snow in the valley.
The monsoonal weather pattern of late afternoon thunderstorms has not really kicked in yet this summer but we are now having warm weather during the days. The remaining snow on the trail is quickly melting and wildflowers are really start to show. Indian Paintbrush, Golden Banner and even Alpine Sunflowers are starting to bloom depending on location and altitude.
As is always the case with Rocky Mountain National Park and the summer seasons it seems to take a long time to get going and always seems to be much too short in duration. But as I tell my photography tour clients, you have to make the most of summer in Rocky while it’s here.
That means lots of early morning starts, sore legs from long hikes, and a backlog of images to process during the shorter days of winter. Now is the time to get out and take advantage of the ever improving conditions in RMNP and capture all that awesomeness that is summer in Rocky with your camera.
When I take photography tour/workshop clients out in the field they often ask me what my favorite locations or conditions to photograph in are in Rocky Mountain National Park. Choosing a favorite location is like trying to pick out which child of yours is the favorite. When asked this question as to which is my favorite location in RMNP my response is usually ‘any and all’.
As far as specific conditions go, I do have a favorite. That would be any and all types of fog or low cloud deck. Fog is a fairly rare occurrence in Rocky Mountain National Park, so anytime we have fog around I’m likely to be out attempting to photograph it.
While fog will occur on both the east and the west sides of RMNP, it’s a little more common to find it on the west side of Rocky in the Kawuneeche Valley. The Kawuneeche Valley is wetter and cooler than the east side of Rocky and combine that with the large bodies of water nearby (Grand Lake,Shadow Mountain Reservoir and Lake Grandby) and you have a better chance of finding fog in the Kawuneeche Valley then say Moraine Park or Horseshoe Park on the east side.
Yesterday morning I decided to head over to the west side of the park as the infra-red satellite picture indicated better cloud cover for sunrise on the west side of RMNP. The night before both Grand Lake and Estes Park had strong thunderstorms with a good amount of rain. Because of this I was hopeful the west side would have some fog mixed in with the cloud cover above for sunrise.
When I arrived at Fairview Curve and got my first look at the Kawuneeche Valley that morning I wasnt disappointed. I could see a good portion of the valley had fog. Not enough fog to obscure sunrise or block the mountains, but enough low lying fog to help enhance the mood and atmospherics for sunrise. On top of that the pines and bright green grasses in the valley had plenty of dew and moisture on them which really helps make the color pop.
I worked my way up valley from south to north working a bunch of different compositions before and after sunrise. Like any of these beautiful mornings in Rocky, the conditions are fleeting. Within an hour or so of sunrise all the fog had dissipated and the sun was shining brightly. While one wishes the fog would have stuck around for a little longer its always a treat to get a few hours of fog in RMNP to transform the landscape into a mysterious and ethereal location ripe for landscape photographers.