Autumn in Rocky Mountain National Park is one of my favorite times of year. I look forward to the fall season in Rocky all year only to find it both arrives and departs much more quickly than I am ever comfortable with. It’s a spectacular time of year to visit RMNP and its also and amazing time of year to photograph the park. The autumn hues, golden aspens and elk rut make it a very popular place to be once mid September rolls around. Even with autumn being one of my most favorite times of year to get out in the field, the harried pace of the season in Rocky can make the autumn seem like a blur.
No two fall seasons in Rocky are ever alike. The colors are different each year, the location of the best and most vibrant color are different each year, the timing of peak colors in areas of the park are different each year and the total duration of the autumn season is different each year. Some autumn seasons linger on and on with little to no early season snow or windstorms to expedite the end of autumn.
Some years it’s just the opposite. For one reason or another the fall color may never really pop. Snow and high winds may also rake across the park quickly stripping the trees of their leaves as well as making access to locations more difficult. As is always the case when dealing with mother nature, you just don’t know and there’s not much you can do even if you do know.
This makes it important to take advantage of the conditions whenever they are favorable. If there is one thing I’ve learned in photographing fall in Colorado and Rocky Mountain National Park it’s get the shot while you can. Waiting for better conditions or planning on coming back at a later date is often a fools folly. I’ve personally missed a few opportunities thinking I’ll come back to a location a little later only to have wind, snow or weather decide otherwise.
Autumn season is Rocky has pretty much wrapped up for the year. We’ve had a very dynamic fall season in RMNP and one that offered many great opportunities for photographers even if I would rate the color this season as average to below average. Weather was the story this season along with snow dropped on the park almost once a week since the colors began changing. While the snow and cool autumn hampered some of the fall color, it did allow for some really neat opportunities to photograph the clash of the seasons.
Overall the season was both short and awesome. The frenetic pace of autumn and the need to maximize your time in the field with your subjects while the getting was good takes precedent over sleep, rest and contemplation. Now with the season waining the pace can slow and we can begin looking forward to winter in Rocky Mountain National Park.
How quickly time seems to fly. Seems like only a few weeks ago I was lamenting a late spring blizzard in Rocky that dumped 3 feet of snow on the park while awaiting summer. While that late season May blizzard dropped a load of snow on Rocky it was only a temporary obstacle to the oncoming summer season in the park and all the glorious beauty that comes along with the thaw out of the high country. Now here I am lamenting the fact that summer is already on its way out and the autumn season and fall colors that grace Rocky Mountain National Park each season are quickly nearing their peak.
Of course lamenting is not really the right word as the transition from summer to fall in Rocky leads us into my favorite time of the year in the park as well as one of the most fruitful times for any photographer visiting Rocky. The only issue most photographers have with the fall season is that like the summer seasons its too short so one needs to take advantage of every opportunity as you may or may not got a second chance with the fleeting and frenetic nature of autumn in RMNP.
As of this writing, many area of Rocky are just starting to dawn their fall colors. There are some areas of Rocky Mountain National Park that are currently at peak but for the most part the color show will really start unfolding starting this week.
A few area of aspens on the west side of Rocky are at peak. Those include the groves near the west entrance of the park at Grand Lake, and the hillsides below the Never Summer Mountains. The tundra grasses have taken on their red hue and many of the small ground plants and brush near timberline are now peaking.
On the east side of Rocky the autumn colors are just starting to look good at the higher elevations. The areas around Bear Lake which tend to peak right around the 20th of September (give or take a few days on either side) now are showing color. The Bierstadt Moraine is showing hints of color though we have at least 10 days to go before peak. The area around Boulder Brook is starting to get some nice color but should remain fruitful for the next two weeks.
As a reminder the fall color in Rocky Mountain National Park tends to peak in the higher elevations first and then will move its ways down to the lower elevations which include the meadows and parks. One can easily photograph fall color in Rocky from about September 15th all the way through mid to late October depending on temperatures, snowstorms, and cold temperatures so its important to keep an eye on the weather and remain flexible.
So get outside and enjoy the autumn season in Rocky Mountain National Park because like summer, it wont last long and its only a matter of time before the snow starts flying and accessing some locations in RMNP become a lot more difficult.
Notchtop Mountain is one of Rocky’s most iconic features. While Notchtop can be seen from portions of Trail Ridge Road and Bear Lake Road it takes a little more effort to view and photography it up close and personal. The best way to view and photography Notchtop is to hike the moderate three plus miles to the area around Lake Helene from the Bear Lake trailhead.
This area around Lake Helene is filled with potential for photographers. Besides the spectacular views of Notchtop Mountain from Lake Helene, there are many other beautiful more secluded locations to photography both Notchtop Mountain, Grace Falls and the Odessa Gorge.
I often recommend this hike to photography tour clients who are both fit and looking to explore off the beaten path. It’s a great destination in Rocky Mountain National Park for sunrise and most of the time you will be the only photographer within miles. Last week I lead a client up to the area near Marigold Ponds for a beautiful sunrise shoot. As always the area did not disappoint and Notchtop looked glorious as the sunlight and high cirrus clouds filtered onto the dramatic face of the peak.
As is always seems to be the case here in Rocky, summer is progressing at a pace much more quickly than I am comfortable with. Summer always takes awhile to take hold here in the mountains and once it does it can feel like a mad scramble to try and take advantage of each day to the fullest extent. Add on days when the weather just does not want to cooperate and a busy schedule guiding clients in the field and summer really begins to fly by.
I always figure one can catch up on sleep and socializing when the first snow starts to fall but summer in Rocky Mountain National Park is about maximizing your time in the field and taking advantage of these beautiful days when the high country is easily accessible and the conditions for us photographers are prime.
This time of year I’m out in the field five to six days a week either shooting for my own portfolio or guiding other photographers around Rocky Mountain National Park. When you are lucky enough to get out that often you get to experience and observe Rocky on an acute basis. The weather conditions ebb and flow and often we have a few days laced together with great sunrise and sunsets with stretches of less interesting or more bland conditions. Less interesting conditions in Rocky being clear blue sky days with few or no clouds to add additional elements to one’s photographs.
July started off on the tame side. Many of the higher elevations in the park had lots of snow remaining even into the start of the month. Conditions were fairly tame to start the month of July but as the month ramped up and the monsoonal flow began to strengthen, the conditions got much more interesting. The back end of July blessed us with some great sunrise and sunset conditions, a good amount of rain showers and some a few nice mornings of fog and inversions.
All in all no complaints for me regarding July. I was lucky enough to get some great conditions for photography as were many of my clients I had in the field this month. The only thing I can complain about is that July in Rocky Mountain National Park is just too darn short, and unfortunately that holds true for August as well.
A quick rundown on the current conditions in Rocky Mountain National Park for all of you heading out to Rocky to explore and photograph the park. Rocky is now entering primetime as far as summer photography is concerned. Most of the snow has now melted, runoff has slowed and both the meadows and alpine tundra have now turned green. Wildflowers can be found at all elevations of Rocky now and with a few exceptions ice is off all but the highest of the lakes in the park. In my opinion we are now entering the best time of year for photography in Rocky.
While the park is busy, heading out on the trails to get away from the roadside visitors will help increase your chance of finding some unique compositions along with the likely probability that you will be all by your lonesome when photographing. Besides dealing with the crowds at some of the roadside attractions and iconic locations such as Dream Lake, there are a few other minor issues affecting access and photography in the park right now.
As is typical this time of year, wildfires across the western United States may cause some haze from the smoke depending the wind direction. The smoke may slightly affect sunlight late in the day and early in the morning but it can also add color and mood to images.
While much of the snow has melted off the last four weeks, the creeks and streams in Rocky are still running at a very brisk pace. For photographers this can make photographing some of the water features and waterfalls in the park difficult. Spray and mist from the water can make it difficult to keep your lens elements clean. Photographers all have different opinions on the speed that they like to photograph water. That being said, my personal opinion is that many of the waterfalls in the park are still running a little to fast. Each day most of these water features are slowing down and experiencing less runoff. Give it a week or so and most of the streams and waterfalls should be nearing a perfect pace for photography.
So overall Rocky Mountain National Park is just about perfect right now for photographers. Access is great, wildflowers are blooming, lakes are open and free of ice as are most hiking trails and the streams and waterfalls are getting better each day to photograph. If your heading out here to RMNP it’s darn near perfect right now.
What can I say about Dream Lake that has not already been said. It’s one of the most iconic locations in not only Rocky Mountain National Park but also Colorado. It’s one of the top requests my clients make when book a photography tour with me and if you hike the trail during the summer months you will quickly see its one of the busiest locations in all of Rocky not including roadside areas.
In the 19 years I’ve been photographing Dream Lake I’ve been at the lake in just about every kind of weather and lighting. Windy, snowy, rainy, sunny you name it and I’ve been on the shore trying to compose an image. I’ve shot my Nikon and Canon 35mm film bodies loaded with Kodachrome 25 and Fuji Velvia 50 here, used my 4×5 Large Format camera here, exposed my first digital images with a Canon D60 at Dream (yes that’s the correct model). Heck, I’ve even been lucky enough to compose a few images at Dream Lake that I’ve been pleased with.
Of the hundreds and hundreds of times I’ve been up to Dream Lake both alone or with clients I never tire of this magnificent location. It’s the one location in Rocky Mountain National Park I personally identify with more than any other location in the park where my passion and desire for landscape photography was stoked.
I don’t often head up to Dream Lake most mornings unless I have photography tour clients with me. There are just too many locations in RMNP to photograph and I need to use my time wisely and try to get to these other locations when I can. I most often visit Dream Lake now with photography tour clients. It still thrills me to watch my clients faces as we near the bridge over the outlet of Dream Lake and they see Hallett Peak and Flattop Mountain towering over this beautiful lake for the first time. It’s a feeling I remember like it was yesterday so its still a treat to watch peoples reaction on their first visit to Dream Lake.
While Dream Lake is still one of my favorite locations in Rocky, it takes quite a bit these days for me to get that original feeling back like I did when first visiting Dream Lake back in 1998. That feeling was back last week when I arrived with my client lakeside to find a layer of fog breaking over Dream Lake. I always put my client needs first, but once my client was settled in and setup I had to break out the camera and tripod to capture this magnificent moment. I may have been the guide this morning but I can tell you without a doubt I was just as excited photographing Dream Lake this morning as she was.
Going on my third year of providing photography tours of Rocky Mountain National Park, I’ve got a pretty good idea of what most clients number one request is when visiting Rocky and heading out to photograph landscapes. Without question most of my clients are looking for the classic image of a mountain peak reflecting in the serene and placid waters of a mountain lake. Like my clients these are also some of my favorite scenes to photograph in Rocky Mountain National Park as well.
June is not only when Rocky starts to see visitor numbers skyrocket but its also the time when local business and the town of Estes Park really start to hum along and enter the summer season. This is true for me as well as lots of photographers come out of there winter hibernation and are taking summer vacations looking to dust off the camera and get outside to take photos.
Most visitors to Rocky as well as most of my photography tour clients are coming from lower elevations and locals that have been moving toward mild summer like weather months earlier than the high altitude lakes and peaks of RMNP.
So with clients booking June dates and late season snow storms like the one we had in late may, many of those classic iconic Rocky images of iconic peaks reflecting in a still lake are just melting out. The good news is with warm, summer like weather the past week the delayed melt out is now on a brisk pace.
Clients visiting from out of state last week were a bit surprised to be hiking on lots of snow on the way up to Dream Lake and even more surprised to still find some small pieces of ice floating around on the surface of Dream Lake at sunrise.
Experiencing the huge snow drifts on Trail Ridge Road or hiking on snow to Dream Lake in mid June are part of the experience that makes Rocky Mountain National Park so an awesome place to visit and photograph. So if you head out with me in the next week or so don’t be surprised if I tell you to pack some winter gear and micro spikes to get a first hand experience of late spring or early summer in RMNP.
When one thinks of Rocky Mountain National Park a few things come to mind. Mountains, snow, lakes, Trail Ridge Road and elk. People come from all of the world to get a glimpse of an elk, drive trail ridge road, hike in the mountains or play in the snow. Photographers come for all over the planet to photograph the mountains, lakes, snow and elk. Most of the time a photographer is not going to be lucky enough to photograph all of these elements and icons of Rocky Mountain National Park in one visit let alone one image.
After years of nearly having all these elements line up for me in a photo but never actually being successful I finally had a short moment in the field where all the stars or elements aligned. After a night of rain in snow in Rocky last Friday, conditions looked pretty promising at sunrise. Lots of fog hung over the Estes Valley as well as RMNP as sunrise approached. Fresh snow covered the pines and mountains above 10,000 ft and a break in the cloud cover to the east of the park would allow for the sun to light the landscape at sunrise.
I headed off to the far west end of Moraine Park to setup for sunrise. There’s a couple of great spots in the west end of Moraine Park where one can photograph landscapes facing both east and west. Furthermore with all the rain and snow we’ve had the past few weeks I knew the area near the beaver ponds west of Moraine Park along the Cub Lake trail would have lots of seasonal ponds and seeps from the spring runoff.
Turning west from Moraine Park I headed to a particular spot I had in mind for sunrise. A small pond with a nice view of Stones Peak and the valley. I could see the pink hues in the skies above the mountains and fog swirling around the hillsides as I rounded the corner on the Cub Lake trail. I was feeling the excitement build as conditions were looking very good already this morning. Things only improved as I rounded the bend in the trail and found a large herd of elk grazing on the far side of the pond I was going to photograph Stones Peak reflecting at sunrise.
With the fog hanging in the valley, fresh snow on the hillsides, the wind calm and the water on the pond smooth as glass I setup my equipment as quietly as possible in an attempt not to disturb or spook the elk in the meadow. As the sun rose the elk continued to move from north to south as they grazed the green meadow and the mountains caught the first beams of warm sunlight through the fog. The moment was short but all the stars aligned and I was able to photograph a handful of elements that symbolize the beauty and spirit of Rocky Mountain National Park.
Of all the different atmospheric conditions that I love to photograph in, fog has to be my favorite. Nothing makes familiar locations and landmarks turn to mysterious unknowns faster than a layer of fog cloaking the landscape. Fog is fluid it ebbs and flows by the minute and opportunities for images and compositions open and shut with its waxing and waining.
In fact, when photographing and observing fog its movement and form mimics a living, breathing being. Like a breathing creature fog will inhale and shrink, than exhale and expand. One minute your standing above the layer of fog in the bright sunshine and the next minute your immersed in the cool gray mist as it covers the sun and sifts through the landscape.
The biggest problem as I see it with photographing fog here in Colorado and in particular in Rocky Mountain National Park is that it’s a fairly rare occurrence. While Moraine Park and the Kawuneeche Valley on the west side of Rocky will occasionally see low lying fog on account of the Colorado River or Big Thompson but normally your best chance to get large amounts of fog in Rocky Mountain National Park come during and inversion or upslope event with your best chances of getting dramatic lighting conditions coming as the low pressure system moves out of the Four Corners region or if you can climb high enough to get above the cloud layer.
Last week after what seemed like day after day of clear blue skies,(I know only us photographers complain about such a thing) we finally had the conditions I had been waiting for. A rainy and snowy few days in RMNP were about to end and the low pressure system behind it was set to move out Thursday morning.
Knowing that the weather was set to improve and that the timing of this coincided with sunrise I knew there would be a good chance for some drama at daybreak. I headed up to Rocky in the rain and fog but just below Estes Park I broke through the cloud cover and could not only see the full moon shining bright but the skies appeared cloudless. This was not what I was hoping for but I headed into Rocky to get a better look. Once above Beaver Meadows and Moraine Park I could see that there was still a nice layer of fog floating over Moraine Park.
I headed out in the darkness to a favorite spot of mine high above Moraine Park on Beaver Mountain. Here one is able to get commanding views of Longs Peak as well as Moraine Park and if the fog stayed in Moraine I hoped my elevation would keep me above it.
The fog stayed in Moraine Park this morning and my vantage point worked out very well. While Longs Peak stayed mostly in the clear, Moraine Park was shrouded with fog. Every corner of Moraine Park yielded a new composition and each one changed by the second as the fog moved in and out. After one battery change and a memory card nearly filled as well as the fog starting to clear out I figured it was time to hike out. All in all it was an amazing morning in Rocky Mountain National Park. Fog is rare and I’m sure if I lived in Northern California or the Pacific Northwest I’d tire of it but here in Rocky Mountain National Park I can never get enough of it.
One of my favorite signs of the impending warm up and summer season in Rocky Mountain National Park is not just finding the first Pasque flowers blooming along the forest floor but the start of the spring thaw out. Ice first comes off the streams in the lower elevations first and the snow begins to recede from the hillsides. As the days get longer and the sun gets higher in the skies winter begins to loosen her grip on the mountain lakes above parks and meadows in the lower elevations of Rocky.
With a week of mild sunny days soon enough the snow has melted off the tops of the lakes and open water is once again revealed after a long winter hibernation beneath feet of snow. It’s an exciting time because it opens up lots of new possibilities for landscape photographers whom have either passed on photographing in Rocky Mountain National Park during the winter months or who’s travel is restricted by the snow and ice covering the landscape.
For me its a great feeling topping the crest of a trail and seeing open water surrounded by snow. Photographing reflections of Rocky’s iconic mountain peaks in the thawed waters is another sign that my favorite time of year in RMNP is nearly upon us again.