Untouched Rocky

In the middle of July, I had the opportunity to spend 3 days backpacking deep in the backcountry or Rocky Mountain National Park with fellow photographer and good friend Erik Stensland. It was a spectacular experience and one in which I was able to photograph areas of Rocky Mountain National Park that very few others have. Technical Details: Nikon Z7, Nikkor 24-70mm F4 S lens

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.

Upwards To Chasm Lake

Late last week I had to rare opportunity to guide one of my photography tour clients up the challenging hike to Chasm Lake for sunrise. Photographing Longs Peak and The Diamond at sunrise from Chasm Lake is one of the greatest experiences one can have in Rocky Mountain National Park. With favorable conditions and a great sunrise, everything came together as planned and we left we some amazing images. Technical Details: Nikon Z7, Nikkor 14-30mm F4 S lens

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.

Say Hello To Summer

Conditions in Rocky Mountain National Park are just about perfect right now for photography, hiking or any other outdoor activities you have in mind. After a long, slow transition to summer, its has now arrived in full force in RMNP. Hit the trail and enjoy great weather, trail conditions, wildflowers and weather in Rocky while it lasts. Technical Details: Nikon Z7, Nikon 24-70mm F4 S lens

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.

Time To Get Summer Started

With the July 4th holiday now past, summer season in Rocky Mountain National Park is upon us. Summer is always to short in my opinion but now is the time to get out behind the camera and capture RMNP in all her splendor. Baker Mountain was glowing this July morning a week back and the Colorado River was still flowing at full capacity from all the snowmelt and moisture Rocky has recieved so far this year. Technical Details: Nikon Z7, Nikkor 24-70mm F4 S lens

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.

A Foggy Morning In The Kawuneeche Valley

Foggy mornings in Rocky Mountain National Park are some of my favorite conditions to photograph the landscape in. Yesterday, the Kawuneeche Valley was covered with low lying fog at sunrise. It’s great to take advantage of these condtions as the fog will transform the landscape into a moody and ethereal location. Technical Details: Nikon Z7, Nikkor 24-70mm F4 S lens

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.

Enjoying The Warm Up

While out photographing sunrise west of Moraine Park this morning. I was overtaken by a large herd of elk which was grazing on the lush green grasses now abundant in Rocky Mountain National Park. While I was enjoying the warm up and the start of summer, these newborn elk calves also seemed to be enjoying the warmer weather. These little guys have had a rough introduction to Rocky Mountain National Park’s weather earlier this spring. Technical Details: Nikon D500, Nikkor AF-S 300mm f/4E PF ED VR lens w/1.4 TC III.

Finally!. After what seemed like a winter that would just not go away, it’s really starting to feel like summer is upon us here in Rocky Mountain National Park. We’ve now almost gone an entire week without any new snow and it looks like we are finally out the water for awhile.

I say that tongue and cheek of course but we did have nearly 3 inches of snow(above 9500 ft) last weekend which occurred after the official start of summer. While I was guiding clients and photographing the last storm, I have not yet posted any images from our summer snow in RMNP on the blog as of yet.

The June 22nd storm managed to close Trail Ridge Road for nearly 5 days I promise I’ll get around to posting an image or two but to be frank, with the wildflowers really starting to bloom and the temperatures warming up, I thought it might be best to wait a post or two before revisiting snow.

As stated earlier, summer is really starting to officially settle into Rocky. Most lakes below 10,500 ft are now free of ice. Snow on the trails can still be found above 10,000 ft but its melting pretty quickly at this point. Wildflowers are blooming in Moraine Park and Horseshoe Park and the grasses at the lower elevations are a beautiful green.

The wildlife seems to be enjoying the warmer weather as well. The elk which will move to the higher and cooler elevations of Rocky are still lingering in many of the lower elevations enjoying the verdant grasses.

While out photographing sunrise this morning along the Cub Creek drainage just west of Moraine Park, I had a large herd of elk overtake me as I was setup. In this large herd of elk which was grazing the green grasses were a handful of newborn elk calves. These little guys who have had a rough introduction to weather in Rocky Mountain National Park seemed to be enjoying themselves in the summer like conditions.

Before they moved up the drainage, they relaxed and grazed giving me just enough time to capture a few images of the herd while staying a safe distance from the calves and of course mama. While enjoying both the sunrise in Rocky Mountain National Park as well as photographing this elk herd, it was hard to decipher who was having more fun, me or the newborn elk.

Dancing With The Sun

Sundance Mountain yesterday looked spectacular as a late June snow squall cleared Trail Ridge Road early in the morning. Sundance Mountain often is overlooked by visitors to Rocky Mountain National Park as the best location to view this peak in is also one of the more nerve wracking sections of Trail Ridge Road for many drivers. Technical Details: Nikon Z7, Nikkor 24-70mm F4 S lens

Sundance Mountain in Rocky Mountain National Park does not have the cache and name recognition of many of the other iconic high peaks in Rocky. Ironically, most visitors to Rocky Mountain National Park drive right on past it on Trail Ridge Road.

It’s not that Sundance Mountain isn’t a beautiful peak. It’s granite face, pyramid like summit and beautiful cirque high rising high above Hanging Valley is impressive. The reason why most visitors to RMNP don’t get a chance to admire Sundance Mountain like many of the others is it’s location along Trail Ridge Road.

Just above Rainbow Curve, Trail Ridge Road really starts to test the faint of heart or those for whom fear of heights and exposure to heights is difficult. Winding past Rainbow Curve, Trail Ridge Road quickly continues it’s climb towards timberline. Here, high above Hanging Valley Trail Ridge clings to the side of the mountain with a thousand foot plus drop below with only a rock wall between the road and the drop.

This spot on Trail Ridge Road is exactly the spot where many visitors simply freak out. The exposure and height and is just too much for many and their reaction is to close their eyes or turn away from the drop off. At this location, I’ve encountered many other visitors to Rocky who will literally be driving in the middle of Trail Ridge Road to avoid the edge. Of course a collision with an oncoming vehicle is just as dangerous as sliding off the edge but to many, the fear of heights outweighs rational thought.

What does this have to do with the beauty of Sundance Mountain you might ask?. Well its at this very spot along Trail Ridge Road where one gets the best view of Sundance Mountain rising high above the very valley and drop off that frightens drivers along Trail Ridge Road. Many drivers at this spot are too busy concentrating on the road to take in the view of Sundance Mountain and it’s beauty. So for many, admiring Sundance is secondary to keeping the car on the road.

While driving past Sundance can be difficult, photographing it can be a challenge as well. For one, there’s not many good locations on Trail Ridge Road to stop and get out to take and image. The road is narrow here with no shoulder and only a small pull off. Secondly, there is no lake, stream or tarn here to frame Sundance in. Essentially, one needs some dramatic lighting and conditions on aptly named Sundance Mountain to make her shine.

With our wild spring weather continuing in Rocky Mountain National Park, Sundance Mountain was bathed in just the right kind of light as a late June snow squall cleared timberline. With fresh snow on her summit on June 19th, and some beautiful dappled sunlight coming through the clouds. Sundance Mountain showed why you should take a minute to admire and photograph her beauty, even if it means getting over one’s fear of heights for a few short moments.

Reflections Along The Colorado River

With Trail Ridge Road opening for the season on June 5th, it’s finally easy to get back over the west side of Rocky Mountain National Park. Like visiting with and old friend, getting back over to the west side of RMNP is always refreshing and inspiring when it comes to landscape photography. All of our snowmelt has the Colorado River running at capacity which is causing meadows to flood. This makes for great pools of water to capture reflections of Baker Mountain like this one from Thursday morning. Technical Details: Nikon Z7, Nikon 24-70mm F4 S lens

With all the snow Rocky Mountain National Park received this winter, the park service was finally able to open Trail Ridge Road for the season on June 5th. Thats quite a bit later than the week of Memorial Day which is typically the unofficial opening date the NPS attempts to have the Trail Ridge Road open.

So our large storms stymied a late my opening on Trail Ridge Road but nonetheless the road is open from Estes Park to Grand Lake and that means getting back over to the west side of Rocky just got much easier for many of us.

Between photography tours and a quick trip to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon via Moab, I had not yet had a chance to make a run over to the west side. I was able to remedy that earlier this week and made a trip over at sunrise to check on things.

As it is every year, getting back over to the west side of Rocky early in the season is always a treat. It’s like revisiting with an old friend. Most years I make a few trips over to the west side of Rocky during the winter months, but this year I was unable. This meant the last time I had actually been over to the west side of Rocky was in late September, just before snows closed Trail Ridge Road for the season.

Arriving on the west side of the park, I found the Kawuneeche Valley greening up nicely. Moose and elk were abundant in the meadows and wet lowland areas. Most interesting was the Colorado River snaking through the Kawuneeche Valley. With all the snowmelt and precipitation, the Colorado River is running at capacity. Many of the adjacent meadows are now flooded with the excess snowmelt being carried down from the high peaks.

These flooded meadows create perfect reflecting pools in witch to capture reflections of Baker Mountain in locations it’s not normally possible. This is true of not only the area along the Colorado River on the west side of Rocky Mountain National Park but also along the East Inlet area just outside of Grand Lake.

Conditions were perfect last week when I photographed this scene along the Colorado River. It won’t be long before these pools of excess water start to recede and dry up. Obviously, now is the time to take advantage of both access to the west side of RMNP, but also the benefits of all our excess moisture is providing.

Simple Spring

Continued cool and wet weather for late May in Rocky Mountain National Park has been making for some great opportunities most mornings in the park. Yesterday was no exception as the unsettled weather allowed this spring view of Longs Peak from Moraine Park. With elk grazing in the meadow and the freshly budded leaves on the cottowwoods and aspens, Moraine Park was in her spring glory. Technical Details: Nikon Z7, Nikkor 24-70mm F4 S lens.

It continues to be an interesting month of May in Rocky. It feels like we’ve had interesting weather just about every morning for the past few weeks. Sure, I’m not a huge fan of late May snowstorms but it certainly makes for really interesting conditions many mornings with clouds, fog and snow covered peaks.

After another night of rain and or snow depending on what elevation you were at I was doing my normal scouting in the pre-dawn hours looking to be in the best spot when the sun rose. When I first arrived I was thinking Bierstadt Lake or the Bear Lake area. There were some really nice clouds hanging over the peaks of RMNP.

There was lots of fog and clouds just below Estes Park and it appeared to be moving upslope. Unsettled mornings like this can either be amazing for photographers or you can end up losing your view of the mountains when a shroud of clouds rolls over you.

Bear Lake was out of the questions because with the exception of a tiny portion near the outlet, it’s still completely frozen over which is hard to believe for late May. Bierstadt Lake would have been a good spot but at Bierstadt you have to commit to photographing either a westerly view or and easterly view as you cant get around the larger lake in time to photograph both well.

In hindsight I probably would have been in pretty good shape if I had hiked up to Bierstadt Lake. But because the clouds and fog were moving and I was having a hard time figuring out if the light would be best to the east of Rocky Mountain National Park or to the west on the divide itself, I decided to head down Bear Lake Road back to Moraine Park.

Arriving in Moraine Park, Longs Peak was partially covered. There was a huge herd of elk grazing in the meadow along the Big Thompson River and the narrowleaf cottonwoods and some of the aspens had newly budded leaves showing on the trees. At this point there was only about 20 minutes to sunrise so I was committed to photographing from Moraine Park at this point.

The clouds remained fairly consistent at this point and actually cleared from view of Longs Peak. The small break in the cloud cover to the east also remained and at sunrise we had some beautiful light hit a very snow covered Longs Peak. Elk grazing below, fresh greens in the meadow and on the trees and a perfect spring vignette of Rocky Mountain National Park unfolded in front of me.

Something Different

Sometimes you think you’ve got it all figured out only to discover you need to switch it up and find something different to photograph. Monday morning in the Cub Creek drainage that was exactly what happened to me. I was banking on a colorful sunrise over Stones Peak and the divide only to have the clouds move off the peaks to the east just before sunrise in Rocky Mountain National Park. Being that I had hiked into my location, I had limited options as far as mobility and change of venue went. With a little luck and scrambing around I was able to work this composition which was not what my original plan had in mind. Technical Details: Nikon Z7, Nikkor 14-30mm F4 S lens

Saturday and Sunday morning in Rocky Mountain National Park both dawned with little in the way of cloud cover. Memorial Day Monday’s looked like it would see some clouds around at sunrise as a new system moved into Colorado.

That system just dumped a few inches of snow on Rocky Mountain National Park above 9500 ft and there is more predicted for this afternoon and tonight. We just cant seem to break this pattern of cool, wet late season snow’s in the park which have happened with enough regular occurrence the Trail Ridge Road has yet to open from the east side of Rocky to the west side because of the wild weather we’ve been having.

Before our latest system moved in, I headed up to RMNP on Monday morning hoping to capitalize on a nice sunrise. All the weather models that I study before heading out into Rocky looked promising for Monday morning.

When I arrived in Estes and could get a good view of Rocky’s majestic peaks, I could see some nice cloud cover hanging over the continental divide. On my drive up there was no cloud cover over the eastern plains which mean an unobstructed sunrise. This is a perfect setup for a colorful sunrise.

I departed the Cub Lake trailhead about an hour before sunrise. I was not sure exactly where I wanted to end up but spring in Moraine Park and the Cub Creek drainage is always great as there is water everywhere. Seasonal flows from rain and snowmelt form veins of water and small ponds everywhere. All this water can make for great reflections or foreground elements for photographers.

With clouds over the continental divide when I first started my hike in, my plan was to photograph Stones Peak reflecting in a yet to be determined body of water from the runoff. It had been about 10 days since i was last through this area but I knew there would be lots of puddles and tarns to pick from.

I found a nice small pond that would allow for a nice image of Stones Peak reflecting in its water. I setup and waited for sunrise as clouds continued to drift over the top of the mountains of RMNP. Chasing clouds in Rocky Mountain National Park can be a fools errand however.

While setting up and waiting for sunrise, the clouds drifting to the west of me started moving to the east. Within 10 minutes there was no longer clouds over Stones Peak as they had moved to the north and east now. With sunrise about 15 minutes aways I had to scramble to find another location to photograph what would be a colorful sunrise not to my west, but now to my north and east.

After sloshing around through the meadow that more resembled a swamp, I settled on this small pond in the Cub Creek drainage. With Cub Creek moving through the meadow in my foreground while standing in about a foot of runoff that originated mostly from mountain snowmelt I watched and photographed some beautiful clouds on the east side of Rocky Mountain National Park.

This was not the image I had in mind when I first headed out from the trailhead, nor the one I had in mind when I setup my tripod and camera prior to sunrise. But the circumstances and cloud cover changed so I had to adapt. As the color popped and I fired the shutter on my camera I thought to myself, ‘this is something different’. Wet feet and boots notwithstanding, something different worked out ok.