Dry. Thats the operative word for the current conditions in Rocky Mountain National Park. After a winter with above average snowfall and a more or less normal spring, moisture has been tough to come by as summer moves along.
Moisture and active weather patterns are not only good for the ecosystem of Rocky Mountain National Park but dynamic weather is great for photographers. Other than a few gully washers we’ve had in July during the peak of the monsoon season here in Colorado, rain, fog, or just plain cloudy skies have been hard to come by this season.
While out in the backcountry of RMNP camping at Mirror Lake a few weeks back with my friend and fellow photographer Erik Stensland, we were discussing just how mild and placid the weather had been this summer. We both remarked at how we badly needed moisture and then both tried to remember the last time we had an entire day or rainy weather or even upslope conditions and or fog to get out and photograph in. The best we could come up with was sometime during the COVID-19 lockdowns when Rocky was still closed and photography in the park was not possible.
During the conversation it was never stated but its always implied that if we dont get moisture soon the risk of a large fire in or near the park is always looming. Combine all of the pine beetle kill of the last 20 years with the fact that many parts of Rocky Mountain National Park have not seen fires in hundreds of years and you realize our favorite location on earth is also a tinder box.
Fast forward to today and there are now 4 major fires burning across the state of Colorado, with the Cameron Peak fire burning just a few miles outside the remote northwest corner of Rocky Mountain National Park. Ironically, the Cameron Peak Fire is burning only a handful of miles from the Mirror Lake area where Erik and I were discussing our dry weather just a few weeks back. The fires are so close in fact that the NPS has closed the area around Mirror Lake as well as much of the Never Summer Range, The Poudre River headwaters and the Hagues Creek area. If we were back camping in this area today we would have been forced to evacuate the area or cancel the trip.
Currently the park service is only closing these areas of Rocky Mountain National Park out of an abundance of caution. The fire has jumped across Highway 14 near Long Draw Reservoir a few times but luckily firefighters have been able to quickly extinguish the growth and hold the fire line on the north or west sides of Highway 14.
With the 4 large fires burning and one burning only a few miles from the boundary of RMNP, smoke has become a major issue in the Estes Park and Grand Lake area over the past week. The thick smoke which comes and goes based on wind direction and humidity has created very poor air quality in the park but has also made photographing landscapes more difficult as the light is diffused and the visibility is reduced.
It’s difficult to get motivated to wakeup just past midnight and head out 7 or 8 miles into the backcountry when you know the air quality is likely to hinder your quality of light on the landscapes. I find the best thing to do in this situation is to just ‘embrace the suck’ and use the current compromised atmospherics to the best of ones advantage.
strategy is to go high and shoot into the sun when possible. All that smoke and haze not only creates colors and patterns that may not exist on clear days, but it also can enhance mood, texture and obviously the light.
Mountain ridges, the sun rising over the eastern plains of Colorado, every valley and peak take on a different quality when sifting through the blue smoke hovering over the landscape.
While it may not be ideal right now to be out photographing grand landscapes in Rocky Mountain National Park, theres plenty of unique and subtle photography that can still be done that will help to document and capture one phase of life in the Rocky Mountains. So while I’m hoping for a few nice days of rain soon, I’ll still get out there in the smokey air hanging over RMNP and try to get some unique compositions and color palettes not typically present when our air quality and visibility is excellent.