Nearly all landscape photographers I know, love getting out in the winter and photographing winter scenes in Rocky Mountain National Park. Snow covered peaks, trees draped in snow and beautiful winter light draw photographers up to Rocky in the middle winter.
As I’ve written about before, photographing in Rocky Mountain National Park during the winter months is much more difficult than it looks. After a mild January, February has arrived with plenty of snow and unsettled weather. Here’s a couple quick tips and reminders to help improve your chances of capturing some great winter images in RMNP.
First, keep in mind that access to much of Rocky Mountain National Park in the winter is limited and once off the plowed roads can be much more difficult to travel through than summer months. Trail Ridge Road (Many Parks Curve), Old Fall River Road, Upper Beaver Meadows Road, and most of Wild Basin Road will all be closed in after the first big storms. With these roads closed, getting around the park and working with the conditions can be difficult. You cant just decide to head up over Trail Ridge Road because thats where the clouds are or the Kawuneeche Valley has fog. You will have to be creative and photograph along Bear Lake Road and the areas of Trail Ridge Road and US 36 that remain open.
Secondly, hiking or snowshoeing in the park to locations away from the roads is much more difficult than hiking during the summer months. Snow on the trails can make them difficult to follow and slipping and sliding along the route in the cold weather and wind will require more exertion and more importantly time to get to your destination. Microspikes or snowshoes are a must as is the proper cold weather gear. Plan on giving yourself plenty of time and dress in layers as you will perspire into your location only to be standing around in the cold and wind cooling down quickly waiting for the sun to rise.
Account for the wind. Wind in Rocky Mountain National Park is probably not only the most difficult and trying aspect to photographing in RMNP, but its also the type of weather you are most likely to encounter on a winter visit to Rocky. There are very few days in Rocky Mountain National Park in winter when one wont encounter a stiff breeze or a hurricane force gale. Keep in mind that if the weather forecast calls for 30 mph wind gusts in downtown Estes Park, plan on adding at least 20 mph to that if you are going to hike up to Dream Lake for sunrise. Standing on the ice at Dream Lake with your camera and tripod setup with 50 mph wind gusts nearly knocking you down makes it very difficult to capture images, let only keep the camera steady enough for sharp images. Also keep in mind that the the small thin pine needles found on the evergreens that dominate Rocky’s landscape will not hold fresh snow for very long once the wind quickly blows it off the trees.
Another important aspect to keep in mind during the winter months is the fact that all the lakes and streams in the park will be frozen solid. Reflections are my number one request from RMNP Photo Tour clients. Many are surprised to hear that capturing snow covered peaks reflecting in streams or open water in Rocky is nearly impossible by mid November. There may be a small opening of water here and there along a larger stream, but for the most part lakes and streams will be covered solid with ice and snow until late in the spring.
The sun angle in Rocky Mountain National Park is also another variable that needs to be accounted for in the winter. Rocky’s most popular area in the summer for photographers are not necessarily the great for photography in the middle of winter. The area along Bear Lake Road and the lakes that emanate out of the Glacier Gorge trailhead and Bear Lake trailhead are all oriented north and east. This means the northern angle of the sun during the summer months lights these areas perfectly. During the middle of winter, the sun is at its farthest point south on the horizon leaving many of these areas in shadow or backlit. Ranges such as the Mummy Range however have a southeast facing orientation and get spectacular light during the winter months. It’s also hard for me to think of a range in the park that looks better after a fresh snow than the Mummy Range.
Lastly, some of the best times to head out in Rocky Mountain National Park for winter type photography is the end of the fall and the back end of spring. On the Front Range of Colorado we tend to get our strongest snowstorms in October and or March, April and May. These storms move in and out quickly after dumping lots of snow. Winds tend to not be as intense these times of year and more importantly, one can often find lakes and streams either not yet frozen, partially frozen or thawing out. Even better, later in the spring the sun is rising fairly north in the sky and the popular locations along Bear Lake Road will be lit as well as they are during the summer months.
Truth be told as we head into February, the lighting is getting better and our chances for good snow and quick moving storms are now getting better. Keep your expectations reasonable, watch the weather forecast, and plan on capturing winter images now right through May and you should be able to add some classic winter images of Rocky Mountain National Park to your portfolio.