Archive for the ‘Rocky Mountain National Park’ Tag

Rocky Mtn National Park Alternatives: Avoiding Crowds   13 comments

Sunrise over Brainard Lake, Rocky Mountain Front Range, Colorado.

Sunrise over Brainard Lake, Rocky Mountain Front Range, Colorado.

I’ve been stranded with vehicle problems lately but it has not been all bad.  I’m in a beautiful place, near to Rocky Mountain National Park.  Now this is not the most out of the way place I’ve ever been.  In fact Rocky (the name locals use for the park) is now the third most popular national park in the country, visited by more people than either Yosemite and Yellowstone.  So it can get very crowded, especially on summer weekends.

Besides visiting during the week, there are a few ways to avoid most crowds at Rocky.  One is to go over to the west side of the park, in particular staying away from Bear Lake, the most popular destination within the park.  Another is to go hiking but to summon the energy and continue on up the trails, past popular destinations in order to get more solitude.

But an alternative is simply to not enter the park at all.  The Rocky Mountains don’t stop at the park boundary and public land (mostly Forest Service) extends in three directions.  I’ve been checking out a few nearby natural areas recently, mostly to see something different.  As I suspected most of these places are also very crowded on weekends.  But since they mostly attract locals, they tend to be quieter than the park during the week.

It's peaceful along the Colorado River in the western part of Rocky Mtn. National Park.

It’s peaceful along the Colorado River in the western part of Rocky Mtn. National Park.

Brainard Lake Recreation Area

One place that is hard not to be impressed with is Brainard Lake Recreation Area.  It’s only 35 miles south of Rocky, about an hour’s drive down the Peak to Peak Highway.  A busy campground (get there early or reserve a spot) is located conveniently just below Brainard Lake itself.  Several small picnic areas are scattered about, and fishing is popular.  In recent years a population of moose has moved in.  Popular with wildlife photographers, these are Shiras moose, the smallest subspecies.  Although definitely smaller than Alaskan moose, bulls can reach 1200 pounds and are dangerous in the fall rut.

The area is also famous for its hiking.  Several trails head up into the Indian Peaks Wilderness to beautiful alpine lakes.  Energetic hikers and peak baggers continue up the spectacular valleys past glacial tarns and on up to rugged granitic mountains.  The hikes tend to be strenuous because of the altitude, but distances are not great.  For example I hiked to Blue Lake and it was just 5 miles round-trip with 900 feet elevation gain.

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Colorado Columbine on one of the trails of Brainard Lake Recreation Area.

Colorado Columbine on one of the trails of Brainard Lake Recreation Area.

Another amazing hike I can personally recommend is Isabelle Glacier.  In 8 3/4 miles you gain 1750 feet.  This takes you past two lakes, including lovely Lake Isabelle.  Hike beyond this lake and you’ll drop most other hikers, passing flower meadows and a high tarn before climbing into a huge amphitheater surrounded by soaring peaks, snowfields and waterfalls.

Lake Isabelle and Indian Peaks, Colorado.

A family of ducks paddles across Red Rock Lake.

A family of ducks paddles across Red Rock Lake.

But several of the images here are from the lowest of the area’s lakes, and my favorite.  Red Rock Lake lies on the road to Brainard Lake, and most people blow right by it, in a hurry to get to their destinations.  It’s a peaceful spot that attracts waterfowl, and has a nice view of Indian Peaks from the east shore.  It’s quite a photogenic place, despite not being as spectacular as the high, hike-in lakes, which are closer to the peaks.  But because of the red rocks and a partial cover of water lilies I think Red Rock is more visually interesting than many of the area’s lakes.

Thanks for reading, have a great week, and happy shooting!

Beautiful Red Rock Lake, Colorado.

Beautiful Red Rock Lake, Colorado.

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Friday Foto Talk: Point of View, Part II   4 comments

In a forest I often find stumps or fallen logs to stand on, raising POV.  Like atop this fallen giant in California's redwoods.

In a forest I often find stumps or fallen logs to stand on, raising POV. Like atop this fallen giant in California’s redwoods.

This is the second of two parts on Point of View (POV) in photography.  Last week Part I looked at general position and angle related to subject and background.  This time I’ll focus on what most people think of when they think of POV: height.

Point of View:  Height

Let’s go back to when we first picked up a camera.  What did we do?  We shot from a standing position.  Then when we got hold of a tripod we extended the legs and again shot from eye level.  This isn’t surprising; it’s almost always the way we experience the world.

Unfortunately, it quickly becomes boring to see picture after picture from this same position.  You start to wonder what it’s like to see things the way the world’s shortest man or the tallest woman sees them.  Going further, what is it like to see the world from an eagle’s point of view, or an insect’s?  There’s only one way to find out.  Get up or get down and shoot!  It’s the other major way to change point of view: change the camera height.

Long's Peak, shot last night from the highest point I could find on Trail Ridge Road, Rocky Mtn. National Park, Colorado.

Long’s Peak, shot last night from the highest point I could find on Trail Ridge Road, Rocky Mtn. National Park, Colorado.

LOW POV

The easiest way to change height POV is to lower it.  You go down on one knee, assuming the classic shooter’s pose.  Or you squat, getting a bit lower.  Or you lay right down on your belly with elbows propped in a sort of tripod.  When you’re using an actual tripod and want to go lower, you either change the length of the legs or spread them more widely.

You can also remove the center column or otherwise rig up the tripod to go even lower.  For ultra low POVs you can just plop the camera right down on the ground.  Or you use a beanbag, your camera bag, or a piece of clothing for cushioning, giving you a POV very near ground level.

This small cholla cactus I wanted to highlight against the stormy sky of Death Valley, California.  So I used a very low POV, a foot or two above the ground.

This small cholla cactus I wanted to highlight against the stormy sky of Death Valley, California. So I used a very low POV, a foot or two above the ground.

When you lower your point of view a few interesting things happen:

  • Foregrounds draw nearer and get bigger.  For compositions with close foreground elements, lowering POV brings them even closer (see image above).  If you want everything in focus front to back you may have to stop down to a smaller aperture (higher f/number).  Or you can take more than one shot and focus stack the images.
  • Foregrounds change position.  Lowering your POV also changes how foreground subjects are set off against the background.  As you go down, close foreground elements rise in proportion.  This can set them against the sky instead of the landscape and even put them in silhouette.  You also need to be aware of foreground elements blocking important parts of the background.  Make small shifts in position to compensate and get the composition just right.
  • Backgrounds recede.  This depends on how wide your lens is, but when you lower the camera the background can lose prominence in favor of foreground elements.  Even tall mountains tend to shrink.  Not as much as when you change from a 50 mm. to a 17 mm. focal length, for example, but the effect is similar.  It’s another way that lowering POV helps to emphasize foreground elements in an image, by de-emphasizing the background.
For these two elk this morning, I got low to set them against the rising sun.

For these two elk this morning, I got low to set them against the rising sun.  Compare with image below.

Another recent elk from Rocky Mtn. National Park. But this time from a higher POV gained by walking uphill.

HIGH POV

Another way to vary height POV is to raise the camera, so you’re looking down on your subject.  It’s more challenging than lowering the camera, but it’s often more interesting to try.  And it’s more satisfying when it turns out well.  That’s because, as hard as it can seem to get very low (especially as we get older), going up usually requires the most effort and imagination.  You need to either climb with your gear up to some perch or do some outside-the-box thinking, or both.

Here are some ideas:

  • Climb a rock or mountain.  We tell ourselves it won’t matter so much, but that’s our lazy side talking back to us.  In actuality, scrambling up onto a rock or heading up a steep trail is often all you need to make that landscape photo pop.  It can also add interest to a group photo.  Depending on your subject, even a modest increase in POV height can help to add a sense of depth.  The image above only required a short (but breathless) walk uphill.  I also gave him plenty of space and shot with a longer focal length (600 mm.) so as not to disturb him from his morning “zen spot”.
  • Or a tree!  Last weekend while photographing these moose in Colorado I was becoming frustrated by the tall willows.  While the moose were more than okay with it, happily munching on one of their favorite foods, the willows were also limiting my view to head and antler shots.  So I did something I rarely do anymore: I climbed a tree.  I only had to go about 6 or 7 feet up to make a big difference in POV.  I ended up liking the shots with lower POV, those few without obscuring willows that is.  But how would I have known for sure without trying?
I had to get part-way up a tree to even get this much of a moose in the willows, Colorado.

I had to get part-way up a tree to even get this much of a moose in the willows, Colorado.

A fairly low POV, helped by finding an avenue through the willows, emphasized the size of this rather rude fellow.

A fairly low POV, helped by finding an avenue through the willows, emphasized the size of this rather rude fellow.

  • Tote a ladder around.  This is something I’ve only done a couple times, but it’s certainly a good solution in some circumstances.  For photos of people, just those few extra feet can really add variety and shift perspective dramatically.  For landscapes when you’re in a flat area, especially when shooting from the road where vegetation blocks the view, it can make the difference between getting the shot and getting skunked.
  • Go flying.  I’m always on a budget, but on occasion it has worked out to charter a flight in a small plane.  In the Okavango Delta, for example, I went in with a couple other people and took a spectacular flight over the enormous wetlands in northern Botswana, looking down on elephant and antelope herds.  If money is no problem, a helicopter flight is the best option of all.  You can hover for one thing, allowing extra time to shoot.  In addition, being able to land anywhere (if regulations permit) makes choppers my all-time favorite mode of air travel.

 

  • Get a drone.  I don’t really like drones.  For some reason they annoy me, and besides I like to be physically behind the camera.  But I have to admit that drones allow you to dramatically raise point of view in a hurry.  They also allow you to put the camera into places that are impossible to get to.

A low POV and wide angle helps to lend a sense of depth to this shot of a glacial tarn high in the Rockies.

I sometimes catch myself getting lazy when I’m out shooting.  Not often, but it happens.  I’ve learned that attitude has so much to do with photography, and occasionally the enthusiasm and motivation is just not there.  In those cases I think it’s best to just enjoy the place you’re in without photographing anything.  Of course us photogs. have a hard time doing this.

But if you are standing in one place and not varying your point of view, ask yourself if you really want to be out shooting that day.  A good way to check if you are truly motivated  is to simply observe yourself.  Are you moving your feet?  Are you changing position and height?

The bottom line is that if you want better photographs you simply must vary your point of view as much as possible.  All this shifting around to get the shot can lead to problems both legal and safety-wise.  So nextFriday I will add a post-script to the topic of POV.  Thanks so much for reading, and have a wonderful weekend!

For this sunset shot at Red Rock Lake, Colorado, I wanted to get low enough to emphasize the grasses yet not so low that Indian Peaks would appear too small.

For this sunset shot at Red Rock Lake, Colorado, I wanted to get low enough to emphasize the grasses yet not so low that Indian Peaks would appear too small.

 

Wordless Wednesday: Snowmelt in the Rocky Mountains   Leave a comment

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Rocky Mountain National Park, Part II   10 comments

The Colorado River looking like any old mountain stream near its headwaters where it flows through and defines the west side of Rocky Mountain National Park.

The Colorado River looking like any old mountain stream near its headwaters where it flows through and defines the west side of Rocky Mountain National Park.

This is the second of two posts on Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado.  Make sure and check out the first part, where I cover some logistics, along with things to do on the popular east side of the park.  This post will take you over to the west side on your one-way tour, entering via Estes Park and exiting through Grand Lake.  You could also do it the opposite way of course.

Trail Ridge Road 

Trail Ridge Road is a famous highway that traverses a high ridge over the Continental Divide.  Local American Indian tribe, the Utes & Arapahos, maintained a foot-trail near where the highway now runs.  They accessed hunting grounds on the Great Plains, where those big mammals you now see mostly limited to the high country in the national parks (elk, buffalo, etc.) used to congregate in huge numbers.  In fact, one of the park’s most popular trails is called the Ute Trail.  It doesn’t involve much climbing and yet accesses high country.

A hike in the tundra along Trail Ridge Road reveals some interesting rock formations along the ridge-line.

A hike in the tundra along Trail Ridge Road reveals some interesting rock formations along the ridge-line.

Find the Ute Crossing Trailhead roughly half-way between Rainbow Curve and Forest Canyon interpretive trail on the east side of Trail Ridge Road.  There is not much parking.  You can walk out a couple miles to a large rock and small pass and then retrace your steps.  Or with a car shuttle you can continue steeply down Windy Gulch a few more miles to Beaver Meadows in Moraine Park.

For sunset, you can’t do much better than drive up to the top of  Trail Ridge Road.  This high highway, reaching over 12,000 feet, traverses alpine tundra with fantastic views of Long’s Peak to the east and the Never Summer Mountains to the west.  Get an early jump on sunset so you can enjoy a walk on the tundra.  Well, not on the tundra, on a trail through the tundra.  It’s delicate.

The sun sets behind the Never Summer Mountains as viewed from Trail Ridge in Rocky Mountain National Park.

The sun sets behind the Never Summer Mountains as viewed from Trail Ridge in Rocky Mountain National Park.

Stop just before the summit at the Rock Cut pull-off.  From here a trail takes off north of the road and winds its way up onto the ridge.  Try your best to tear your eyes away from the incredible vistas and pay some attention to the tiny flowers and other tundra vegetation at your feet.  You won’t see tundra like this in many places outside of far northern Alaska.  There is a visitor center just west of the summit where you can learn about this tough community.

A little side-trail leads right up to the ridge-line where interesting mushroom-shaped rocks (hoodoos) will compete for your attention (see image below).  Climb up onto the summit rocks for some great views of Long’s Peak and surrounding mountains.  I found some great light and beautiful far-reaching photos here (image at bottom).

Hiking in Rocky Mtn. National Park.

Hiking in Rocky Mtn. National Park.

A Warning

I rarely do this on my blog but feel I must in this case.  In Part I I mentioned starting early and finishing before late afternoon.  There is a reason I’m stressing that again, and adding an important point.  In summertime the Rockies are prone to very fast-moving and violent thunderstorms that build up in the afternoon.  Lightning is a very real threat, a threat made clear a few days ago when two hikers died from lightning strikes.  Both died while hiking off Trail Ridge Road, one of them a woman hiking with her husband on Ute Trail.  A total of 13 people were taken to the hospital from one of the strikes alone!

Now there is no reason to fear hiking up high in Rocky in the summer.  These events are rare.  But you’d do well to keep a close eye on the weather.  If big billowing clouds start to catch your attention, it’s time to move to lower ground.  Do not get caught out in open terrain where you’re the tallest thing around.  Do not take shelter under a big lone tree.  Get into a low depression or down into thick forest if you can.  Of course you can mitigate the danger by finishing your hike by 3 or 4 p.m.  But situational awareness is always the best tool you have for this (and all) dangers in the outdoors.

Meadows along the upper Colorado River, Rocky Mountain National Park.

Meadows along the upper Colorado River, Rocky Mountain National Park.

The West Side

At first glance it seems as if the west side of the park is not as full of things to do as the east side.  But look a little deeper.  Though the views may not be as frequent, it is a wonderful place to hike, photograph and watch wildlife.  And this is in no small part because of the Colorado River.  The Colorado is one of two great rivers of the American West (the other being the Columbia).  And this is where it starts.  The Colorado’s headwaters are accessible via a trail that takes off from where Trail Ridge Road finally levels out after a long looping descent.

The Colorado River Trail takes you on a nice level foray through lovely meadows bordering the Colorado (see image above & top).  It’s amazing to see the river in this way if you have experienced it like I have, in the desert southwest.  You’re far upstream from the cactus-lined rocky desert canyons here.  And that includes the biggest of them all, the Grand Canyon.  It’s a mountain stream up here, with bighorn sheep descending the steep rocky slopes to sip from its cold waters.  Keep an eye out for moose as well.

Bighorn sheep ewes browse the steep slopes along the Colorado River Trail.  They let me get within 50 feet of them.

Bighorn sheep ewes browse the steep slopes along the Colorado River Trail. They let me get within 50 feet of them.

The trail heads out to Lulu City, an old silver mining town.  Well, not a town now.  There isn’t really anything left outside of some cabin foundations.  But that’s really okay, because the miners sure picked a pretty spot on which to site the town.  Located in a meadowy area along the river, it makes a fantastic place for a picnic.  Lulu City is about 3.5 flat miles in.

If you’re hankering for more of a hike, keep going to the Little Yellowstone Canyon area.  It resembles the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, though like it’s name suggests is quite a bit smaller.  You can keep going to La Poudre Pass about 7.5 total miles in, and thus reach the true top of the Colorado River system.

From small beginnings:  a spring on a forested hillside in the Rocky Mountains will gather to become the river that serves major U.S. agriculture needs, along with water for major cities like Los Angeles and Phoenix.

From small beginnings: a spring on a forested hillside in the Rocky Mountains will gather to become the river that serves major U.S. agriculture needs, along with water for major cities like Los Angeles and Phoenix.

For photo opportunities, wildlife seems particularly abundant in this part of the park.  A walk near sunset along the winding Colorado is bound to result in beautiful shots of the river and mountains.  If you’re lucky a moose or elk will grace your foreground.  There are a number of other hikes in the area.  I hiked to Big Meadows, a fairly easy 3.2 miles round-trip to a big sea of grass.  Wildflowers were in bloom and I saw plenty of wildlife sign, though no animals.  It would be a great early-morning or evening option.

There are several routes up into the Never Summer Mountains that I didn’t check out.  The hike up to Michigan Lakes Basin seems to me a particularly scenic, if steep, hike.  The hike up to Lake Nokoni features a great wildflower show.  The short walk to Adams Falls is a great family option.  All things to do on my second visit!

Big Meadows, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado.

Big Meadows, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado.

 

Final Thoughts & When To Go

As I already mentioned, a good way to tour Rocky is to do a loop from east to west (or vice versa), camping along the way.  I visited in late June, and a few of the hikes I did (especially the Bear Lake to Fern lake one-way) crossed abundant snowfields.  The flowers were blooming big-time in the meadows below tree-line.  In July the wildflower show moves up to the subalpine areas as the snow melts, so right now is a perfect time for a visit.  And so is autumn, with the Rocky Mountains’ signature quaking aspen adding their spectacular golden colors to the mix.

The Colorado River not far north of Grand Lake meanders across a verdant valley beneath beautiful mountains.

The Colorado River not far north of Grand Lake meanders across a verdant valley beneath beautiful mountains.

It’s worth repeating that this is quite the popular park.  You should avoid it during summer weekends or holidays.  If you come in May or early June (depending on how much snow fell during winter), be prepared for snow blocking access to many trails and even roads.  If you look at a map of the park you’ll notice that it covers a big area with limited road access.

What this means is that it will at first seem crowded (as it did to me).  But as soon as you put a couple miles or more between you and a road you’ll find big empty mountainous country.  Just make sure to take it easy and go at a measured pace.  The high altitudes will humble even the most fit flatlander.  Thanks for reading!  I hope your summer is filled with fun and sun!

 

Long's Peak, the highest mountain in Colorado, catches the evening's last sunlight from high up on Trail Ridge.

Long’s Peak, the highest mountain in Colorado, catches the evening’s last sunlight from high up on Trail Ridge.

Single-image Sunday: Moraine Park   11 comments

Moraine Park is a big and very beautiful grassy meadow in Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado.  I can’t believe this was my first time visiting “Rocky”!  My recent Friday Foto Talk post on dynamic range featured other images from the Colorado Rockies, captured with the Canon S95 I’ve been using lately.

Because of the camera’s limitations, I was hard-pressed to pull off many golden-hour images.  But with the bright, even light of mid-morning at Moraine Park photos were snapshot easy!  I spent a good hour or two just wandering along the creek, drawing closer to several elk who were grazing at the far end.  I didn’t approach them; they have enough people gawking at them in that place!

What a gorgeous day it was!  It was too early for many people.  In fact I was the only walker in the park.  I did encounter a group of horse-back riders from the nearby stables.  The leader was shouting things like “heels down” to the tourists.  Funny!  But also sad when I thought of my horses, so far away (and one of them not even mine anymore!).

The flowers were in bloom as well.  Such a perfect morning, followed by a great hike that traversed the high country in front of the peak pictured.  I will do a travel/hiking post on this national park later in the week.

Hope your weekend was relaxing and fun!  As always, I appreciate any comments.

The Big Thompson River meanders through Moraine Park in Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado.

The Big Thompson River meanders through Moraine Park in Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado.

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