Sunrise over the Sangre De Cristo Range on an icy October morning.
I was watching the weather maps the other day, and noticed that high clouds would be moving in fro the north as a cold front was moving towards northern Colorado yesterday. I figured the sunrise would be special, so I got up at 4 am and headed for my favorite spot, the Great Sand Dunes National Park. Despite the re-opening of the government, they had yet to remove the barricades that prevented you from entering the park; so I went to ‘Plan B’–a short drive west to the San Luis Lakes State Park. No barricaes there. No people either, except a few hunters who were disturbing my peaceful morning. I’m not sure why, but the lakes themselves have either been drained or lost all their water, so right now they’re just mud puddles, but thanks to the cold nights they were nicely frozen puddles, and reflected my forecast sunrise quite nicely. As the sun finally rose over the Sangre De Cristo Range, I grabbed this shot of the range and sandy lakeshore, along with distant snow-capped dunes.
I left Aspen and headed north to Jackson Hole, to wait out a three-day snowstorm that I hoped would bring some moody conditions to Grand Teton National Park. While waiting for the storm to clear (it never really did) I hiked around in the new snow that was falling; it kept most people off the trails and the park was nice and peaceful without the crowds. It wasn’t very cold in the valley, so most of the snow was melting on the ground, but it coated the vegetation in a slushy blanket.
The storm briefly took a break at sunset, enabling me to take a few shots of the range as clouds swirled around the peak. The following morning I headed up Signal Mountain in hopes of getting above the light snow that was still falling in the valley. It was cold and raw, and never did clear out, but the light occasionally lead to some striking scenes of the valley and distant peaks.
With little hope of the snow and rain ever quitting, I roamed around the park and looked for opportunities to take some shots of the wildlife and ever-changing scenery. It wasn’t the stuff of postcards, but there’s only one first real snowfall of the season, and it was nice to be a part of it in one of our nicest National Parks.
Maroon Lake and Bells, 45 minutes before sunrise.
Just got back from an eight day trip through Colorado and Wyoming to photograph this year’s fall colors. It has been a terrible year overall for fall foliage in the Rockies; too much rain followed by early wet snows have done a number on the leaves, which were late changing to begin with. But, I still had a good trip overall–drank lots of microbrews and ate lots of good food–certainly can’t complain too much. My next 3 or 4 blog entries will be dedicated to this trip; I don’t usually get out for a week’s time, so I’ve got a bunch of new photos to share.
First, stop, the infamous Maroon Bells in Aspen, Colorado. I met up with a couple of fellow Colorado photographer friends up there, including Todd Caudle and Art Escobado. We were hoping for some good clearing-storm conditions at the lake, site of the most photographed mountain in America. I later mentioned my time in Aspen to a photographer I ran into up in Wyoming, and he replied, “you mean the Moron Bells?” This was an inference that the hundreds of photographers who line up along the lakeside shoulder-to-shoulder every fall are moronic. I partly agree–with few exceptions it is moronic to join that crowd. The essence of landscape photography is to be artful–and art is synonymous with self-expression. One cannot express oneself in an individual way when one is lined up with hundreds of other photographers, all shooting the identical scene. It’s repetitive, and it gets boring. But, icons are icons for a reason, and I enjoy shooting the Bells. I just go out of my way to avoid the lakeside crowd, and forge my own way using any number of tricks I’ve learned over the last decade of my annual trips to Aspen. The shot above is an example. I never shoot from the near side of the lake, where the crowd forms. Sure, that has a ‘better’ view and enables one to shoot a ‘cleaner’ composition that abides by the ‘rules’ that get you more $ for your effort. But, I prefer a unique or more original view to a standard one that graces more postcards and calendars. So, for this shot that I took on the 24th, after the storm had completely cleared out, I used an approach that emphasized the contrast of the totally blue sky and fresh snow on the peaks. It’s a long exposure (10 seconds) and I left the dark areas intentionally dark to emphasize the contrast. I took the shot 45 minutes before sunrise, just as light was beginning to reveal the peaks.
Now, lets go back to the day before, the first day of fall as an early snowstorm was winding down in the mountains. I had hoped the storm might clear for sunrise, but it strengthened a bit at the last minute, and slowed down, so it was still snowing when I got to the lake. There was a good 4-5 inches of wet snow at the lake; more than I expected. Even a bit of slush on the road. Since the storm wasn’t clearing around the peaks, I concentrated on the Foggy conditions and contrast of aspen and snow.
Art and I decided to hang around and extra day in hopes of some fog forming around the lake the next morning. With clearing skies and lots of moisture on the ground, it was certainly a possibility. But the winds ended up being too strong, and no fog formed. I decided to avoid the even huger crowds at the near side of the lake, and explore some more original compositions.
Here’s the peak at the point just after sunrise, when the best light and color was illuminating the Bells:
Maroon Lake at sunrise, late September.
There was only one other photographer near me when I took that shot (200+ just up the lakeshore). But I knew the best light was done at the lake, so I escaped the crowds completely and drove up the road. I found a nice wide open filed completely blanketed in frost. It was a beautiful field, So I grabbed my gear and hiked out to the middle to get some shots of the Bells in early morning light.
Not another photographer in sight. And I didn’t feel the least bit moronic. 🙂 Next up, in Part II: off to the Tetons and even more snow!!
Huge lightning bolt lights up the landscape over the Colorado plains.
The storms that resulted in serious flooding over parts of southeast Colorado last night also put one heck of a light show last night. I spent about half an hour taking close to 100 5-20 second exposures from in back of my house, looking southward towards Pueblo. Almost every shot captured a lightning bolt, but this one above was extra huge–so bright it lit up the prairie for a brief second. To give you an idea of just how powerful this one strike was, the first shot was probably the second strongest of the nearly 100 strikes I captured. Quite an electric night!
August brings wildflowers to the Deluge Lake Trail near Vail.
Every summer, I always take one hike for which I leave most of my camera gear behind. I take my camera and one lens; no tripod, no other lenses or filters. It’s a liberating exercise that reminds me of why I got into nature photography in the first place. No worries about getting good light or a good composition; just a pleasant day in the mountains.
I traditionally have climbed a 13,000 foot peak for this venture; leaving behind the gear lightens my pack by at least 10 lbs, and makes it easier to take on a challenging route. But this year my fitness level is rock bottom, so I scaled back my ambitions and settled on one of the steep lake trails near Vail Colorado. The Deluge Lake Trail climbs over 3,400 vertical feet in 9 miles round trip, and it feels like more than 9 miles since most of it is above 10000 feet where the air is thin. I got an early start and went slowly, taking nearly three hours to reach the lake. It was a great day to be out in the mountains, and the wildflowers were still peaking in the meadows, along with some wild berries. I was happy to come away with one decent hand held shot, since I really didn’t expect to do much photography at all, just got some good exercise! On the way out I took some photos of Lake Dillon at sunset–I used a tripod this time. 🙂
August is my favorite month to photograph the Great Sand Dunes National Park. The monsoon is in full swing, and afternoon thunderstorms intensify the dramatic lighting in the dune field. Sunflowers bloom for a brief time and provide a splash of color amidst the desert landscape, and are symbols of life and perseverance against adversity. Recent heavy rains convinced me that the flowers would be blooming, so I headed out to pursue my goal of catching the ultimate sunflower-and-dune image. I’ve been making this pilgrimage every year for the past 7 years or so, and it never disappoints me.
As I drove up the dunes highway, I could already see a huge thunderstorm building over the Sangre de Cristo Mountain range that looms behind the dunes. A brief spurt of hail pelted my car, and I could see streaks of white on the dunes from the passing hailstorm. After stopping at the Visitor Center to say hi to some friends who work at the park, I headed out to the dune mass to look for some good sunflowers. The flowers bloom throughout the dune mass, but finding the ‘perfect’ flowers that accentuate the dramatic landscape is a bit like looking for a four-leafed clover. But it didn’t take long to find some great subjects.
I continued to climb, to a subsidiary dune next to High Dune, a prominent spot that is the destination for many visitors to the park. As I reached the summit of the 700 foot tall dune, I started to hear thunder reverberate from the nearby mountains. Thunderstorms were building all around the dune mass. I saw a couple of flashes hit the mountainsides. As the storm continued to build, the light on the dune became more and more dramatic; light and shadow intensified along with the colors in the late afternoon light.
I was torn between sticking around as the light and colors continued to intensify, or rushing downward to relative safety. I wasn’t the tallest point on the dunes, but I definitely wasn’t in a safe spot. The wind began to pick up and a few drops of rain pelted my face, along with waves of sand blowing off the dunecrests. I grabbed a couple final shots, including the one posted first here, and then quickly headed downwards. The view from the top of the dunes was incredible; the recent rains really enriched the subtle colors of the dunes, and the vegetation around the dune mass was as green as I have seen there.
On my way down, I spotted a lone sunflower that really stood out from the others. As the wind continued to bear down on me, I quickly stopped and set up my tripod low to the ground. A trick I have learned from previous shoots is to shoot in the direction of the wind to minimize the blur on the flower. The light was intense; I had found my elusive subject!
Now that thunderstorms had chased me from the dunes, I drove to the south side of the park in hopes of catching a rainbow. My luck panned out as a brief rainbow appeared over the distant dunes. Just another great August afternoon at the Great Sand Dunes!
There is nothing that quite compares to the crazy display of wildflowers that occurs in the Colorado high country every year during the mid-summer months. The peak usually happens sometime in mid July to early August, so with a week’s vacation to work with this year, I just had to spend a few days worth in the annual quest for wildflower extravaganza.
I have photographed most of the ‘hot spots’ for flowers in Colorado, so this year I wanted to hit a couple of new locations.
The Crested Butte area was looking good, and while I have been there in previous years, I had yet to visit the high basins north of Crested Butte. In my last attempt a couple years back, the road to the high country was blocked by an avalanche. This year, the road was open, so I headed up to Schofield Park, a trailhead ten miles up a dirt road from the Crested Butte ski resort. A sign that recommended 4WD greeted me as I drive my low clearance Ford Focus up the narrow, windy, bumpy road. So much more fun with 2WD! And all those Jeeps coming down the road in the other direction were certainly not getting the wonderful gas mileage that I was! 🙂 At one point, I asked a passing SUV if I was going to make it up the road. I noticed him glance quickly down at my tires, then he said, “If you made it this far, you’ll probably make it the rest of the way.”
I set out on the W Maroon trail, which connects Aspen to Crested Butte via the road I had just come up. The trail quickly entered a series of basins that were just choking with flowers.
After hiking much of the afternoon, I decided to head back to the road for sunset, since I had scouted out some favorable locations on the way up to the trail.
Then, as the sun set, I headed back towards Crested Butte to catch the East River in the bright light of the rising full moon. For some reason, this moon seemed bigger and brighter than many I had seen before. It was just a spectacular sight; I can only hope my photo captures some of the magic.
I also consumed some fine brews in town, which was quite hopping for a Sunday night; a great place to meet an odd assortment of outdoor fanatics and artists,
The next day, I headed to Ridgway in the San Juan Mountains, to head up the Blue Lakes trail, one of the more spectacular trails in the state. The last time I hiked it was eight years ago, where I had about 10 pounds less camera gear, and 20 pounds less beer fat. So, I was a bit slower this time. I ended up spending most of the afternoon exploring the meadows above Lower Blue Lake, which is where the flowers seemed to be the most profuse.
I dropped back down to the campground to catch Mount Sneffels as it lit up just before sunset. Magnificent! This shot rounded off my goal of a dozen decent photos for the trip. I’m usually lucky to grab two or three per trip, so I consider it a productive trip overall. Oh, and if you’re ever in Ridgway be sure to stop at the True Grit (yes, we’re talking John Wayne) Cafe and have one of their awesome deserts. I had the blueberry pie this time. A La mode. 🙂
There are two things the Southern Rockies photographer looks forward to in July–wildflowers and the monsoon. With one week off to work with, I decided to get both in one week. First trip, a four day dash to Arizona to catch the monsoon. I wasn’t expecting classic monsoon, with a strange westward-moving low pressure system in the upper atmosphere (these lows usually move east!) expected to bring me my storms. I knew there would be plenty of storms, just wasn’t sure how much lightning there would be. If it rains too much, the usual surface heating gets stifled and the storms aren’t as strong. Turns out, that’s pretty much what happened–lots of storms, not so much lightning. And of course, all the big bolts happened off frame or in between clicks of my shutter!
But I did get to see this classic monsoonal sunset in the Arizona desert near Tuscon.
I did grab this shot of the saguaro just after sunset, as the storms kept building over the mountains that surround Tuscon. Then I had to feign ignorance that the park closes at sunset, as a park ranger spotted my car and started inspecting it for contraband…
Saguaro shortly after sunset during a monsoonal storm.
The next day, after stopping to say high to some old friends in Tuscon, I decided to head north, since there were fewer clouds in northeast Arizona and I figured that would lead to better storms. I targeted Petrified Forest in northeast Arizona. On the way, I stopped at Salt River Canyon, a spectacular landmark that I had never even heard of before. Too bad they defaced it by running a highway through it–not to mention all the garbage at every pullout along the way 🙁
I turned out to be correct about my target–a strong storm began moving into the National Park as sunset approached. But once again I was unaware that the park closed at sunset until I was already at the front gate. So of course, I kept shooting until a ranger pulled over with lights flashing, and I made my apologies and packed up, as the storm of course became highly active. I guess next time, I’ll hike in with an overnight permit…
Inspired by my friend Todd Caudle’s recent photographic odyssey on Mount Evans, I decided to go get some
of my own. Unfortunately, that meant leaving on July 3d, which I soon learned is probably the busiest travel day of the summer in eastern Colorado! The trip from Pueblo to Idaho Springs ordinarily takes me less than two hours, but this time I sat, and sat, and sat, in traffic that would put Los Angeles to shame. At one point, I crawled for an hour to gain the final ten miles to the Idaho Springs exit, and the start of the drive to Mount Evans, a 14,264 foot mountain that has the highest paved road leading almost to the summit.
It was now late afternoon, and the thunderstorms were in full swing over the peaks. It was clear in town, but as I drove up the Mount Evans Highway the clouds opened and I was in a heavy downpour as I navigated the narrow, winding road that leads up the peak. At 12,000 feet, I started to notice bits of ice in the big drops hitting my windshield, and I knew what lay ahead. By 13,000 feet, the rain turned to driving wet snow, big wet flakes driven by strong winds. It was a full-fledged blizzard, and at one point I nearly turned around, but I knew the pavement was warm enough to keep the road mainly ice-free, and I expected the storm to clear by sunset.
Finally, I reach the observatory below the summit. One other photographer was there, flaying with his Goretex, and he shouted to me through the 50 mile-per-hour winds that he was canceling his plan to hike to the summit for sunset.
A wise decision, since the snow was about an inch deep but the wind was ferocious, and it was crazy cold for July 3d!
I waited a bit for the snow squalls to slow down, and as they moved to the south side of the peak and started pushing away from the summit, I grabbed a shot of the squalls below me, and one of the road switchbacks. With partial clearing around the summit, I started hopping boulders and took a shortcut to the west side of the summit block, a spot I had scouted in previous trips that has good views to the west. No great sunset this time, but enough clearing to make out the distant peaks. I hoped for better luck at sunrise.
I decided to focus my sunrise plans on one of my favorite spots in Colorado to take in a sunrise, the Chicago Basin on the north side of the peak. The basin holds a number of lakes and is carpeted in flowers this time of year. The trailhead for an overlook of the basin begins at Summit Lake at 12,000 feet elevation. It was still a cold, raw morning, with thin layers of ice covering some of the tarns, but the skies were clear enough for a good sunrise. I hiked the short trip to the overlook of the basin, then hopped some more boulders to descend onto some of the flowery meadows that rise up from the lakes. I took a sequence of shots with my Canon, using my 24mm tilt-shift lens to compose larger photos of the basin. The first is about 20 minutes before sunrise, the second at peak color, then sunrise, and finally 20 minutes after sunrise. I chatted with another photographer who was taking in the spectacle, then made a dash back up to Summit Lake and grabbed some shots of the tarns, and wildflowers. A great sunrise, and a great way to spend the July 4th morning!
The best thing about storm chasing in Colorado is that it is usually free of the long lines of gawkers and chasers that you will typically encounter in Oklahoma or Kansas on a High Risk weekend. It’s storm chasing the Old Fashioned Way; where you don’t have to worry about being trapped on a crowded street as a rain-wrapped wedge tornado descends on you. It’s almost like the heyday of chasing when every person you met on the road was someone you knew from either a previous chase or from the community of storm chasers. So, not surprisingly, when I chased this past weekend I ran into several other storm chasers who I knew either personally or by reputation. The first chasers I ran into on Saturday were Justin Drake and Simon Brewer, the stars of The Weather Channel’s “Storm Riders”. Since our chosen storm was not terribly exciting at the time, I had a nice conversation with them about chasing and photography, two subjects that we are all pretty passionate about. Shortly after, I stopped to say high to Roger Hill, one of the most acclaimed and respected pros, on a quiet road heading south with the storm. I’ve run into Roger at least a dozen times over the last 10 years, and he’s been a bit of a good luck charm for me, probably because he holds the Guinness record for most tornadoes seen. No terrific luck this time, though–just some real pretty storms and a nice sunset over the plains of Colorado.
After a day’s break to let my tired car rest, I headed out again on Monday to chase some more Colorado storms. After making a traditional stop in Limon for some lunch at Oscar’s Bar & Grill, I caught a storm forming near the small town of Seibert, Colorado, in the midst of intersecting lines of cumulus clouds that I had picked out in a visible satellite image. I watched the clouds rapidly expand and eventually split into two separate storms, which is classic behavior for a fledgling supercell (rotating) thunderstorm. I ran into John Farley, who I knew from online forums but had never met in person, as he sat on the roadside waiting for the storm to strengthen. And Todd Thorn, another long-time chaser who runs a popular storm-chasing tour company. The storm eventually was tornado-warned after it dropped a small tornado near the town of Kit Carson. I must have been driving or simply not at the right location since I missed the landspout/tornado, but the storm had some impressive structure and I followed it all the way to the tiny town of Towner, Colorado, near the Kansas Border. I waited out a quick blast of quarter-sized hail driven by strong winds, then stopped for a bit at the town cemetery to take a few photos as the storm moved away and the sun set over the Colorado Plains. Not a bad way to spend a weekend–good Ol’ Fashioned Chasing!