I’ve made several trips to RMNP – enough to have ideas on focus areas for return visits and better or different conditions. My photographic objectives for this short trip were: sunrise at Moraine Park; sunrise or sunset from Trail Ridge Road; and, my priority, sunrise at Dream Lake. Each spot required the right alpenglow on the mountains, but I also hoped for decently lit clouds filling the skies above. On my previous trips, the skies were either very clear or access was limited by snow. The big challenge this trip would not only be the conditions, but 5:30AM sunrise and 8:30PM sunset – making for very long days.
I photographed sunrise at Moraine Park the first and final mornings of the trip. I arrived late the previous evening and didn’t take the opportunity the scout the location for the first morning shoot. I wasn’t overly concerned as I’ve been to this area previously and was also using a new eBook The Landscape Photographer’s Guide Photographing Rocky Mountain National Park by Erik Stensgland (www.ImagesofRMNP.com and MorningLight.us). Take the time to visit his Images of RMNP gallery in Estes Park – fantastic work! I had a pretty good idea of where I wanted to be – or so I thought. Lesson Learned AGAIN – always scout your locations. Conditions change – in this case a man-made change of which I was unaware.
RMNP has a healthy elk population, many of which frequent Moraine Park to feed. NPS has built a series of fenced enclosures to allow areas that have been over grazed by the elk to recover. These enclosures have gates regularly placed to allow human visitors to pass through. I assume the park moves the fenced areas periodically to allow systematic recovery of the vegetation. I say this because I did not remember needing to pass through a gate previously to get to the iconic sunrise location on the edge of the Big Thompson River. I certainly did not realize I was in an enclosure as I set up in the dark and began photographing in pre-dawn light. I did not realize that the award winning photograph I was about to capture would be marred by the fence – yet unseen in the darkness – on the other side of the enclosure. Fortunately a “rookie” photographer (we spoke later) passed by a few minutes later to advise the 40-year veteran he had a fence in his mid-ground. Also fortunately, Photoshop will allow me to remove the fence in a future version of the following image. Lesson Two for the morning – you can always learn regardless of the experience of the teacher.
I quickly moved up river and re-established my shooting location at a new spot – on the other side of the SECOND fence. Conditions were good. There were low clouds over the mountains to the west and, as the sun rose behind me, good color on the mountains themselves.
For my last sunrise shoot for this trip, I chose to go back to Moraine Park. Earlier in the week, while scouting, I found a curve in the river and set of ripples that I thought might add a nice effect given the right light. Some clouds with good color formed to the east – not the direction I’d hoped, but nice nonetheless. A photographer makes the best of what nature delivers – the opposite is not an option. As the light increased, I found myself in the middle of a herd of elk. I believe they were as curious of me as I was of them.
TRAIL RIDGE ROAD:
I spent much of an afternoon exploring Trail Ridge Road. This road is the highest continuous road in the US, topping out at 12,183 ft, traversing RMNP from east to west, and crossing the Continental Divide enroute. I set up for sunset at the Gore Mountain overlook. This provided a view to the east down Forest Canyon toward Long’s Peak and to the west toward the crest of the Rocky Mountains. I wasn’t sure what the clouds would offer and as it turned out provided options in both directions. In the last afternoon light and until sunset, I shot to the east – interesting cloud formations over Long’s Peak. Post sunset, I shot to the west – the glow of the setting sun in a notch of the mountain with underside of the clouds glowing red – creating an unexpected surprise (another blog). This is a good example of understanding the possibilities and placing yourself in a position to take best advantage of multiple circumstances.
I photographed Dream Lake at sunrise several years ago using film and was not satisfied with the results. On this trip, I wanted to get a decent sunrise at Dream Lake which meant waking a 3AM, on the trail at 4AM, to be in place by 5AM for pre-dawn light, and 5:30 for sunrise. The hike wasn’t particularly difficult – enough moon to see the well-groomed trail without a flashlight. The biggest challenge was adjusting to the altitude. Florida doesn’t have much in the way of elevation and this hike started at 9474 ft. It didn’t seem like only 500 ft of elevation gain! I knew part of the challenge, based on my previous trip, would be to simplify the foreground – providing enough for depth but not so much to distract from Hallet Peak and reflections in the lake. After a bit of exploring and a few test shots, I settled on this image. Unfortunately no clouds. I spoke to a fellow photographer the next day who showed me some of his images from the day before I shot at Dream Lake, including the well lit clouds.