Wednesday, 14 September 2016

Rocky Mountain High

Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado

Bear Lake

This is the first time we have been to Rocky Mountain even though we have been in Colorado before. You just can't do everything. We couldn't have come at a busier time of year. The first weekend Estes Park was hosting a fine art festival whereby people had stalls up and down the mains streets. Lost of photographers, so we got to see some wonderful pictures of the area. The second weekend, there was a beer festival, plus it was a "free weekend" at the national park, which always brings herds of people. The weekends are bedlam. We spent about about twelve days here and could come back to do more. No moose unfortunately as we are a bit late. It's hunting season now, so they have dispersed. Good on them. The elk have started rutting, but we haven't seen too many punch-ups. The best times for viewing them are early morning and late afternoon. By 6pm, it's getting too dark for a good photo as you can't get the speed up.

Colour everywhere

We have met lots of people here and everyone has been sharing information of places to photograph.

The first day we arrived we met Dave waiting for his moose to appear which he assured us she did every day between 3 and 5, but she mustn't have checked her email as she never fronted again. We both went up to the Old Fall River Road, a one way gravel, narrow winding road. We saw our first elk herds, some Bighorn sheep up on the mountain side and some pikers. Most days we would go into the valley to watch the elk.

We needed a 600mm with an extender to get this one


The cows aren't very loyal and if their bull is not watching they tend to wander off. If he doesn't round them back up, another male can come in and round her off to his own harem. There is one bull here that has about 40 females. Each day he might lose some, but eventually he gets them back. Each group will consist of one bull and many cows and calves.

One bull had 40 in his harem - cows and calves

The Rut

Rutting happens in autumn during the mating season. We have seen some bulls jousting. Other fights are for real. They fight when the bull of a harem is trying to ward off the intruding bull.

the males fighting over females
An awful lot of bugling going on - apparently the ladies like a good bugle

The Fall

We are in time for the aspens and cottonwoods to be changing colour. The cottonwoods turn yellow and then brown before the leaves fall off. The aspens turn yellow then red. Aspens are gorgeous but unfortunately we could never grow them at home as they need a very high altitude.

It's a busy time here for people with all sorts of interests

Lakes and Hiking

There are many lakes and hikes in the park. The park is high in altitude so walking is not easy as we aren't used to it. It's always good to check out the places we want to photograph at sunrise as it's not easy finding directions in the dark.

Our first early morning was at Sprague Lake. There are two aspects: into the sun to get the colour or go to the other end of the lake to get the light on the mountains. I was wanting a silhouette and some colour.

Sprague Lake in the morning

We went to Bear Lake a few times. There are a number of Aspens and cottonwoods that change colour on the way up and at the lake.

Bear Lake from climbing up through the rocks

To get this shot we had to climb through the forest and over boulders to get into the right position. Using my new filters to slow the shutter speed and get some silky water played havoc with the leaves as the wind wasn't cooperating. It would come in gusts, then some of the leaves would stop for a second.

Saint Marlo Chapel at sunrise

The trail to Dream Lake goes past Nymph Lake, so you get two for one. Dream Lake is 1.1 miles one way, 400' up from start to finish. Which might not seem very long or high but when you aren't used to altitude. There were a surprising number of cars in the carpark at 5:30 in the morning. Where they all up at the lake or sleeping? We had bailed the morning before as the storm from the previous night was still blowing. It looked like this morning wasn't much better as it started to rain a little as we drove up which then turned to sleet. Oh no. Lindsay wanted to turn around but I was determined to push on as we were leaving the next morning and that would mean we would miss it completely. There were more clouds in the sky than I would have wanted but you can't pre-order these things. The trail is well marked and as we had walked it a couple of says before hand, we had a fair idea where to go. Walking up that hill first thing in the morning was brutal and I wasn't even carrying any of my gear! We were first up at the lake and only a few others joined us for pre sunrise. For about seven minutes we had a gorgeous orange glow on the mountain. Then it looked like someone turned the lights off. Nothing. Maybe clouds had covered the sun. Then we got a rich yellow glow, it was like someone was shining a torch over not just the mountain but the trees also. It doesn't look real, but I kid you not, it is.

Dream Lake - the first light was orange

The second was golden

Kim and Deborah were planning a Milky Way session the night before we left. We really wanted to try this, we had read up on it, bought an app but hadn't progressed. We just needed a shove, so we jumped at the opportunity to join them. I always thought you had to shoot these photographs at 2am, but this was going to be a civilised 9pm. We met up at the Alluvial Fan carpark and three others joined us to make seven. Kim was playing teacher as we were all novices. The idea was to take a shot during light hours - 7pm and then take the Milky Way at astrological night and blend them. So you have to know where the Milky Way is going to be and I didn't get it right. It actually moves, even from the short time we were taking pictures. 30s shutter speed was making the stars have tails, so I took it down to 25s, we now know that with my 24-70mm lens, it should be no more than 20s. The wider the lens, the less time you need. We had set the white balance to 3200 kelvin to make it bluer, but I'm not sure. I think I like it a bit warmer. Aperture is the largest your lens will go (ie the smallest number which gives the biggest hole), so for me f/2.8. Kim had an app called Star Guide which seemed a lot more simple than Photo Pills that we already had. Get your GPS location, time it so that there is a minimal moon, find a location away from city lights, then use a compass to find the place in the night sky.

My first milky way

Every day we were there more colour appeared

We are too big for the national park campgrounds. They do have a few places that would fit us, but they were not available.
Elkwood RV Campground 
Drake Campground - for the 1st weekend, it's about 10 miles south of Estes Park
Mary's Lake County Park Campground - 3 different sites!


  1. Gorgeous fall colors, wonderful elk bugling and rutting photos, and even the Milky Way! I'd say your photographic expeditions in Rocky Mountain NP were a grand success. We experienced the orange alpen glow on the mountains over Mono Lake in the Sierra Nevada a couple of years ago. It was before sunrise and freezing, but so worth it for the experience and the photos!

    1. Yes they were, it's somewhere we would like to return to but we may have to limit the elk photos unless they are doing something spectacular! I'm still yet to get to Mono lake but would love to