If you’ve never been to the Northern Colorado Rocky Mountains in the fall, you are missing out. The aspen trees are in their full fall colors and paint the mountains and valleys a golden yellow while they shimmer in the fall breeze. Late September means that summer is a memory and winter is right at the doorstep. It’s an amazing time to be outdoors.
The first day of the trip is usually an orientation day but because the group arrived early, we immediately went to the field. Since this trip is planned to coincide with the elk rut, we started Sunday evening off at Moraine Park in the heart of Rocky Mountain National Park. To the uninitiated, parks are another word for a mountain meadow. They are typically a valley that sits at the base of the mountains and are formed by glacial till that spills into the valleys. Since the soils are typically too moist to support tree growth, grass species abound and wildlife like elk are attracted to the open areas where they graze.
In the fall, the elk come down from the mountains and spend their fall and winter in lower altitudes. During the rut, the bulls bring their cows down to the meadows to graze. Often, other bulls show up and try to steal cows from the herd bull. The constant action and drama of the rut makes for some amazing wildlife photos and after the first evening, we were off to a great start.
When we arrived at Moraine Park, there was a dominant bull keeping a watch over a dozen or so cows. He constantly moved around the herd and bugled in beautiful evening light just a few yards away from us. It was a special evening.
Day two found us up bright and early. To beat the crowds we left the hotel at 5:30 am and drove to the parking area near Bear Lake. When we arrived, there was only one other car. Since we had climbed a couple of thousand feet in elevation from our Estes Park base, the weather wasn’t at all what was predicted by the weather services. Multiple sources called for no chance of rain but when we arrived at the parking area, a cold slow rain was falling and the clouds were thick all around us. We were prepared, however.
Donning rain gear we started the mile-long ascent to Dream Lake stopping along the way a time or two to take a picture. By the time we got to Dream Lake, however, the weather took a turn for the worse. Snow, sleet, and rain all fell at the same time so we hunkered in a grove of trees to stay as dry as possible. In addition, a gnarly wind came pummeling down the glaciated valley at around 40 mph blowing across the water and making the temperatures that were in the upper 30’s feel much, much colder. Because of the driving rain, photography was nearly impossible. Since the weather wasn’t improving, we called it and hiked back down.
One of the hallmarks of a successful outdoor photographer is being able to improvise. So we moved to a lower elevation, got out of the precipitation, and went to plan B. Our alternate plan worked out great as we found some impressively sized mule deer bucks that let us hang out and photograph them for about half an hour.
Late morning we checked out of the Stanley Hotel and headed over the Trail Ridge Road to the western side of Rocky Mountain National Park. Trail Ridge Road is the highest paved road in the United States. It takes you to the top of Rocky Mountain National Park and above the tree line maxing out at 12,183 feet above sea level. As you ascend, the trees get progressively smaller until no trees grow up on the alpine tundra. To understand the tundra more, we stopped at the visitor’s center along the highway and while we were there, we were able to photograph a couple of marmots fattening up before winter comes and drives them into hibernation.
Coming down on the western side of the park, we crossed the Continental Divide and eventually came out along the Colorado River headwaters and the beautiful Kawuneeche Valley. The eastern and western sides of the park are a talk of two parks. The eastern side around Estes Park is drier and windier while the western side is wetter and colder. In the Kawuneeche Valley, autumn is a little more advanced than the eastern side of the park and the fall colors were beautiful. So after checking into the historic Grand Lake Lodge, we spent the afternoon photographing interesting bark patterns in the aspen trees, fall colors, and backlit meadows.
On Tuesday we were up before sunrise and on the trail to Adams Falls. Since the weather called for full sun that morning, we wanted to get to the waterfall and photograph it in the early morning, even light before the sun illuminated the falls. Using slow shutter speeds and tripods, we spent quite a while photographing the falls and the details of the water. We then hiked up East Inlet Creek to a high mountain meadow that was backlit beautifully by the rising sun. We spent some time photographing the creek, meadows, and fall colors that dominate the park this time of year before we headed back in for lunch.
After lunch, we convened in Grand Lake Lodge to go over some Lightroom tips and tricks. We mainly focused on digital asset management, basic workflows, and panorama and HDR creation inside Lightroom.
For the rest of the day we hiked along the Colorado River, shot river images, and looked for moose and elk along the Kawuneeche Valley. We weren’t disappointed in our efforts.
After dinner that evening we headed back out to an area we’d scouted earlier in the day. In the 1920’s, the Holzwarth family built a guest lodge along the Colorado River that still stands today. Since some of the items left behind make interesting subjects, we photographed the old farm implements under the light of the moon while bull elk bugled all up and down the moonlit valley.
Wednesday morning found us exploring the valley shooting scenics of the Never Summer Mountains and looking for more moose, elk, and other wildlife. We found all of it. After photographing a bull moose early on, we found a nice herd of elk along the river, and then caught a coyote feeding in a field. Our morning, however, was short as we had to relocate back to the Estes Park side of the mountains.
On Wednesday evening we were once again immersed in elk. During the rut, bull elks keep their cows in harems and bugle continually to establish their dominance to other bulls who may try and steal their cows. So we got pictures of bulls bugling, cows and calves interaction, and other great behavioral shots.
Earlier in the week inclement weather kept us from ascending to Dream Lake so on Thursday morning we made our return. While the weather was clear at the lake, the wind was stiff. However, we persevered and we were rewarded with our patience. Shortly after arriving at Dream Lake, the wind laid and the lake was beautiful. The same applied to Emerald Lake when we hiked there. Both lakes are natural lakes caused by glacial action and filled by snow melt. Aside from amazing scenics where Hallett Peak and Flattop Mountain dominated, the two lakes were surprisingly good places in which to photograph wildlife. There we saw and photographed red squirrels, Stellar’s Jays, dark-eyed junco, American Dippers, Gray Jays, and least chipmunks.
That evening we spent looking for more wildlife opportunities and got some great Magpie images as well as more elk – including some fighting with each other.
On the last morning we did a short hike to the Lawn Lake Falls and the Lawn Lake Alluvial Fan. The entire geologic structure was created back in 1982 when the Lawn Lake dam failed sending 300 million gallons of water down the valley and creating catastrophic floods that killed three people and flooded most of downtown Estes Park. The ensuing flooding displaced rocks and other material across Horseshoe Valley and created a cascading waterfall and some unique scenery not found elsewhere in Rocky Mountain National Park.
After watching the sunrise illuminate the valley, we made a quick drive around the park. Our efforts weren’t wasted as we saw six moose and a nice bull near Sprague Lake. In all, this was the quintessential Rocky Mountain trip: lots of beautiful scenery, memorable hikes, and unparalleled wildlife photography opportunities. I can’t wait until next year.
If you’ve read any Texas-based magazines over the past twenty five years chances are you’ve seen some of Russell’s photos or read some of his words. Since 1989, he’sbeen traveling the state telling authentic Texas stories with his camera and his words – both written and spoken.
A graduate of Dodd City High School and East Texas State University, Russell was an ag science teacher in Childress, Texas for 16 years where he was named Texas Agriscience Teacher of the Year on three occasions.
After leaving that career in 2009, he continued to photograph, write, and speak about his experiences and the people he meets and in 2010, he began delving into television production. His first documentary film, Bois d’Arc Goodbye was filmed entirely in Fannin County and chronicled he and his brother Bubba’s canoe journey as they traversed the creek before a lake forever changes the landscape. The film aired three times to a prime-time, national audience.
Recently he’s worked with such celebrities as the Robertson Family from Duck Dynasty television show, T. Boone Pickens, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Pat Green, and Tracy Lawrence, but he insists that regular people are his favorite subjects.
Currently, Russell lives in the country north of Childress, Texas with his wife Kristy and their two children Bailee and Ryan but still manages to spend a considerable amount of time near his boyhood home north of Dodd City.
You can see Russell’s work and portfolio on his webpage at www.russellgraves.com