Autumn in the Rockies is special.
For the complete autumn in the Rockies experience, there’s not much that can beat Rocky Mountain National Park. In late September the park is full of change: The leaves are changing, the animals, are in a state of change, and the weather changes. It’s the epitome of the natural cycle and the setting for the spectacle is a backdrop of craggy mountains and deep moraine valleys.
Sunday started for me as the first day of the trips always starts off: at sunrise in the field. Long before the guests came I was out looking for wildlife and getting a sense of their movements. In addition, I’ll scout the trails and do other last-minute prep items to make sure the guests have an experience of a lifetime. On this trip, the scouting I did both Saturday and Sunday indicated that the week would be a good one.
At dinner on Sunday evening, I relayed the information to all the guests. From early on, the guests gelled well and were excited to hear my narrative of what I’d seen so far. Dinner and conversation ensued as everyone got to know one another in the Estes Park, Colorado restaurant where we dined.
After dinner, everyone retreated to their rooms for an early morning call time. The Rockies awaited.
Monday morning started with a 5:30 am pick up. The weather prognosticators predicted that the cloud cover would be scant so we wanted to get out to a lake where the colors in the sky are brilliant. The wind was light so reflections were promising.
At half an hour before sunrise, we pulled into the Sprague Lake parking lot. Since we leave so early, we beat most of the crowds so the trail around the lake was empty and uncluttered. The photo opportunities were perfect and plentiful.
Tour participants had a chance to shoot silhouetted mountains, Hallet and Flattop Peaks reflected in the water and a host of other shots that highlighted the ruggedness and beauty of Rocky Mountain National Park. At times, it is sensory overload. There is so much to photograph yet you are racing against the rising sun. The magic hour in the mountains under mostly clear skies is more like a magic half hour. The light changes so fast. Dealing with quickly changing light is a lesson all in itself and one in which the guests on the trip were quick to learn.
From Sprague Lake we headed up the mountains on the Trail Ridge Road. Along the high mountain pass, we stopped to photograph panoramic mountain vistas and an occasional marmot in the rocky tundra above the treeline.
Soon we descend over the mountains and drive along the Colorado River headwaters and the Kawaneechee Valley. We check into a new hotel in the quaint mountain town of Grand Lake, Colorado. Grand Lake sits on the bank of the largest natural body of water in Colorado. Its streets are lined with specialty shops and great restaurants and have an intimate and inviting feel to it.
After a couple of hours of downtime and a Lightroom mini-workshop, we head up the East Inlet Trail to photograph autumn aspen trees, clear streams, and beautiful meadows. In the evening light, the continental divide reflects nicely in East Inlet Creek.
After dinner, we turned in to rest because Tuesday would be a long day of shooting.
Once again we headed from the hotel at 5:30 am. A short drive to the northeastern side of town and we were on the North Inlet Trail walking in the dark on a quest to photograph Cascade Falls in subdued light.
The trip to the falls is a nice one. The trail gently winds its way along the North Inlet Creek and slowly ascends up the creek that helps feed Grand Lake its water.
Along the way, we go through lodgepole pine forests and groves of quaking aspens. Even in the dark, we could hear the water spilling over the rocks but it took 3.7 miles of hiking to finally reach our destination. The trip was worth it.
At Cascade Falls, the water spills over the rocks in multiple locations. It is a spectacular, multi-tiered fall that drops roughly 40 or 50 feet through a narrow granite chute. As such, multiple compositions exist.
The falls are nestled deep in a canyon so it’s shadowed much of the morning which is perfect for even lighting and slow shutter speeds needed for silky water.
After an hour at the falls, we hiked slowly back to the trailhead. Along the way, we photographed plants and flowers that are indigenous to the park’s western slope. Five hours later, we arrive back at the vehicle and immediately set up for a picnic lunch.
After lunch, some explored downtown Grand Lake while the others rested for a bit at the hotel. Around mid-afternoon, we reconvened for some additional Lightroom tutorials and then headed up the Kawaneechee Valley.
Here we took pictures of the aspen trees loaded with gold leaves and the Never Summer Mountains as they rose above the Colorado River Valley. We stopped at a few more locations and made some short hikes for scenery and saw some elk herds before heading back for dinner.
After dinner, we went out for another session to learn night photography. On a moonless night, we spent a few hours under the stars photographing the Milky Way as bull elk bugled in the valley. It was a magical evening.
On Wednesday morning we woke up and did another Lightroom mini-workshop. Since the week’s weather was mostly clear and the lighting conditions contrasty, I wanted to show the participants how to handle the lighting conditions and get the most out of their images. In addition, post processing astrophotography is often more involved and less straightforward than traditionally lit images. Therefore, a tutorial on how to make the most of Milky Way images was in-line with the week’s events.
Soon we ship off and head back to Estes Park, again following Trail Ridge Road. We stop for a picnic lunch and photo shoot at one of the many alpine lakes and enjoy a meal at 10,000 feet elevation on the back of the Continental Divide.
After checking in the hotel in Estes Park, we head out in search of wildlife. In late September, the elk rut is at its peak. Lovesick bulls vie for the attention of receptive cows and fight off other would-be suitors. It is high mountain drama at its best.
We spotted a herd of elk early on but since they were far off in the meadow, we opted to move along. In our drive, we spotted some magpie, chipmunks, a small band of mule deer, and a small elk herd just along the side of the road. Since most elk images taken in the park are in the wide-open meadows, seeing them in big timber offered a great opportunity to photograph the animals in a different habitat.
Soon, the evening drew to a close and dinner and rest awaited in Estes Park.
On Thursday morning we were back out early for a hike. Starting at 10,000-foot elevation, the group headed, again in the dark, on a mission to reach Dream Lake at sunrise. If there is one shot that’s the epitome of Rocky Mountain National Park it is Hallet and Flattop Peak looming over Dream Lake. While this morning was again set to be sunny, the wind on this day was formidable – spilling off the mountain at 20 miles per hour.
Hiking at 10,000 feet elevation is a workout on the lungs. We power through and make it to Dream Lake right at sunrise. While much of the lake is choppy due to the winds enough of the outer is still enough to create some nice reflections. At a lake as beautiful as Dream lake, numerous compositions abound. We soon head up to Emerald Lake – a sister lake that’s about a mile away.
While wildlife exists all over the park, many times you don’t see it as much from the trails. However, this morning we saw squirrels, chipmunks, ducks, an American dipper, and a first for me, a dusky grouse.
After a hike down the mountain and a midday break, we once again head out for wildlife.
We initially found some elk far out in a meadow. However, they were too far out so we passed them by. Driving around, we searched for wildlife safari style, we found a trio of mule deer bucks hanging out by the road and shot pictures of them for a time. After an hour or so circled back to the original elk herd that we found. Now they were close to the road.
For an hour we photographed elk bugling, sparring, and chasing each other around the meadow. It is an intense sensory experience that’s action-packed so much, there are times when you don’t know which way to point your camera.
The elk were especially animated and as many as eight bulls jockeyed for the attention of amorous cows. The evening was simply incredible.
Thursday was a classic day in the park and Friday proved to be just as good. We started the morning at the Alluvial Fan – a geologic formation of rocks created by the Lawn Lake Flood in the early 1980s. Several waterfalls and water features spill over the rocks and create numerous photo opportunities. In addition, the fall color and the big valley around us gave everyone plenty to round out their Rocky Mountain National Park portfolio.
As everyone was winding down in the first spot, a pair of mature mule deer bucks walked past just mere yards away. Taking some great shots, everyone got the wildlife bug so we decided to spend the last hours of the trip looking for some additional wildlife opportunities.
A weak cold front coming through added some clouds to the sky for the first time during the week and the change in temperature made the park’s wildlife more active. We decided to go back to the same meadow where the elk were on Thursday evening and we weren’t disappointed.
The cooler weather had the elk on their feet and animated as they were the evening before. Now, as many as a dozen bulls vied for the attention of the cows. As an ultimate bonus, a new bull showed up to the meadow and is likely one of the biggest mature bull elk I’ve ever seen. It was remarkable.
With a great morning in the books, we headed back to Estes Park where everyone said their goodbyes. Undoubtedly, everyone went away with plenty of pictures and memories of a fantastic trip to the Colorado Rockies.
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 has traveled 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 other work and portfolio on his webpage www.russellgraves.com.