(Visits in mid-August and the last week in September)
I flew into Denver, giving a fairly short 90 minute drive into Estes Park. Aside from camping, there isn't any accommodation inside the park. However the town of Estes Park is very close to Beaver Meadows entrance of the national park. Estes Park has plenty of accommodation options, I stayed at the Alpine Trail Ridge Inn. The motel provided comfortable accommodation and being on the the western side of the town gives direct access to the park without driving through the town itself.
July and August are busy months for the park, although I didn’t have any trouble finding good, people free, shooting locations. The last week of September is foliage season and another very busy time. Most of the activity in the park was appeared to be in the middle of the day, with less at sunset and virtually none at sunrise. The park does have a shuttle bus service that you are obliged to use on the Bear Lake road between 9:00am and 4:00pm in the summer, but this did not have any impact on my being able to drive in and out for the sunrise, sunset and the golden hour.
Dream Lake at Morning Golden Hour
Entering the park though the Beaver Meadows entrance will get you to many of the prime shooting locations within a 10-30 minute drive. Close to the entrance is the Bear Lake road with access to Bear and Sprague lakes and the Trail Ridge road with its sweeping mountain views. The Trail Ridge road is at 12,000 feet and only open for the summer months. Within Rocky Mountain national park you will see many areas referred to as “Parks”, e.g. Moraine Park, Horseshoe Park, etc. These are the flat, grassy, valleys between the various mountain ranges.
The turn for Bear Lake Road is the first left, just past the Beaver Meadows entrance. On Bear Lake road, take the right hand turn at the first crossroad, towards the campground. This road hugs the outside of the Moraine Park area. There are plenty of roadside stopping places and its easy to walk out onto the grassy plain. There are good photo opportunities with the mountain backdrop and a brook meandering through the middle of the park. There are also number of isolated trees and rock outcrops to add some foreground interest. I shot there at sunrise and the light was pretty good once the sun had cleared the horizon. I would expect the golden hour before sunset would give good opportunities also. This is also a good areas for Elk viewing in the fall.
Double back to the crossroads and a right turn will put you back on the Bear Lake road. This will take you on to Bear Lake, about a ten mile drive. On the way you will pass a number of trailheads and Sprague lake, which I will cover later. The Bierstadt trail is a good good location for viewing Aspen. The trail rises fairly steeply, but once you start to break out of the tree line (I would guess about half mile into the trail), there are some spectacular views down across the valley to the Front Range.
The Storm Pass trail head provides access to a number of trails. You can pick up the Boulder Brook trail here, about half a mile into the trail are a nice set of cascades and a small water fall.
Near the end of the Bear Lake road you will see the Glacier Gorge trailhead parking area. There are some nice roadside views of the mountains here in the early morning or late afternoon light. You will find the half mile trail to the Alberta falls here. The trail itself provides a number shooting opportunities of Glacier creek and a number of stands of Aspen, although many of these trees have unfortunately been disfigured with graffiti carved into their trunks. The falls themselves are fairly photogenic. The best photo spot is to climb down on the rocks by the creek a little way downstream of the falls.
The end of the road is a parking lot and the picturesque Bear Lake. (Warning: this parking lot is very popular and often fills before 10:00am.) There is a trail around the lake, but the land around the lake rises fairly quickly, curtailing the amount of end of day light. I was there in the early evening and at dawn, in both cases the area around the lake was in full shade. Bear lake is the head of the Dream Lake trail. This trail will take you out past Nymph Lake to Dream Lake. The first half of the trail to Nymph lake is through woods. The second half of the trail opens up to give you some fine mountain views in the morning light. Nymph Lake itself provides some very nice photo opportunities with its water lilies and mountain backdrop. There are plenty of trees and rocks for foreground interest. I photographed Nymph Lake on my way back from Dream Lake after the early morning sun had chance to light things up. Dream Lake is an excellent photo location and well worth the one mile hike, with great views across the lake to mount Hallett. The trail comes up to the lake and continues around the right side, proving multiple photo locations. It’s a very good sunrise and early morning spot once the sun gets up onto mount Hallett. There are also some good shots of the creek that drains the lake.
On my first visit to Rocky Mountain, I hadn’t originally planned to spend much time at Sprague Lake, but I am glad I did. The lake provides expansive views across the lake and great early morning and end of day light. For sunrise, there are some good opportunities close the parking area where you get some good sky color reflections in the lake. Once the sun is a little higher, head around the lake in a clockwise directions for some fine mountain views in the early morning light. The location works well for the sunset also. The lake is fairly small, so it is easy to move between shooting locations.
Sprague Lake, early morning
Back on the main road in the park, route 36 end when it joins route 34. Continuing straight onto 34 will take you up on the Trail Ridge road, the right hand turn will take you down to the Alluvial fan. On way the Alluvial fan, there is small parking lot with a nice overlook of West Horseshoe Park. The overlook has rocky outcrops that you can climb up on for some alternate views. I was there is fairly flat middle of the day light, but the Park appears fairly open to the east, so I am guessing that might be a good early morning location. The parking lot for the Alluvial fan is a few miles down the road. The fan was formed when an upstream earthen dam gave way in the 1980’s, causing a large amount of sediment and boulders to deposited into Horseshoe Park. There a series of impressive waters falls and cascades here now with plenty of access for variety on photographic composition. The flat light was helpful for holding the highlights in the water and I used an ND8 filter to help smooth the flow of the water.
Backtracking to the intersection with route 36 and taking a right will take you up on to the Trail Ridge road and its spectacular mountain views. There are multiple pull outs and overlooks. Any one of these can provide great shots depending of the light as you pass though. I spent most of my time at the Forest Canyon, Rock Cut and Gore Range overlooks. All three overlook the Big Thompson river, with the mountains of the continental divide as a backdrop. The Forest Canyon and Rock Cut provide rocky outcrops for foreground interest and very steep drop offs into the river valley. Gore Range had gentler drops and closer views of tarns and the mountains across the valley. The Ute trail crosses the Trail Ridge road and you can park by the roadside there and get out of the trail to get some some shots of the rocky tundra landscape with its stunted vegetation. I had good light at Forest Canyon and Gore Range at both sunrise and sunset. A little way past the Gore Range overlook is the Alpine visitor center. I hadn’t planned to go that far along the road, but a fellow park visitor mentioned that a herd of Elk were grazing just past the visitor center - a pleasant surprise and an unexpected photo opportunity.
Longs Peak from Forest Canyon Overlook
The Peak to Peak scenic byway follows the eastern edge of Rocky Mountain National Park. Head South out of Estes Park on Marys Lake road to route 7. The byway is about a 60 mile round trip from Estes Park. There are a number of good stoping points such as Lily Lake and and near St Catherine's Chapel for a great view of Longs peak. You can also make a detour at the Wild Basin Entrance to the park and take the short hike to the Copeland falls. Further down the byway a detour into the Indian Peaks wilderness provides a great view across Lake Brainard to the Indian Peaks.
Indian Peaks at Brainard Lake, mid-morning
My gallery for the Rocky Mountain national park is at http://www.rbpics.com/rocky. A gallery from my recent fall trip is at http://www.rbpics.com/rockies2015. To see the exif data, hover the mouse over the top right corner of the image and click on the Info Icon.