Rocky Mountain National Park in Winter
Photographing the Park's East Side
by Tom Mangan
Locals have a saying out here in Colorado regarding the weather and it goes something like this. ‘There are only two seasons, Winter and August’. Those of us who reside here know that while this may be a slight exaggeration, there is certainly some truth to the saying. Regardless of the mild weather we often experience down here at lower elevations along the Front Range, the high country often seems cold and foreboding. Winter certainly lingers here, and one can easily place their camera gear in a closet and quickly forget about photographing pristine locals coated in white powdery snow. Rocky Mountain National Park’s east side is a great place to get out and shoot our winter scenery. Its’ close proximity to the Denver metro area makes it even more enticing.
Winter essentially splits Rocky Mountain National Park in two. The closing of the parks famous Trail Ridge Road makes it impossible to travel from one side of the continental divide to the other by automobile. Most of Trail Ridge is closed after the first large snowfall. This usually occurs somewhere around late September to early November. Accessing the parks west side from the east side becomes a task that can only be accomplished either by ski or snowshoe, or by a circuitous route over Berthoud Pass. Fortunately for us, the parks east side still provides plenty of opportunity for photography. There are three major routes which remain at least partially open all winter long. Trail Ridge Road will stay open to the Many Parks Overlook, Bear Lake Road’s entire 11 mile stretch to the Bear Lake parking will also be maintained. Colorado Highway 7 provides access to the Tahosa valley and the parks southeast corner. These three roads allow access to limitless winter possibilities.
The Mummy Range
Without question The Mummy Range area of Rocky Mountain National Park not only has one of the most original names for a group of mountains, but also features some of the best winter photography in the park. Study the Mummy range long enough and one can quickly make out the form of a sleeping Mummy. Gazing at the Mummy range does not only lend itself to one’s imagination but also to great photography. From the east side of Rocky Mountain National Park the Mummy Range faces southeast. This orientation lends itself to stellar sunrise views with alpenglow touching the top of Rocky Mountain National Park’s 3rd highest peak, Mt Yipsilon (13, 514) and it’s companions Mt. Chiquita (13,069) and Mt. Chapin (12,454,). Some of the best places to photography the Mummy Range are from pull offs located on Trail Ridge road approaching Many Parks Curve, Trail Ridge is gated for the winter here.
Longs Peak, The Twin Sisters, and the Tahosa Valley
Longs Peak (14,255) stands as the sentinel to Rocky Mountain National Park. It’s not only Colorado’s northernmost fourteener, but also Rocky Mountain National Parks only peak to reach such heights. Longs Peak is one of the Front Range’s most recognizable features and one of the great winter icons. Longs Peak’s and it’s easily recognizable eastern face known as the ‘Diamond’ can be photographed from the Moraine Park area. However, some of the more original views of Longs Peak can be had from the Tahosa Valley and in particular from the Twin Sisters. The Twin Sisters trailhead offers stunning views of Longs Peak. Cross country skis or snowshoes are recommended.
Beaver Meadow Entrance
Not only is the Beaver Meadow Entrance area a great place to view Elk during the Rut, but it also is a great place to photograph some of the parks more subtle and overlooked scenery. This area of the park sits at a much lower elevation than some of the other more popular area. The elevation of the park in this area lies between 7900 ft to 8500 feet or so. Ponderosa pines and Sage thrive in this area of the park. The Ponderosa’s bright orange trunks and deep green bows make for stunning photographs when covered with fresh snow and soft lighting. Try photographing the Ponderosa Pine forests during light snow and fog for best effect. Winter compositions in this area are limitless.
Bear Lake Road/ Bear Lake Trailheads
Bear Lake road is one of the parks most popular areas. It goes without saying that the scenery along this route is spectacular. This area is also a very popular location for winter backcountry activities. The area around Bear Lake is good for photography all winter long, but best later in the winter season. Most of the more photogenic peaks such as Hallet Peak, Flattop Mt., Thatchtop Mt, and Mt. Otis have a northeastern orientation. This makes first light and alpenglow more impressive later in the winter as the sun begins to rise more to the north. Great winter photo opportunities can be had from the numerous lakes along the many trailheads. The lakes will quickly freeze over by late November, but the frozen lake will act as a nice break in the tree line allowing for open vistas. Bear Lake, Nymph Lake and Dream Lake make for great winter photo ops, as does Lake Haiyaha and the Loch. Locations such as Bear Lake, Nymph Lake and Dream Lake can all be done with short hikes on snow packed trails. Locations such as the Loch, and Lake Haiyaha are more strenuous and require skis or snowshoes.
Photographing Rock Mountain National Park in the Winter can be rewarding. There are a few things to remember though. Winter can be dangerous in the Rockies. Poor road conditions, frigid temperatures, high winds and the risk of avalanche all should be taken into consideration before venturing out. For more information about current park conditions one can contact the backcountry ranger station at (970)-586-1242 or for visitor information and road conditions (970)-586-1206.
Equipment used: Toyo 45AX Field Camera, Rodenstock 75mm f4.5, Schneider 110mm XL, Rodenstock 150mm APO-Sironar S, Nikon 360mm T. All images made on Fuji Velvia film.
All images and text copyright © Tom Mangan