As we drove through the night from Black Canyon of The Gunnison National Park, the weather began to shift on us. Large rain clouds were building on the horizon and lightning would occasionally light up the sky. After a 4 hour drive and a large storm riding our tail, we arrived at Great Sand Dunes National Park weary and ready for bed. We quickly set up camp and hopped into our sleeping bags before the weather settled on the valley. Sunrise was at 6:38 and I wanted to make sure if there was a nice sunrise that I didn't miss it. The alarm went off and I groggily arose and looked out of the tent. I couldn't see a thing. The entire area was covered in a thick fog making visibility a mere 5-10 feet. Knowing (hoping) that the fog would lift I grabbed my bag and we set off to explore the dunes.
To get to the sand dunes you must cross Medano Creek, which by this time of year is usually a dried up creek bed. Due to the amount of rain that fell on the surrounding mountains the night before, Medano Creek was about a foot high and crossing it was a challenge to not get soaked. By the time we made it across, the fog had lifted enough to barely make out the dunes in front of us. I looked for a composition that would sum up how the area felt that morning and quickly settled on a piece of drift wood that had been carried down by the creek and laid nicely in front of the dunes.
This image speaks volumes to how the morning felt, and is an image I am extremely proud of. It is simple and beautiful with no frills added. After this image we continued to explore the surrounding low dunes but I didn't feel compelled to take another image. The light wasn't there and the compositions weren't coming to me so we decided to pull back from the dunes and see what they looked like from afar. Boy am I glad we did! The dismal feeling didn't change, but my creativity came flooding back to me the farther out we got and I was able to produce another nice image before the fog finally lifted.
As the fog lifted, it slowly revealed more and more of the landscape that we had fallen in love with on our last visit. We even got a few rays of light to come through and illuminate the dunes.
By 10:30am the fog had completely lifted and revealed the beautiful Sangre De Cristo Mountains.
At noon another rain cloud gently rolled in and covered the area in a gray blanket again until 4:30pm. Anna and I had decided to hike out to the front of the dunes in hopes of catching last light bouncing off of Star Dune. It is a 6 mile round trip that is quite exposed if a lighting storm comes in, so we were closely monitoring a formation moving in from the southwest as we went. Luckily the storm stayed south and looped up behind the Sangre De Cristo Range as the sun began to set. I took one more image of this beautiful place before the light disappeared and we began our trek back to our campsite. The image shows the abounding beauty of the park.
Colorado Springs was next on our list of places in Colorado to visit, so the next morning we bid the sand dunes farewell (for now) and headed north where we intended to spend the day at Garden of The Gods. As the sun rises, the Garden of The Gods is illuminated below Pikes Peak which creates a wonderful contrast between the red rock of the park and Pikes Peak in the background. It was here that I created my favorite image of the trip.
After the light disappeared, we packed up and made our way to the Paint Mines. The Paint Mines Interpretive Park is about an hour east of Colorado Springs. I wasn't sure what to expect from this place as it was a spontaneous side trip from our initial plans. I am glad we decided to make the trip to the Paint Mines because it is a truly unique experience. Like Goblin Valley of Utah, the Paint Mines in Colorado come out of nowhere and offer the ability to explore (as long as you stay on the designated paths and don't climb on the formations). Despite the lack of clouds, I was able to create a few unique images that I enjoy.
From the Paint Mines, our next destination was the beautiful Rocky Mountain National Park. Temperatures were expected to drop 40 degrees to a low of 10, and an early season snow storm was expected to pass through overnight. We opted to get a room in Estes Park at the Discovery Lodge since we had not anticipated this drastic change in weather and were severely unprepared. As you have probably heard, "Anything can happen in the mountains". Unfortunately due to travel expenses we opted out of bringing the heavy duty, "baton down the hatches" cold weather gear, and settled on a couple good mid layers and nice down jackets. Before the storm hit, we raced up to Nymph Lake and attempted to get a few shots of Longs Peak. Longs Peak is the 14er that dominates most of the park's skyline, and makes for a beautiful subject with the aspen trees and alpine lakes in the foreground.
From my vantage point above Nymph Lake, I was able to see back towards Estes Park and watch as the clouds began to close in. I took this photo of Bear Lake as the suns rays reflected off of the peaks of distant mountains.
I traveled slightly farther up the mountain to an overlook I was familiar with and took an image with two aspen trees that had a similar curvature to them which helped create a unique perspective with Longs Peak in the background.
Sunset was snuffed out by the incoming snowstorm and we hiked back down the mountain quickly to catch the shuttle back to the parking area before it closed down for the night. Back in Estes Park we ate a good meal and headed off to bed early in preparation for the following day. When we awoke, a foot of snow had already fallen and the streets were eerily quiet and devoid of the usual hustle and bustle of a tourist town. We made it into the park early with the intent of photographing the elk at Moraine Park with the fresh snow before the rest of the world was awake. I took an image of a young elk who may have been experiencing snow for the first time. I don't consider myself a wildlife photographer but there is a certain joy that comes from photographing animals in their natural habitats.
The snow continued to fall throughout the day and turned our fall trip into a winter wonderland. We decided to make the trek back up to our location from the night before and photograph the difference 12 hours had made. Upon arrival the area seemed to be a completely different location. We arrived early enough to explore farther up the trail to Dream Lake which sits under Hallet Peak, a beautiful steep face that juts into the sky. Dream Lake lived up to its name. The snow was completely untouched and the wind had died down from the previous night, offering a perfect reflection of Hallet peak in the glassy water.
With "sunset" fast approaching we headed back down the mountain to our previous location. Longs Peak had been engulfed by a stretch of low hanging clouds. Thankfully we caught a bit of luck and the clouds broke to reveal the peak before the light was gone. The following images show an interesting game of hide and seek as the clouds and low lying fog fluctuated, revealing different parts of the mountain.
It is amazing how much can change in 24 hours. Hiking back down to our car in the dark with our headlamps we were nothing but smiles. The complete stillness around us interrupted only by the crunching of snow at our feet reminded us of how remote this area would have been even a hundred years ago. We were thankful to have witnessed it.
Fueled by the previous night's success, the next morning we ventured into the Mummy Range before sunrise. The temperature was a whopping 8 degrees and more snow had fallen in the night. I managed to muster up the fortitude to gather my camera and step out of our car. I hiked a short distance downhill to a viewpoint of Ypsilon Mountain that I had selected on a map the night before. I waited (bouncing in my boots) for the first signs of morning light to glisten off the pine trees on the mountain in front of me.
The first signs of morning illuminated the tops of the mountains and showed signs that the storms had passed. The valley was still, and elk could be heard calling, breaking the silence. It was cold, very cold. I continued to bounce in my boots trying to stay warm and waited for the light to continue to creep down the mountainside. I eventually took what I thought would be my last images of the trip. They were two panoramic images, one 15 minutes before sunrise and one 15 minutes after sunrise. They show the huge difference a few minutes can make when it comes to morning light. Each image has a unique feel to it.
On our way down the mountain, I stopped to photograph a bull elk that was standing alone looking off at a distant peak. It was nice to see that despite the blisteringly cold temperature, the elk seemed right at home. The resulting image gives a sense of scale and provides ample subject matter to create your own story, which is something I enjoy.
I hope you enjoyed reading about our recent journey to Colorado. It was a trip designed to maximize photographic opportunity while diversifying the content. I thoroughly enjoyed the experience from start to finish and can't wait for the next adventure.
Check back next week as I attempt to capture fall in the Appalachian Mountains and deal with more adverse weather conditions. I will reflect on the images as well as give you some tips for shooting in high wind, and with blue skies.