Rising more than 2,000 feet above the plains, the Flatirons rock formation is the iconic backdrop of Boulder, Colo. These iron-rich sandstone formations were tilted on-end 300 million years ago when continents collided and the ancestral Rockies were uplifted. At 5,430 feet of elevation and 28 miles from Denver, Boulder is where the Great Plains meet the foothills of the Rockies.
Boulder's legacy of preservation began in 1898, with the purchase of the Batchelder Ranch at the base of the Flatirons. Today, Boulder Open Space and Mountain Parks (OSMP) manages 43,000 acres of protected space surrounding the city. These grassland, wetland and montane parks are crossed with miles of trails.
Seasonal changes and close proximity to the Front Range can result in fast-changing conditions. Colorado is known for more than 300 days of sunshine per year, but plan to check the forecast. Warm summer days can be interrupted by thunderstorms. Autumn days are generally warm with cool nights. Winter days can vary from 60 degrees to below zero with snow. Spring is equally unpredictable. Volatile weather can lead to dynamic images, so make sure you come prepared with sunscreen, a hat and good footwear, and dress in layers.
OSMP has an outstanding website to help plan your photo shoot. Chautauqua Meadow is an ideal place for classic Flatirons images. The Flatirons face east, so you'll want to arrive early to shoot big landscapes. At sunrise, the red rock catches the first light, making graduated ND filters invaluable. Polarizing filters are useful, but should be used sparingly because they can turn western skies black. After shooting at Chautauqua, be sure to visit the ranger cottage for some helpful ideas and a free map. On foggy and overcast days, the ponderosa pine forests lend themselves to wonderful intimate landscapes. Ambitious photographers can climb one of the 8,000-foot mountains above the Flatirons for views of the peaks of the Front Range. Versatile zoom lenses, with a range from wide-angle to telephoto, and a stable, lightweight tripod will allow you to cover a lot of ground on the excellent trail system.
Wildlife photographers should visit the area around the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) to photograph big mule deer bucks and, occasionally, elk. Birds congregate around streams in draws; look for bluebirds, Bullock's oriole, Western tanager and many others near the Towhee and Doudy Draw trails south of Boulder. Also plan to visit the wetlands open space areas east of town.
Boulder Open Space is accessible year-round, and each season offers great opportunities. Spring wildflower blooms typically peak one to two weeks before Memorial Day. July and August monsoons can bring towering cloud formations, great for powerful landscapes. October and November are prime for fall color when prairie grasses, sumac leaves and cottonwood trees blend in a tapestry of gold, orange and red. Wildlife is more active in autumn as well. In winter, plan to shoot the sunrise after a snowstorm when ponderosa pine, cottonwoods and the Flatirons are covered in a fresh blanket of white.
Contact: Boulder Open Space and Mountain Parks, (303) 441-3440, www.osmp.org.
A handy accessory for photo trekking is a multi-use modular backpack. The bottom portion, which can also serve as a convenient beltpack, carries your photo gear, while the top portion can be used to carry food, clothing and other nonphoto gear. When you arrive on location, you can drop the top portion and carry your photo gear while shooting, then gather everything when ready to move to the next spot.