Nestled at the foot of Pikes Peak, just west of Colorado Springs, Garden of the Gods Visitor & Nature Center is one of the top photo destinations for travelers to this area. This free city park is an easy 60-minute drive south of Denver. To reach the park, exit from Interstate 25 onto Garden of the Gods Road, head west and turn south on 30th Street. The splendor unfolds before your eyes as you approach the golden sandstone formations, with magnificent Pikes Peak as a backdrop. Covering 1,367 acres, the sandstone formations are surrounded by rolling hills covered with single-seed juniper, oak, aspen, cottonwood, pinon and ponderosa pine.
Summer can be beautiful in the Pikes Peak region, with daytime temperatures ranging from 60 to 90 degrees F. Expect afternoon showers in July. Plan on occasional snow up through mid-June, but with the very mild climate, the snow doesn’t last long. Spring and fall offer temperatures in the 50s through 70s. Winter can be bitterly cold, but often warms up to “short-sleeve” temperatures.
Garden of the Gods is a landscape photographer’s dream. With the sandstone rocks lit by the early-morning sun and towering Pikes Peak in the background, you’ll find plenty to fill your viewfinder. This is one place where rising early for sunrise pays off, as the formations turn a brilliant gold. Many walking paths weave their way around formations with names like Sleeping Giant, Cathedral Rock and Kissing Camels. Late September produces vibrant fall colors, as the foliage turns a multitude of yellows, oranges and reds. This contrasts with the red rocks and generally blue skies, producing striking images. Occasional stormy weather adds a dramatic element to the formations. Farther into the park, you’ll find the famous Balanced Rock, which seems to defy the law of gravity. There’s also a short trail to the Siamese Twins, where you can frame Pikes Peak in the window of the arch.
Wildflowers start to appear in May, lasting through September, and there are many varieties to photograph. The yuccas begin blooming in June and will last for two to three weeks. Wildlife can be plentiful in the early mornings or late afternoons, with mule deer, an occasional bear, jackrabbits, squirrels and many varieties of birds.
One breathtaking photographic event happens only twice during the year—the full moon setting over the rocks during sunrise! The ideal months for this are April and October, with the latter generally working out better weather-wise. The best location to photograph this event is in the visitor center parking lot. Be sure to arrive well before sunrise. Park off 30th Street, since the gates will still be closed at that time of the morning. Capturing the full moon above the Kissing Camels formation is stunning. Be prepared to move your tripod frequently as the moon drops lower in order to line it up with the desired formation. A 300mm through 500mm lens works well for this.
Garden of the Gods is photogenic year-round, but the best times are April through July for the spring snows and wildflower displays, as well as late September, which can yield spectacular images as the aspens start to turn many shades of red and gold. Since the formations face east-west, the best times to shoot are sunrise and sunset.
Contact: Garden of the Gods Visitor & Nature Center, (719) 634-6666, www.gardenofgods.com.
Telephoto zooms can be used just as effectively as wide-angle optics for landscape images. Lenses such as the Tamron SP AF 200-500mm ƒ/5.6-6.3 zoom compress the foreground and background to create striking images, and are ideal for capturing shy wildlife subjects. List Price: $1,454.95. Contact: Tamron, (631) 858-8400, www.tamron.com.