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Rocky Mountain High
Lone Eagle Peak reflected in Mirror Lake, Indian Peaks Wilderness
Okay, I admit it: I get tears in my eyes when I hear John Denver’s song “Rocky Mountain High.” My incurable romanticism, however, is balanced by my analytical approach to every image I photograph. The former urges me out of bed at 1 a.m. and up a 14,000-foot peak in the dark to shoot sunrise from the summit; the latter gives me the knowledge of map-reading, atmospheric optics, sunrise angles and digital capture necessary to pick the right fourteener, navigate in the dark and make compelling images once I get there. From the tallest fourteener to the tiniest wildflower, that combination of passion and analysis defines my approach to photographing Colorado.
For 16 years, I’ve been specializing primarily in Colorado wilderness landscapes. I’m a mountain person, and Colorado is the mountain state. The state has 54 peaks that reach 14,000 feet; another 59 top 13,800 feet. There are great photo ops in Rocky Mountain National Park and the Indian Peaks Wilderness, both within an hour-and-a-half drive of my home in Boulder. The diligent local photographer should always have the best photos of any nearby area, simply because he or she can scout the area in depth, and time the snowstorms, flowers and fall color perfectly. It may seem like more fun to go to a new area on every trip, but the pros know that it’s often repeat visits to an area that produce the best images.
Maroon Peak from West Maroon Basin
Say “Colorado,” and most people think of mountains, but the state is actually more diverse than many visitors realize. Black Canyon of Gunnison National Park, near Montrose, preserves a tremendous slit in the earth carved by the Gunnison River over the past two million years. At Chasm View, the canyon is 1,800 feet deep and only 1,100 feet wide. Dinosaur National Monument in the northwestern corner of the state is justifiably famous for its dinosaur fossils, but it also contains the deep, sinuous sandstone canyons of the Green and Yampa rivers. Colorado National Monument, near Grand Junction, looks like it could be part of Moab’s backyard, and Great Sand Dunes National Park, near Alamosa, combines the highest dunes in North America with views of the 14,000-foot peaks of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.
Wherever I’m photographing in my home state, I’m always looking for “ERNIs” (exceptional renditions of natural icons). To be more precise, I’m looking for great foregrounds that integrate seamlessly, in a compositional sense, with great backgrounds, and where there’s potential for great light. Good flowers and interesting mountains can still lead to mediocre photos if the middle half of your frame is a boring talus slope. At the latitude of Colorado, the angle of sunrise and sunset varies by more than 60 degrees from summer solstice to winter solstice. No matter how good your composition, if you’re looking straight north in midsummer, when the sun rises at 60 degrees and sets at 300 degrees and everything is backlit at both sunrise and sunset, you’re starting out with two strikes against you. If you’re looking straight south in midsummer, your subject potentially gets great light at both sunrise and sunset.
Gore Range, near Vail
Even with my analytical approach, it takes me 10 days in the field, on average, to produce one truly compelling image. Those odds don’t discourage me because I’ve found that the potential reward is always greatest when the odds against me are the longest. For example, the most likely outcome on a cloudy morning is a lifeless gray sunrise, but if the sun finds a tiny gap between dense clouds and the horizon, the light can be the most colorful you’ll ever see. Here’s why: On a clear morning, the light at sunrise is predictably warm, but the bright, white light from the sky around the sun tends to dilute the colorful light from the sun itself. The result is a pastel color, like mixing white paint into red. If the sun finds a gap on a cloudy morning, however, the dense clouds block the bright, white light from the sky around the sun, and the result is a pure, undiluted beam of colorful light blasting through the gap. Such amazing light usually only lasts a minute or two, so you have to be set up and ready. Unless it’s pouring rain, don’t sleep in, and don’t pack up your camera gear too soon in the evening. I’ve seen beautiful displays of light on high clouds as much as 30 minutes after the almanac time of sunset.
As much as I love Colorado, I have to admit that not all of the mountains are equally photogenic. The steepest and most spectacular peaks are found in Rocky Mountain National Park and the Indian Peaks, Maroon Bells-Snowmass, Sangre de Cristo, Weminuche and Uncompahgre wildernesses. These ranges vary in other ways, however, such as weather patterns, winter access, fertile soils, etc., so I tend to visit different regions at different times of year.
Maroon Bells at Sunrise
The alpine wildflowers near my home peak in the middle two weeks of July. I generally avoid the well-known flower hot spots like Yankee Boy Basin near Ouray, where the flowers are good but the peaks are uninteresting and not well lit at either sunrise or sunset. Instead, I start with my collection of over 145 USGS 71⁄2-minute topographic maps, which have a scale of 2 5/8 inches to the mile. Trails Illustrated maps, which typically have a scale of 1 or 11⁄2 inches to the mile, provide a great overview, but for nitty-gritty planning and route-finding, there’s no substitute for a 71⁄2-minute quad.
As I study my maps, I’m looking for interesting peaks that rise at the head of valleys that face the rising or setting sun. For example, a mountain at the head of a valley that runs at roughly 60 degrees from its headwaters to the plains is likely to get great light at sunrise in midsummer. Once I’ve identified a promising location on the map, I backpack in and spend three or four days searching the valley for the best flowers.
Wilson Peak Panorama
The best mountain ranges for wildflowers combine fertile soils, abundant snowmelt, ample rain and beautiful peaks. I’ve made most of my best flower images in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness between Aspen and Crested Butte and in the San Juan Mountains between Durango and Silverton. The most lush wildflower basin in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness is the region southwest of the West Maroon, Frigid Air and Hasley passes. The easiest access is from the Schofield Pass road north of Crested Butte. Silver Creek Basin, another favorite location in the same wilderness, can be reached via the Lead King Basin road out of Marble.
The San Juans probably have the most abundant wildflower fields in the state. Dozens of 4WD roads crisscross the range, providing easy access to rich alpine meadows. Backpackers should make the nine-mile trek to the headwaters of the East Fork of the Cimarron River below Uncompahgre and Wetterhorn peaks, which are both fourteeners. Wilderness veterans ready for arduous off-trail adventures should explore the Needle Mountains and Grenadier Range, particularly Sunlight Lakes, Vestal Basin, Ruby Basin and No Name Creek.
Owl Creek Sunset
After the flowers fade, I return to the usual office chores before heading out again to shoot fall color in September. In Colorado, shooting fall color means shooting aspen. In the northern parts of the state, you may find good color as early as mid-September, but the big groves around Aspen and in the San Juans typically peak in the last week of the month.
The aspen grow at lower elevations than the alpine wildflowers, so my approach is different. For the most part, the best groves can be reached by road, paved or otherwise. Easy road access also means much of the land is private, with lots of barbed-wire fences and no-trespassing signs. You definitely should shoot the world-famous (and crowded) view of the Maroon Bells from Maroon Lake near Aspen, but don’t limit your fall-color shooting to the Bells. In the Aspen area, explore the paved Castle Creek Road and the rougher, dirt Capitol Creek Road. When the leaves fall near Aspen, head southwest and check out the good gravel road over Kebler Pass, which connects Crested Butte to Highway 133. Kebler Pass is reputedly the site of the largest aspen groves in the state. In the San Juans, explore County Roads 5, 7 and 9, as well as Last Dollar Road, all of which start from Highway 62 between Ridgway and Placerville. All give spectacular views of the Sneffels Range. And don’t forget both sides of Owl Creek Pass, which connects Ridgway to Silver Jack Reservoir.
Vestal Basin Sunset
After years of driving up and down dirt roads all over the state each September, I know where the biggest groves and best peaks are, but no one can predict which groves will have pure, vibrant color in any particular year. That means that each year I do lots of driving on the same dirt roads I explored the year before, searching for the best color.
Logistically, winter is, by far, the toughest season to shoot in Colorado. Many roads are closed for the season, the weather is harsh, and forecasts beyond 24 hours are unreliable. Yet winter also is one of the most beautiful seasons. Rocky Mountain National Park is among the best places for winter photography, but it’s also one of the worst, and it can flip from one to the other in a matter of hours. Most of the time, strong winds from the west lash the park, stripping the snow from the trees and scouring exposed slopes above timberline. Every now and then, however, particularly in March and early April, the wind switches direction and blows from the east in what’s called an upslope storm. These gentle giants can dump huge amounts of wet, clinging snow, creating a marvelous winter wonderland for a few fleeting hours. Then the westerly winds reestablish themselves, and the wonderland vanishes until the next upslope storm. Rocky Mountain National Park also is a favorite location for me, since I can decide to go the evening before and still be somewhere interesting at sunrise. My motto for these shoots is simple: “Sleep is for photographers who don’t drink enough coffee.”
After 16 years of specializing in Colorado, finding fresh images is a challenge. I’m now experimenting with high-ISO moonlit night scenes with exposures so short the stars don’t appear to streak across the sky, 180-degree panoramas from sunrise to moonset and shooting sunrise from the summit of 14,000-foot peaks. So far I’ve done 10 fourteeners, three of them more than once. My goal is to capture the exhilarating, humbling and awe-inspiring experience of being a tiny speck on top of the world. Given the seemingly endless mountains so close to my home, it’s a goal that should keep me busy until the end of my career—or until my knees give out, whichever comes first.
To see more of Glenn Randall’s work, visit his website at www.glennrandall.com.