Autumn in Rocky Mountain National Park

There is no better time than autumn for a camping trip in Rocky Mountain National Park! The colors and the wildlife action are at their peak, the weather is cool and dry and the crowds of summer have largely subsided. So photo buddy Kevin and I loaded up our gear and steered towards Estes Park for the once a year elk photography bonanza. Last year we only gave ourselves one day and found there was far too much to take it all in.

Headwaters of the Big ThompsonThis year we decided to give ourselves the best part of two days, a nice trip up on the first day for the sunset scene followed  by a night of camping with the idea of catching the sunrise action on the second day. The only  problem with this plan was that even two days isn’t enough to take it all in! Rocky Mountain National Park is so vast and beautiful that you probably could not even take it in if you had a week to explore it.

But our plan as it was came together perfectly. We arrived in the park by early afternoon giving us time to look around, survey all the best elk viewing locations and get our gear set up for the evening appearance of the Moraine Park Elk Herd. And quite a scene it was… The main herd was lorded over by one huge bull who stayed busy until dark keeping his cows together while watching diligently and listening intently for any

Herd of Elk on a Foggy Morning

threats to his domain. At one point he heard the bugling of a rival bull over the ridge and trotted off to address the threat. Some unruly cows crossed the road and his harem was split, which would have been no big deal were it not for the unbroken line of cars and spectators right through the middle. Some of the cows were afraid to cross so eventually the big male returned and was forced to address the chaos. He crossed the road and ventured to the distant

Elk Herd on a Beautiful Rocky Mountain Evening

boundaries of his domain to warn off some bachelors that were nosing around his perimeter. The park ranger patrolling the road, when she discovered the issue, separated the crowd, moved some cars and made way for the herd to pass back and forth. The bull was then able to round up all the wayward females and reassemble them in the meadow on the west side of the road.

The inevitable onslaught of darkness finally brought the photography to an end and we

Elk Herd on a Beautiful Rocky Mountain Evening

make the short journey over to Moraine Park Campground to set up camp. Tent campers are provided an entire loop on the far end of the campground away from all the RV’s and their generators, so we proceeded to our designated spot in D loop. It’s a beautiful quiet campground with clean facilities, flat tent pads, bear boxes and fire pits. It’s also the only campground open in the winter months, which is fine but if you plan to go there you should definitely call the park for a reservation. Due to the presence of bears there are no trash receptacles, any packaging or food wrappers will need to be stored in the bear box until can get to the main dumpster at the entrance.

Cold Foggy Morning in Moraine Park

I’m not going to lie, the autumn night air is going to be chilly so bring the proper winter wear! It was only 35 degrees at sunrise when we once again took up our position in Moraine park. The big bull and his harem were already gathered on the east side of the road in the heavy fog of the cold morning. It was here that I captured some of my most dramatic imagery as the morning sun lit the fog and the autumn leaves in the background. The animals were quite active, making use of a tripod a bit difficult but necessary due to the subtle morning light.

Autumn on Trail Ridge Road

By the time the sun was completely up we were ready to check on some other locations and wander into Estes Park for some breakfast while we discussed the plans for the day. At length we decided to break down camp and explore Fall River Road, the old dirt road that carried travelers to the park summit which is now the Trail Ridge Road visitor center.  Fall River Road is a rough nine mile one way dirt road that skirts the south side of the ridge with beautiful views of Longs Peak to the east with a beautiful hike and waterfall about halfway into the drive. The falls were in harsh light by this time, with shadows too deep for  good photography but that didn’t stop me from capturing some video with my phone 🙂

The wind and cold on the summit were horrendous, blowing so hard that I was barely

Summit on Trail Ridge Road

able  to stand still enough to even capture this phone cam picture! After scouring the visitor center for a couple of souvenirs we began the drive through the fierce winds down Trail Ridge Road in view of massive Longs Peak. I tried a couple of spots for pictures but the wind and harsh afternoon light got the better of me, not overly excited about the images I captured from the high alpine reaches of the park.

By the time we were back in the valley it was early afternoon and Bear Lake was the last thing we had in mind to explore. However by that time the park was filling with visitors and the parking lot was full, according to the sign at the park and ride. A ride on the bus with an armload of camera gear wasn’t too appealing by this time so we decided to call it a day and head for home.

Today of course finds me at my computer monitor looking over almost 900 images and reveling in the memory of an amazing trip. As always the best of  the day’s capture are available for purchase on my website as wall art on glossy metal and acrylic sheets, stretched canvas and traditional framing and matting. Also available are tons of cool gift items, apparel, tech gadgets and handy household items with a S.W. Krull Imaging picture.

Trail Ridge Adventure

Been waiting for this outing for a long time! Vehicle repairs, too many hours at work, too many life commitments… This trip to Rocky Mountain National Park has been on delay for an entire decade! Finally, yesterday was the day… truck running in tip top shape, camera equipment all working and autumn in full swing 🙂

Set my alarm for 2:30 a.m., in fact I set two alarms… didn’t want to miss this event because I didn’t wake up in time! 1:30 a.m. came around and suddenly I was wide awake. Thought about rolling over for another hour but my heart was already pounding and more sleep was just not going to happen!

It’s been hot lately, in fact I heard Colorado Springs set a record for most days over 90 degrees in September. But as I sat in the dark sipping my Morning Joe it felt unusually cool and there was a strange sound of water dripping. Thinking that the kitchen faucet might be dripping I wandered in for my second cup to notice that the dripping sound was coming from outside, a cool rain was steadily drenching the southern mountains. My first inclination was to call my buddy and suggest we pick another day… Second thoughts reminded me however that weather is my friend, some cool mist can turn an ordinary mountain meadow in to a spectacular moody mystical masterpiece!

Soon I was off and on my way to pick up my buddy at the planned time of 4:30 a.m. in hopes of entering the park at about sunrise. It was not until we were on our way did we finally decide to enter the park from the west side in hopes of catching some wildlife in the western meadows during the rain while exploring Bear Lake on the east side after the rain had hopefully ceased.

We hit Winter Park just as the sun was rising in the east with a fog bank in view to the north, probably hovering over Grand Lake but it had mostly dissipated by the time we arrived at that point. The sun was gaining in strength as we entered the park, unfortunately maybe a little too much strength as there was no wildlife to be found 😦 We eventually encountered a small herd of elk hiding in the shade of the dense forest along the road, but nothing like the large herds we were hoping for.

Autumn Tundra on Trail Ridge

Soon we were past the bottoms and on our way up to the lofty elevations of Trail Ridge Road, The drive wasn’t as long as I remembered and soon we were above tree line looking at some of the finest scenery Colorado has to offer!

The visitor center was the first place that looked worthy of a stop along the “highest continuous motorway in the United States“. It was cold there at 12,300 feet of elevation and the wind was blowing hard. We grabbed a couple of cameras and made a beeline for the gift shop where I was hoping for a nice heavy hooded sweatshirt as my prize for reaching the summit. Unfortunately I didn’t find just what I was looking for so I left the gift shop empty handed. As we made our way outdoors the unmistakable sound of a bugling bull elk filled the crisp thin air, so we ventured onto the observation deck to see if the source could be located. Far beneath the visitor center in the colorful valley below the huge bull elk was visible. Clamped on my long lens and steadied the camera on the wall for a few shots of the distant beast hoping that this would not be the closest I was going to get to the majestic animals.

Storm Clouds on Trail Ridge

Soon we found ourselves traversing the pinnacle of the drive, hugging the yellow line all the way! It looked like the clouds were going to clear and a magnificent warm afternoon was in the offing… Lol, soon Colorado struck back and it was snowing in earnest as we explored  one of the many trailheads on the way down the east side of the drive. A quick look back at the high peaks revealed an angry looking snowstorm enveloping the rugged range, well worth taking the time for a few shots of the action high in the majestic western mountains.

By the time we got to the lower elevations of the east side of the park the snow was but a fond memory. The sun was beating down and the Gortex had to come off. We did begin to encounter a few small herds of elk and deer but in fact it was so hot by that time that the animals were hiding in the shade. Hard shade surrounded by bright sun makes for impossible wildlife photography.

So I was thinking that Bear Lake is surrounded by tall mountains, a location that might be enhanced by some direct light from above so I turned the blue Dodge to the south towards the lake. Along the way we tried our hand at some motion blur whitewater along the creek, but getting to a location where the water was even visible proved to be a daunting task. In fact it soon became apparent that getting the water shots was more than daunting… it was downright impossible! Back to the task at hand, photographing the lake and mountain scenery. Soon we neared the the lake and encountered an unwelcome packed parking lot but by some miracle we managed to snag a spot, albeit the most distant one possible.

Bear Lake Peaks

Knowing the price that would be paid in footsteps for leaving some necessary piece of equipment behind, we loaded ourselves up with four camera bodies and probably twice that many lenses. That plus lens filters, extenders, maps and sustenance for a long hike made for a pretty heavy load! The arsenal of camera equipment proved to be well worth it though, as the location demanded nearly all of it’s use. Wide angles to take in the lake and the magnificent scenery beyond, long lenses to capture the rugged mountains surrounding the water and polarizers to enhance the water and filter out bright sunlight! Of course all that gear also serves to encourage the tourists to run up and hand you their phone cameras in hopes of a professional looking free portrait 😦 Oh well… what do you do. Should have had some business cards handy! Live and learn.

Finally we were satisfied that we had sufficiently captured the lake scene and headed for the truck. The sun was still beating down making good wildlife photography unlikely, so we decided to try our luck with some lunch in Estes Park. After some quick reconnaissance we decided upon some nice barbecue at Smokin’ Dave’s. We still had a lot of work to do in the park, but I was confident that one pint of Smokin’ Brunette was not a bad idea 🙂 At least I think that’s what that particular brew was called! I tried to make a post at the time but my phone wasn’t cooperating 😦 Anyway, great place, great beer, I’ll definitely be returning for more!!!

Finally by 5:00 p.m. the sun was losing some of it’s power and we ventured back into the park. I had once encountered a huge herd of elk in Morraine Park in a snowstorm so it seemed worth a check to see if the elk might also like that park on a sunny autumn afternoon as well 🙂 As we neared the meadow it quickly became apparent that my instincts were correct… at least by the sheer number of vehicles that had gathered along the road! It seemed like we had to drive forever to reach the end of the line where we could finally find our own place to park… once again, the long walk back meant that we were going to be packing everything from the previous hike, plus tripods for shooting in the inevitable darkness that was soon to be upon us.

Pair of Rocky Mountain Elk

As we neared the scene, the reason for the large crowd became apparent. A huge bull elk in perfect late afternoon light and his harem were enjoying the mountain grass on the west end of the meadow. Unafraid of the people and unconcerned by their antics, the elk were just going about their business of being elk. The majestic bull appeared to be posing for pictures, stopping occasionally to rear back his head and voice his loud opinion. Here we tried every conceivable combination of camera, lens and filter in hopes of the perfect capture. This one was my favorite of the day. There were many that I really like, but this one with the young cow in the scene seems to best depict the moment.

Finally darkness fell and the the elk began to meander off to the east further from the throngs of people with their big lenses, phones and ipads. We were tired but happy in the knowledge that we had made the best of the day and would be coming home with even more good images than we could have possibly hoped for 🙂 Already we are plotting a return to the park, and possibly one of the nearby campgrounds in hopes of capturing the activity that is sure to occur in the park at first light. One day in the park was good… but two would be even better!

These images and more are available on my website as wall art, available on glossy metal and acrylic sheets, wrapped canvas and traditional mat and frame. Also available are tons of cool household and gift items including t-shirts, phone cases, battery chargers, yoga mats, shower curtains, throw pillows and more! Images can be viewed there from newest to oldest, or by category. In gallery view just click the category that you are most interested in and the appropriate images will be displayed. Click the images you like and receive product possibilities and pricing will be displayed! Businesses requiring commercial use of my images can view the stock portal for licensing information.