The winds were blowing with tropical storm fervor when I awoke to start the day. It was Saturday morning and I was definitely not in a big hurry to get an early start. With no specific advance plans for the day, I decided to take a short drive and go to Rocky Mountain National Park. One of our Nation's treasures and one of my favorite places to go to, RMNP is a relatively short drive from home.
Once again I loaded up my truck with all of my necessary gear which of course included my camera, hiking boots, backpack and other items that I would need for my trip. I called Vicki to see if she wanted to go along for the ride and the upcoming adventure, and she quickly told me that she was ready to go along.
I was feeling the wind gusts buffeting my truck as we made our way up to Estes Park. Other than the wind it was a beautiful day. The skies were partly cloudy and the temperatures were warm and comfortable. There was a fairly solid line of traffic on the way up through Boulder and Lyons as we made our along US Highway 36.
Normally I would leave a lot earlier in the day when venturing up to RMNP so I can beat the crowds and get an early start on the trails and catch the early morning wildlife, but this trip was a little more leisurely.
The view of Estes was beautiful as we made the descent into town around noon, and the town was bustling with people and activity. After a brief stop for lunch we headed for the park. I usually enter the east side of RMNP at the Fall River entrance along Highway 34 and this day was no different.
Vicki and I stopped at Sheep Lakes along with numerous other park visitors and photographers. There was a lot of heavy photographic artillery along the side of the road, including ours. The meadow was playing host to about two dozen elk and big horn sheep while they lounged on and grazed on the spring grass and drank from the small lakes. Park employees were placed on both sides of the meadow along the road to keep vehicles moving slowly through the area and to stop traffic for the wildlife crossing the road.
Soapbox time...I am always amazed at the number of people who drive as though they are driving on an interstate highway. The park has posted speed limits that are generally 35 mph or less, but there is always someone who runs right up on you trying to push their way through the park at record speeds. This is a National Park people not I-25, so slow down and enjoy the scenery already.
Okay, I feel better now.
Vicki and I took some shots of the elk and big horn sheep in the meadow and then ventured up to Alluvial Fan falls. Vicki had never been and the water flow made for a beautiful sight. With camera gear in hand we made our way up the rocks to a higher vantage point on the falls. The spray from the cascading falls was refreshing while the sun was radiating down upon us. The bright sun made a slow shutter difficult, so I broke out the ND filters so I could slow the shutter down just a little. There were other people climbing up the falls so I could not get too many shots that were free of other humans, but they did bring a sense of scale to my shots. While Vicki and I were up on the rocks shooting, a video camera crew came up to a family that were just below us and asked them if they would be interested in being in a promotional video for the park. At least it was them and not me, although I am not 100% sure that we were completely out of their scene.
We climbed back down the falls and continued our journey. We slowly made our way over to Moraine Park. It had been a year and a half since I had made the trip up to Cub Lake and it was in November. It was cold and there was snow on the ground, so this was going to be a nice change. I had not planned on making this hike when the day started, but it is a nice short hike to start later in the day. When I asked Vicki if she was in for a “short hike” she said sure. I sprung this hike on her without any prior warning, so I was glad when she said yes. The trek up to Cub Lake is just about 2 ½ miles each way with an elevation gain of around 540 feet and is rated as a moderate trail.
I parked my truck in the parking lot and got my pack and camera gear ready and changed into my hiking boots. Vicki grabbed her camera back pack and we were off. It was around 65 degrees and the clouds were beginning to hide the sun and blue sky, but not to the point of looking overly threatening. The damage from the pine beetle is evident throughout the park, and that is a shame.
We slowly made our way up the trail taking in all the sights and watching for wildlife. We encountered several other groups of people on the way up to the lake. Most were in a bigger hurry than we were so we just let them go past us.
There is one point on the trail where large boulders hug the path and I always take note to watch very closely for mountain lion. It would be a prime area to have an unexpected and unwanted visitor. I am always observant of tracks and droppings of the areas that I traverse. This area will be of importance on our return trip so take note.
We made our way past several small ponds, areas of willows and aspen that would be ideal conditions for elk. The reflections from a couple of these ponds just begged to be photographed so of course we obliged. By this time the wind had started to subside so the water was mirror-like smooth. I was thankful that I brought my bug spray. The mosquitoes are already active and I am always a favorite meal.
About three quarters of the way up the trial Vicki began asking “are we there yet?” and insisting that I was trying to kill her and get her lost in the mountains. There are a few sections of the trail where the elevation increases fairly quickly and are quite rocky hence the moderate rating. Vicki has to contend with altitude sickness so I was harshly scolded, rightly so, for not giving her advance warning of the hike and the increase of elevation. I assured her that we were getting close to our destination. I did offer to turn back on several occasions, but she was a trooper and wanted to continue on. She did point out that it had better be worth the trip however.
When we reached the lake, there was a large snow drift that we had to negotiate in order to get to the north side of the lake. The area was quite saturated with water from the melting snow and runoff. There were a couple of different groups at the lake. After making a quick evaluation of the photo ops, we decided that we needed to be on the other side to get the best shot. By this time the sky was almost entirely overcast, which was probably better for us since we were there so late in the afternoon. We had to back track the trail approximately 50 yards to be able to navigate to the other side of the lake, which included walking through some mud, water and snow. We ran into a group of 3 Air Force Academy Cadets who were on an outing to RMNP for the day. One was training to be a UAV (Unmanned Aerial Vehicle) pilot and another was training to be in Intelligence. I offered to take a group shot of them when I noticed that they were rotating around to get shots of one another. I think that they must have been a little intimidated by our tripods, cameras and equipment because they departed fairly quickly when we started setting up for a shot.
We started to feel a few rain drops, but I was pretty sure that was all we were going to get. The atmosphere was pretty dry. The cameras recorded a few images, we hung out for a few minutes to take in the scenery and listen to the peaceful sound of the running water over the silence of the park. The still snow-capped mountain peaks provided a nice reflection in the lake, although a little better lighting would have been nice.
A few more raindrops had fallen and since it was mid to late afternoon, we decided that we should begin our trek back down the mountain so we had time to stop for photo ops.
We made a fairly slow and quiet descent down the trail hoping to catch some wildlife during their late afternoon feeding time. We returned to some of the ponds that we had passed earlier in the day and again stopped to snap a few shots of the incredible reflections. Some blue sky was now becoming visible as the clouds that had been present for most of the afternoon started to clear.
We once again approached the area that I felt would be an ideal area for mountain lion and I spotted some scat that had not been there on the way up. It was from a mountain lion. I always keep my eyes open to my surroundings and even though I did not see a cat, I am sure that we had been observed.
About a quarter of a mile down the trail while Vicki was at the point, I spotted 3 bull elk grazing and watering about 70 yards ahead of us just off the trail. I quietly got Vicki's attention and pointed them out to her. We stopped and got our cameras ready before moving in.
Two of the three bulls were on the west side of the pond feasting on the grass and wading through the marshy meadow amongst the willows. Their racks, covered in velvet were growing out nicely. Their winter coats were slowly molting away to reveal their summer fur. We managed to get within about 40 yards to shoot these magnificent animals, and they barely even noticed that we were there. Some fantastic shots were captured while they slowly meandered through the meadow and willows feasting on the spring grasses. We were lucky in that only a few people passed by when we were shooting and did not disturb them too much in the process.
After spending probably 20 minutes, we decided to leave them to their grazing and continue our way down the mountain. Just on the other side of the pond we saw the other bull back in the willows, almost hidden, indulging in his evening meal. He was too far back in the willows for us to be able to get any decent shots.
Shortly thereafter when the parking lot was within a half a mile, we spotted a cow elk grazing just off the trail 20 yards ahead of us. We grabbed our cameras and moved slowly by her taking the opportunity to of course grab a few photos. When we arrived back at the truck it was about 7:30PM. We took a few minutes to unload our gear and talk about the sights and sounds that we were able to experience and capture on this spur of the moment hike.
On our way back into Estes Park as the sun was going down, elk were visible throughout the meadows in Moraine Park enjoying their evening meal.
The sun set on a fantastic day in Rocky Mountain National Park. There will be more adventures to come.
You can see more of my images at http://www.rodblakneyphotography.com/. Just click on the link on the top right side of this page.
Thanks for tagging along.