Rocky Mountain National Park
Part II, Hiking and Photographing in the Bear Lake Area
The best photographic spots
In Part I of this Article, I discussed hikes and photo opportunities on most of Bear Lake Road. This article is about the area right around Bear Lake itself plus a few more areas on the eastern slope of Rocky Mountain National Park.
In midsummer, Bear Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park is literally crawling with tourists. However, as soon as you get away from Bear Lake itself and out onto the trails, 99% of the people are instantly gone. Most people content themselves with a brief walk around the lake on the nature trail and never walk even a little way into the back-country. Also, very few tourists get up for dawn or tarry when the sun begins to go down. So, it is possible to get away from all the people, even in midsummer to enjoy this truly special place. And, Bear Lake is such a gorgeous spot that it is one of those places, like Maroon Lake at the foot of the Maroon Bells, that it really is worthwhile visiting in spite of the hordes that also congregate there.
There are some wonderful pictures that can be taken in the very first view spot at Bear Lake, not 100 feet from the parking lot. This shot is especially good during aspen time. There is a lot of good foreground on the shoreline in the form of grasses and stumps and logs and rocks, there are nice rocks a hundred feet or so out in the lake for middle-ground and the fir-aspen forest across the lake makes a wonderful background. Often there are ducks in the water as well. If the wind isn't blowing, there are always wonderful reflections of trees, mountains and sky. If it is aspen time the brilliant yellows, oranges, reds, and golds of the trees are reflected in the deep green water of the lake. Nope, this isn't a pristine wilderness location reached after a 50 mile treck through unpopulated back-country, but it is still a gorgeous place. Many of the pictures I have taken from this spot have been among my most popular images. The picture at the top of this page was taken from this spot. The picture to the right is Bear Lake at sunset looking toward Long's Peak.
There are innumerable other shots scattered around the lake shore also. These shots can be anything from intimate little close ups of shoreline detail like a few grasses and rocks or maybe cloud reflections in the water to full blown landscapes of the lake in the foreground with Long's Peak in the background. The intimate little close up shots are a lot of fun to take. These shots are more about composition than anything else. Walk along the lake shore and look for little groupings of grasses, twigs, pine cones and pebbles that seem to make a picture. When you find something that looks good shoot it from different angles and levels and distances and try to let the different elements of the picture fall into some kind of harmonious composition. When that happens, you will probably realize it right away. The picture will just look right. No fair picking up things and moving them around, this takes all the fun out of it.
There is a good place to take a Long's Peak shot about half way around the lake on the right hand side. There is a nice grouping of boulders here that can be shot in lots of different ways and the ridge that Long's peak is situated on is in the far background. You are looking at the back side of Longs here, not the usual view of the vertical East Face that one usually sees. This is also a pretty good place for a sunset shot where you can often capture great light in the sky that is also reflected in the water of the lake. Yes, you are looking mostly toward the east, but don't forget that at sunset, it is not only the western sky that lights up. The more muted reflections of sunset colors in the the eastern sky are often more beautiful than those in the western sky. The sunset picture above was taken from this spot.
One of my favorite ways of shooting Bear Lake, especially in the autumn when the Aspen are in full foliage, is to take the trail that heads up the hill at the North-east corner of the lake. This is the trail that eventually becomes the Flat Top Mountain Trail and also goes to Odessa Gorge and Bierstaadt Lake. Go up this trail a hundred yards or so until it begins to top out and then cut left off the trail into a boulder field that is filled with aspens. The idea is to head back down to the lake through the boulders and aspens looking for good shots and shooting as you go. Be extremely careful in this spot, the boulders are huge, like refrigerator and Volkswagen size. It would be extremely easy to get excited by a good picture opportunity and slip and fall and break a leg or a skull. Also, be aware that you are off trail in a somewhat delicate area; try not to do any damage to the environment. If you use your eyes and your sense of composition it is possible to pick out some great shots amid this jumble of boulders and scree and Aspens. If you look at the image at the top of this page, you can see this rocky, aspen covered slope at the back of the picture. The picture directly above was shot in this boulder field.
One of the classic hikes from Bear Lake is the hike up the Nymph-Dream- Emerald Lake Trail. You find the trailhead for this hike just south of Bear Lake. Follow the trail for a half mile up to Nymph Lake which is often partially covered with water lilies which may be in bloom. Another half mile takes you up to Dream Lake where you will find some really fine shots of the lake with Hallet peak looming over it. Some of the best shots in the park can be found here. The picture directly below was taken at Dream Lake. Another half mile on the trail will take you to Emerald Lake and Tyndall Glacier, or at least what is left of the glacier, which is not much compared to what was here twenty years ago. Don't go out onto the glacier unless you have an ice ax and a lot of mountaineering experience. Glaciers are a great place to get badly injured or killed if you don't know what you are doing.
Some of the best pictures on this hike are not actually at the lakes, but along the stream that connects them. There are all sorts of little waterfalls, pour-overs, cascades, and pools that make wonderful photographs. The picture above was taken above Dream Lake. In June and July you will find an abundance of wildflowers in this area also. This is a good chance to take what I call middle-ground shots or vignettes like the picture of Dream Lake on the left. These are mostly shots of foreground plus middle ground that is up to about twenty feet away and no background. For example, wildflowers or a log on the bank of the creek plus a few feet of winding creek. Or a single small, beautiful aspen tree with a few feet of a boulder studded meadow behind. Or the grassy fringe around a lake with a granite rock in the nearby water of the lake with no distant background.
There are some places on this hike where the creek is quite a way below the trail, down a long hillside. I have to admit that I once left the trail here, long ago in the past, and found some really nice shots on the creek below where few people go. However, I don't think this is really good practice in an area like this where thousands of people hike, since a place like this can be loved to death all to easily. I just mention that there are some good shots down there if you think you might be able to get to them without doing too much damage. Personally, I don't think I will do this again though; there are lots of other beautiful creeks in more remote areas that aren't in danger of being trampled to death to risk doing environmental damage in the more popular places. Besides that, a ranger may come along and give you a good lecture. I would advise you to stay on the trail.
Another great hike is the Odessa Gorge trail. This is the trail that ends up becoming the Fern Lake Trail that begins in Moraine Park that I mentioned in Part I of this article. I like to do this hike beginning at Bear Lake rather than at Moraine Park as it is mostly downhill if you do it this way. Begin this hike at the north-west corner of Bear lake and head up the hill. After about half a mile you come to the turnoff for Bierstadt Lake. At this point, turn left and continue to another fork where you bear right. After about three miles you come to three small lakes near the top of the Odessa Gorge. Just past the last lake, Two Rivers Lake, the trail takes a sharp right and drops down into the gorge. This is a great place to stop for an extended break as there is a great shot of Notchtop Mountain and the little Matterhorn from here. You can take this picture from various vantage points and with lots of great foreground. This is another of the classic shots of Rocky Mountain National Park. The remainder of the hike down the Gorge is just one great view after another; both Odessa and Fern lakes are very picturesque. From Odessa lake the Little Matterhorn is every more photogenic than it was from above. From here it looks a lot like its famous namesake in Switzerland. The hike all the way from Bear Lake to the Fern Lake Trailhead in Moraine Park is eight miles.
There are a couple more places on the eastern slope side of Rocky Mountain National Park that I like to photograph. Go back down Bear Creek Road to the main road that comes into the park from the Beaver Meadows Entrance station. At this point, turn left toward Trail Ridge. As you approach Deer Ridge Junction which is about three miles from the Bear Road Junction, look for pull-offs on the left side of the road. There are some great shots here across the valley below, over the Bear Lake area and on to Long's Peak. Again, the whole sweep of the Front Range is here with lots of great foreground and picturesque valley in between. I have taken a lot of good pictures along this section of road. Again, this is a great place for dawn and early morning photography even though I have have gotten good shots here as late as 9 and 10 AM. The picture to the left was taken in this spot.
If you go to Deer Ridge Junction and turn right you will soon come down into Horseshoe Park. As you drop down into the valley, there are many good shots of Horseshoe Park and the mountains of the Mummy Range beyond. Huge slabs of pink granite and tall picturesque pines make good foreground here. The picture at the very bottom of this page was shot here.
Down in the valley, just past the entrance of the Old Fall River Road on the left is the Sheep Lakes turnoff. Pull off here. Directly in front of you are the salt licks and one of the Sheep Lakes. This area is always full of elk, especially in the fall during rut. There are usually several massive bulls, each with his own harem, who pick fights with each other and try to steal each others herds. This is a good place to wait and watch with a very long lens. Good shots are usually not hard to find. If you are lucky, you might even see some of the Big Horn Sheep which come down off the ridge behind you to drink and lick up a little of the salt in the salt licks. The earlier you can get here the better. All the good stuff along with the best light happens before dawn, at dawn and for a little while afterwards. So, get there early.
While you are at the Sheep Lakes turnoff, go over to the far western edge of the parking lot and a little beyond. Here you will find one of the better pictures in the park overlooking the most western of the Sheep Lakes. This is a great dawn shot. Use the grasses or even the lake as foreground, the rolling hills as middle ground and the mountains beyond as background. With luck you might even get some color in the Western sky as it reflects the eastern dawn skies. This is also a good place to get elk as part of a landscape picture that is gorgeous in its own right. If that happens, you could take a once in a lifetime picture here. That is always a possibility in this spot. Be sure to be here at or before dawn.
The picture to the right is not Sheep Lakes by the way. The lake to the right is Sprague Lake reflecting the sky and clouds on a cool spring afternoon. I like this picture so much I just had to find a place to put it. I do have some new pictures of the Sheep Lakes area that is described above that I will publish late this spring.
One final photo opportunity needs to be mentioned, late afternoon and sunset at the Rock Cut on Trail Ridge Road. I briefly mentioned this shot in Part I on this article, but since it's such a good shot a little repetition doesn't hurt. Go back to Deer Ridge Junction, turn west and drive up Trail Ridge Road. While you are at it, stop at Many Parks Curve on Trail Ridge Road where there are some spectacular views south over the massive valley below. The Rock cut is located right on Trail Ridge Road at the Tundra Communities Trailhead pretty much at the high point of the road; Iceberg Pass is about a mile to the west. You should get here about an hour before sunset. (By the way, dawn and sunset times are usually published in the park newspaper of all the National Parks).
When you get here, park and scout the area a bit. The place known as the Rockcut is a slot in the dark brownish, lichen covered cliffs. When you look through the slot you can see Long's peak. The picture of the Rock Cut below was taken in late afternoon. There are two ways to do this shot. The first way is to use a wide angle lens and get very close to the rocks; if you do this, the rocks will be emphasized and Long's Peak will be very small in the picture. This is pretty much what I have done below. The second way to shoot this scene is to use a much longer lens, back off twenty feet or so and shoot from here; shooting this way you will get only a little of the rocks and Long's Peak will be larger and receive more emphasis. And of course you can also shoot any in-between lens/distance combination; I would try various combinations and go with whatever looks best to you. You might read my article on depth of field so that you get both the rocks and Long's Peak in sharp focus.
Another problem you may have shooting the Rock Cut is that the sky will probably be fairly bright and the rock fairly dark, which means exposure is going to be difficult. The most important thing to do is not overexpose the sky; if the rock ends up underexposed you can always use the rock as a silhouette which will look fine. However, if you blow the sky out to pure white, this will irretrievably ruin the picture. This is a good place to use RAW format to shoot. If your exposure is a bit off, you can always adjust it later if you are printing using Photoshop or one of the other picture editing programs. It would probably be a good idea to bracket and shoot a range of exposures here; shoot one at the exposure recommended by the camera and then one at +1, +2, -1, -2 using the exposure compensation button on your camera. This way you will be able to combine shots in the computer later to get the perfect exposure. If you don't know how to do this, I will have an article on how to do this little job sometime this year and you can go back and fix this, and any other pictures for which you have collected a series of exposures. I also discuss exposure in Part 4 and Part 5 of my article on camera setup which might be helpful to you. Here is a link to the index for these articles. Go to the index and choose the article you want to read.
At a later date I plan to write more articles on Rocky Mountain National Park describing my experiences on some of the lesser known and more lonesome areas such as Wild Basin and the Mummy Range. There is so much great stuff to do in this wonderful park and the surrounding areas that I think I could spend a lifetime hiking and shooting it.