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Rocky Mountain National Park

August 5-9
Written August 7+
Dear Diary and Friends and Family,
On Monday, we left our Colorado family and headed up into the mountains.  We passed through flat roads with right-angle intersections and entered the twisty climb of a mountain highway.  Our goal was Estes Park, at the entrance to Rocky Mountain National Park.  We would spend almost three days there.

d180806_10_donuthaus.jpgd180806_12_inside.jpgOur first day was limited to shopping, mostly, and eating, starting with treats from the Donut Haus, a German-origin purveyor of calories.  Every one was worthwhile.

After that we walked for hours along Estes' main streets to see what there was and almost all of it was touristy goods.  I have a new view that any town that emphasizes taffy and t-shirts is not a place we need to visit often.

d180806_14_lunch.jpgd180806_16_mamaroses.jpgAfter that hard work, we stopped at Mama Rose's for a glass of wine and dinner. It was here that we first noticed that most bar and restaurant staff people in Estes Park speak with Eastern European accents.  It turns out that there are not enough locals to staff all the seasonal jobs, but there is a "J-1 Visa" program that allows foreign college kids to work a few months a year. Seems to work for everyone.
After a nap, we headed up into Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP).  We had no particular plan, just a scouting visit, a first for Marianne and a refresh for me. (See May 2017)

d180806_24_elk.jpgWe were still on the lower elevations when we learned the secret to spotting animals - look for tourists staring off into the fields or forests.  In this case there were at least ten cars and a couple dozen people, some very close to the object of attention, a good-sized male elk. Nice picture since he lifted his head and was looking into the light.
Shortly after that, we came up behind a pickup truck stopped in the road.  Just stopped.  We cautiously passed, but the driver caught our attention to look up the hill at a pair of bears harvesting berries.  Pictures were hard, but the bears were fascinating to just watch.
Farther up the mountain we stopped at the overlook at Rainbow Curve.  These are the sort of pictures that may not be great photography, but they serve as reminders of the moment for us and this view is always worth the stop, something we did again the next day.

In my May visit, the Trail Ridge Road was still closed by snow at this point.  The traditional opening is the Friday before Labor Day and closing sometime in mid-October.  Now, we could continue up into the tundra proper, ending up at the Forest Canyon overlook, surrounded by the treeless, rocky, tundra fields. We hung around long enough for sunset, but my photography was less than spectacular.  Later, when we came back for sunrise with Yellow Wood Guiding, we learned a whole lot more about photography and the tundra.

On Tuesday, shooting pictures of elk started easy enough.  We just looked out the hotel window. There were a dozen or more elk doing their best to eat everything tasty in sight.  I would think that, for locals, these roaming herds are part pest and part tourist attraction, and hence key to business. 
d180807_10_flower.jpgd180807_12_flower2.jpgThere are no longer any elk predators in Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP), so the herds have grown and now overgraze the land.  However, over the past ten years or so, the park and others have started fencing in sections to allow reestablishment of native vegetation and animals lower on the food chain.  Just across from the Maxwell Inn, the local water company had closed off a part of the river bottom and the river banks were covered with purple flowers.  Farther up into the park we would see fenced-off acres where aspen and other native trees have been kept safe from marauders.  It's all a balance, I suppose.
After this easy shooting, including hummingbird pictures from convenient feeders, we planned our day.  Breakfast first, but no Estes Park shopping.  Really, the only attraction is  RMNP (the required shorthand for the national park) and, since we are not really hikers, the options are limited to road sightseeing.  Good enough.
Our first stop, just outside the park proper, was the Falls River Visitors Center.  Inside, the volunteer docents answered any park questions visitors might have.   We had no questions, but I hung around listening to whatever dialog others prompted.  Good enough.  Marianne did her required shopping for post cards and trinkets for folks back home, while I was outside testing my wildlife photography.  OK, it's just a pigeon, but it's wild.
d180807_24_where.jpgWe would end up driving from the flatlands all the way up to the top of Trail Ridge Road.d180807_28_wy_grnd_sqrl.jpg

d180807_26_kirby.jpgOur first stop was at Sheep Lakes where Kirby, a ranger intern, explained everything we were seeing.  He said that mountain sheep do indeed regularly come down to these muddy ponds to drink the mineral-laden water.  Somehow they know exactly what minerals they need and where to find them.  On our visit, the only wildlife visible was a Wyoming Ground Squirrel.  Cute little guy and my third animal-type for the day.  I count them all, easy or not!

Farther up the Ridge Road, we stopped again at the Rainbow Valley overlook and I had to repeat the panorama I had done a year before. That's the way it is, I think, one sees the same places as interesting, time and time again.  (Reminds me of our Fresno-local national park where, every visit, I take pictures from Yosemite Tunnel View.)
d180807_40_forestcanyon1.jpgd180807_42_forestcanyon.jpgFarther up, on the tundra above the tree line, we stopped at the Forest Canyon overview.   We had been here at sunset just the day before, but I suppose this is another stop-every-time spot.  For those willing to take a little walk, the view out at the end is even better and, sometimes, it comes with a ranger explanation.

d180807_44_valley.jpgd180807_46_rocks.jpgWe did not bother with the walk, but just looked out from near the parking lot.  Good enough, both for the longer vista and a close-up of rugged rocks across the valley. 

I also took pictures of the ground near our feet, being careful to not actually step ON anything.  These tundra plants have a hard enough life, with eight months of burial in snow, to not also get trampled by the three million visitors RMNP gets each year.
d180807_60_volcanic.jpgd180807_62_tar.jpgHigher yet, we stopped at Lava Cliffs.  This cliff face marks the end of a 28 million year old lava flow from the Never Summer Mountains, 12 miles to the west.  Below the cliffs was a "tarn", a pond that forms in the depression of long-gone glaciers that have also covered the area.  It is easy to see how a geologist could get distracted almost anywhere in the RMNP complex geology

Just past the 12,183 foot high point on Trail Ridge, we came to the Gore Range outlook.  We would return the next morning at sunrise with our guide Jared, but even at mid day, without professional guidance, the view was worth a shot or two.

d180807_68_bighorn.jpgDriving back, we could have stopped at every spot we had seen on the way up.  That's the way it is but I limited myself to just a single stop to grab a picture of Big Horn Mountain (I think).  So many mountains, so little time.

Back on the edge of Estes Park, we stopped at a little museum at the Fall River Hydroplant.  I like these kinds of stops, but Marianne can barely stifle the yawns.  Oh well, we do have different interests. Water came through an 18-inch pipe, dropping 400 feet from a dam a mile away.  Power went several miles away to the Stanley Hotel which, in 1909, was the country's first all-electric hotel.  Mr. Stanley, of Stanley Steamer fame, insisted on no coal or wood burning for his mountain resort, so heating, cooking, and lighting were all powered from this generator.

We finished the day with take-out pizza from Antonio's across the street.  A recommended place for  "New York style" pizza.

Properly fed, I settled in the breakfast room to work on diaries, before we hit the hay early, in anticipation of and early start Wednesday.  Nice end to an unplanned day. 

Wednesday (8/8)   -- Photography Excursion by Yellow Wood Guiding

This was the reason we were up in Estes Park, a photo excursion lead by Jared Gricoskie, aka: Yellow Wood Guiding.  I had gone with Jared a year ago and learned so much that we were definitely looking forward to the morning.

Of course, "morning" for a photographer means getting to the desired location BEFORE sunrise and this meant Marianne and I needed to be out of bed at 4:15 Mountain Time for Jared's pick-up at 5:15.  His instructions had made it clear that being late would not be a good idea, since the sun would rise whether or not we were there!

He showed up at the appointed hour.  We stuffed the camera equipment and the two of us into his green Subaru and headed into RMNP.  The goal was to be up at the 12,000 foot Gore Range outlook and then wait for sun.  Sunrise was nominally about 6 am and the drive would take about 40 minutes.  On the drive, Jared explained everything.  Really, everything, from the physics of sunrise light through the geology and ecology of the tundra.  I will try to include some of what he tried to teach us, but as much as I note, believe me, there was more.

We had two photography goals: landscapes and animals.  I will divide this diary that way too.

In my May 2017 Yellow Wood tour, the focus had been animals and we had shot elk, moose, mountain sheep, turkeys, coyotes, owls, and a few birds.  For this August trip, the primary goal was landscape photography, but we did squeeze in what animals we could.  Jared seems to know all the RMNP animals by location and movement pattern, if not by name, so even these episodes seemed almost scripted.
Elk - Of course, female and young elk are found all over the area, including our hotel parking lot, but we were after the big males in their natural habitat.  Up near Milner Pass and the continental divide, we spotted one bull munching on trees and bushes just off the road.  Jared dropped us off and went to park the car nearby, cautioning us to keep the required 25 yards away from park animals.  No problem!

He returned and we moved down hill a bit to get a better view of the big bull, the largest in the park according to our guide (he really does know all the animals!), and we saw that this was a group of five or six bachelors.  Jared said they were spread out in accordance with rank or seniority, with the youngest in the back, constantly looking up for danger, while the 15-year-old kept his head down, eating breakfast, unworried.

We moved to about 40 yards from the group, and one guy proceeded to munch his way toward us, until we were at the rule-required 25 yards.  Jared watched the large animals for any sign of agitation and saw none, so he was comfortable with our distance.  He did point out that if an elk charged, it could reach us in just a couple seconds, so moving slowly and without threat was a very good idea.

In our 15 minute stop, I shot lots of pictures and here are my keepers, with the big guy on the right.
Marmot - At the end of our photo session, we stopped at Rock Cut for landscapes and a bit of "hunting".  The tundra field off the road is home to both Yellow-Bellied Marmot and pikas. Marmot spend about 80% of their lives in caves beneath the snow, hibernating, living off summer fat. By this time in August, they are chubby little guys, about the size of a miniature poodle.

The one I shot started in the fall-colored tundra field and then conveniently climbed a nearby rock to look for danger and to get some sunshine.  After about ten minutes, he wandered off in search of more food. Winter was coming.
Pikas - These little guys, related to rabbits, spend their summers gathering grasses to store away for eight months of winter eating.  They are about the size of a small mouse.  In the summer, they zip around the tundra, cutting mouthfuls of grass, and bringing them back to a den in the rocks.  According to Jared, they select different grasses, based on energy content and on useful storage life.

I focussed on one little guy whose den was near the road.  He would run in from the field with a mouthful of grass and disappear in the rocks.  Then he would run out again, cut more grass, and repeat.  Again and again.  Every once in awhile, he would first eat some grass before harvesting yet more for winter hay. 

Our particular pika had about three fixed routes to and from his hiding place and this should have made it easy for me to get a picture or two.  It wasn't.  The tiny fellow was much quicker than the photographer (me).  I resorted to the point-and-hope technique, failing to get the perfectly lighted, sharp, mouthful-of-flowers, picture one hopes for.  I could see how pika hunting could become a passion among photographers.

At one point, Mr. Pika took a break on a sunny rock for at least one clear shot.  Our guide said that sunning by both the marmot and pika serves to warm them up and hence cut down on the need to eat for current body warmth.  Better to save the grass and fat for winter.

Here's the best of the dozens of clicks I tried. Cute tiny guy.

The focus (pun intended) of this Yellow Wood guided tour was landscape photography.  The elk, marmot, and pika were just bonuses.  Not surprisingly, I learned a lot about how to do landscape photography, particularly for mountain sunrises.

Lesson #1 was that sunrise pictures need not (should not?) really be pictures of the sun rising.  The sun is jut too bright to allow any detail in anything else.  The pictures become just sun and silhouettes. OK, maybe once, but not as a steady diet.  A lesson for this particular shoot was also that smoke from California can color pictures in Colorado.   OK, what did we see?

d180808_70a_alpenglo2.jpgd180808_70a_alpenglo1.jpgPre-Sunrise Light -- We arrived at the Gore Range lookout 10 or 20 minutes before "official" sunrise and yet the whole area was bathed in a soft, slightly reddish light.  It was pretty subtle, but a good way to start observing the fields and hills around us.

d180808_70b_venusbelt2.jpgd180808_70b_venusbelt1.jpgWe learned about the "Belt of Venus", an at-dawn light effect caused by sunlight bending around nearby mountains and spilling into a pink band just above the landscape.  I'm sure we have seen this before, just never really noticed and, of course, did not realize it was simple physics.
Off to the west, the Never Summer Mountains were the first lighted mountains we would see.  I love the name of this very isolated mountain range.  The red detail in the middle is "Alpenglow", I think, a pink lighting of indirect sunrise light.  Kind of like a Belt of Venus that has descended on the far hills.  (I threw in the rocky picture from the Gore Range on the right just because I like it.)
Our main photo target was the Gore Range, to the south of our observation parking lot.  The sun did, predictably, rise in the east, spreading light across the ridges, bit by bit.  These ten pictures show the  six-and-a-half minute progress of light crossing from left to right and mountain top to valley.

Landscapes after sunrise were ad hoc, primarily places where Jared said he had gotten decent pictures  before at this time of day and season.
d180808_50_milneragain.jpgAfter our sunrise, we drove over the Milner Pass to see the continental divide.  We got distracted by the bachelor elk, so we did not make a point of studying the exact spot, but maybe next time.  The other distraction was this valley shot where the goal was the shadow line of trees running down the center of the valley, with a few yellow flowers in the foreground.

d180808_54_roadout.jpgComing back up out of the valley, Jared suggested this out-the-side-window shot of the hillside.  The trees were casting shadows that almost disappeared as we watched. Nice enough.
Farther along, we required a stop at the Alpine Visitor Center, maybe the best rest room in the park.  While others were busy, I went to the Glacial Cirque overlook.  Jared had said that this was an interesting spot, from the standpoint that, in person, it is a nice view, but the camera does not work to capture much.  There is nothing in the foreground to provide scale or contrast with the hills.  However, it was good enough to remind me of the in-person experience.
Our last landscapes were from the spot called Rock Cut.  This first shot required a short walk into the tundra to be able to see down into the valley.  By park rules, that short walk required us to go 150 yards from the parking area. By tundra protocol, we needed to walk carefully from rock to rock, avoiding the delicate plant life.
The high contrast called for "HDR", a camera technique where high, medium, and low exposure pictures are combined. This is also a "pan" of two shots, so this one picture took six shots, all combined in the darkroom.  In the pre-Photoshop days, this would have been an hours-long process beyond the skill level of almost any amateur.
I finished the morning with a rock picture and a tundra fall hillside.  Just because.

So, that was our Rocky Mountain National Park excursion for 2018. Fun on our own and another excellent experience with Yellow Wood Guiding.  Thanks, Jared.  We will be back.

John and Marianne

d180809_00_path.jpg ps: The flight from Denver to Fresno goes over some of the most dramatic parts of the American West.  In clear weather, it is fun photography.  With the smoke we had, I resorted to Photoshop's magic "dehaze" command to simulate clear weather.  I was using the small SONY point-and-shoot, but good enough.  Click the picture to see everything from a starting selfie, the Flatirons and other mountains, past the Tonapah solar plant, and into the smoky San Joaquin Valley.  Home.


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