Landscape Photography in the Southwest: Part I- Colorado

A roundup of interesting places I found photographing in the Rocky Mountain National Park and other places in Colorado.

The mountains at your doorstep

Colorado offers access to a variety of geographic areas - desert in the south-east, high-mountains in the central, plains in the east and rugged rocky plateu in the west. That means a lot of opportunities for landscape photography. If you live in the Denver area, then you have several national parks, forests and wildernesses in Colorado within a day's drive. And even more in the adjacent states of Utah and Wyoming. In this series of blog posts, I am going to summarize my experiences photographing in Colorado and adjacent states. In this post, I will focus on the Rocky Mountain National Park and a few other places in Colorado.

Photo of Bear Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park

Bear Lake in RMNP. Looking east. Sunset.

Photo of Sprague Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park

Sprague Lake in RMNP. Looking west. Sunset.

Photo of Lake Irene in Rocky Mountain National Park

Lake Irene (north shore) in RMNP. Looking south, south-east. Midnight in early summer. Trees are light painted.

The most accessible

Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP) is a short drive from Denver. Trail Ridge Road and Bear Lake Road in the park offer easy access to some great photo opportunities. Bear Lake is fantastic for sunsets. Walk to the extreme west edge of the lake to see the Long's peak lit up by the setting sun. Sprague Lake, a short drive from Bear Lake is great for sunrise as well as sunsets. I have often seen Elk and Deer in these parts. Lake Irene is on the west side of the park, and is accessible by the Trail Ridge Rd. It's situated such that the milky way in late summer aligns with the length of the lake. The trees on the shore frame the milky way very nicely.

Photo of the Dream Lake in the Rocky Mountain National Park

Dream lake in RMNP. Looking west. Sunrise. Late Fall. This place tends to be rather windy.

Photo of the Loch Vale in the Rocky Mountain National Park

Loch Vale in RMNP. Looking south. Summer.

Photo of a cascade in the Rocky Mountain National Park

A cascade on the Mills Lake train in RMNP.

Photo of the Mills Lake in the Rocky Mountain National Park

Mills Lake in RMNP. Looking south, south-east. Summer.

Just a short hike away

If you are ready to hike in RMNP, a lot more photo ops become available. A short hike from the Bear lake trailhead is the Dream Lake. Great for sunrise. Though it's often very windy here. Loch Vale and Mills Lake are two beautiful lakes accessible from the Glacier Gorge trailhead. On these hikes you get to see the Alberta Falls as well. Both are great for sunsets. I think it tends to be slightly less windy here compared to Dream Lake; that means a higher chance of getting a reflection.

Photo of the Milky Way over Gunnison River gorge.

Milky Way over the Gunnison River Gorge west of Blue Mesa dam in Central Colorado. This photo is from a pullout at mile-marker 71 on route 92. Looking west, south-west. Late Fall. After sunset.

Photo of the North Clear Creek Falls in southern Colorado.

North Clear Creek Falls in southern Colorado. Rio Grande National Forest. There is a trail that goes along the east rim of the canyon. This shot is from that trail about one-eighth of a mile from the viewing area. Looking south. Sunset. Early summer.

Photo of the Dallas Divide near Telluride in south-western Colorado.

Dallas divide near Telluride. This is from a pullout on route 62 at 38.099323, -107.871511. Looking west. Sunset.

Day tripping from Denver

Here are three day trips from Denver that can get you some "postcard" shots. I know I am just scratching the surface when I write about these places. But with the limited time available, I was able to do just day and weekend trips to these places.

North Clear Creek Falls is in the Rio Grande National Forest in the southern part of Colorado. It's a great place to shoot for both sunrise and sunset. There are plenty of camping and day-hiking opportunities here too if you want to plan an extended trip.

Maroon Bells near Aspen is a very popular spot for Fall photography. And it's worth the hype. As a bonus, you get to spend some cool time in Aspen and shoot in the nearby areas. If you can, plan to stop by at the Indenpendence Pass. A gorgeous place with top quality views of the Fourteeners.

Telluride area in the south-west Colorado is popular for the Fall colors. I intended to drive over there over a weekend, but instead ended up camping in the Curecanti National Recreation Area near the Blue Mesa Dam in Central Colorado. I don't regret this at all. Gunnison river gorge, just past the Blue Mesa dam has excellent Milky Way photography ops in Fall. The milky way aligns with the gorge after sunset. And there are several spots just off highway 92 to pull-over. For an evening I drove from Curecanti to Dallas Divide in the Telluride area and got to shoot some Aspens at sunset. I think, sunrise might offer some nicer compositions at Dallas Divide.

I have annotated these locations in the map below.

Photo of the Rocky Mountains from the Forest Canyon overlook on the Trail Ridge Road.

Forest Canyon overlook on the Trail Ridge Road in RMNP. Looking east. Sunset.

Photo of the Rocky Mountains from Mount Evans.

Panoramic view of the rockies from Mt. Evans in central Colorado. Looking west, north-west. Sunset. Wide angle.

So much more to see

And finally I will list a few more places where I got good pictures. Trail Ridge Road in the RMNP has many pull-outs. You can get excellent panoramas of the Rockies from there. I particularly like the view from the Forest Canyon Overlook shown above. Mount Evans near Denver is a Fourteener that is accessible by car. You just need to hike the last hundred feet or so to get to the top. Panoramic views from there are extraordinary. Cottonwood Pass and Taylor Reservoir in central Colorado are beautiful, rugged places for photographing Fall colors, Milky Way and the high country in general. Denver downtown has excellent cityscape shooting opportunities, particularly from Spear Blvd.

And finally, I have listed some miscellaneous resources below for useful for inspiration and planning landscape photography Colorado. That's it for now. In the next part of this series, I will post about a few places in the neighboring states where I got a chance to travel for photography.

The places

PlaceLocated inGood forUSP
Bear LakeRMNPSunsetIlluminated mountains, reflections
Sprague LakeRMNPSunriseIlluminated mountains, reflections, fall colors
Dream LakeRMNPSunriseIlluminated mountains, reflections
Mills LakeRMNPSunsetIlluminated mountains, reflections, wildlife
Loch ValeRMNPSunsetIlluminated mountains, reflections
Trail Ridge RoadRMNPAny timePanoramic view of the Rockies
Lake IreneRMNPNightDark sky, milky way
Mount EvansCentral ColoradoSunrise, SunsetPanoramic views, 14er
Maroon BellsNear Aspen, COSunriseIlluminated mountains, reflections, fall colors
Clear Creek FallsRio Grande NPSunset, SunriseWaterfalls
Blue Mesa ReservoirNear GunnisonNight, Sunset, SunriseDark sky, milky way, gorge
Dallas DivideNear Telluride, COSunset, SunriseIlluminated mountains, fall colors

More resources

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