Nature Photography Guide to Rocky Mountain National Park
The fog hangs low in the meadow on a cool, crisp morning. Dew blankets the grasses as the bugles of the bull elk are heard echoing through the valley. Shades of gold wrap the leaves of the aspens and cottonwoods on the moraines and river bottoms. This is autumn in Rocky Mountain National Park, a haven for nature photography.
One of the most exciting seasons to visit the 265,807-acre outdoor playground is in autumn. However, the other three seasons hold their own special attractions, with different guidelines and considerations for each season.
Protected for its tundra habitat, it is one of the few national parks to have open alpine tundra for exploration. It is home to the amazing Trail Ridge Road, the highest continuous paved road in the U.S. At its highest point, the road reaches 3,713 meters (12,183 feet) and connects the 48 miles (77 kilometres) between Estes Park on the east side and Grand Lake on the west.
Along this road, visitors will also discover the Alpine Visitor Center, the highest visitor centre in the U.S. National Park System at 3,595m (11,796 ft).
For nature photographers, Rocky Mountain National Park holds a year’s worth of photo opportunities – from waterfalls and alpine lakes to wide-open views of mountain peaks to animals of all sizes.
Rocky Mountain National Park wildlife
Wildlife and their behaviours vary from season to season, so there is plenty to photograph year round!
Rocky is known for its autumn elk rut (mating) season. Similar to red deer found in Europe, elk are large mammals that can reach sizes of 500 kilograms (1,100 pounds) with males carrying antlers as large as 1.2 m (4 ft) in length and 9 kg (20 lbs) in weight.
The peak of the rutting season happens during the last two weeks of September and the first week of October, but photo opportunities can be found throughout these two months.
Some of the best photos of elk during the autumn happen just before the peak season when the largest bulls build their harems of cows. During this time, the bulls will fight off other bulls, clashing antlers, kicking up dirt, and chasing rivals through the forest.
This earlier time in the season often means the bulls have not yet broken tines from their antlers and have not suffered any debilitating injuries, making photos more impressive.
As the autumn season moves into October, the park often sees snow. The additional element of fresh snow on golden leaves with bugling elk at the forest edge completes a scene admired by many.
Look for the bull elk with their harems during the autumn rut in Moraine Park, Beaver Meadows, and Horseshoe Park on the east side and Kawuneeche Valley on the west side. Mornings and afternoons are best, especially on cooler days.
Read more: How to Photograph Elk
Outside of the autumn rut, late spring and early summer bring prime opportunities to photograph spring babies. The park is home to a wide variety of animals that give birth in May and June. The most common are moose, elk, mule deer, coyotes, and bighorn sheep.
Small mammals, like yellow-bellied marmots, chipmunks, Wyoming ground squirrels, golden-mantled ground squirrels, and American pika, also have babies this time of year. Although, it can be a little harder to differentiate between adults and young ones.
Black bears also bring their cubs out at this time of year; only about 30 bears live in the park so they can be difficult to photograph with any predictability or consistency.
If visiting in summer, drive up Trail Ridge Road to look for wildlife along the tundra. Here, the bugs are fewer in number, food is plentiful, and the wide-open spaces surrounded by mountain peaks provide a stunning backdrop for an environmental portrait of a moose or elk.
Stop at Rock Cut to look for bighorn sheep, American pikas, and yellow-bellied marmots. Take Old Fall River Road, a narrow dirt road full of switchbacks, for an alternate route to reach the tundra looking for elk along the way.
Read more: How to Take Impacting Portraits of Wildlife
Although wildlife can be photographed throughout the year in Rocky Mountain National Park, winter is the slowest of the four seasons. Coyotes offer the best photo opportunities – their brown coats make them easier to spot in a snowy landscape as they stalk ground squirrels, voles, and mice before bounding into the air for the kill.
Bears hibernate from October to April, and most of the elk move to lower elevations east of the park for the winter. A bachelor herd of elk sometimes lingers in Horseshoe Park, selecting warmer days to feed in the open and retreating to the forest on windy days. Moose do stay in the park but spend much of the winter in the thicker timber out of the wind.
Birds of Rocky Mountain National Park
Besides the mammals, birds flock to Rocky Mountain National Park on their spring migration, either as full-time residents or to raise their young. More than 270 species of birds have been reported in the park in the last 100 years – from the white-tailed ptarmigan and American pipits of the tundra to the yellow warblers and American dippers of the riparian areas.
During the spring migration in April and May, you’ll find a wide variety of shore birds, songbirds, and wading birds. Look for species like American avocets, great egrets, white-faced ibis, Wilson’s warblers, and willets, at the Matthews-Reeser Bird Sanctuary on the west end of Lake Estes in Estes Park.
In the park, watch for birds like yellow-rumped warblers, western tanagers, American robins, and crossbills in the meadows and riparian areas. They are found especially in Beaver Meadows, Endovalley, and Kawuneeche Valley.
For the larger birds, look for the bald eagles and osprey that live along Lake Estes in Estes Park or the numerous osprey nests around the three lakes near Grand Lake. Canada geese also nest at Lake Estes and another pair have found a comfortable home for their goslings at Sprague Lake. Wild turkeys raise their young near forest edges throughout the east side of the park.
For smaller birds, search the dead pine trees or the soft-wooded aspen trees for cavity nesters. Mountain bluebirds, tree swallows, violet-green swallows, house wrens, northern flickers, and red-naped sapsuckers are some of the more popular birds to photograph.
The Endovalley area of the park is one of the best locations for cavity nesters. Broad-tailed hummingbirds also arrive in the park in late spring and raise their young during a short, two-week nesting period in June.
Year-round, the park is home to black-billed magpies, American crows, mallards, mountain chickadees, Steller’s jays, and many others. Look for these birds in winter during falling snow for unique images that capture the essence of Colorado’s Rocky Mountains.
Read more: How to Harness Light in Bird Photography
Wildlife photography tips
The goal of wildlife photography is to bring the animal closer to the viewer or to show them in their environment. Not every photo of an animal must be an in-your-face portrait; behaviour images or environmental portraits can garner just as much attention and admiration.
Use a 400mm lens or longer to get the reach needed to photograph animals without having to approach them (an action that is not permitted in the park). Teleconverters also help with reach, coming in factors of 1.4, 1.7, and 2.0 magnification.
For environmental portraits, go with a mid-range zoom like a 100-400mm lens to put the animal in its habitat. This can be one of the hardest images to successfully capture since the animal will not take direction on where to stand. Rather, as the photographer, envision the image and anticipate where an animal will be in the scene.
More so than equipment, successful wildlife photos depend on understanding the behaviour of the animals. Although this takes time, making this investment to anticipate animal actions will pay off with better images.
For example, most people want photos of elk bugling during the autumn rut. If the photographer waits until the elk bugles, the bugling is typically finished before you can lift the camera and focus. Instead, watch the elk as he follows the cows. When a cow pees, the bull will sniff the urine to see if she is ready to mate. When he lifts his head after sniffing, he will typically bugle.
Another example is the popular photo of a pika with a mouthful of food. Since pikas do not hibernate, they need to collect grasses and plants throughout the summer to make caches of food to survive the winter. Pikas blend in very well to their surroundings and move fast, both factors that make tracking them hard.
Instead, watch the pika for 20 or 30 minutes. They will have a favourite rock to stop on before running back to the den with the food. Find this rock and pre-focus on it, being ready to press the shutter button when the pika arrives.
Landscape photography in Rocky Mountain National Park
Although wildlife certainly draws a fair number of visitors to Rocky Mountain National Park, the scenic vistas really capture the attention of photographers when exploring the area. With 77 mountain peaks that reach above 3,658 m (12,000 ft), including the park’s tallest mountain Longs Peak at 4,346 m (14,259 ft), 250,000 acres of wilderness, and 255 mi (571 km) of hiking trails, there is no shortage of places to find scenic images.
For the photographer looking for images closer to the roads, try a couple of the more accessible alpine lakes, like Bear Lake, Lily Lake, and Sprague Lake. All three offer great compositions for sunrise or sunset and the easy, flat trails around each lake make them ideal options for those getting acclimated to the elevation. Storm Pass, Beaver Meadows Overlook, and Moraine Park are ideal sunrise photo locations.
For sunset, head up to Trail Ridge Road and photograph from Rock Cut and Gore Range Overlook. Each has a unique perspective of the Rocky’s tallest peak, Longs Peak. During the summer, photograph these locations as the afternoon storms leave the area, clearing clouds circle the peaks, and rainbows sometimes make an appearance in the afternoon light.
In Kawuneeche Valley, look for reflections of the peaks of the Never Summer Range in the beaver ponds and the Colorado River meandering through the valley.
For the little more adventurous, head out onto a trail. There are hikes for all skill levels, but some of the best destinations for photography on the east side include Dream Lake, Bierstadt Lake, The Loch, and viewpoints of Longs Peak along the trail between Nymph Lake and Lake Haiyaha. On the west side, hike out to East Meadow or look for compositions along Grand Lake.
No visit to Rocky Mountain National Park would be complete without a photo or two of a waterfall. One of the best and easiest waterfalls to reach is Chasm Falls along Old Fall River Road. Another easy option with a lot of photo opportunities is Horseshoe Falls at the Alluvial Fan, especially in autumn. For a longer hike, check out Alberta Falls in the Bear Lake Corridor or Adams Falls out of East Inlet on the west side.
Finally, do not overlook the opportunities of photographing the park at night. Trail Ridge Road is open during most of the Milky Way season, which happens from April to October in this region.
Conveniently, Longs Peak sits in the southern part of the park below the Milky Way. Some of the best locations for photographing the Milky Way include Lily Lake, Bear Lake, Poudre Lake, and anywhere along Trail Ridge Road. There is some glow from light pollution coming from the Front Range towns, but the farther west you go into the park, the darker the skies become.
Landscape photography tips
There isn’t a lot of special equipment needed to photograph the landscapes in Rocky Mountain National Park. Weight should be considered for hikes to photo destinations. For grand scenes, go with a wide lens in the range of 16 to 24mm so that you can capture the peaks and the reflections.
A mid-range zoom lens, like a 100-400mm, produces the best photos of wildlife in the landscape. The longer-range lens compresses the scene and makes the animal feel closer, or you can zoom in for a detailed or abstract shot of the landscape.
For any sunrise or sunset shot, use a tripod and remote shutter so you can use as low an ISO as possible for the best quality in your final image. At a low ISO, your shutter speed will be significantly slower than most people can steadily handhold a camera so these two items will help keep the image sharp.
Add a circular polarizer onto your lens for photographs of water to cut through the glare on the surface of a lake, bring out the details in rocks under flowing water in waterfalls, or intensify the colours in wet scenes. Remember to rotate it to change the effect from horizontal to vertical orientation.
For night photography, go with the best glass possible with maximum apertures of f1.4 or f2.8. Most scenes can be captured with a lens in the range of 14 to 24mm. Always use a tripod and remote shutter, and be sure to use a headlamp to avoid nearby wildlife and help navigate through the dark.
Since Rocky Mountain National Park is, well, rocky, wear good hiking boots! Gear should also include a headlamp for sunrise or sunset shots, a hat, gloves, layered clothes, a jacket, walking poles, plenty of water, snacks, and a small backpack to carry extra batteries, memory cards, and lens cleaning supplies.
Visiting Rocky Mountain National Park
In 2020, park management established a timed-entry reservation system. This has helped to spread out visitation over the course of the day and ensure parking spaces are available in the busier sections of the park.
The reservation system can be a bit confusing as there are two sections of the park that have different guidelines. The Bear Lake Corridor (the road that runs from the Beaver Meadows entrance to Bear Lake) requires a timed-entry reservation from 5 a.m. to 6 p.m. from the Friday of Memorial Day Weekend in May to the second Monday in October.
The rest of the park, including all outlying areas like Lily Lake, Lumpy Ridge, and Wild Basin, requires a timed-entry reservation from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Visitors may enter the park before or after the reservation windows and stay in the park; visitors cannot, however, exit and re-enter without a reservation inside of the reservation window if they have previously been into the park.
Reservations go on sale a full month before the next month. For example, a reservation for any date in July goes on sale on June 1. Some dates and times go quickly so it is best to be online on the first of the month before a planned visit to secure your reservation.
Another option is to hire a guide who has a commercial use authorization permit. Their permit covers your timed-entry reservation, but a parks pass is still needed by all visitors to enter the park.
There are numerous hotels, lodges, short-term rentals, and campgrounds in Estes Park and Grand Lake. The park has five campgrounds with all but one requiring reservations, and only Moraine Park stays open all year. There are no lodges within the park.
Estes Park has a large grocery store, a drug store, and plenty of restaurants. There is a shuttle service that runs from the Denver International Airport to Estes Park, and several free shuttle options to get around town. Grand Lake, however, does not have these services.
When planning a trip to Rocky Mountain National Park, consider the season. Summer is by far the busiest season and best for wildflowers. It is also the only season when Trail Ridge Road and Old Fall River Road are open.
Autumn and spring are beautiful, with the best opportunities for photographing wildlife and wildflowers, but some roads are commonly closed because of weather and snow.
Winter offers stunning white landscapes, but only about a third of the park roads are open and reaching Grand Lake from Estes Park requires a three-hour drive around the park.
Rocky Mountain National Park is popular for a reason. The combination of mountain peaks, numerous trails, abundant wildlife, and night skies full of stars make this park a gem for any nature photographer. So, get out there and enjoy exploring the high country of Colorado!