Milky Way over Lake Irene (Oct 24)

Astrophotography interests me, but I'm not really an astronomer-type with a camera and telescope (like my talented photographer friend Pat), but I do enjoy trying to make images of the stars.

I like being outside, especially in a really dark sky area and observing and photographing the Milky Way. The last really good dark sky experience was in Walden, Colorado when we went there to see the Perseids meteor shower.

Image from near Walden, Colorado during Aug 2013 Perseids

Though most of Rocky Mountain National Park isn't in a truly dark sky location, it's still better than being in Denver or Estes Park where there's quite a bit of light pollution.

Light pollution map for Colorado (from 2006 satellite data)

But ever since I saw some of Erik Stensland's night sky photos taken at Lake Irene in RMNP, I've been wanting to get up there. So finally we did.

We went up the day after my hike to Estes Cone, partly because the skies were supposed to be pretty clear, plus, on this date, there was a new moon which had already set earlier in the evening. This, combined with the shorter days in late October, we could go out pretty early and have it be pretty dark.

Lake Irene is about an hour from our house on Trail Ridge Road, so we left about 9pm and arrived at the parking lot to find only one other car (which was one more than I expected!).

We took our Saab convertible up there and shortly after arriving, we put on a bunch of layers and then put the top down. Susan laid down in the back seat to stare up in to the sky, and I wandered around the parking lot with the camera and tripod getting accustomed to the darkness.

Night sky above Lake Irene

The Milky Way above the parking lot at Lake Irene

In 15-20 minutes our eyes got used to the darkness and the Milky Way was there in all its glory. And not only that, staring up into the sky allowed us both to catch the occasional meteor streaking by.

After awhile, we decided to turn our headlamps on and walk on the maintained path to Lake Irene. I was hoping to find still water on the little lake to catch reflections of the stars.

Lake Irene

For the most part, we weren't disappointed. :-)

The starlit trail along Lake Irene

We walked along the edge of the lake, eventually walking around a good bit of it. I was concerned that maybe there was another photographer there because of the car in the parking lot, but we never saw or heard another person.

We were having lots of fun stumbling around in the dark and did a couple of light-painting experiments.

A favorite shot of Susan shining her headlamp on the trail near the lake

Finally, we decided to leave and see what else we could find on the way back home.

We stopped for a few minutes at Rock Cut, but this was even closer to the city lights from Denver, Longmont, Loveland, and Fort Collins.

Continental Divide from Rock Cut

Looking west from Rock Cut with a car on Trail Ridge Road

We made one quick stop at Rainbow Curve for a photo of the lights of what we call "the Valley", and then headed home and to bed.

Looking east from Rainbow Curve

The shot above from Rainbow curve is really interesting. First, you can see there are far fewer stars visible because of the light pollution from the I-25 corridor. You can clearly see the outline of Deer Mountain right of center, with the lights of Estes park to the right. The two light streaks at bottom center are other cars coming up Trail Ridge Road. And there are two small reflections (not lights) in Horseshoe Park -- those are Sheep Lakes! And if you go full screen you might even see meandering Fall River.

If you're curious about camera settings, here's some info. These were shot with a Canon 5D Mark III and a "fast" lens, the Canon EF 24mm f/1.4 L. A tripod is a must. Most shots were about f/2.0, about 2500 ISO and about 25 second exposures. You're "supposed" to use a shutter release, but I often just use the 2 second timer. The hardest part is getting good focus. I switch the lens to manual focus, find a very bright star, and then switch to "Live View" and use 5x or 10x magnification on then adjust the focus ring until the points of light are focussed.

It was a great night to be out, and I finally got to capture the night sky from Lake Irene. I didn't get the fine art results someone like Erik gets, but it was a lot of fun to try!

Lake Irene

Hike to Estes Cone (Oct 23)

Some friends recently moved here from the northeast and Tim had asked for recommendations for good "starter hikes" to do for someone who's active and fit.

I thought about it some and realized that the hike to Estes Cone is a really nice moderate hike of about almost 7 miles round trip, with a nominal gain of about 1,600' (about 2,000' with all ups and downs). The hike starts at the Longs Peak area at an elevation of 9,400 with the summit being at 11,006'. Definitely something to get the heart pumping and lungs inflating!

View of Estes Cone (foreground); Meeker, Longs, and Mt Lady Washington in background; taken from Lily Mountain

Map of the Estes Cone hike

After giving him my recommendation, I invited myself to go along and I'm glad I did. Spending several hours hiking is a fun way to have good conversation and share the outdoor experience. And I especially enjoyed talking with Tim about photography, as he's done that for a living for many years.

Estes Cone from the Longs Peak trailhead parking lot

I really like the hike to Estes Cone as it has some nice hiking in the woods, with only the last third of mile being strenuous and a little scramble at the top.

The weather was good this day and we started the hike a bit before 9am. We took our time on the trail and summitted at about 11:30am.

Tim summiting

Estes Cone is a fantastic summit experience with 360 degree views of Longs Peak, the peaks along the Continental Divide, Estes Park, and Twin Sisters (less than 3 miles away).

Meeker, Longs, and Mt Lady Washington (almost 4 miles away to the SW)

Looking WNW towards the Continental Divide (about 6 miles away)

We scrambled around on the rocky summit rocks for awhile, taking in the views, making photographs, and trying to stay warm in the fairly windy conditions.

Tim on the summit

I hadn't been on Estes Cone since the Colorado Floods last year and realized we had a really great perspective on the massive landslide that happened on Twin Sisters, stopping just short of Aspen Lodge.

View from the summit to the east; Lily Lake at left; landslide on Twin Sisters at right

Detail of the landslide on Twin Sisters; Aspen Lodge is at lower right

Looking ENE; Estes Park and Lake Estes are at center left; Lily Mountain Center, Lily Lake at lower right

After about 30 minutes we headed back down off the summit and hit the trail to the car.

One last view of Longs from the rocky summit

Tim starting the scramble down from the summit

Hiking profile for Estes Cone (elevation part even looks like a cone!)

Bierstadt Lake Sunrise (Oct 16)

It's not easy getting up early enough for a sunrise photoshoot, especially when you have to hike up almost 600' of gain in the first mile. In the dark. And in the wind. But that's what Susan I did this Thursday morning.

Pre-dawn light on windy Lake Bierstadt

We hiked up from the Bierstadt trailhead along Bear Lake Road in Rocky. There's was one other car in the parking lot, but we had the trail and the lake to ourselves the entire time.

Bierstadt and Sprague Lake along Bear Lake Road

It was very windy, and we just had to accept we weren't going to have a glass-like surface on the lake for reflections. We wanted to be at the east end of the lake so we'd have the morning light on the peaks of the Continental Divide.

But this also meant that the wind was blowing right into our faces. And the front of the camera. And even though we were using a heavy tripod, the wind was strong enough to cause some of our shots to be blurred.

Looking southeast across the lake; Longs Peak at far right

We took a few shots of the Divide, before and after the light, plus a few to the south with some light on Longs Peak. But clouds in the east knocked out the sunlight, so the best light was gone. We'd had enough of the wind and decide to head back down.

The last good light we had before the clouds ate the sun

After we got back to the car, we warmed up a bit and then decided to go see what was happening at Sprague Lake. In the past, we'd seen elk, moose, and even Belted Kingfishers at the lake. But not this day.

Continental Divide viewed from across Sprague Lake

By now the morning light had mostly faded, but it was still nice walking around the lake. Near the end of our walk, we spotted a couple of mule deer, but that pretty much it except for a couple of waterfowl on the lake.

Mule Deer 

We headed on home to warm up with some breakfast and more coffee. Not a bad way to start the day.

The classic view of Otis, Hallett, and Flattop peaks from Sprague Lake

Mount Ida Birthday Hike (Sep 28)

I have to admit, I saw my looming 60th birthday as something of a major milestone. Certainly an age that sounds "old" for me, even though I don't feel much over 35 (and I'm probably in better shape now).

At first, I wanted to have a big party to celebrate with all my friends. Or commiserate. You know, lots of cake and ice cream. And black balloons. And "old guy" over-the-hill jokes made at my expense. :-)

But because we've been so busy this year, we reconsidered the party idea and decided I would most enjoy being outside, hiking to the top of a mountain, preferably one I'd never stood on before.

I thought back to my birthday last year. We were recovering from the Colorado Flood of 2013 and though our house wasn't directly affected, Estes Park's sewer infrastructure was severely damaged, and we were one of 1,900 homes without a flushing toilet for several weeks. So we hit the road to see other parts of Colorado. During this trip I celebrated my 59th birthday outside, photographing the Maroon Bells at sunrise from Maroon Lake, and then hiking with Susan to nearby Crater Lake. It was a fantastic birthday!

Mike at Maroon Bells for Birthday #59 last year

Front Range Pika Project (Aug/Sep)

We love pikas. :-)

American Pika near Crater Lake, Maroon Bells, Colorado

We travel with a stuffed pika named "Petey" on our dashboard and I hike with him in my backpack. He's an American Pika, of course. :-)

Petey Pika on the Alaska Highway

So when I learned about the Front Range Pika Project I knew this was the citizen science project for me. Pika Patrol volunteers hike to specific sites along the Front Range from Fort Collins to Colorado Springs, and west about as far as Breckenridge to study the little lagomorphs (they are not rodents!) and their habitat. The first rule for Pika Patrol members is no hiking alone, so I was thrilled that Mike not only agreed to accompany me on pika hikes, but wanted to go through the volunteer training as well.

Play the video above for a promo about the Front Range Pika Project.

Classroom training came first. We learned so many new things about pikas as well as what our duties would be on Pika Patrol. During the training presentation we were moved to see several images donated by the late Dick Orleans. Dick was a local Estes Park photographer, musician, and nature lover who passed away unexpectedly earlier this year, and he too loved pikas.

Front Range Pika Project field training

The primary purpose of the FRPP study is to observe and document the presence or absence of pikas at specified locations over a 10 year period, and note any habitat changes. Pikas can't survive very long in warm temperatures, so climate change is a concern to their survival. We learned to determine the presence of pikas not just by visual or auditory means, but by finding fresh haypiles or scat. In all the years we've been hiking, neither of us had taken note of a pika haypile or knew that the orangey-white marks often seen on alpine tundra rocks are pika latrines.

We were given a handbook with maps, location descriptions, data collection protocols, forms, and other information. We also were given a tape measure to measure talus, and a thermometer to record temperatures.

A pika "latrine" with fresh scat

Next, measurements and characteristics of talus, the pika's habitat, and surrounding area are noted. Current weather conditions are recorded and a few photos of the surrounding vegetation are taken before leaving the site. If fresh scat is found, it is collected for DNA analysis to evaluate pika stress hormone levels.

The second training session was conducted in the field. We met with researchers and about 25 other volunteers at a pika location near Loveland Pass to test our pika finding skills and put into practice the protocols we learned in the classroom. Since most of the study sites are off-trail, GPS route-finding skills were taught.

We were also shown how to enter the data we collected into an observation record at the Pika Project website. Now we were ready to hit the trail.

Field training for FRPP, near Loveland Pass

Our first pika hike was to Bighorn Mountain in Rocky Mountain National Park. From the Lawn Lake Trailhead, we hiked in a couple miles then bushwhacked our way up through a steep, rocky and thickly forested area before reaching the GPS point in a large talus field.

Susan about to bushwhack up a difficult talus slope on the way up to the Bighorn Mountain pika location

The entire hike was only 5 miles round trip, but the challenging terrain of fallen timbers and slick rocks, combined with 2,500 feet of elevation gain made the walk more difficult. We completed our observations, and were pleased to both hear and see pikas and be able to collect fresh scat samples.

Susan collecting a scat sample from a pika "latrine"

We loved seeing this pika near its haypile

View from our pika location citizen science "laboratory." Chiquita, Ypsilon and Mummy Mountains in background

From this pika location, the summit of Bighorn Mountain was not far, but straight up and I was exhausted from all the bushwhacking. With some encouragement from Mike, I pushed on and it was so worth the extra effort. The broad flat summit was scattered with a few large rocky outcroppings. What a fun place to play and take in the panoramic views from a new perspective!

Panorama from near the Bighorn summit. Mike is a tiny dot at far upper left.

Susan at the Bighorn Mountain summit; you can see Lake Estes and Estes Park above and to her right

Mike uses duct tape to repair the PVC pipe summit register 

Susan heading down. Mt Tileston is above her, with Mummy Mountain at far left.

Our next pika site was at Trap Lake, off of Hwy 14 north of RMNP. This time we enjoyed fall color on the long drive and had only a short walk at the lake to our GPS coordinates. Again, success at finding pikas and collecting scat specimens. We took the long way home through Walden, stopping at the River Rock Cafe at the Antlers Inn for a meal before completing the big loop across Trail Ridge Road back home.

The "parking lot" at Trap Lake on Long Lake Rd, near Hwy 14

Susan on the talus slope above Trap Lake (note road and our car just right of center)

Pika observed near its haypile at the Trap Lake location

Looking up the talus slope above Trap Lake

Mike collects a scat sample
Our most recent pika hike was along the Mount Audubon Trail near Brainard Lake. We were curious about the hike and wondered why we hadn't hiked this beautiful area sooner as it is no further from home than some parts of Rocky.

View along the trail on the way to our Mt Audubon pika location

Susan indicating direction of the camera from our first location; part of our data collection protocol

We ended up visiting two sites on this bluebird day because they were so close together. The second site was especially fun because it gave us a great view of the Longs Peak area looking north, the opposite direction we normally see it from.

Mike arriving at our 2nd pika location for the day; Longs Peak in background

Another spectacular view from our field lab

With the experience of two previous pika hikes under our belts, we completed our work at both sites quickly. Unfortunately we hadn't packed enough water to go on to summit Mount Audubon, but we've added to our ever-growing "next time" list. :-)

Our last view of Longs Peak for the day

We look forward to the end of season party in November and sharing experiences with other volunteers. If you are interested in citizen science, pikas, hiking, or would consider joining the 2015 Pika Patrol, please visit