Winter is one of Colorado’s unique charms. One day we’ll be -15°, a few days later we’ll be in the mid-to-low 60’s. January can be a pretty dreary time, especially just after the holidays. Back to work we go, after what was hopefully a restful – but more likely a stressful – holiday season. Summoning the energy to get out into the cold isn’t easy some days. We photographers nobly begin our annual projects hoping to jumpstart determination; drive – then ride the wave into Spring. Only rarely do I succeed.
Inspiration is found employing a different focus; a different cadence because winter possess a different kind of beauty. The color of winter skies is gentle; grayish blues with hints of lavenders, purples and pinks. Overcast skies diffuse the light and bring out amazing textures in just about everything. Walking slowly through The Park on a weekend late afternoon with the cold, metal body in gloved hands I’m not searching for vistas. I’m searching the ground before me. I’m looking again at the things I step on or over come summer.
Despite the fact I can see my breath it’s not that cold at 8,500′ above sea level in January. In the distance a pair of bull elk casually glance up from the business of eating, making sure I haven’t drifted too close while their heads were lowered. Thick, mottled hair dresses long necks with massive racks towering above noble heads. How do they raise and lower all of that so effortlessly to nibble tiny amounts of grass. They slowly make their way in the opposite direction, feigning disinterest but keenly aware of my presence. I purposely ignore them. They’re a safe distance off – no threat to me or them – and truth is, I’d just as soon be left alone too.
I have had the privilege of living in Colorado since 1981 when I moved to Fort Collins to attend Colorado State University. Having moved from Illinois, I’d literally do anything to get into the mountains. At first a poor college student with no car, I once borrowed a friend’s bike – two sizes too large – to pedal up Thompson Canyon from Fort Collins, backpack with ice axe and all. I remember a sleek, streamlined peloton of cyclists in fancy gear and even fancier bikes whizzing by up the canyon, looking at me and smiling. Like they knew… ‘yeh, I’m new here and I’m not going to let anything stop me from getting up into those hills.’
All these years later that same drive hasn’t diminished one bit. Living along Colorado’s Front Range, any opportunity to get deeper into the mountains usually involves at least one trip over Trail Ridge Road. For those unfamiliar with it, Trail Ridge Road (also known as U.S. 34) is a 48 mile stretch of road connecting Estes Park, Colorado with Grand Lake, Colorado by traversing Rocky Mountain National Park at a elevation high point of 12,183. If I can’t get up there for sunrise (leaving Fort Collins by 4am usually) – then I try to time the return trip with late afternoon/evening light. Many times I’ve gone up and just spent the night on the road, sleeping in the back of the truck. Coffee on the tail gate in the morning at 12,000 watching the sun rise over the Mummy Range, Gore Range, and the Medicine Bow’s is pretty tough to beat with a hot cup of french roast.
The above view is accessible to anyone who has made the journey up Trail Ridge to the Alpine Visitor Center. This view looks down what I call the Fall River Valley – the prior route up to the Visitor Center years ago. There is a one way, dirt road buried in the trees at left that winds up from the valley floor – an alternative to the paved Trail Ridge. A common route is to go up Old Fall River Road, then down Trail Ridge Road. Often time elk may be seen grazing in this valley, high above treeline. If I were an elk I’d sure elect to eat dinner here.
And finally, the Monarch of Colorado’s northern Front Range, Longs Peak and Keyboard of the Winds on the upper left horizon recedes into the east flank of Glacier Gorge, surrounded by high, wild country in beautiful light. The views on Trail Ridge Road are constantly changing, largely driven by weather and of course time of day. Storms move in fast – and often are gone just as fast. If you’re not prepared you’ll be soaked and freezing – for a time. Then the sun will come out and the high altitude mountain air will whisk away the water and leave you dry and chilly.
We recently had family from North Carolina visit who had not yet been up Trail Ridge. I was excited for them with anticipation knowing what a thrill that first trip over can be. Several times since moving to Colorado, when I’ve found myself temporarily living in other places, the realization that I can’t hop in the car and – in an hour be up in Rocky Mountain National Park – is a cold smack in the face. I’m humbled to realize that others save their vacation time all year just to spend a week’s vacation in Colorado. And I wake up here every morning. Even after all these years I will never take living in Colorado for granted.