Thursday, April 23, 2015

Four Seasons - The Flatirons

Boulder Colorado Flatirons four Seasons  Winter Summer Fall Spring photography by Aaron Spong

Earlier this year, I completed a series of four photographs of the Flatirons from Chautauqua Park located in the city of Boulder. The pictures are taken from the exact same location with a classic view of the mountains at different times of the year. To make a four-season series requires a bit more work than you might think. I must have visited this spot seven or eight times to get the resulting four images. Sometimes I would get there before dawn and the sun wouldn't come out or the leaves weren't changed yet. Conditions don't always cooperate. These images are the best out of the bunch and have quickly become my best selling photography prints on my site.

Boulder Colorado Flatirons in Springtime with flowers and moon

The Boulder Flatirons in Autumn from Chautauqua Park Colorado
Early Fall

The Boulder flatirons in lat fall from Chautuaqua Park Colorado on Thanksgiving day
Late Fall

The Boulder Flatirons from Chautauqua Park in Winter with snow

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

The Top 10 Most Beautiful Colorado 14ers

Colorado 14ers Challenger Point, Kit Carson Peak, Crestone Peak and Crestone Needle from the San Luis Valley

When you gaze at the Colorado Rocky Mountains, words might come to mind such as gorgeous, stunning, impressive, spectacular, or maybe majestic. There are 53 ranked peaks in the state that reach an elevation of more than 14,000 ft. above sea level known as 14ers. These famous mountains have been the obsession of outdoor enthusiasts who dream of standing on all of their summits.  Profiles of these peaks range from steep and jagged to gentle and curved. Some have classic, iconic views from easily accessible tourist locations, but these very same mountains might be hard to recognize when seen from different or unique angles.

After spending a great deal of time hiking/climbing on and around the 14ers, I've compiled a list of the ones which I believe to be the most beautiful. Obviously, this list is subjective and open to differences of opinion:

#1 Mt. Sneffels

Mt. Sneffels has to be at the top of the list. The Sneffels Range is unique from the rest of Colorado's mountains in appearance. These rugged peaks rise drastically above the aspen forests and farm fields below. The panorama from Dallas Divide Pass on Hwy 62 west of Ridgway is one of the most magnificent sights that you can drive to in the state. From here, Mt. Sneffels has a traditional triangle mountain silhouette that looks like a mountain one of my 3rd grade students might draw. I could easily spend weeks at a time photographing this area during any season of the year.

#2 Crestone Peak and Crestone Needle

The Crestones are two connected summits located in the Sangre de Cristo Range near the town of Westcliffe. They belong to a long, thin chain of tall mountains that span from the south-central part of Colorado into northern New Mexico. They are included in the backdrop seen from the Great Sand Dunes National Park and the San Luis Valley. Jagged is one word I would use to describe these peaks. In my opinion, this duo is not only near the top of the "most beautiful" list, but also at the top of the "most fun to climb" list of 14ers.

#3 The Maroon Bells

The Maroon Bells are probably the most photographed mountains in North America. The Tetons have the same claim, but I suppose there is no way to measure this statistic. Nevertheless, these two giants certainly live up to their fame. The classic postcard scene from Maroon Lake near the high-class town of Aspen contains every element that composes a great photograph: colorful hillsides of aspen groves, pristine lake reflections, and a perfect angle of view for the warm sunrise light to land on the snow-capped peaks. Just don't expect any solitude here. When I set up to take pictures of the autumn sunrise, there must have been more than 200 people lined up next to me along the shoreline tripod to tripod.

Longs peak is the monarch of Rocky Mountain National Park. It is the most popular of the difficult peaks to climb due to its close proximity to Denver and other major Front Range cities. It has also claimed the most lives. There are dozens of routes to the summit ranging from basic scrambles to advanced 5th class technical climbing. During an ascent of Longs, you can't help but marvel at the sheer might of the east face known as the "Diamond". Other interesting natural features include the Keyhole, the Boulder Field, the Beaver, and the Ships Prow.

There is a reason Coors Brewing Company chose to use Wilson Peak as a logo for its beer cans/commercials. It is a perfect representation of the Colorado Rockies. This intimidating mountain dominates the view from the town of Telluride. Wilson Mesa and Silver Pick Road provide some of the finest perspectives of this peak.

Wetterhorn Peak with storm clouds behind by Aaron Spong
Wetterhorn is another San Juan beauty located in the Uncompahgre Wilderness near Lake City. It is a neighbor to the taller, more popular Uncompahgre Peak. Wetterhorn is quite dramatic with sheer cliff walls falling off from near the summit. The landscape of the surrounding area consists of lush green tundra in the summer months which add to its beauty. This is one of those peaks that looks interesting and unique from all different aspects. 

#7 Mt. Princeton

Mt. Princeton is an awe inspiring Collegiate 14er located above the town of Buena Vista.  The Sawatch Range has the highest concentration of summits above 14,000 ft. compared to any other Colorado range.  The Arkansas River Valley is not as popular as other mountain vacation destinations because of a lack of ski resorts and a longer distance from Denver.  This makes it one of the best kept secrets for Coloradans who are into hiking, mountain biking, 4-wheeling, or whitewater rafting.  I'm surprised that this area isn't more famous as the scenery is fantastic!

#8 Capitol Peak

This one is commonly known as the most difficult of the 14ers to climb.  It is located in the Maroon Bells/Snowmass Wilderness of the Elk Range.  In Autumn, the Capitol Creek Valley lights on fire with yellow hues from the endless hillsides of changing aspens while Capitol Peak looms in the distance as the centerpiece.  It's quite a hike just to get to the base of this mountain.  Most prefer to make it a multiple day trip to summit.

#9 Pikes Peak

Pikes Peak is somewhat mild in appearance when compared to others in the list. This is the only 14er that you can drive all the way to the summit in your car (Mt. Evans comes close and can be driven almost to the summit). You can also get a train ticket to the top! Pikes Peak stands out on its own away from other peaks and is nearly visible from the Wyoming border to the north and New Mexico to the south.  The mountain is famous and inspired the song "America the Beautiful" shortly after Katharine Lee Bates stood on the summit. One of the most fascinating places to photograph Pikes is from Garden of the Gods Park in Colorado Springs. From this location, you can see huge rolling hills filled with large craggy rock formations giving way to its broad, massive summit. Like the Bells, you will not be lonely here on a summer weekend.

Windom Peak and the other Needle Mountain 14ers are among the most secluded.  The easiest way to access them requires a ticket on the Durango/Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad Train and a 6 mile backpack with 3,000 ft. of elevation gain to reach base camp.  The area is surrounded by jagged, pointed rock spires with unlimited rock climbing opportunities.  Windom is the second (or first depending on the most recent surveys) tallest of the group.  The views of Windom Peak, Jupiter Mountain and Peak 18 from the Chicago Basin are absolutely breathtaking!

So what do you think?  Did I miss any?  There are definitely other peaks that compare to these.  Maybe I should make it a top 20 list.  Or top 30.  One thing is sure.  No matter where you choose to go in the mountains, you will find beauty there. 

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Camping in Spanish Peaks Country

sunrise over the spanish peaks in Huerfano County near Walsenberg, Colorado
Sunrise over the Spanish Peaks - Prints available

This weekend we spent a little time camping near the Spanish Peaks in Blackhawk Ranch near the little town of Walsenberg, Colorado.  It's a dry desert country with piƱon pines and good views of the Sangre de Cristo mountains, most of which are still holding on to some of their snow.  I've posted a few images from our trip.  Enjoy!

The Blanca group in the distance

East Spanish Peak at sunset
East Spanish Peak at night

campfire with flames sparks and shooting star camping forest fire
Campfire under the stars - Prints available

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Sunrise from Marble Mountain

Peak: Marble Mountain
Elevation: 13,266'
RT distance: 12.5 miles
Date: April 6, 2015
Partner: Brad

The Crestone Peak and Needle at sunrise from Marble Mountain in early Spring photography by Aaron Spong
Colorado 14ers Crestone Needle and Crestone Peak with Kit Carson on the right - Prints available 

Brad and I drove down to Westcliffe planning on hiking two lower 13ers, Marble Mountain and Horn Peak.  We thought it would be cool to do a full moon hike to take pictures of the Crestones in the sunrise light.  This would give me an opportunity to try out my new D7100!  We arrived just in time to watch a spectacular sunset on the Sangre de Cristo Range.

sangre de cristo sunset landscape with shavano and antero at left
Sunset looking north. Shavano and Antero are at left  -  Prints available

Sunset over the Sangre de Cristo Range near Westcliffe Colorado panorama
Sangre de Cristo Range Sunset - Prints available

I had photographed this area before last spring. This time I wanted to get the view from high up on the mountain.

Sunrise panorama of Colorado 14ers Marble mountain Crestone Peak Crestone Needle and Humboldt Peak
The Crestone Group from last year taken near Wescliffe.  Marble Mountain is on the left 

The forecast said 30 mph winds with gusts as high as 50.  When we pitched our tent at the trailhead, the winds were as predicted.  We tried to use our truck to block the wind, but there was no way we were going to be able to sleep with the tent flapping around like it was.  Plan B…sleep in the truck.  It was about 10:00 when we turned in.  The wind beat against the truck and shook it while we tried to sleep.  At 1:00 Brad's phone alarm went off.  

"Did you get any sleep"


"Me neither"

"Lets go!"

We started up the trail in the dark.  The light from the full moon was so bright we didn't really even need our headlights.  The road to South Colony Lakes was dry until about .6 miles, then it turned to snow.  We used our microspikes the entire way up as the snow was firm in the cold night.  There is no path once you leave the Rainbow Trail, but the route is somewhat straightforward in the trees along the ridge line.  We reached what we considered to be the ideal location for photos of the crestones above 12,000 ft. and waited here about an hour for the sun to come up.  The cold wind was relentless.  I was worried that I would not be able to keep my camera steady even while mounted on the tripod.  As the sun began to rise, clouds behind the peaks rose as well creating a perfect pink pastel colored light right above the these dramatic mountains. 

sunrise over the Crestone Group with Humboldt peak broken hand peak from marble mountain sangre de cristo range colorado
Wide angle view of the Crestone Group - Crestone Needle, Crestone Peak, Kit Carson, and Humboldt - Prints available

The moon set just as the sun rose. 

The full moon sets over Marble Mountain as the sun rises to the east
Moon setting behind a sub peak of Marble Mountain  -  Prints available

These were rare sunrise conditions on a rarely viewed angle of these peaks.  We were very happy that all our hard work and discomfort of the night was rewarded with an awesome light show.  The golden hour light did not last long.  With frozen hands from taking pictures, we started up to finish the last 1000 ft. or so to the summit.  We had to battle against the wind on our way up the mountain.  A couple times it literally pushed us over onto our knees. 

Wind swept ridge  (Photo credit: Brad)

Fatigue (photo credit: Brad)

A combination of challenging conditions (strong wind, snow, cold, not sleeping) made this summit difficult to reach.  I considered turning back multiple times, even once when I was only about ten feet from the top.  Sometimes I think it's good to just tell your body to shut up…you know, let it know it doesn't always make the decisions. 

On the summit we took a break and ate a snack.  I'm not an apple fan, but that was the best tasting apple I've ever eaten.

Summit views
Broken Hand peak Crestones Kit Carson and Humboldt Peak from the summit of Marble Mountain
Crestone Group and South Colony Lakes

The view south

The return trip dragged on.  I can remember the never ending ridge in the trees and feeling like I was dreaming even though I was awake.  Brad described it as almost being separated from your body…like your body is doing one thing while your mind is doing another.  I do not recommend climbing a mountain on zero hours of sleep.  My brother once climbed Longs Peak with us without sleeping the night before.  I remember at the end of the trip he looked like a zombie.  I'm sure that Brad and I looked the same on this trip.

Taking a break.   (Photo credit: Brad)

At this point, Horn Peak was not very enticing and we decided to pass on our second day of hiking.  We also both agreed that we were not in a safe state to drive in once we reached the truck.  So, we took a quick power nap for about an hour and a half before driving home.  It's amazing what a little REM will do for you!  We stopped at Rudy's BBQ in Colorado Springs on our way home.  We thanked the Lord for a good trip and for keeping us safe.  It was an awesome adventure, but I think full moon hikes are a good one time per year activity.