Before I went to work at the Denver Auto Show, I had secretly hoped to get booked for the New Mexico Auto show. Last year, when I received the email asking if I wanted to work it, I responded with a rather unprofessional, but enthusiastic “OMG YES!!!!!” A response of, “If there’s a show you ever want this bad, just let us know” followed.
To this day, I’m not sure if anyone ever reacted this way towards the Albuquerque show. However, I wanted to see the dark skies of New Mexico. That trip would forever change me. The skies were so dark; it was challenging to find the big dipper. The stars so bright, it felt like you could reach out and touch them! I was in love.
When I reached out this season and requested New Mexico, I was slightly disappointed that it wasn’t in the cards this year.
Never Fear Change
Instead of New Mexico, I booked Denver, Colorado. Ok, I thought to myself. Not a terrible consolation prize. Quickly brought up the light pollution map and Google Maps to figure out where to go. The light pollution map didn’t seem promising for the Denver area, or even Rocky Mountain National Park. Also, with it being March, the weather was another consideration. Mountain passes are no joke if you are not adequately prepared.
After some consideration, I decided to spend the few extra days down south, thinking it would be a “safer” bet. Well, I didn’t take in consideration that you still have to drive across the front range to get to Great Sand Dunes National Park. At least the quicker way!
Rental Car Woes
This trip is the first one where I had a debacle at the rental car place. I set up a car through priceline.com for an AWD mid-size SUV. That covers me in the event of adverse weather. AWD also adheres to Colorado’s traction laws. More on that subject later.
After landing at Denver International Airport (DEN), I took the shuttle bus over to Thrifty. I found out that the magnetic strip in my credit/debit card quit working. Thrifty has NO BACKUP system in place to run a card without the mag strip. They will not enter it manually, nor do they have a chip reader. After pleading with them and getting nowhere, and having to work in a few hours, just took a Uber to the hotel.
Luckily, priceline.com doesn’t charge for cancellations. I spend a good half hour calling other rental places to see who has a chip reader. Enterprise came through, and I set up a rental for Saturday – a few days later. Although I no longer had the AWD I was hoping for, the rate was cheaper overall, and also saved on hotel parking for a few days. I guess that’s a plus.
Red Rocks Amphitheater
Watching the ever-dismal looking weather forecast put me into high gear right away. Not wanting to miss an opportunity, I got up at 4:30 am to Uber up to Red Rocks Amphitheater for sunrise, since I didn’t have the rental yet. That was after working until 10 pm the night before. To my surprise, the Milky Way was ever so slightly visible through both the quarter-moon light AND the light pollution.
It dawned on me at this moment that altitude plays a critical role in cutting down on light pollution. I always knew that it helps with clarity, but didn’t realize how much it helped with light pollution! I quickly switched gears into astro mode, for a few nightscapes.
As predicted, the next few days were miserable. It snowed. It rained. And it was windy and cold. However, it made not going to work all that bad. Plus, I was able to catch up on sleep – since the latter part of the trip would provide little opportunity for sleeping.
A break in the clouds presented itself Sunday morning for the Denver area. Since the forecast was looking more and more depressing for southern Colorado, I chose to get up at 2 am to try for a milky way shot up at Echo Lake. I’ll be damned if I don’t get at least one night of Milky Way! Echo Lake is 44 miles from Denver – and I’d have to go up a mountain pass. Luckily, it warmed back up, and after observing the roads, they looked promising. The restrictions placed on vehicles without the proper traction devices lifted by Sunday. This site is immensely helpful for planning road trips in Colorado:
This website was constantly in the background on my computer. Ha!
Echo Lake Magic
Echo Lake is an alpine lake located up Squaw Pass Road, right before the road that leads to the summit of Mt. Evans. While Echo Lake is accessible, the Mt Evans road will not open until Memorial Day. The elevation at this little lake is 10,900 ft. As the highest spot I’ve ever taken a Milky Way shot at, I was absolutely blown away at how little light pollution there was. The stars were so bright! As they rose over the mountain, it looked like someone shined a spotlight from behind the peak! According to the light pollution map, this was located firmly within a Bortle 4 index!
A Cabin and Spectacular Sunrise
Left Echo Lake around 5 am, and headed back down Squaw Pass. I stopped along the way when I spotted this little cabin glowing.
Even though Echo Lake was the original target, this simple image of the cottage in the mountains was my favorite from the night.
As I made my way back to Denver, the clouds rolled in fast and furious. I thought the chances for a great sunrise were growing slim. However, a sliver of an opening in the clouds would make for one of the most vibrant pink and purple skies I’ve seen in a long time.
One Last Workday in Denver
Somehow managed to get my butt to work right after these sunrise shots. 9:30 am comes up fast when you are chasing the light! I also made it there before my co-workers! They may have got a little bit of crap for that. Perhaps the adrenaline rush from both a successful Milky Way chase and a sunrise helped fuel me through the day!
As if working all day wasn’t enough with no sleep, I faced a 4-hour drive down to Crestone, CO. The rental agreement I had with Enterprise was one of their “specials.” That means they pick the car for you. I received a Dodge Caravan. The good news is that this more massive FWD platform would give me a slightly better traction advantage than a smaller compact. They didn’t have anything AWD available, so I rolled with it. The Enterprise attendant reassured me that the van does comply with all their traction laws. Which brings me to –
Colorado and other mountain states have something called “traction laws.” What are these? Well, they are a series of laws in place to ensure that motorists are safe while traversing the higher altitude regions of these states. Weather can change on a dime in the mountain, ESPECIALLY in the higher elevations. Driving with bald tires through the snow in Illinois could end with you in a ditch. If you lose control on a mountain, you could end up tumbling a few thousand feet to your death. The stakes are *slightly* higher. Literally. Not to mention recovery and rescue operations are more difficult in these places.
As such, there are laws to help mitigate risky decisions. In short:
“Under a Traction Law, motorists will need to have either snow tires, tires with the mud/snow (M+S) designation, or a four-wheel/all-wheel drive vehicle — all tires must have a minimum one-eighth inch tread.”
There are some pretty steep fines if you break these. I was here at the end of March, which is still prime time for snowfall.
Check out my article “Traction Addicts! Is Four-Wheel Drive in Your Photography Future?” for more information on AWD, traction, and tires.
Mountain Passes, Altitude, and FWD
I kept my eye on the weather all day. For the most part, it looked decent. There was a chance of snow flurries in the mountain pass, but nothing major. So I decided to take the more direct route across the front range. I did keep in contact with the Airbnb hosts and told them about my late arrival, and the possibility of some weather along the way that may slow me down.
The first few hours of the drive went off without a hitch. Then I hit the city of Fairplay. At 9954 feet and well below freezing, that rain turned to snow. Accumulating snow. At night. As visibility dropped, I slowed down and started to question my life’s choices. I know this sounds silly, but mind you – I’ve never been to this area! I tried to gather my nerves as best as I could and “trucked on.” The minivan did well as the snow accumulated. It only slid a few times.
Part of the fun in arriving late at night to a location is wondering what you’ll wake up to. I was not prepared for the epic view that greeted me! My jaw dropped at the sight of this mountain in the front yard! With the snow and clouds, it was like something out of a movie. Crestone, Colorado is a stunner of a small town. Without virtually any cell signal, it also helps you reconnect with the beauty surrounding it.
Oh, and the snow completely melted by 11 am.
Great Sand Dunes National Park.
Now, for the main event! I planned this whole trip around visiting Great Sand Dunes National Park. Nestled in between the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, it encompasses 30 square miles of dunes. Home to the tallest dunes in North America – one of which reaches 750 feet! The surrounding peaks offer mountain climbers several peaks that reach over 13,000 feet, with a few over 14,000 feet. The park itself is at 8200 feet in elevation. Anything above 8000 feet qualifies as high elevation. Use caution if attempting dune climbs or other strenuous activity until you acclimate to the altitude. I already spent several days in Denver, so the high elevation didn’t bother me.
I spent the afternoon scouting locations for Milky Way photography while taking in the sights. This higher elevation park, coupled with virtually no light pollution is a stargazer’s dream. However, only if the weather co-operates! With the thick clouds rolling in at sunset, I worried about clear skies for later.
Great Sands – Part 2
Headed back to the Airbnb to take a quick nap and get ready to drive back to the park sometime after midnight. Crossed fingers in hopes for the clouds to disperse, too!
Around midnight, I peeked out the window and saw the clouds have dissipated for the most part. There was a lingering haze in the sky. The stars were visible, so I didn’t care. As you can see in the images below, the slight haze created a rather dreamy effect for the brighter stars and planets. Which also accentuated their color! I was thrilled!
One of my favorite times of the day is the transition between blue-hour and sunrise. I absolutely love the pastel colors of the sky and muted overall blue tones. However, depending on conditions, this color may only last a few minutes. This particular morning was one of those. The pink and orange in these photos happened very quick. One of the benefits of staying up all night for Milky Way is that you don’t miss the pre-sunrise color!
One Last Stop
For the return trip to Denver, I chose to take the southern route. I looked at the weather forecast – the mountains were expecting more snow. Even though this route would add about 45 minutes to the trip, it would offer a chance to stop off at Colorado Springs and visit the Garden of the Gods.
Garden of the Gods is one of those places that always pops up when you ask someone about Colorado. Rightfully so! The park offers excellent views of the infamous Pikes Peak, while surrounded by impressive and stunning red rock formations. Not a bad way to squeeze in some activity before a 3-hour flight!
Garden of the Gods is home to several animal species. The bird watching was as fun as landscape photography! This little guy is a Bushtit. Yes, I can hear the snickering through the screen. Ha! The term derives from the Icelandic word “
Onward, back to Chicago! Until we meet again, Colorado!
Traveling Photographer Series.
If you enjoyed this article, check out one of my other ones! The most recent of which covered the Great Milky Way Chase of 2018.