This beautiful and historic mountain pass, is one of our most popular photo tour locations for photographing high alpine environment. The road is open year round and provides some amazing photography opportunities including huge mountain tops (known as “fourteeners” locally due to their 14,000+ foot peaks), crystal clean mountain streams, beautiful cascading waterfalls, and alpine meadows.
Streams, Waterfalls and Cascades: This tour follows a wonderfully scenic mountain stream. Its crystal clear waters bounce through beautiful pine forests from the top of the pass all the way to the front range. The boulders which make the stream’s bedrock provide great platforms from which to take photos from the middle of the river, as long as you don’t mind doing a bit of rock hopping. During the spring melt you will want to be careful as the stream gets more like a raging river. You do not want to fall in, not only due to the dangerous currents, but the water is exceptionally cold (it was snow just an hour ago).
Break out your neutral density filter, as you will want to make use of those long exposures to get the coolest water effects. To get to the best locations for shooting we will have to do a dash of “bushwhacking” and/or boulder hoping. But believe me, it’s worth it! And if you are not comfortable with that, no worries, there are still beautiful photographs to be had alongside the trail.
Guanella Summit: Once we reach the Guanella Pass Summit, we will have entered the alpine world at over 11,669 feet! At these elevations, life survives in a fragile balance between freezing temperatures and intense sunlight. This may look like a grassy prairie, but plants and animals survive here through months of below-zero temperatures, little water, intense sunlight and snow measured by the foot! A tiny alpine plant the size of a quarter may well be over thirty years old.
Two short 1/4 mile hikes allow us to take grand panoramic photos of the surrounding mountain peaks. Peaks include Square Top Mountain (13,794 ft), Gray Wolf Mountain (13,602 ft), Mount Spalding (13,842 ft), The Sawtooth (13,580 ft), Mount Bierstadt (14,060 ft).
Alpine Lakes: If you wish to do some more intense hiking, we can visit two alpine lakes (Square Top Mountain Lakes) which are hidden from view above the Summit road. The hike itself is not long (approx 3 miles round trip), but the altitude and incline makes it very difficult for most “lowlanders”. Once there we will be above 12,000 feet and you will witness the splendor of two mirror-like lakes surrounded by wildflowers (dependent on season) with towering mountain peaks reflected in the waters.
Alpine Glades: Periodically along our journey we will come across lovely mountain glades, with open wetlands, where beavers have made their mark, creating natural wetlands with a small curvy stream winding through them. You can often catch some cranes in the area (really don’t know why they are up so high, but you do find them), beavers of course and also deer and elk. Birds of prey are also a frequent visitor to the area and make for great shots as they cruise the mountain sides.
Wildflowers: In the summertime (which is Spring for this elevation), we often will find a wide variety of wild flowers. You will want a macro lens for these flowers as they are generally very small which helps them survive in this brutal climate.
Wildlife: If we are lucky we may spot ourselves some mountain goats or bighorn sheep. Often it’s difficult to get within good shooting distance however. More likely we will come across some marmots and pikas which thrive in the craggy rock outcrops of these elevations.
Fall Colors: Guanella Pass is particularly nice in the Fall as it has a large population of Aspen trees which glow with iridescent yellows and oranges during the Autumn months. Aspens are not the only plants in the area to change color however. The alpine tundra scrub brush and alpine willows which covers most of the summit also turns a variety of reds and yellows. This is a unique way to photograph fall colors since it’s the “land” which changes color as opposed to the trees.