Shooting The Milky Way in Rocky Mountain National Park

April 05, 2017

Shooting The Milky Way in Rocky Mountain National Park

Nate and I left Denver around 10 PM. It’s always a little strange getting started on an adventure when it feels like your day should be winding down. The plan was to shoot the Milky Way. It was a new moon and the forecast called for clear skies so we were hoping for some great shots. Nate’s the one who has the camera gear and knows how to work it. I was just there to ride along and enjoy the view, but also commiserate in the suffering of a cold, sleepless night in the mountains.

Hallet Peak Night Stars

We got to the Rocky Mountain National Park around midnight and decided to head up to Bear Lake and see if we could get some good shots of the stars. The wind was ripping, and the darkness was complete. That’s the thing about a new moon, there’s no moon. As we walked away from the car onto the trail our eyes adjusted and the view of countless stars took over. We settled on the frozen lake and set up the cameras. I could have sat there and stargazed all night, if it weren’t for the fact that it was well below freezing with 30+ miles-per-hour winds. We hung out as long as we could, but when we started to lose feeling in our feet it was time to head to lower country and set up camp.

We drove 8 miles and a few thousand feet lower to Moraine Park, a beautiful open meadow surrounded by huge peaks favored by the large population of elk in the park. The area is also frequented by bears, which just woke up from hibernation, as the road signs reminded us. Nate has some fancy app that helps you find out the best time and location to view the Milky Way and various other constellations. Optimal viewing was looking like 3:30 AM to 4:30 AM. We scrapped the idea of a camp bonfire, we were beat.

Moraine Park Night Stars

We set up our mummy bags as best we could in the back of his forerunner and went to sleep, so much for the 5 bundles of wood we brought. The alarm went off around 3 AM. I slept for another half hour or so while Nate got up to set up his gear. It’s not easy waking up from deep sleep to step out into high winds and below freezing temperatures, but that’s why were here in the first place. It was worth it of course.

I rolled out of the car and put my headlamp on to look for Nate. Fresh elk droppings surrounded the car. Sneaky creatures. I found him about 100 yards away in a clearing sipping a beer in a camp chair. The views were incredible.

Milky Way Rocky Mountain National Park

We hung out for about an hour. Sunrise was just a couple hours away. Nate wanted to stay up to get a time-lapse. I let him do that while I stripped off my winter gear and got back into the car for another 45 minutes of sleep. In what felt like no time, Nate woke me up to get ready for sunrise and head back to higher elevation. Out of the bag, back into the cold. 

We drove up the road towards bear Lake again and he set up the cameras. Nate had planned on flying the drone, but the winds made that impossible. GoPro and DSLR’s would have to do. The sunrise coming over the continental divide is truly breathtaking. Every few minutes the colors were completely different and the views somehow better. As we enjoyed the view in pure bliss, we looked back to our West and realized there was a perfect full rainbow materializing from Hallet Peak and ending somewhere further off. It was spectacular and almost surreal. It was hard to choose which way to look; each direction offered it’s own perfect beauty.

Sunrise Rocky Mountain National Park

Eventually the rainbow dissolved, and the sun had risen. It was time to go home. After some coffee in Estes Park and a sleepy drive, we made it to Denver around 8:30 AM. I was a little sleep-deprived during the workday, but I felt so energized it didn’t matter. Rocky Mountain National Park never disappoints. Winter or summer, night or day. Not a bad way to spend a Wednesday night.

Written by Kyle Barrett, Founder at Bighorn

Photos by Nate Cundy, Founder at CareFour

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