I've often heard the argument that the United States is still a vastly unsettled country. A satellite image taken at night over the US will attest to this, as a sprawling network of highways and populated areas can be seen. Yet some of the most beautiful moments one can have with nature come from the remoteness of an area. And in this country, truly being alone with nature can be a daunting task.
I've blogged about my experiences in Colorado before, and about how business owners these days only want to make a quick buck on weary tourists. The city of Manitou Springs, Colorado is a prime example of this. Here, man even tries to simulate nature in order to draw in the crowds, even though nature is ever-present in the area. The truth of the matter is that most ordinary people just aren't happy with what nature has to offer. Seven Falls, a popular tourist attraction near Manitou Springs, would be dry most of the year due to natural conditions were it not for a series of pumps that recycle the water to keep tourists happy. The average tourist expects immediate results, and is not willing to go searching for true beauty. But unfortunately, true beauty is fading at an alarming rate.
The United States has a wonderful system of National Parks that preserve the natural world. But finding yourself truly alone in one of these parks is near impossible. Manmade distractions are everywhere, and many times, scenic vistas are crosscut with roads. The August 2008 issue of National Geographic Adventure features an article entitled The Park at the Top of the World, by Kevin Fedarko, which documents a trip down Canada's Firth River through the Ivvavik National Park. The park, a 2.4-million-acre preserve, is virtually unknown and often goes unnoticed. In Fedarko's words, "Ivvavik is where we'll have to go to witness the soft of wilderness that America threw away." If Fedarko's description and Peter McBride's photography in the article are any indication, Ivvavik National Park is one of the last truly remote places on the planet. And it is a place I someday hope to visit and document, before it's too late.
As I've mentioned before, Colorado Springs is saturated with tourist traps. Though it's located next door to plenty of wonderful natural elements, most tourists merely follow the giant freeway billboards. One tourist trap you should avoid is Seven Falls. Due to a natural drought in the region, this seven-stepped waterfall is actually fueled by pump-driven recirculated water for the dryer months of the year. In addition, some reviewers online state that the attraction operators place fake wildlife in the immediate surroundings to entertain tourists. Right away, this didn't sound like fun to me.
Instead, I chose to spend my time at Helen Hunt Falls. This waterfall, named after famed author Helen Hunt Jackson, is accessible via a right turn just prior to the road that leads to Seven Falls. The road to Helen Hunt Falls leads you through a series of switchbacks up the mountain, upon which you stumble across the quaint visitors center for the falls. From here, you can take a hike that leads to the top of the falls, and then above the falls to a ridge overlooking a tall rock face. This overlook offers a beautiful view of the region, from the pine-saturated foothills to the plains off in the distance.
I was lucky enough to have done my research ahead of time, and managed to avoid yet another tourist trap. But most people only go by what's shown in advertisements, and because of this, don't even know that Helen Hunt Falls exists. Though this is a shame, it also means that you probably wont find a crowd at the falls, which results in a much less stressful experience. And if you're a photographer, it'll be much easier to take tourist-free shots as well. If you're in the region, and you're looking for a good way to connect to nature and go on a few hikes, I highly recommend checking out Helen Hunt Falls and its surrounding region.
View more photos of Helen Hunt Falls on my Colorado Flickr set.
Anyone who knows me knows that I love the city. It doesn't matter what city we're talking about, all that matters is that downtown pulse. In my mind, cities are alive. They are creatures in their own right, never sleeping, and always on alert. Yes, I am an advocate for nature. But in many ways, city life is better for the environment than suburban or rural living. For starters, one's carbon footprint is much smaller in a city environment. Public transit is almost always superior, and places are usually located close enough to walk to. In addition, the part of town I saw was filled with as much foliage as possible. Trees lined many sidewalks, and planters held flowerbeds. It truly felt like a nice place to be.
I only had a few hours to look around downtown Denver, but I liked what I saw. For starters, the city seemed fairly clean. Granted, I only really explored the area around the 16th Street Mall, which is a 2km long outdoor shopping mall. Nevertheless, it was clear that the city is well planned out and well managed. I couldn't begin to count how many cyclists I saw, and the free shuttle service that runs along the length of the 16th Street Mall is a great idea. Yes, the rest of the city might have downfalls, but from a tourist perspective, the retail district is in relatively tip-top shape.
View more photos of Denver on my Colorado Flickr set.
Estes Park, Colorado: A primordial swamp of overpriced shops meant to attract the weary traveler. With a credit card, that is. Perhaps I'm being a bit too cruel. Estes Park is actually a very lovely place to visit, as long as you're off the beaten path. A good rule of thumb is to avoid the main street as much as possible. If you go towards the Rocky Mountain National Park Beaver Meadows entrance, you'll head down a street lined with decently priced inns and motels. Along here, you'll also find the Donut Haus. This is, by far, the best place in town to get donuts, and the prices are relatively cheap as well. Just stop by early, as they sold out pretty fast when I was there.
If you're looking to do some shopping, head down this same road until you reach the last little gas station complex before the National Park. It is in this complex that you'll find a quaint little locally owned and operated mom and pop grocery store, as well as a phenomenal gift shop with items priced well below what you'll find on main street. Around this same area, you'll also see a sign for Mary's Lake. This little lake provides a quick scenic drive around the outskirts of town. The lake itself is fairly small, and there isn't much to do, but it's still interesting to see more of the local side of Estes Park.
View more photos from Estes Park on my Colorado Flickr set.
Wikipedia describes the Stanley Hotel in Estes Park, Colorado as a "138-room Gregorian hotel...[which] offers panoramic views of the Rockies." This statement couldn't be more true. The hotel, built in 1909 by Freelan Stanley, has been host to the rich and famous for nearly a century. I know this because I bought a 100 year anniversary mug. But I probably would have figured it out after awhile anyway. Nevertheless, the hotel is a reminder of a time gone by. Life was much simpler when this hotel was built, and the growth of the local community can attest to this.
When the hotel was built, Estes Park was nowhere near the size it is today. Even in the last twenty-five years, the surrounding landscape of the hotel has changed considerably. My parents went on their honeymoon to Estes Park, and my mother couldn't believe how much the town has changed since she last saw it. The most notable and unfortunate addition has been a full suburban-esque shopping center, complete with a Safeway, built at the base of the hotel, successfully ruining the initial image of the Stanley Hotel as one first drives into town.
Upon entering the hotel's lobby, guests are transported back to an earlier time. The lobby features an original Stanley Steamer, as well as a vintage piano (with a prominent "Do Not Play" sign). The hotel itself, the inspiration for Stephen King's The Shining, has gone through various owners over the years. And for much of its life, the hotel was in severe disarray. The most recent sale of the hotel was for a mere three million dollars, though I'm sure it was advertised as a fixer-upper. Still, the Stanley Hotel is a wonderful remnant of a time gone by, and is worth a visit.
You can view more photographs from this trip on my Colorado Flickr set.
One of the most unusual features of Rocky Mountain National Park is the Alluvial Fan at Horseshoe Park. On the morning of July 15th, 1982, twenty-nine million gallons of water rushed towards the valley floor as Lake Lawn broke through its natural enclosure created during the last ice age. The tragedy, killing two in a nearby campground and one along the river, had enough force to submerge the town of Estes Park under six feet of water.
Though damage in the town was minimalized thanks to Lake Estes containing most of the floodwater, a forty-two acre alluvial fan was created near the valley floor. Composed of boulders, rocks, gravel and sand, the alluvial fan is now known for its large waterfall and convenient location. When I visited the area, many tourists were already scaling the large formations, ruining my chances at most wide angle shots.
In order to eliminate the few individuals that found their way into my shots, I simply used an incredibly long exposure. Even though texture was eliminated in the water, most of these individuals were not stationary long enough to register on the sensor. Though my lighting wasn't ideal, I still managed to make a few good photographs at the Alluvial Fan.
Trail Ridge Road is a paved roadway high up in Rocky Mountain National Park. It reaches a maximum elevation of 12,183 feet (3,713 meters), and is the highest continuous paved road in the United States. I was lucky enough to traverse this stretch of roadway near the end of the day, right as the lighting conditions became prime. As one drives along this highway, one encounters vast views of natural wonder and beauty.
Many overlooks dot the roadway where one can stop and admire the beauty of the landscape. Though I've never had much luck with landscapes, great shots come easy in an environment this visually breathtaking. The trail winds its way above the treeline into the region's alpine tundra, weaving through ancient lava cliff faces. After the crest of the ridge, the road begins its decline towards the Alpine Visitor Center, which was unfortunately closed when I visited.
There is, however, a short trail up a hill right next to the visitor center that offers a great view of the surroundings. When in such a grand environment, it is easy to feel a sense of insignificance at importance of worldly matters. Landscapes such as these were slowly carved out and created by millions of years of natural circumstances, and the preservation of such wonders is truly critical.
Of all the environments Rocky Mountain National Park offers, the most serene has got to be the park's meadows. One meadow I chose to photograph extensively was Moraine Park. This large meadow features two small rivers flowing in a snake-like pattern. The beauty on the ground is offset and complemented by the natural framing of the mountains, which is impossible to accurately reproduce through the lens of a camera.
Though there were many hikers in the meadow when I arrived, a quick afternoon "storm" rolled in, only lasting for a few minutes. This cleared out much of the immediate meadow, allowing me to get a clear shot. In addition, I happened to spot a fisherman out in the meadow, fishing in the river. I pulled out my telephoto lens, and snapped a few shots of him with the large mountains in the background. This particular photo, in my opinion, seems to personify the beauty of man coinciding with nature.