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My passion is to explore and discover the beauty of this great country of ours, to capture it, and to share it with you. Often, there’s an interesting story to go along with the photos. On these pages, I share not just beautiful images and video clips, but “the stories behind the pictures.”
During my son’s 2012 summer vacation, we spent a few days exploring Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado, and lodged in nearby Estes Park. After my son went back home to Minnesota, I returned to Estes Park to explore the Colorado Rockies for a few more days.
By that time, I had gotten into a routine of awaking about 5 a.m. and hitting the trail while it was still relatively quiet and cool. During the summer tourist season, the trailhead parking lots in Colorado’s scenic areas are filled before midmorning!
While I enjoy company while on a long trail, I found I also enjoyed the experience of being alone on the trail at dawn. The morning of August 2 was just such a day. There were few cars at the Glacier Gorge trailhead when I arrived, and shortly after I began my hike, I noticed a couple of bull elk strolling through the aspen groves and munching contentedly on mushrooms. As the trail angled upward, I lost sight of the elk and paused to sit on a rock to record the sounds of the awakening forest with the external microphone I’d attached to my camera.
When I returned to the trail, I spotted the elk briefly once again, and arrived at Alberta Falls a short while later. There were patchy clouds in the morning sky, which turned out to be great; it afforded me an opportunity to capture both still images and video at the falls in a wide variety of lighting conditions. After shooting from the west side of the gorge, with other hikers and photographers, I decided I really wanted to try shooting the falls from the east side.
Fording the creek was a little tricky. At that time, the Park Service had built no foot bridges near Alberta Falls—and there’s no telling if they ever will. I considered taking a short hike above the falls to find a better place to ford the creek... but decided instead to skip the hike and to try rock-hopping below the falls. Unfortunately, I underestimated the weight of my backpack and overestimated my jumping skills.
I did make it across the creek, but not before stumbling into the drink about halfway across. With no other hikers within earshot, all the rude comments I blurted out were carried downstream by the swift waters as I clambered back onto my feet and finished my hop to the east bank.
My camera equipment didn’t get dunked—which was the important thing—but my clothes were wet. By the time that thought crossed my mind, I noticed a hooded sweatshirt hanging from the branch of a fir tree, not far from the creek; an item left behind during someone else’s adventure. Though faded and frayed, it was just my size, and was dry and warm. With gratitude, I pulled off my wet shirt and replaced it with the hoodie.
How can I share the experience of feeling all that water crash down to the rocks at my feet, sending a cool mist of spray in all directions? It was one of those “you had to be there” moments. But I liked the idea of digitally freezing a few tons of splashing water into a moment of time, so I took several pictures like the first one in this post.
By that time, it was midday. The light of the high sun isn’t usually desired by outdoor photographers, but it worked well for the image I wanted to convey to those who couldn’t be there. I was standing across from a natural channel cut into the granite by the rushing waters—a process which may have only taken moments from the water’s point of view, but thousands of years from our limited, linear experience of time. The channel resembled the curve of a waterslide, but for whatever reason none of the nearby hikers attempted to ride it down. While reflecting on that, I captured the second image displayed here, again using a high shutter speed.
Satisfied that I had done all I could from the east side of the waterfall, I scrambled up to the granite ledge I’d chosen to use as a clothes dryer, and put my shirt back on. I climbed up a little farther to survey the creek above Alberta Falls—which I ought to have done in the first place—and found three fallen tree trunks lying across the creek, forming as perfect a bridge as one could expect to see on a mountain trail. With a rueful chuckle, I crossed the bridge to the west side and made my way back down to the falls while making a mental note to exercise more patience in the future. Patience pays off! I was lucky that only my ego had been bruised on the boulders at the base of the falls that morning.
After a couple of hours of shooting the falls from every possible angle, the sun was fairly high and was shining brightly on the cascade. It’s often hard to take good photos of waterfalls surrounded by trees in direct sunlight, but I decided to try a series of half-second and one-second exposures, which typically give moving water a “flowing” effect. To avoid extreme overexposure in the sunlight, I mounted a dark neutral density filter on my lens.
By the time I packed up my gear and headed back down the trail, the cool mountain air had warmed up considerably, and park visitors were heading uphill in droves to view Alberta Falls. I was happy to have started my day before sunrise, and happier still to end it with some nice images of the waterfall!
After returning home, I edited the image captured with the neutral density filter (the the third image displayed in this post), and applied a software HDR filter to create a more “painterly” effect in the foreground. I left the background alone for the most part, but reduced the brightness of the sky enough to keep the viewer’s attention on the flowing water.
As for the hoodie... I brought it with me on many more hikes over the next few years. I didn’t mind that it was a bit tattered when I found it, but by 2016 I decided it had lived a good, long life and that I could replace it with a new one.
At 692 miles, the Yellowstone River is—happily—the longest un-dammed river in the United States. After the turn of the century, I lived in the Rockies, close to the headwaters of the Yellowstone, which spring mainly from the snows covering the Absaroka Mountains in Wyoming and Montana.
After the channel of the Yellowstone reaches north to Livingston, Montana, it bends eastward and begins collecting water from its major tributaries, which also spring from clear and cold mountain creeks. The first of these is the Boulder River, which flows north from a canyon which divides the Absaroka and Beartooth mountain ranges. The headwaters of the Boulder are in the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness. Like most national wilderness areas, access is restricted to non-mechanized travel.
Fortunately, the lower portion of the headwaters lies outside of the restricted access wilderness—and one can get there from Interstate 90 in an hour. The upper Boulder valley is overshadowed by Monument Peak and Sheepherder Peak, which are pictured below. This photo was taken in mid-June, just after the snow had melted from the open meadow. Perennial pasqueflowers, quick to feel the warmth of the sun, were already in bloom. Usually, by July, folks with an ATV or a small, sturdy 4WD can get to this place from Interstate 90 by taking exit 367 at Big Timber and traveling south on Montana Hwy. 298. At the boundary of the Custer Gallatin National Forest, the pavement ends; travelers can continue south on Forest Service Road 6639.
Summer travelers can enjoy fly-fishing, kayaking, camping, and hiking in this valley just as much as in the Yellowstone valley just south and west of the Boulder River, if not more; in this part of Montana, visitors are few and traffic is light. Such were my thoughts as I drove through the valley in June of 2009. As I passed the parking area shown here, I absently wondered why people with 4WD pickups were unloading their ATVs at that spot instead of continuing farther south on FS 6639. I learned why soon enough!
Back in 2009, Google Earth satellite imagery was in lower resolution, and both my Forest Service road map and Google Maps assured me FS 6639 contined south another five miles. But in the current high-resolution Google Maps view, you’ll notice the road all but disappears south of the parking area I just mentioned. And that is exactly what I discovered on the ground during my journey. I stopped my SUV and walked south a bit. The graded gravel road had ended at the parking lot behind me. All that remained of the road was a rocky, primitive 2-track trail, and it was now obvious why the other guys were leaving their larger rides at the parking lot.
Unfortunately, I didn’t own a horse or ATV. My eyes bored into the rocky trail ahead, until I finally decided I would chance it with my SUV. I was unwilling to walk five miles just to get to the wilderness boundary; I knew beforehand I’d have to hoof it once I got there!
There isn’t much to see along those five miles. Once one gets south of the confluence of the East Fork of the Boulder River, the valley narrows into a canyon, and the tree cover along the route is pretty dense.
In any case, my mind was far away from the scenery. I got out of my car many times, but only to figure out exactly how I’d have to align my front tires to keep from bottoming out on an unyielding chunk of granite. I also had to ford the Boulder a couple of times. In that area, it’s merely a creek instead of a river, so that part felt fun... kind of like Jeep’s TV commercials.
After what seemed an eternity of stop-and-start driving, I finally reached the five mile mark, just south of where Basin Creek and Sheep Creek empty into the Boulder. At that point, one can follow the road roughly westward along the Basin Creek drainage to the site of the Independence Mine.
Exploring abandoned mines is something many hikers and ATVers in the Rockies like to do. If the route had not been buried in snow, I would have done some exploring myself; but I had arrived at the Boulder headwaters about a month too soon for that. The access road follows the north side of Independence Peak, and usually doesn’t melt out till sometime in July.
I observed that an unmarked and unnamed two-track road forked south where FS 6639 turns away from the Boulder River canyon. Following the mystery trail, I pleased to discover that it was much less gnarly than the Forest Service road. I followed it about a quarter of a mile to a place where the canyon opens up to an expansive meadow under the shadow of Monument Peak. The snow had only recently melted off the lower meadows, which were blanketed with pale yellow pasqueflowers.
I took quite a few photos at this spot, including the wide panorama at the top of this post. Midday light is generally not the best for capturing photos of wildflowers and mountains, but it worked well for me that day.
If I had wished to “get away from it all”, I couldn’t have picked a better spot than this one. There wasn’t another human being in sight. The air was crisp and clear, and I could hear nothing except the trickling of melted snow, the breeze in the spruce trees, and a few bird calls. It was the perfect spot for a lunch break.
I had reached the northern boundary of the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness, but I opted out of hiking into it. The snow had not yet melted beyond the open meadow, and I didn’t have a pair of snowshoes with me. I figured I’d rather explore the lower reaches of the Boulder River, having noticed many photo ops on my way upriver.
I returned the way I had come, at a more leisurely pace. I don’t recall seeing any ATVers until I passed the parking area once again, which wasn’t surprising; they probably already knew that the road I had chosen would be a dead end for motorized travel until Independence Peak melted off.
The graveled Forest Service road crosses the river over four bridges. At that time of year, the Montana Rockies are nearing the end of the spring runoff, and fording the Boulder River downstream is impossible. The riverbed is full of (obviously) large granite boulders, and the whitewater rapids pictured here are a force to be reckoned with. The Boulder definitely belongs to the “wild and scenic river” club.
Continuing downstream, the Absaroka Mountains give way to limestone foothills. The valley begins to widen, and one passes many Forest Service trailheads and campsites, which makes things nice for those who want to “get away from it all” but aren’t inclined to “rough it” to the degree necessary in the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness.
The most accessible scenic location in the Boulder River valley is Natural Bridge Falls Picnic Area, a Forest Service day-use area located just within the National Forest boundary, 25 miles southwest of Big Timber on MT Hwy. 298. It’s a great day-trip or family trip destination with a good network of trails, including one which is handicap-accessible.
Montana has plenty of waterfalls, but few of the large ones are in the south central region. Yellowstone Falls, across the border in Wyoming, is larger than Natural Bridge Falls—and much more photographed—but I consider Natural Bridge Falls to be more picturesque. If you click or tap on the photo shown here to get the full panoramic view, you’ll see why.
In ages past, a short way upstream of the picnic area, the churning waters of the Boulder tunneled underground through the relatively soft limestone riverbed. The subterranean channels are now so large that the river runs underground for much of the year, re-emerging from a round opening in the limestone cliffs at Natural Bridge Falls. As the river swells during spring runoff, it overfills the underground channel and flows over the surface riverbed—then makes a dramatic 105-foot plunge just above the lower falls, as seen in this picture. To spice things up just a bit more, there is a small “spout” of water jetting out of the rock between the upper and lower falls.
The pool below the falls is shallow, which makes for a lot of churning, foaming, spray, and mist—perfect ingredients for a rainbow, if one happens to be viewing the falls from the west side of the gorge late in the morning, as I did when this image was captured.
I highly recommend a visit to the Boulder River valley for anyone who happens to be traveling central Montana via Interstate 90... anyone who wants to “get away from it all” for a little while, as I did on more than one occasion!