An Early Morning Hike to Ypsilon Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park


In August of 2022 I had a classic Colorado 14er hike coming up and I felt I needed to give my body a warmup test to see where my fitness was at. Ever since I had pneumonia in the summer of 2019, my physical stamina has not been as strong and I haven't hiked as much as I had in years past. I had had my eye on the lakes below the Mummy Range in Rocky Mountain National Park for a long time, and I decided this was a good opportunity to day hike up into the area. After some research I chose a hike up to Ypsilon Lake, and to make it worth my while for photography I wanted to get up there early enough for a good sunrise shot. With clear skies in the forecast I set my alarm for 1 AM.


Getting up that early is always brutal, but I wanted to be at the Lawn Lake trailhead up in Rocky by 3 AM to give myself plenty of time for the hike. It's 4 1/2 miles from the Lawn Lake trailhead up to Ypsilon Lake. From researching the hike I found that the best sunrise views would probably be from the little Chipmunk Lake just a little before the larger Ypsilon, it had better open views of the peaks above and by being smaller and surrounded closely by trees I could have a decent shot of a calm surface of the water for reflections. With 2200 feet of elevation gain this would be no gimme, I was going to have to work for it.


I arrived to the trailhead right on time, packed up my gear, and began my ascent in the darkness. The first mile and a half up the Lawn Lake trail is a steady climb, but the elevation gain is moderate enough that I could modulate myself mostly by pacing my speed. After breaking off onto the trail to Ypsilon Lake you do encounter some steeper sections that can near a 20% grade. Those sections required some breaks to slow my heart rate and catch my breath and slowed my progress quite a bit. The weather was nice though, not too cold, and I encountered no one else along the trail on the way up. The first light of the morning started to creep in as I neared my destination, and just before I reached Chipmunk Lake I started to catch the view of Mount Chiquita and Ypsilon Mountain through the trees. The first warm light of the sun was catching the summits as I arrived at the lake. Quickly pulling out my photo gear and setting up I started grabbing some quick shots in the best of the light. One of those would end up being my favorite and be processed into this image.



It was after I knew I had a good shot in the bag that I started filming video of the moment as well. It was happening so fast though that I didn't get much of a tutorial in as to what I was doing. There were a few things working in my favor on this morning. The first was the skies mostly clear of clouds, allowing that warm alpenglow on the mountain tops above the lake. As I had hoped, the area at Chipmunk Lake was calm and peaceful allowing for that beautiful mirrored reflection in the water. This calm did allow the mosquitoes to come out and feast on me though.... The stillness allowed me to blend exposures for the background of the photo and the darker foreground with the reflection, showing great detail throughout the photo. I blended these together after the fact in Photoshop to come to the final product you see here. This was captured with my Nikon Z 6II body and my Tamron 24-70 f/2.8 lens mounted with the FTZII adapter.


After the warm sunrise light had faded, I packed back up and continued on to Ypsilon Lake less than 1/2 a mile farther up the trail. I had read of a nice waterfall on the inlet stream that flows into the lake, and as I came near I could hear it up ahead. A dear crossed the trail just ahead to me, with still no other person in sight. Sure enough, a little climb up above the lake brought me to a beautiful triple waterfall coming down the hillside decorated with yellow Arrowleaf Ragwort Flowers. I pulled out the tripod and camera once again and perched myself on the rocks above the stream to put together a composition that took it all in. This is the final result.



It was an amazing spot that I wanted to bask in, but the sunlight was slowly creeping into the top of the frame to steal my long exposure time and add too much contrast to the scene. Again I needed to work quickly, and at one point a slight bump to my tripod nearly tipped it forward off the rock as I was filming. Quick reflexes helped avoid disaster....


After finishing there I headed back down to the shore of Ypsilon Lake to find a good place to snack on some granola bars for breakfast and take in the views amongst the wildflowers. It was such a peaceful experience, I'm happy to be able to share it on video as well. After snack time I pulled out my macro lens and grabbed some photos of the nearby wildflowers, including this interesting little one that I believe is Bistort.



As time marched on I decided it was time to head back down the mountain. It was on those 4 1/2 miles back down that I began to share the trail with others on their way up, eventually many others. This trail is evidently a popular one, but if you get up early enough you can experience it all by yourself if that is your desire. My body also began to complain about the experience in new ways. I had forgotten to bring trekking poles with me and eventually my knees were complaining enough that even going downhill on the trail I had to take regular breaks to let the soreness subside a bit before continuing. Arriving back to the car in the parking lot was a welcome thing indeed.


There's also a video of this adventure over on my YouTube channel if you'd like to experience this hike right along with me and share the photography experience in person. And don't forget to subscribe while you're there, I've got more great videos coming up. If you enjoy sharing in the experiences of adventures like these, I hope you'll sign up for my email newsletter if you haven't already. You can subscribe right here on this blog post, or click my newsletter signup link in the footer. New subscribers get a new customer discount coupon as a thank you for signing up. Don't forget to follow me on Facebook & Instagram too. Thanks for checking out what I do, and I hope you'll keep following along!