Dawn Wilson Photography | Blog

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17 in '17: My Favorite Photos of 2017

January 06, 2018  •  Leave a Comment

Last year seemed to go faster than any other yet I did less travel in 2017 than in any of the prior five years. My goal for last year was to focus on writing, my business and editing a lot of the photos that I already have on my hard drives.

Did I accomplish my goals? Yes and no. I had an unexpected opportunity to spend the entire summer season in our RV in Estes Park. And that was a phenomenal experience. To wake up every morning, look west to see the Continental Divide and watch wildlife babies grow all summer was an experience I will never forget. 

But I do still love to travel so I mixed in a few trips over the course of the year—Alaska as always, South Dakota, New Jersey and a few destinations around my favorite home state of Colorado. 

So here are my top picks from 2017 out of the 37,714 images I captured. Enjoy the images and the brief stories associated with each, and to see more images from 2017, check out my annual video of images.

Moose_East_Portal_2017_1Moose_East_Portal_2017_1A bull moose (Alces alces) eats some leaves and branches from a bush in the campground in Estes Park, Colorado #17: Moose in Estes Park

During our last week at the campground in Estes Park, we worked on remodeling some campsites. I was out photographing the finished results when I heard something rustling near me. I looked up to see this big bull moose. A few minutes later a second one popped out from behind the trees. They roamed around the campground for about an hour before heading into the trees on the property next door. Seeing the wildlife all summer and fall just outside of the RV was one of the best things about being there. 

#16: Bighorn Sheep Ram Bighorn_sheep_Waterton_2017_7Bighorn_sheep_Waterton_2017_7A bighorn sheep ram (Ovis canadensis) poses for a close up of his eye, ear and horn on a sunny afternoon in Waterton Canyon National Recreation Area near Littleton, Colorado

I am always looking for new perspectives on animals I have photographed a lot. The bighorn sheep are one of my favorite animals to photograph—it is in my logo after all—so I tried a few different angles this year during the rut. This is a close up of a ram's eye on a sunny afternoon where you can even see the mountains and setting sun in his eye. 

#15: Snowy Dream Lake

Dream_Lake_Wish_2017_1Dream_Lake_Wish_2017_1A wish come true when an early fall snowstorm blanketed Dream Lake and Hallett Peak with snow three days into the fall season in Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado. We have had very little snow this winter in Colorado but this past fall was a different story. One of the earliest snowfalls in recent memory was the morning of September 25. And it just happened to be my birthday. I couldn't miss the opportunity to capture a photo I have envisioned for several years of the snow covering the rocks thanks to the low water level typical in fall at Dream Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park. 

#14: Northern Lights Over Denali Northern_Lights_Denali_2017_1Northern_Lights_Denali_2017_1The Northern Lights illuminate the sky above the Savage River Campground in Denali National Park, Alaska

Although I go to Alaska every year to photograph brown bears, I also add on additional destinations to mix it up each year. This past year was no exception with a camping trip into Denali National Park and Preserve. There was quite a bit of road construction happening on the first 15 miles. One night I needed to head to town to catch up on emails, purchase some supplies and make a few phone calls. By the time I headed back to the campground, the road was already closed with the exception of an hourly pilot car. The delay meant I didn't get back to the campsite until after midnight. But that delay meant I saw one of the best displays of Northern Lights I have ever experienced in Alaska. This view was directly over my campsite. It started as just one slight shiver of light in the sky, and then the colors kept getting brighter and the dancing kept getting stronger. Within about 30 minutes the entire sky was full of swaying curtains of purple and green.

Moose_Estes_Park_2017_3Moose_Estes_Park_2017_3Two bull moose (Alces alces) walk through the shallow water of the Fish Creek Arm of Lake Estes in Estes Park, Colorado #13: Moose in Estes Park

I was playing a casual game of badminton in Stanley Park, just one and a half miles from downtown Estes Park, when someone yelled there were two moose in the lake. I said, "they are more likely elk." Elk wander all over Estes Park but moose are rarely seen in town. But sure enough, when I turned around there were two very young moose walking towards the Fish Creek Arm of Lake Estes. It was a hot July afternoon and the moose walked down to the water where they cooled off for a bit. Then they started walking towards the crowd that was gathering but sense overruled curiosity; the moose turned around and walked into the woods on one of the nearby mountains. 

  Pika_RMNP_2017_6Pika_RMNP_2017_6A pika (Ochotona princeps) holds a mouth fullful of flowers and plants as he stops on a rock on his way to add to his cache of food for the winter in Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado #12: Pika on Trail Ridge Road

Another benefit of being in Estes Park for the summer was the ability to get up to Trail Ridge Road before sunrise without having to wake up in the middle of the night. Even from our RV it was a 45-minute drive to my favorite spot to photograph pika but it allowed me the opportunity to spend a lot of time with one of my favorite alpine critters last summer. It was hard to pick one of my shots of the pika but I settled on this iconic behavior of this small mammal, a member of the rabbit family. Pika spend most of the summer building caches of food called hay piles. These critters don't hibernate but rather live off of the hay piles during the winter months. 

Moose_Denali_2017_1Moose_Denali_2017_1A bull moose (Alces alces) walks towards a ridge and a foggy valley below the snow-capped Alaska Range in Denali National Park and Preserve, Alaska #11: Moose and the Alaska Range

A very different experience with a moose happened when I was in Denali National Park and Preserve, Alaska. I traveled to the park during the peak of fall colors. My goal while there was to photograph caribou and moose in the fall colors. The weather didn't seem to be cooperating but, as I tell my photo students, you have to take what Mother Nature gives you because you can't change it. Embrace the weather because you never know what kind of feeling it can evoke in a photo. I missed this large bull moose crossing the road but as he walked off towards the Alaska Range the fog started to lift in the valley below. Composing the moose below the tall, snow-covered mountains gave a sense of scale to the scene. 

Broad-tailed_hummingbird_2017_2Broad-tailed_hummingbird_2017_2A broad-tailed hummingbird (Selasphorus platycercus) sits on a nest hidden in the branches of a conifer tree in Estes Park, Colorado


#10: Hummingbird on Nest

I have photographed hummingbirds quite a bit around Colorado but I had never photographed one on the nest or feeding babies. I thought I had missed another season of opportunities as June rolled into July. Then an acquaintance in Estes Park mentioned he found a nest in his yard and gave me the opportunity one morning to photograph it. It was mid-July, late for a nesting bird, but I jumped at the chance. I am glad I did. My friend said the eggs were taken from the nest just a couple of days later by a predator bird. 

Elk_Lake_Estes_2017_1Elk_Lake_Estes_2017_1An elk (Cervus elaphus) splashes around in Lake Estes on a sunny day in Estes Park, Colorado. #9: Splish Splash

Lake Estes in Estes Park is a favorite location of the urban elk in town. They cross it pretty frequently and spend time in the water during the hotter summer days. I was at the right place at the right time when this cow elk not only walked through the lake but started splashing around in the water like a little kid. 

Golden-mantled_ground_squirrel_babies_RMNP_2017_1Golden-mantled_ground_squirrel_babies_RMNP_2017_1Three golden-mantled ground squirrel babies (Spermophilius lateralis) sit on a log on a sunny afternoon in Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado.


#8: A Trio of Baby Golden Mantled Ground Squirrels

We went for a hike to look for American martens. Although we saw one—it crossed the road in front of us in the dark as we drove home after walking several miles to see one—we stopped and spent time at this great little spot that was home to yellow-bellied marmots and golden mantled ground squirrels. These three squirrel babies sat out on this log for a while watching us and the other hikers walking along the trail. I loved the soft green background that framed these adorable little babies. 

Mule_deer_fawn_EP_2017_1Mule_deer_fawn_EP_2017_1A mule deer fawn (Odocoileus hemionus) walks through a thick field of grasses in the early evening in Estes Park, Colorado #7: Baby Deer in the Campground

We moved our RV into the campground in mid-May. Almost immediately we noticed there were several mule deer does hanging around the area. Two of the five were pregnant. We were excited about the potential opportunity to see the babies so we watched the does for any signs of giving birth. The day finally came in early June when we noticed one of the does was no longer pregnant. We saw her baby the next day in the field of flowers below our RV. A few days later the other pregnant doe revealed her twin fawns. And that was the beginning of watching these deer grow up all summer. At first they hid in the grasses and flowers. It was interesting to watch their mothers trust the fawns near us. Later in the summer the three fawns could be seen running and jumping together. One afternoon I came back to the RV to find one of the fawns peeking over our picnic table. We really enjoyed the opportunities the animals of the campground gave us to take a peek into their lives. 

Elk_calf_EP_2017_2Elk_calf_EP_2017_2An elk calf (Cervus elaphus) looks terrified as he rests after a scary attempt to cross the Big Thompson River in Estes Park, Colorado #6: Scary Day for the Elk Calf

Like the deer fawns, I was excited to be in Estes Park for the elk calving season. Although I had seen elk calves before in Rocky Mountain National Park, I had not witnessed the calves immediately after birth. Someone told me the cows start dropping calves around Memorial Day weekend. Not that animals have a calendar to follow but animals are very predictable when it comes to timing. Sure enough I saw my first elk calf the week of Memorial Day. First it was a calf with a very protective mother. Then there was a set of twins with a much more laid back mother. And then there were several calves running around Estes Park. I got a call one morning that a calf had been seen in the Big Thompson River in Estes Park. I ran down to the river to see a scary site of a calf in the center of the river trying to get back to the bank. Its mother was already on the other side eating grass. She didn't seem worried. It seemed like a very hard lesson about how to cross a river. The calf made it back to the bank on its own but its mother was still on the other side. The calf curled up in the rocks and rested. It must have been exhausted. It was only a few days old and had to deal with a river crossing in a river swollen with spring runoff. I snapped a few photos of the calf and then let it be. I returned later in the afternoon to find the cow nursing her calf. The next day the calf and cow were both gone. I saw them in the following weeks and the calf was doing great. It's not easy being an elk calf. 

Bighorn_sheep_ram_Badlands_2017_1Bighorn_sheep_ram_Badlands_2017_1A bighorn sheep ram (Ovis canadensis) walks along a grassy ridge set against the snow falling on the distant ridges of the badlands in Badlands National Park, South Dakota. #5: Bighorn Sheep in the Badlands

My present to myself for Christmas was visiting a new national park as I work on my goal of visiting all of the national parks by my 50th birthday. One I had never visited was Badlands National Park in South Dakota. I have been to parks all over the country yet I had never been to this one park just six hours from my home. As I did some research about the park, I discovered they have a decent size herd of bighorn sheep. During my short visit I was lucky to have a little bit of fresh snow and some very cooperative sheep. I kept capturing shots of sheep framed against the distant badlands landscape, and this one shot caught my eye with the ram walking along the ridge in front of the distant ridge. 

Mountain_bluebird_RMNP_2017_4Mountain_bluebird_RMNP_2017_4A female mountain bluebird (Sialia currucoides) sits on a branch as snowflakes fall on a cold, cloudy day in Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado #4: Mountain Bluebird in Snow

As with many shots, I look at weather and review animal patterns to get an idea of what is the best thing to photograph on a particular day during a particular season. In late winter and early spring, after the mountain bluebirds return, I look for bluebirds in snow. Bluebirds don't like snow, at least not when it is falling, but as soon as the snow stops they are out and about eating bugs and worms on the wet ground. Getting a photo of a bluebird in falling snow was a goal of mine. Although I am still envisioning a photo with a heavier snowfall, I was happy with the few photos I did capture last year of bluebirds in light snowfall. This particular image was captured in Rocky Mountain National Park. 

Black_bear_RMNP_2017_4Black_bear_RMNP_2017_4A black bear sow (Ursus americanus) stands up to get a better look in a forested area of Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado #3: Black Bear in Rocky Mountain National Park

Last year marked my 20th anniversary of my first trip to Colorado, which included a visit to Rocky Mountain National Park. (Read the blog post about those 20 years here.) It was the second national park I ever visited (after Grand Canyon) and was one of the reasons I fell in love with Colorado and moved here. In the summer of the 20th anniversary I found myself living literally within walking distance of the park. I loved it! But in those 20 years I also never saw a black bear in the park. I had seen bears in Colorado and even in New Jersey before I moved to Colorado but never in Rocky Mountain National Park, until last summer. This sow had two cubs in the tree above her, which I never was able to photograph, and had an elk nearby that I suspect had a calf she was protecting. Eventually the elk chased off the bear but I was happy for the moment I had with the bear. 

Snowy_owl_NJ_2017_2Snowy_owl_NJ_2017_2A snowy owl (Bubo scandiacus) sits on a sand dune on a windy day in early winter on Island Beach State Park in central New Jersey. #2: Snowy Owl on the Beach

I visited New Jersey in December for a quick trip to celebrate an early Christmas with my mom. I also spent a day photographing with Ashleigh Scully, a very talented photographer based in New Jersey. We both were excited to hear that snowy owls had been reported along the shore. An even better bonus was that snow was falling when I arrived in New Jersey that Friday night. I had to think but I couldn't remember a single time where I saw snow at the shore. Although my mom lives at the shore and I had spent a lot of time at various shore towns I couldn't remember actually seeing snow on the beach in New Jersey. And now I had an opportunity to photograph a snowy owl in the snow on the beach during an irruption year. It took two hours but our group finally found the owl. It was beautiful and a wonderful experience on many counts. 

Elk_RMNP_2017_26Elk_RMNP_2017_26A bull elk (Cervus elaphus) stops and bugles on a snowy morning in Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado #1: Elk in Snow in the Fall

This photo more than any other from the elk rut had a lot of comments on Facebook from other photographers who said they always wanted to photograph elk bugling in falling snow in the fall. Why did it generate so many comments? Because this scene doesn't happen very often in Colorado. Rocky Mountain National Park is one of the best places to photograph elk during their rut or mating season. In late August the bulls will start bugling after shedding the velvet from their antlers. The activity begins to pick up in September as larger bulls join the activity and the cows start to show signs of being interested in the bulls. Although snow in the high country can happen anytime of year, the elk perform their rut season in the lower meadows. Seeing a heavy, wet snow when the leaves are in fall colors and still on the trees is a rare occasion. To have a bull elk standing in a stand of aspens and give out his bellowing call was a moment that put a smile on my face. 

So those are the shots out of the more than 37,000 images I captured in 2017 that bring me the most joy for the memories I have, the stories behind them and the images that resulted. I have yet to take a single photo this year. I am not exactly sure why. One reason is because we haven't had any snow to peek my interest in finding wildlife in a typical winter scene. Another reason is because I have been searching for more difficult to find animals, such as a snowy owl that I never had luck finding. And partly because I have been very busy with other types of projects that I am hoping will be a good investment in my future as a writer and photographer. But as I type this the weather forecast on the news is saying it is snowing in the high country so maybe with a little luck tomorrow morning I'll find an animal to photograph that is willing to brave the cold and snow with me. 

Happy New Year! 

Social Media and Your Photos

November 05, 2017  •  Leave a Comment

Social media is a God send for photographers to market their business. But social media sites have dramatically changed the industry by providing an overabundance of photos to the market. Social media sites have also become a way to learn about some previously well-kept secret photo spots. 





I recently gave a presentation to the Mile High Wildlife Photography Club about how to get started utilizing social media sites, particularly Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, as part of your marketing plan. Here is a summary of that presentation. 

If you are interested in having me speak to your group about social media, wildlife photography, Colorado photography or travel photography, email me at dawn@dawnwilsonphotography.com.

Social Media and Your Photos

The top five players in social media are:

- Facebook (now 2 billion+)
- YouTube
- Instagram
- Twitter
- Reddit


(graphic of the top 15 social media sites: https://www.dreamgrow.com/top-15-most-popular-social-networking-sites/)

Screen shot of a Facebook business page The best social media sites for photographers:
- Facebook
- Instagram
- 500 px
- Flickr
Why photos work on social media:
- Tweets with photos get 35% more retweets on average
- 74% of social media marketers use visual assets in their social media marketing, ahead of blogs (68%) and videos (60%)
- When people hear information, they're likely to remember only 10% of that information three days later. However, if a relevant image is paired with that same information, people retained 65% of the info three days later.
(Source: Hubspot.com, 1/3/17, https://blog.hubspot.com/marketing/visual-content-marketing-strategy)

A screen shot of a post on Facebook. Selecting Your Photos

- Use only your best photos

- Be professional

- Refine your older photos — the Internet is forever but content can be reposted

- Your best will change over time

- Keep your content fresh

- Your posts are a reflection of your work

- Keep your brand in mind

- Keep photo subjects timely


Selecting Your Photos

- Use only your best photos

- Use only your best photos

- Use only your best photos

- That means:

   • Tack sharp

   • Great backgrounds

   • Good composition

   • Interesting interaction

   • Tells a good story


Optimizing Your Photos

- Each social media site has their own set of specs

- Facebook (see image to right)

- For additional social media sites, visit



There is a wide variety of information about each social media site.


Click here for the complete presentation. 

20 Years in Rocky Mountain National Park

July 27, 2017  •  Leave a Comment

Bierstadt_Lake_Sunset_1Bierstadt_Lake_Sunset_1The clouds fill with warm color at sunset over Bierstadt Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado Today marks twenty years since my first visit to Rocky Mountain National Park. 

How do I know exactly what day it was? It was the day before the torrential rains started falling in Fort Collins that led to one of the worst flooding disasters in that Northern Colorado town. (Here is a little background about that flood.)

I was in town visiting Colorado State University College of Veterinary Medicine as I looked at my options for graduate school. I wound up going to Temple University for my MBA in marketing instead but moved to Fort Collins five years later after falling in love with the town that weekend.  Dream_Lake_sunrise_3Dream_Lake_sunrise_3Early morning light illuminates Hallett Peak above Dream Lake in Rocky Mountain National Par, Colorado

As I thought about the content I wanted to write for this blog post, I came to the realization that my visit to Rocky Mountain National Park in July 1997 was my first to a national park on my own. It was the first park I chose to explore. 

During that weekend in 1997, I explored the park on horseback. My horse, a palomino paint, was named Clown. He was a sweet horse, even when he tripped on the trail, bumping me off the saddle and onto the rocky ground. 

I met Aeric two months after my trip to Colorado. He loved hiking and being outdoors, and when I met him the farthest he had traveled west was Pennsylvania. 

I couldn't stop telling him how much he would love Colorado and Rocky Mountain National Park.

Elk_RMNP_2016_19Elk_RMNP_2016_19Two bull elks (Cervus elaphus) practice their sparring techniques on a sunny morning in Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado In 2000, we took a cross-country trip from our home in New Jersey and headed west. We would visit numerous national parks on that trip—Canyonlands, Mammoth Cave, Zion, Death Valley, Black Canyon of the Gunnison—but, like my visit a few years earlier, Aeric fell in love with Colorado when we visited Rocky Mountain National Park. He loved it so much that he returned to Rocky a month after we returned to New Jersey from our cross-country travels. 

We decided in the summer of 2000 that Colorado was where we wanted to be so when I finished graduate school in 2002, we sold the house, packed all of our belongings and headed west. 

Bluebird_LakeBluebird_LakeOuzel Peak overlooks Bluebird Lake on a cloudy afternoon in Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado We rarely camped in Rocky but we visited often, exploring many of the trails throughout the park. 

The last hike Aeric and I took together was in Rocky—to Bluebird Lake.

Aeric died in October 2012.

After Aeric died, I found I went to the park at least once a month to photograph sunrise and wildlife.

The park, unknowingly, became my respite from a crazy, depressing world that enveloped me in 2012. It wasn't the only place I explored in Colorado and throughout the west at that time in my life but it was the most consistent. 

The park did and has continued to play a big part in my life.

Moose_Trail_Ridge_Road_2017_1Moose_Trail_Ridge_Road_2017_1A moose (Alces alces) walks across the tundra at first light set against the Gore Range near Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado Rocky was where I fell in love with Colorado and initiated my ultimate move to the Centennial State. The park was where Aeric and I took our engagement photo.

And Rocky is where Richard and I met in 2015 when we were both living on the road visiting national parks, among other destinations, in our RVs.

Marmot_16Marmot_16A yellow-bellied marmot stops and stands with a mouth full of grasses on the alpine tundra at sunset in Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado. Now I find myself living with Richard at the base of Rocky in the RV we bought together. It is wonderful to look out the window every morning and check the clouds and the Continental Divide to see what sunrise potential is brewing. It is wonderful to have elk, deer and turkeys walk right through the campground. 

Twenty years later I am still in love with Rocky as much as I was on that Saturday in 1997. 

The park has changed a lot in those 20 years—more from the perspective of number of visitors—but I still find a lot of solitude in this beautiful park.

Pika_3Pika_3A pika carries a mouthful of grass across the rocks near Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado. Unfortunately, my photos from that first visit to Rocky are packed away in a box deep in my storage unit as there isn't room in my RV for all of my prints and negatives from my film days. There are, however, plenty of digital photos I am sharing here from the more recent years in Rocky. Maybe it is an important sign that life has started over again for me. And there is Rocky still my constant companion through it all. 

Enjoy the memories you make in this beautiful national park straddling the Continental Divide in northern Colorado. If you haven't been, what is holding you back?

RV Livin' #20: The Final Countdown

December 05, 2016  •  Leave a Comment

Mabry_Mill_BRP_2016_3Mabry_Mill_BRP_2016_3Morning light illuminates the trees in fall color around Mabry Mill along the Blue Ridge Parkway, Virginia Today is my final night on the road as a full-time RVer. 

The plan, when I left the keys to my home in the hands of a new buyer and moved into an RV last September, was called a Year in an RV. The goal was to photograph as many mammals of North America as possible.

I actually made it 15 months and five days. I also did the year in not just one RV , but three RVs. I started in my Class C. Then I upgraded to a Class A motorhome. And now I have downsized to a travel trailer in preparation of becoming a weekend warrior, in a sense. 

This last week has actually been surprisingly crazy. I wanted to mark the final countdown with a tremendous trip to some new place. But fifteen months on the road has cost a few pennies and my body seems to have finally given in to me pushing it for so many sunrise and sunset photo shoots with some amazing animals. I came down with what I now think was the flu last Sunday, a day after I arrived In Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge.  Snow_goose_BDANWR_2016_1Snow_goose_BDANWR_2016_1A flock of snow and Ross's geese (Chen rossii, Chen caerulescens) take off from the roosting pond at sunrise in Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, New Mexico

I kept my last trip close to my home state of Colorado. I didn't get to visit Bosque last fall, and that was a bit of a disappointment - not for what I did instead but because Bosque really is a wildlife photographer's dream location for bird photography. 

Each November, thousands of greater and lesser sandhill cranes, snow geese, and Ross's geese converge on this 57,331-acre refuge along the Rio Grande River in New Mexico. It turned out that the bird counts last year were pretty low so everything may have worked out in the long run. And this year I actually added a couple of new photos to my mammal inventory - a striped skunk and a javelina. Both great photo opportunities for my last week of this amazing adventure, even with suffering through an achy body and stuffy head.  Collared_peccary_BDANWR_2016_1Collared_peccary_BDANWR_2016_1A collared peccary, also known as a javelina (Tayassu tajacu), stops to check out the clicking sound while crossing a trail in Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, New Mexico

I arrived back in Colorado on Thursday so that I could work on answering the big question I now have in front of me: Now what???

I pick up the keys to an apartment tomorrow morning. I have started outlining a revised business plan for my photography business, and I have started to consider what other career options might be out there in addition to photography. Maybe photography will continue to be full-time, maybe it won't. Too early to say at this point.  Striped_skunk_BDANWR_2016_6Striped_skunk_BDANWR_2016_6A striped skunk (Mephitis mephitis) walks along a pond embankment on a cloudy day at Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, New Mexico

All I know is that I think my critters will be very happy to stop being mobile. 

I winterized the trailer today. It was kind of a sad moment but it felt right. Timing is right too - the temperatures are supposed to dip into the negative digits in a couple of days here along the Front Range. Feels good too to wrap up this unbelievable year right here at home in a Colorado State Park. There really is no place like home. 

When I left Jackson, Wyoming in September after a visit to Grand Teton National Park, there was a sign in front of one of the businesses that really summed up my feelings about this project, this adventure, this wanderlust year: "Don't cry because it is over; smile because it happened."

Elk_GSMNP_2016_16Elk_GSMNP_2016_16A bull elk (Cervus elaphus) walks through a farm field in Oconaluftee Valley on a foggy morning in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, North Carolina I actually did smile when I read that sign because I thought that was the last drive back into Colorado on my yearlong adventure. I smiled because I was happy it happened. I made a dream a reality. 

It turned out I would get another two and a half months on the road and continue to add new places and new critters to my life list, such as Congaree National Park in South Carolina, an eastern spotted skunk along the Blue Ridge Parkway, and beautiful fall scenery in the Smoky Mountains.  Leaves_in_Congaree_2016_1Leaves_in_Congaree_2016_1A myriad of fall leaves float on the murky water surrounded by reflections of sky and overhead leaves in Congaree National Park, South Carolina

So off I head to bed to dream about all of the beautiful places I have seen this year.

I hope to do it again someday because there were many big sections of the U.S. that I missed. I didn't get to New England. I didn't make it to Florida. I didn't make it to the northwest. I didn't make it to the upper midwest. Goes to prove just how big our country is and how much there really is out there to see. Take it one location at a time and enjoy the exploring.

Sandhill_crane_BDANWR_2016_1Sandhill_crane_BDANWR_2016_1A sandhill crane (Grus canadensis) takes off in soft morning light at Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, New Mexico



RV Livin' #19: Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Blue Ridge Parkways

November 05, 2016  •  Leave a Comment

Lower_Falls_Fall_BRP_2016_2Lower_Falls_Fall_BRP_2016_2Lower Falls or Second Falls flows down through the vibrantly colored trees in Graveyard Fields along the Blue Ridge Parkway, North Carolina I took an unexpected trip back east to follow fall colors. Unfortunately this year turned out to be late on colors and the dry late summer caused the leaves to be very brown but it was still an amazing time and something that was on my Year in an RV List.

And when I found out that there are elk in Great Smoky Mountains National Park I was extra excited. This was going to be a nice change of scenery for a Rocky Mountain favorite. Elk_GSMNP_2016_45Elk_GSMNP_2016_45Two bull ek (Cervus elaphus) spar in Oconaluftee Valley in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, North Carolina

I had never been to Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It would be park #41 on my list of parks I have visited and what better time of year than peak fall color. 

Because of the size of the campgrounds - or what we thought would be limiting - we brought the smaller trailer rather than the class A RV. The campgrounds certainly could have handled the larger RV but the tunnels on the Blue Ridge Parkway may have been a different story. 

Turkey_GSMNP_2016_1Turkey_GSMNP_2016_1A wild turkey tom (Meleagris gallopavo) stands in the afternoon sun in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee The trip started off in Cades Cove. My research showed this to be an excellent place to see black bears, turkeys and white-tailed deer. What I had not anticipated were the crowds. I knew Great Smoky Mountains N.P. is the most visited park in the country - they topped 11 million visitors in 2015 and expect to have more this year - but I was not prepared for the lines of people through Cades Cove. The road into the cove opens at sunrise but the people line up as much as an hour earlier. Thankfully the exit from the campground dumps right into the line and I could get there about 30 minutes before sunrise and still be about tenth in line - a helpful tip if you plan a visit. 

The traffic moved slowly once the gate opened and because the gate doesn't open until sunrise, getting to one of the good landscape spots before the harsh light hits was next to impossible.  Mabry_Mill_BRP_2016_3Mabry_Mill_BRP_2016_3Morning light illuminates the trees in fall color around Mabry Mill along the Blue Ridge Parkway, Virginia

But I was here for white-tailed deer and bears. 

Although I don't feel like I walked away with any super fantastic shots of either from Cades Cove, I still enjoyed the visit. It was difficult to photograph deer with 20 photographers chasing and surrounding them. It made me appreciate the patience photographers have in Colorado to work together for shots. And although I saw a few bears, most were busy enjoying the acorns in the mountains. 

Looking_Glass_Falls_BRP_2016_1Looking_Glass_Falls_BRP_2016_1Looking Glass Falls cascades down a rock just off of the Blue Ridge Parkway in Transylvania County, North Carolina Next we headed off to various destinations on the Blue Ridge Parkway. This too was a new place for me and it held up to all of the stories about its beauty in the fall. I photographed Mabry Mill, Linn Cove Viaduct, Looking Glass Falls, and many other iconic locations. This area actually has some of the highest concentrations of waterfalls in the country, most easily accessible from the road and all surrounded by beautiful fall colors. 

I even found a few chipmunks to photograph. They were busy gathering those plentiful acorns and storing them away for winter. And on our last night on the parkway we had an unexpected and rare animal cross our path - an eastern spotted skunk.  Chipmunk_BRP_2016_2Chipmunk_BRP_2016_2A chipmunk cleans her paws on a sunny morning along the Blue Ridge Parkway, North Carolina

If you have followed this blog for a while you know the skunk continues to be one of the animals I have never photographed. I have seen them numerous times in various places but have yet to capture them with my camera - mostly because they are almost exclusively nocturnal, and if they are out during the day, you don't see them long. Those short little legs are surprisingly quick. I managed a few photos under the illumination of the truck lights at a high ISO so I still don't have a great photo - but baby steps right? Elk_GSMNP_2016_16Elk_GSMNP_2016_16A bull elk (Cervus elaphus) walks through a farm field in Oconaluftee Valley on a foggy morning in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, North Carolina

That little encounter made me miss photographing wildlife even more so after two weeks of working the landscape on the parkway, we headed back to Great Smoky Mountains National Park to find the elk. 

The fog, elk and beautiful landscape in fall colors made me happy but somber at the same time. Reality was setting in that this was going to be the last big trip and my last new destination for my year in an RV. 

But I put that aside for a few days as I focused on photographing the elk in Cattaloochee and Oconaluftee Valleys.  Red_squirrel_GSMNP_2016_1Red_squirrel_GSMNP_2016_1A red squirrel (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus) sits on a rock and looks forward along the Oconaluftee River in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, North Carolina

It has taken me several weeks to correctly spell the names of those valleys. I have yet to be able to master the pronunciation of the second valley. 

These elk were introduced to the valley about 15 years ago. The elk native to the Smoky Mountains have been extinct since the 1700s and the new elk were brought in from Canada, is what I was told by a volunteer. They have also done pretty well and now number about 200 in the eastern Smokeys.  Simms_Pond_BRP_2016_1Simms_Pond_BRP_2016_1An incoming storm puts clouds in the sky over Simms Pond surrounded by fall color along the Blue Ridge Parkway, North Carolina

I also found several small mammals to photograph. Unexpectedly I seem to have developed a fascination for photographing the wide variety of squirrels I have seen on my travels. I grew up in New Jersey where eastern gray squirrels were abundant but I found I missed them once I moved to Colorado where we have a couple of different varieties. As one photographer told me, a great photo of a common animal is better than a bad photo of an uncommon animal. So I added shots of red squirrels and gray squirrels to my inventory while out east. I also found a cooperative woodchuck, another animal we don't have in Colorado, although we have their silly cousin the yellow-bellied marmot. 

But the calendar kept ticking away and it was time to leave this beautiful area. I have just a few weeks left to visit friends and family in New Jersey before heading back across the country for the last time on this adventure. There will be more adventures - I just don't yet know what they will look like.  Woodchuck_GSMNP_2016_1Woodchuck_GSMNP_2016_1A woodchuck (Marmota monax) sits in a grassy field in Oconaluftee Valley in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, North Carolina

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