Matthew Landon Astrophotography in Park County, Colorado | Explorer of the Month August 2020
Driving up and over Kenosha Pass is just one of the ways to arrive in Park County. While the county line with Jefferson County is much further east, it is cresting the Pass, and then turning the corner to see the expanse of South Park running off into the distance where I can finally exhale. I first started traveling in and around Park County when I first moved to Colorado, but became even more connected to the area, and Alma specifically after purchasing a piece of property there.
Having had a chance to explore Georgia Pass, Boreas Pass, and Mosquito Pass, as well as climbing the different 14’ers in the Mosquito Range the whole of the county never seems to run out of true beauty. When I started my journey in photography a few years ago, it was natural for me to look to the places and subjects of the area that I was most familiar with. Whether it was a grove of Aspens in a lonely, snowy meadow, or a brilliant sunrise more than two miles high, I could easily imagine different compositions and just as easily actualize these images because of Park County’s stunning scenery.
One of the real surprises to me when I started to become more serious about photography was the ease with which modern cameras could capture the night sky. When I had this realization, I knew that South Park and the peaks that surround it would provide the dark skies that one needs in order to get clear compositions of the night sky.
One of the first adventures in night sky photography occurred during the December, Geminid Meteor shower, in 2017. This was only my third attempt at photographing the night sky, and I was naive about just how much preparation this kind of outing would entail. I chose the Tomahawk Wildlife Area as the first sight, but as the night progressed, it became clear that low clouds would cover the sky, and make meteor sightings too difficult. But, what I did discover was a beautiful location for capturing the Orion Nebula, and I ended up with one of my favorite time lapse and compositions to date.
The next time I looked to the area to shoot I headed to Tarryall Reservoir in order to capture an image of star trails. These compositions take many hours to complete, and the openness of the lake and the rock formations surrounding it made for a beautiful, natural frame for the whole scene. While the wind came up at different points, roughing up the water just enough to erase the mirrored reflection, the skies stayed clear for the time I was shooting and created a perfect final composition.
The following Milky Way season, I decided to explore Buckskin Gulch, and the Paris Mill for my next set of night time images. This time though I was much better prepared for actually capturing the core of the Milky Way, and I’d hope to create a panorama of the arch over the mill. While the building itself is closed while being stabilized and rebuilt, capturing the bend of the early season arching over the top of it is still one of my favorite nighttime compositions yet.
The nature preserve along the flanks of Pennsylvania Mountain provides another breathtaking vista for viewing the night sky. The preserve is dotted with the Bristlecone Pines, which are always a favorite subject, and climbing past treeline to 12,000-plus feet on a starlit, wintery night brings out the very best rewards. It seems that the colder the night, the clearer the sky, and the more brilliant the stars are. Having shot from this spot to winters in a row, I am more and more determined each time that I can improve on my last trip, and that the skies will remain perfect during the entire length of the shoot.
My most recent trip out to shoot involved scaling the trail of Mosquito Pass to get one of the last good views of the NEOWISE Comet. The real benefit of Mosquito Pass is not just the clearer air of 13,000-plus feet, but also the lack of any real light pollution, especially when looking north, the direction where the Comet was spending it’s nights in the middle of July. The images captured there will certainly grow more and more valuable to me over time, as it will be another 6,000 years before the comet returns, but I have a few really special images that will last me a lifetime.
While I know I have missed some of the other sides, such as Eleven Mile Lake, Spinney Mountain Reservoir, even Hoosier Pass, it is just a matter of taking the time to plan out and gather the right resources, watch the weather and hope for a clear night. The clouds don’t always cooperate, and that’s alright. I can count on an incredible night under the South Park skies regardless of the conditions.