I awoke before dawn on New Years Day and was greeted with clear skies and a crescent Moon with the planets Venus and Jupiter shining brightly in the eastern sky. I drove out towards Mormon Lake anticipating great—albeit very cold—conditions for some sunrise snow photographs. On the way to the lake I encountered low clouds and patchy fog and there was nothing to be seen upon my arrival. It was already too close to sunrise to head back north or west so my only option was to wait and hope.
I missed the sunrise but about 20 to 30 minutes later the clouds cleared and the San Francisco Peaks were amazing. Low clouds and fog remained around the base of the peaks.
As the sun rose higher the side-lit rime ice on the wild grasses (i.e., weeds) at the Mormon Lake Overlook began to glisten and glow.
Temperatures were hovering in the low single digits and I was cold after standing around for about an hour. Time for breakfast and hot coffee.
The next day we hiked into West Fork Oak Creek knowing that the trail would be snow packed and there would be a dozen water crossings on ice—hopefully solid enough to support us. After several days of below freezing high temperatures and near or sub-zero overnight temperatures we were hopeful for safe ice.
There are several locations where water drips down the cliffs even at these cold temperatures resulting in wonderful icicles and bizarre ice sculptures on the ground.
We hiked to the “end” of the trail where it enters a narrow, rock-walled section of canyon often called “The Subway.” This was our turnaround spot.
On the way up the canyon we had not run into any other hikers. What a treat!
A winter storm in late February brought hope again of getting some photographs of the San Francisco Peaks covered in snow. So I departed before sunrise one morning to head out towards Mormon Lake. Because of the warm winter up through mid-February, most of Lower Lake Mary and Upper Lake Mary remained mostly ice free. With very cold early morning temperatures it was no surprise that there was fog over the relatively warm open waters of the lakes. When I left my house, the temperature was about +3°F. When I reached Lower Lake Mary, the temperature had fallen to -10°F—and there was considerable fog.
It was the same over Upper Lake Mary. I debated whether to change my plans and shoot photographs of the fog over this lake but after viewing the scene I chose to continue to the Mormon Lake Overlook. As I approached the overlook, I could see a layer of fog. Luckily, the overlook was just high enough to be above the fog.
It was a beautiful scene with a shallow layer of fog covering the lake bed and snow on the distant San Francisco Peaks.
After getting a few quick photos I set about to capture a panorama. I shot 12 images: 2 rows of 6 shots. The resulting image is huge and clocks in around 190 megapixels. I can make a print of this that’s 8 feet wide. But I probably won’t because I don’t have a wall large enough for something that big.
It was obvious that sometime during the night the fog layer was much deeper as all the grasses, bushes, and trees were covered with rime ice.
The rime created needles that pointed in the direction of the light wind that had been present during formation. As the sun rose above the horizon, the rime caught the light and sparkled brilliantly.
So we had fog over the lake bed, snow on the mountain, and rime ice on the grasses. What else? Well, a glory became visible as the sun rose high enough to illuminate the fog layer below me. And a short segment of a fog bow was also visible in the fog layer.
It has been a very dry autumn and early winter around these parts—but that finally changed as a winter storm moved across the area yesterday and today. On Tuesday afternoon clouds began to increase across the area and there was a cap cloud draped across the San Francisco Peaks.
Most, but not all, of Arizona received precipitation including Flagstaff. We have been without any significant precipitation since September 27 when 0.07″ of rain fell. Since then, we’ve had 0.01″ on November 17 and a Trace on December 21. That’s it. It’s been the driest period on record and the second latest first snowfall of the season. And it’s been warm.
Rain began to fall around 7:30 P.M. Tuesday evening then switched to snow around 10:15 P.M. as the cold front moved across the area. Prior to frontal passage we had several rounds of thunderstorms. At least one of these thunderstorms exhibited extreme right-mover characteristics as well as some weak rotation suggesting it may have been a supercell. With this winter storm Flagstaff received ~5″ of snow and 1.19″ of total water.
Although it was still mostly cloudy this morning, there was a gap in the clouds along the eastern horizon allowing sunshine to briefly illuminate the peaks shortly after sunrise.
The San Francisco Peaks are almost completely wrapped in clouds with only the summits visible. A few minutes later, the sun had risen high enough that it was above the clear gap and everything turned gray again.
This will be a short-lived episode as the forecast indicates a quick return to warm and dry conditions across the southwest.
Some years it’s easy to get great photographs of the changing colors of aspen leaves in northern Arizona. The weather is good, the timing is right, you’re in the perfect place. It all comes together.
That wasn’t this year.
We set out several times on the mountain bikes to see and enjoy the color. First we were too early; then we were too late. We were out of town on a long-planned trip and the peak color season occurred while we were gone. It happens.
Not that I’m complaining. I’ve been able to get good photographs many times in the past and there will be opportunities again in coming years.
So here is a collection of pre-season photos, post-season photos, and a few from several years ago comparing colors in the Inner Basin on similar dates but different years.
Based on previous years, I thought we might still find some great color in the Inner Basin this late in the season. We certainly did in 2014—but not 2017.
And here are a couple from 2015—another good year for aspen photography.
An early snowfall on the higher summits juxtaposed with the aspen almost at their peak made an interesting composition. Getting this view required more hiking and climbing that anticipated—but ultimately worth it.
After five days of snow the skies finally cleared showing several feet of new snow on the peaks of northern Arizona. Late afternoon shadows race across the meadows of Brannigan Park while sunlight continues to illuminate the high peaks.