Photographing Wildflowers in Colorado’s American Basin

Last week (July 16, 2021) we finally made it to Colorado’s American Basin. We had tried to photograph it before, but never timed it right to see the wildflowers. This year, we got lucky. My parents had been a few times before and said this was the best display they have seen. If you go now, you might still be able to enjoy them. Here are a few tips for getting there, and photographing the flowers.

About American Basin

LOCATION: The closest town to American Basin is Lake City, which is about an 1 hour and 25 minutes away.

WILDFLOWER INFORMATION: I was not able to find an online wildflower report that provided real-time information. I called the Lake City Visitor Center/Chamber of Commerce and asked someone directly. We were told the flowers were at peak. I would recommend calling before venturing up to the basin. One year we were in Lake City in mid-July and the basin was still full of snow

TIMING: Most resources say American Basin reaches peak around mid-July. I recommend arriving early in the morning. This will give you time in the basin before the afternoon thunderstorms, which are typical in Colorado this time of year. I would plan on being off the “rough” part of the road by the time the rain starts. Give yourself 1 hour to clear the top part of the road.

THE ROAD: This trip is not for the faint of heart. We knew the road up to the basin was rough, and had read information that a regular passenger car could go most of the way. This was NOT our experience. We were in a Jeep Wrangler with mountain tires, and were glad to have the high-clearance and four wheel drive. The road was rough. It took us 1 hour to drive 14 miles. This short video will give you a sense of the road. Some parts had deep pockets full of muddy water, other parts were narrow and followed along a steep drop-off.

Road up to American Basin

PARKING: Once you get to the basin, there are two lots about a half mile apart. I would recommend parking in the lower lot, and hiking to the upper lot. Many of our favorite images were taken along this hike from the lower lot. A note about restrooms: There are no restrooms in the basin. On your way up, there is a parking lot with two bathrooms about 45 minutes from the basin. I would recommend stopping there for the facilities.

Photographing the Basin

We have just a few short tips for photographing the basin. It’s visually stunning and contains many of the elements that make Colorado so beautiful: mountain peaks, waterfalls, streams, and wildflowers. Having all of these visual elements can make it difficult to compose an image and capture the beauty of the environment. We took over 100 images, and kept about 10. The conditions were challenging, the sun would duck in and out of the clouds, and at times the wind picked up and blew the flowers around. It was difficult to slow the shutter to get milky smooth water in the waterfalls, and sharp flowers in the foreground. We both agreed we’d like to go back and try to capture the basin in better light.

Tip 1: Change your depth of field

I found that at times blurring out the background helped to focus the image, and create a clearer composition. By “suggesting” the waterfall in the background these two strong elements (the flowers and the waterfall) weren’t competing with each other.

Tip 2: Focus on one strong element

I was starting to get frustrated photographing here. I saw wildflowers in every color you could imagine…..all over the place. But I wasn’t able to capture the beauty of the setting. After 2 hours, we headed back to the car, and I just happened to stop at this small patch on the trail. I set my tripod down (in the mud – instead of setting it up and using it – good grief), and started working with these bright red flowers. This is one of my favorite photos from the morning.

Tip 3: Photograph a person in the environment

It is hard to get a sense of scale and grandeur of this place. We’ve started making photos of ourselves, and each other, to help us document the experience. This is one place where it helps to see someone in the frame.

Tip 4: Increase your ISO

It was a bright day when we were there, but even with the amount of light it was difficult to stop the motion of the wind blowing through the wildflowers. Increasing ISO may introduce noise, but it is worth that price to have sharp flower photos. If you haven’t already tried Topaz Lab’s DeNoise, I would recommend you download the trial version. We have been working with it for a few weeks, and are pleased with the results. We have stopped using Nik’s Define, and now use DeNoise exclusively. For an excellent video on DeNoise, check out Matt K’s evaluation of the software here. He also provides a discount code.

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