Plein Air Painting Colorado

In September 2015 I traveled to Colorado to paint there for a week - my 19th State in my Quest to Plein Air Paint in all 50 States.  Here is my travelog of the trip.

  My traveling companions for this trip are Eunice Van der Linden, Carol Bower, Jean Thomas and Michele Hausman - artist friends from Santa Cruz/San Jose area.  We flew into Denver International and rented 2 cars - we needed them! as our luggage pile was monumental - 5 artists with all our equipment plus clothing and other stuff. A big thank you to Bert Van der Linden for driving us to and from the airport in commute traffic.

  We stopped in Boulder (a lovely College town) to get a late lunch and to get our Gamsol mineral spirits at the art supply store there.  It's upstairs from the new store that sells legal marijuana - strange to see as it's  illegal in our State of California. Colorado is a strange mix of the permissive and the puritanical - marijuana is legal but you can't buy beer or wine in the supermarket.

Estes Park and Rocky Mountain National Park

Our destination is Estes Park and Rocky Mountain National Park.   We will be here 4 nights.  Our rental house is 3.5 miles outside of town in a beautiful valley with a stream and mountains all around us.  The cabins are spread out with good space between each residence.  Our place has a lovely deck with panoramic views - perfect for safe viewing of elk herds and  painting.

On our first morning we spotted a small herd of elk complete with a big bull elk who bugled and put on quite a show as we had our coffee.  Jean and Carol took their painting stuff across the road from our house and painted really close to the creek and the elk herd.  Eunice, Michele and I stayed on the deck at our house and painted from there.  Here is my first Colorado painting of the trip done that morning. 

First Full Day at Altitude 8240 Feet 
Rocky Mountain National Park

After our morning painting at our cabin we made sandwiches for lunch and took off for the park.  We got to use our Senior Passes issued by the National Park Service - good for a lifetime of free entry into any US National Park. Any US Citizen can apply for one for $10 once they turn 62 years old - such a deal! We are a short distance from the Fall River Entrance station to the park.  Altitude at the entrance is 8240 ft. and goes up from there.  We stopped at the Lawn Lake Trailhead picnic area which is a short distance from the entrance station.  This picnic spot has bathrooms and tables as well as shade and wonderful views.  After lunch we decided to do a bit of a tour of Rocky Mountain Park before we did a later afternoon painting. 

We drove the beautiful and twisty high altitude road all the way up to the Continental Divide up to the Alpine Visitors Center - it is past the tree line at 11,796 ft.  We could definitely feel the altitude as we had just arrived from sea level.  The aspen trees are starting to turn golden yellow here and it will be fun to paint them. They are such delicate and lovely things with shimmering, quaking leaves that dance in the wind.  I brought my seldom used tube of Cadmium Yellow/Orange for this purpose. 

Hidden Valley and Afternoon Painting
Cloud Shadows and Aspen

On our way back down the huge mountain we found a sweet spot to do our afternoon painting - at the Hidden Valley turnoff.  We parked our car on the side of the road there and found a view that offers vast vistas  plus aspen trees in the foreground.  Perfection!  Michele, Eunice and I painted happily there for over 2 hours.  Clouds and their shadows came and went.  The sun shone and no one visited our easels.  Peace at last.  Bathrooms, a trail and a stream can all be found up the road at Hidden Valley.

At the end of our first full day we are all tired but happy and in awe of the scale of the Rocky Mountains.  So different from the small and cozy mountains of Vermont - but interesting to experience them within a month of each other.

Weekend Crowds in Estes Park and
Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP)

We were amazed at how many people come up here on a Friday, Saturday and Sunday.  If you visit try to come during the week.  Due to proximity of Denver and Boulder it is very easy for folks to pop over here for a few days of hiking and outdoor adventure.  It does make it difficult getting dinner out in the evening.  We ended up getting food to go rather than endure the wait for a table in an overly crowded restaurant.  We also found that places like Bear Lake inside the park, are swamped with eager visitors.  It makes it unpleasant for all concerned when too many people flock there.  Something needs to be done to limit the impact - maybe Shuttle buses spaced out a bit more? 

Restaurants We Tried in Estes Park, Colorado

Thai Kitchen, 401 S. St. Vrain Av., Estes Park, Co. 80517 - 970-577-7112

We had dinner at this good Thai place which is outside of the downtown area.  The food was really good and service was fine.  Recommend this for a casual night out.  It worked well for our group as we didn't want to drive into the heart of town for a meal on our first night.

Smokin' Daves BBQ at 820 Moraine Avenue, Estes Park, Co. 80517 - 970-577-7427

Food is excellent at Daves.  Very crowded on the night we showed up with a very long wait for dinner.  The waitress recommended we place a "To Go" order which could be ready in 15 minutes.  So that is what we did.  It worked really well for a crowded night such as a Saturday.  Recommend this place for excellent BBQ and cornbread.

Cables Pub & Grill, 451 S. St. Vrain Av., Estes Park, Co. 80517 - 970-586-1069

Pizza and hamburgers, sports bar and locals hang out.  We ordered pizza to go and took it back to our cabin which was just down the road.  Really good thin crust pizza! 

Bear Lake - Rocky Mtn. Nat'l Park

The park was slammed with crowds of visitors on the Saturday we were there.  All parking lots were full and so we had to use the shuttle bus to get up to Bear Lake to paint.  Some of our group enjoyed the experience of interacting with the crowds - I did not.  It was one of the most difficult and crowded plein air painting sessions I have ever had.  We made a mistake by setting up our gear at the first spot with a wonderful view of Bear Lake and Hallett's Peak (12,713 ft.).    Of course, each shuttle bus of folks that arrived at 7 minute intervals also wanted to take in the view, pose for photos or selfies right next to our line up of easels.    One Japanese visitor actually stuck his cell phone 6" away from my face to take my photo and a photo of my painting.  By the time we left that spot I was actually feeling grumpy.  Not my expected state of mind when out plein air painting.  I was also suffering from a surge of grief brought on by this day being my wedding anniversary and the first anniversary since my husband died.  Painting has been a huge gift to me and is helping me move forward again in my life.  Thank you Plein Air Goddess!  I recommend it most highly as a healing path.

Based on the above experience I recommend that you visit  during the week when it is less crowded. 

After leaving Bear Lake we found a nice quiet spot next to the river and had our lunch there and rested in the shade of the aspen trees.  The sound of the river running next to us and the gentle rustling of leaves was a soothing antidote to the mayhem of the morning crowds.

Estes Park Cultural Center

Estes Park Cultural Center is worth visiting.  They had a lovely exhibit of paintings done at the recent Estes Park Plein Air Event - here is the address: 423 West Elkhorn Avenue, Estes Park, Co. 80517

website is:

Last Day in Estes Park and RMNP

 I painted this one down at the creek just opposite the house.  We got out there before breakfast to capture one last painting in "our" neighborhood.    Jean made us a wonderful brunch dish of potatoes, eggs, roasted green chilies, tomato and onion - excellent! and perfect after painting.

Afternoon Painting - We took the road to Valley View - Worth the drive!

This is where the paved road ends and there are fabulous views looking down the valley.  Eunice and I walked down into the golden meadow towards the creek. We set up our gear in a spot that elk had recently used as a sleeping spot.    Michele set up her easel in the aspen grove and painted there.  

 We could see glaciated valleys to the right and a vast alluvial fan to our left.  A 1952 avalanche of massive boulders and mud had come down from the mountains near this spot.  We all painted happily in the late afternoon light - what a wonderful spot!  and not another person in sight except for 2 fly fishermen who were only interested in their fish. Here is my painting from the afternoon.  We are heading for Snowmass/Aspen tomorrow.

Colorado's Two Seasons - Winter and Road Construction!

That's what the locals say - and it did seem to be true in a number of high traffic places, such as Interstate 70 from Denver over the high passes West.  We got stuck in grinding traffic for what seemed like hours as we made our way towards Snowmass and Aspen.  Weekend tourist traffic was replaced by large trucks hauling their loads from East to West.  So there was no escaping it.  At least the views were good.  Spectacular - especially near Glenwood Springs where the Colorado River runs next to the freeway. 

Off Season in Snowmass - Good Deals on Wonderful Condos

As a reward for all our traffic woes in getting there, our condo in Snowmass at the Top of the Hill - end unit with 4 bedrooms and 4 bathrooms, plus a balcony - is fabulous!  Due to the large number of units available in the ski area, off season is a good time to get a good deal on really great places.

 We are able to walk from our condo up a dirt road (usually a ski trail in Winter) and found perfect Aspen trees and mountain vistas right there.  We will definitely be painting here tomorrow for a plein air painting session  We also found a wonderful restaurant "Artisans" just down the road in Snowmass Village for our evening meal.  The free shuttle provided picked us up and delivered us to the restaurant.  We are done with driving today. 

Snowmass, Rain and Aspens
Painting in the Rain

Us drought ridden Californians were thrilled to awake to the sound and sight of rain this morning.  Everyone was in a good mood and happy to be in the Snowmass/Aspen area for 2 full days of painting and checking things out.

We started out with a late breakfast at the Mall at Big Hoss Restaurant.  Very good breakfast fare - it was recommended by our shuttle bus driver the night before.   The rain had stopped by the time we had our meal.  We all got our gear from the car and walked up on the mountain just behind our condo to paint the gorgeous fall Aspen trees, mountains and sky.  Some of us set up our umbrellas (EasyL) - which turned out to be useful for rain too.  It was wonderful to paint in such a magnificent place without having to drive anywhere today.  The rain came and went.  I painted through it as it wasn't heavy.  The above painting is the one I did today. 

Maroon Bells - Between Snowmass and Aspen

Due to the crowds of people flocking up to the Bells, one has to take a shuttle bus from Aspen Highlands to get up to Maroon Bells.  After our experience at Bear Lake with crowds, we decided to forego this particular pleasure and took our car as far as we were permitted.  We tried to talk our way in but the Ranger at the entrance wasn't sympathetic to our plea.  Instead, we pulled our car off to the side of the canyon and painted there.  No crowds or annoyances of any kind - and, we had a place to retreat to (our car) when the rain came down quite heavily for a while. 

The above painting was done at this spot - I call it "On the Road to Maroon Bells". The fabulous mountain side of maroon rock was covered with aspen trees sporting yellow and orange leaves.  A colorists' dream.  The Maroon River ran swiftly next to our parking spot.  It was such a dynamic and striking scene. 

Geology Note:  The reddish hues of the peaks of Maroon Bells give clues to their origin. They are a mudstone but not yet a shale.  Very unstable.  They are composed of sediments that eroded off ancient granite mountains.  Roughly 300 million years ago, two north-south mountain ranges arose in what is now Colorado: the Ancestral Front Range in the east and the Uncompahgre Mountains in the west. These ancient mountains eroded sediments into neighboring basins, and in the millions of years that followed, oxidation of the minerals in these sediments deepened their ruddy color. The sediments lay low until pushed skyward again by the next mountain-building event, beginning about 70 million years ago, which created the current Rocky Mountains, including the picturesque peaks of the Maroon Bells.

Aspen Art Museum

After our morning painting session in the rain, we packed up our gear and headed into Aspen.  We had heard about their new Aspen Art Museum from Carol.  A very modern building designed by a well known Japanese architect and a perfect location in down town Aspen.  The roof Cafe is wonderful as the glass windows open up onto a deck with a full open view of Aspen Mountain.  While we were visiting there was a one man show on - very edgy, ethnic and New York Arty.  We enjoyed the experience and recommend it to other art lovers who want to see something unexpected in Aspen. 

We picked up some good wine, cheese and crackers in Aspen and returned to our lovely condo in Snowmass for our own special Art Show evening to mark the end of a week of painting in beautiful Colorado.  Between the 5 of us we had  over 30 paintings - quite a production and each one special in its own right.  I felt so proud to be part of such a wonderful trip.  Gathering inspiration and learning from each other along the way was a real pleasure.  Thank you dear Art Friends!

Independence Pass

We took the back road from Aspen to Independence Pass (12,068 ft.) on our way back to Denver for our flight home.  This road is closed during winter but was spectacular when we were there in September.  Over the Continental Divide and then down to Leadville (10,000+ feet).  Go this way if you can rather than grinding along on Interstate 70.

Now back to our normal lives - Thank you Colorado!  You are amazing!

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