Best of the Tetons

Cunningham Alpenglow 1

Alpenglow: Morning’s Fleeting Phenomenon

In the mountains, Alpenglow happens “regularly” about 30 minutes before first light. Be up early to view and photograph one of Mother Nature’s colorful masterpieces!

Panoramic Alpenglow

Someone studying earth sciences might get bogged down trying to explain exactly “what” causes Alpenglow. Artist and photographer types probably just want to know “when” Alpenglow will happen! I did some Google searches on the subject and came up surprisingly empty handed: Alpenglow on Wikipedia. Interestingly, neither of the photos on that page look anything like what I’d characterize as Alpenglow.

This explanation from the Wikipedia page is probably close enough:

“Since the Sun is below the horizon, there is no direct path for the light to reach the mountain. Instead, light reflects off airborne snow, water, or ice particles low in the atmosphere.”

Web Moon at SRO Jan17

I find Alpenglow best on mornings with very thin clouds in the west and little or no clouds in the east. Other sites I found said the phenomenon happens in the opposite direction of the sun, but I don’t find that to be either common or terribly accurate. While I’ve seen the pinks and magentas far to the north, most often it happens towards the south half of the western sky. It’s for that reason, I like to try to capture Alpenglow from areas like the Snake River Overlook as seen above. Of course, access is limited in the Winter, so choice locations can become very limited.

Web Snake River Overlook Jan18

The image above was taken at about the same time the morning following the previous photo. The setting full moon was still high above the Teton range.

Web Snake River Overlook Jan18

On premium mornings, Alpenglow can last for about 10 minutes. The original purple sky is gradually replaced with pink and magenta. Then—seemingly right in front of your eyes—the color disappears and the sky turns to a murky gray. That’s a good time to have a cup of hot chocolate or coffee and wait for the first rays of light to begin washing the top of the Grand.

Shane Cabin Aplenglow Dec15

Alpenglow can be extended and enhanced if there is a thin layer of clouds in the east, too! This image was captured at the Shane Cabin in Grand Teton National Park on a cold December morning. Notice, there is no light hitting the mountain peaks yet. (Click the image above to view it much larger!)

Web Alpenglow Nov27

If you are going to try to capture Alpenglow in Grand Teton National Park, my best suggestion for you is to be out EARLY! I’m talking about leaving home or your motel long before there is even the first hint of light. Maybe that is best described as dark! It is always a gamble, but there is no other way. Also remember, the night time speed limit in Grand Teton National Park is only 45 mph. You must allow extra time—especially if you are traveling to the north end of the valley.

Cunningham Alpenglow 1

That also means having a pretty good idea where you might want to be that morning before you drive up to the location. You won’t have time to drive to a spot once you see it starting. For this shot at the Cunningham Cabin, I had to walk roughly 3/4 mile in the deep snow using snow shoes and be set up before this scene actually developed. That morning, Alpenglow lasted longer than normal, holding the pinks and purples much longer. I suspect the morning fog had something to do with it. Go ask a scientist! I just took the shots!

Wedding Trees and Moon 2010

To be honest, I was out early on this morning to try to capture the setting full moon over the Tetons. I had to snow shoe into the Wedding Trees from the parking area. Another year, I tried just walking in, but that was a disaster! Snow was too deep. Unfortunately, the clouds were thicker than I had hoped, but the same pesky clouds lit up wonderfully for Alpenglow.

Web Sleeping Indian Oct24

Alpenglow can also happen in the late evening, though I find it usually less colorful or spectacular. This image was taken while standing on the observation platform along Flat Creek at the north end of the town of Jackson.

Schwabacher Alpenglow

Schwabacher Landing was closed to vehicle and bicycle traffic for the 2013 season. Besides the early morning drive, this shot required a 1.2 mile hike in the dark. Bear spray is definitely in order down there!

Old Patriarch

The Old Patriarch Tree is roughly 3/4 mile from any road. There are no trails to it, so the dark hike requires a good flashlight and ample time.

Moulton Barn Alpenglow

Antelope Flats Road closed for the Winter on December 24th. I took this one before the roads were closed, but it is still legal to hike, cross country ski, or snow shoe into the area. Allow time for about a mile hike—but at least this spot is easy to find in the dark!

My Tips for Photographing Alpenglow:

  • I already spilled the beans on my first tip: Be at your chosen location EARLY! I always like to have something interesting in the foreground if I can get to it. If all else fails, head to Snake River Overlook!
  • It will almost always be very cold, so dress warmly. You might want to take some hand warmers for your gloves and have a Thermos of hot chocolate or coffee back at the vehicle.
  • Make sure your camera batteries are fully charged and keep a spare in your jacket pocket. You won’t have time to go back to the vehicle to get another one if the first one fails.
  • Ideally, you will need a good, sturdy tripod. You can use the self timer, a shutter release, or use the camera’s “shutter delay”. Shutter speeds will probably be between 1/8th second to 1 second.
  • I like to photograph my sunrise images at my “base ISO”. That will usually be something like ISO 100 or ISO 200, even if my camera is rated for good High ISO.
  • Normally, I photograph my sunrise and sunset images with manual White Balance, but Auto is still a good option for most people. Normally, I take a shot or two and adjust manually until I see something in the back of the camera that is close to what I am seeing. (RAW images can always be adjusted in post production)
  • I like to take as many variations of the scene as possible by changing compositions, moving a little left and right, and taking multiple images that can be stitched together to make a panoramic image. In other words, shoot a lot and then have as many options as you can when you get back to your computer. Oh yes, Alpenglow is just one of the stages of a typical morning sunrise event. After the “gray period” the mountain range lights up with first light, usually with rose color in the clouds and on the mountains. That stage is replaced with an “amber” stage, followed by the “white” stage. By that time, I am usually heading back towards town and passing all of the people heading towards the park to catch the morning light.

Grand Alpenglow 2012

The intensity of the Alpenglow effect varies greatly from morning to morning. Many “sunrise” images are quite colorful, but clouds and mountain peaks are lit by direct rays of the sun. Get up early and try to capture your own versions!

If you like this page, you might also want to check out these earlier Feature Posts:

Teton Sunrises: It Takes Two to Tango

Teton Sunsets:

Be sure to sign up to follow this blog if you like what you are seeing, and please tell your friends about it! Cheers, Mike Jackson

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Comments (3)

  1. John Tienter

    Thanks Mike for the great post and tips. Just wonderful images, hope to be there in June.

  2. Gorgeous images…Very informative info. We visit Jackson at least once every year…Love everything about the area.

  3. Carol

    Mike – Is alpenglow more prominent during a particular season? For example, is there more likely to be a beautiful alpenglow during the winter versus the summer, or does the season matter at all? Beautiful photos BTW!

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