Chautauqua is the most popular trailhead in all of Boulder, both as the starting point for local hiking trails and as a location for photo sessions, whether they’re family photos, engagement sessions, senior portraits, or elopements and wedding photos. Because it’s so busy, it takes a fair amount of planning to pull off a successful shoot at Chautauqua. Keep reading for all my best tips as a Boulder-based elopement photographer and hiker!
What’s the best timing for photos at Chautauqua?
Weekends are incredibly busy at Chautauqua all year round, but especially in the middle of summer and on holiday weekends. On weekends between Memorial Day and Labor Day, you have to pay to park, or you can take the free shuttle from nearby park and ride locations.
My personal favorite time to shoot at Chautauqua is on weekdays at sunrise. If it’s a clear morning, the alpenglow will color the Flatirons every shade of pink and orange — it’s spectacular. And while there are always some hikers heading out on the trails early in the morning, the early start gives you the most privacy on the trails without having other people in the background of your photos.
If sunrise sounds too early and you prefer afternoon golden hour, definitely go for a weekday if you can to avoid the weekend crowds. Also keep in mind that the sun disappears behind the mountains long before the actual sunset, so the best light is usually 1-2 hours before sunset.
Can we elope at Chautauqua?
If you’re planning on having any guests at your elopement, you cannot elope on the trails at Chautauqua. Boulder OSMP requires that elopements with guests reserve one of their picnic shelters or ceremony sites — you can read more about all of them in my Boulder elopement guide. For bigger weddings, you can reserve the lawn outside of the Chautauqua Dining Hall for your ceremony, where you can also use chairs and ceremony decor like an arch.
If you’re not having any guests, you can elope on the trails, as long as your photographer has the OSMP photo permit, and you follow all other rules for the area. You cannot bring any decorations or furniture onto the trails for your elopement, you should stay on the trails and durable surfaces, and you can’t block the trail for other hikers.
How to have the best experience for a photo shoot at Chautauqua?
I personally only do elopements and engagement sessions at Chautauqua on weekdays at sunrise, because it’s the only time I can guarantee free parking spots and quiet trails for my couples. To have the best experience, plan on hiking at least 10-15 minutes away from the parking lot. You can get great photos on the trails that go along Baseline, but you’ll have to keep stopping to let hikers pass you by.
Wear flats! While the trails at Chautauqua are wide and well-maintained, they’re not paved, and the main trail up the hill is quite steep. I do not recommend wearing heels here if you wanna get natural photos of you moving around, and to not worry about spraining an ankle.
How to Leave No Trace at Chautauqua
The meadows at Chautauqua are one of the best places in Boulder to see wildflowers from the end of May through early August. Please help us all keep the flowers alive for everyone to enjoy, and stay on trails and durable surfaces. Do not walk through the wildflowers, sit/lay down in them for photos, or pick wildflowers. It only takes a few people going off-trail to trample the grass, and create “social trails” that others will follow, which can completely kill the vegetation along that path. You can get beautiful photos from the trails!
Do I need a photo permit for Chautauqua?
Yes, you do! Any photographer who is taking photos for commercial purposes at Chautauqua needs a permit from Boulder Open Space & Mountain Parks. If you’re getting paid to do photos, or you’re using the photos to market your business on your website or social media, you need a permit. If you’re going here to hike with a friend and taking photos of each other for Instagram, you don’t need a permit (unless you’re an influencer and getting paid for the posts).
It costs $50 for a limited annual permit, which includes up to 50 visitors in one calendar year (photographer + two clients = 3 visitors), or $300 for an unlimited annual permit. You will need to submit a certificate of insurance that names Boulder OSMP for all permit applications. Want to learn more about Colorado photography permits? I have a whole post on permits here.
Apply for your Boulder OSMP Permit online.
Can I fly a drone at Chautauqua?
No, operating drones on Boulder OSMP lands is illegal, and will get you a hefty ticket from the local rangers.
If you’re interested in eloping at Chautauqua and having me as your photographer, I’d love to chat more with you! Contact me to schedule a video chat, and let’s talk about how I can help you.
About Nina Larsen Reed
Nina Larsen Reed is an elopement photographer based in Boulder, Colorado. She plans and captures adventure elopements and intimate weddings, and has photographed over 200 couples across the Rocky Mountains since 2017.