This year’s Yellowstone/Grand Tetons Hiking Trip was a great one. On the opening morning of the trip we were greeted with a glorious sunrise that painted the Teton Range with warm sunshine. The illuminated mountains reflected perfectly in the waters around the snake river and made for some amazing landscape photography opportunities.
The rest of the morning we traveled the interior roads of the Grand Teton National Park looking for all kinds of wildlife but primarily grizzly bears. It’d been reported that the world’s most famous grizzly bear (bear number 399) was roaming the area and had her yearling cubs in tow. While we never saw the elusive grizzly we did manage to get some great shots of some the indigenous wildlife like moose, pelicans, elk, and a trio of beavers. Although we didn’t see the bears on Day One, Jackson Lake ended up being a fantastic consolation prize. Since the ice was melting from the lake, no wind meant nearly the entire Teton Range was reflected in the lake. The phenomenon allowed members of the group to shoot panoramics and wide angle scenics that were engaging and beautiful. That night we took in some local fare and dined at a local restaurant that epitomizes the Jackson Hole experience.
Day Two found us at maybe the most photographed feature at Grand Teton – the Mormon Barns. These barns are the remnants of the early Mormon agricultural settlements in the area and the wood’s rust red patina glows in the morning sun. When the clouds moved in we drove over the Teton pass and toured through the Teton Valley on the west side of the mountain range. While many only see the eastern facing side of the Teton Range (the side you see from Grand Teton National Park), the west side offers magnificent views as well. On the way to Yellowstone from Jackson and across Teton Pass, you’ll pass through quaint towns, beautiful potato farming country, an immense volcanic caldera and finally, alpine woodlands as you climb into the foothills of Yellowstone National Park.
Driving into Yellowstone National Park, you can immediately see the appeal of the park to millions of visitors who frequent it each year. Its magnitude and monumentalism is staggering and its beauty, mesmerizing.
Perhaps the one thing that Yellowstone is best known for is its geothermal features. The park is over an active magma field and the fissures in the native rock creates the chasms needed for water to infiltrate down to contact the warmer rock below. The results are scores of geysers, mud pots, steam vents, and thermal pools that manifest themselves across portions of the park. If you are in Yellowstone National Park you must see these features. So we took the group to one of the lesser known spots – The Lone Star Geyser.
Since no roads pass the geyser, we hiked two and half miles up the Firehole River Valley to see the lone geyser and get there in time for its eruption. Early May means that snow still covers much of Yellowstone so the hike was a bit challenging as we trudged through late season, half melted snow pack to get there. I think I speak for the group when I say that the travail was worth it.
While eating our riverside lunch, the geyser gurgled to life and put on a spectacular show for thirty minutes while the group shot multiple angles and videos of the eruption. Soon however, we packed out and headed out. Along the way we saw and photographed bison and elk on the way out to our lodging in West Yellowstone, Montana.
The morning of Day Three found us looking for bears and other wildlife in the morning and while we found no bears, the wildlife opportunities abound in the park. Just about everywhere you drive you find bison, elk, geese, swans, and a host of other species. After lunch, we visited the Upper Geyser Basin. The Upper Basin is home to the largest concentration of thermal activity in the park and is where you’ll find the world’s most famous geyser – Old faithful.
Hiking around the basin gave the group a chance to photograph three different geysers erupting. In addition they had a chance to learn various photography techniques including slow shutter speeds as it applies to moving water, composition, and test what kind of lighting most dramatically illuminates the super heated water and steam that emerges from the subterranean plumbing features.
For dinner we dined at the historic Old Faithful Lodge and after that, we hit the trail again in time to witness the castle geyser and Old Faithful erupt in the beautiful evening light.
The next day a coyote catching moles in a field keep us busy with his antics for most of the morning. He entertained the group by plunging head-deep into the snow in his search for food. The event led to some great photo opportunities.
From there we traveled to and photographed The Grand Canyon of Yellowstone. It’s the area where the Yellowstone River carves its way through basalt and creates a chasm through the valley. The most dramatic feature – the Lower Falls – spills millions of gallons of water over a plunge that’s taller than a football field if you stand the field on its end. While I’ve seen the falls before, it’s still an exhilarating scene.
Towards the end of the trip we relocated once again to Cooke City, Montana. This quaint mountain village is lodged in a valley along Soda Butte Creek in the Beartooth Mountains. From here we had a perfect launch point to the Lamar Valley. While the Lamar River Valley has plenty of grand riparian scenery and we took advantage of multiple landscape photo opportunities as wildlife abounds along the river. We shot pictures of pronghorns, bison, bighorn sheep, beavers, bald eagles, ravens, ground squirrels, and finally, bears.
Our first bear encounter was a two year old male that we spotted sleeping under some pines. We sat on the side of the road and watched him and eventually he got up to feed which led to some great photo opportunities. The very next day, we suspect that we ran into the same bear about a mile from where we saw him the day before. This time, we flanked the bear from the park prescribed distance for over a hour as he fed, bedded down, and then fed again. This time, he worked his way along a pond that provided some fantastic reflections in the placid water. We did find a cub with a sow but the little bear was in a tree and only provided some modest photo opportunities. Nonetheless, it was cool to see the little guy.
After our time at Yellowstone, we made our way back to Jackson, Wyoming to enjoy the town and the local eateries. On the last morning of the trip, the Tetons were socked in with clouds so we hunted for the most elusive wildlife – grizzly bears. After an hour in the park, we encountered some cow elk but no grizzly. Easing down the road in the trip’s last hour we saw several cars parked along side a road adjacent to a clearing.
There’s only one thing that can create that sort of attention.
Parking, the group piled from the vehicle and set up tripods to capture a female grizzly the locals call Blondie. She had a couple of young cubs with her that played in the field while she scavenged for food. In all we spent a better part of an hour with her before she moved far off into the timberline. I couldn’t have asked for a better bookend for the trip.
All images by Russell A Graves.
If you’ve read any Texas-based magazines over the past twenty five years chances are you’ve seen some of Russell’s photos or read some of his words. Since 1989, he’sbeen traveling the state telling authentic Texas stories with his camera and his words – both written and spoken.
A graduate of Dodd City High School and East Texas State University, Russell was an ag science teacher in Childress, Texas for 16 years where he was named Texas Agriscience Teacher of the Year on three occasions.
After leaving that career in 2009, he continued to photograph, write, and speak about his experiences and the people he meets and in 2010, he began delving into television production. His first documentary film, Bois d’Arc Goodbye was filmed entirely in Fannin County and chronicled he and his brother Bubba’s canoe journey as they traversed the creek before a lake forever changes the landscape. The film aired three times to a prime-time, national audience.
Recently he’s worked with such celebrities as the Robertson Family from Duck Dynasty television show, T. Boone Pickens, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Pat Green, and Tracy Lawrence, but he insists that regular people are his favorite subjects.
Currently, Russell lives in the country north of Childress, Texas with his wife Kristy and their two children Bailee and Ryan but still manages to spend a considerable amount of time near his boyhood home north of Dodd City.
You can see Russell’s work and portfolio on his webpage at www.russellgraves.com