Getting to witness Yellowstone in the winter is a truly special experience. The entire park is quiet. The crowds are gone, the animals are much more visible from the road and everything is blanketed in a soft white coat of snow. With over 4 million visitors a year, the world’s first national park is in danger of being loved to death. But spend a week there in the winter, when visitation drops to less than 5% of what it is in the summer, and you’ll feel that opinion couldn’t be farther from the truth. Our Winter in Yellowstone Photo Tour aims to bring excited photographers from around the world to this special winter wonderland to capture exciting wildlife and dramatic landscape imagery unlike anywhere else in the world.
After an evening of questions, introductions and socializing, we made our way the following morning to the town of Mammoth Hot Springs via Yellowstone’s north entrance. We spent our morning photographing the iconic geothermal features that make up the Mammoth Hot Springs Terrace. The Mammoth Terrace is a series of natural hot spring flows with high mineral content causing terrace like deposits to form. While shooting, we battled snow and wind and temperatures in the teens fahrenheit. But everyone seemed happy with their shots and all were mesmerized by the natural features.
After lunch, we loaded up in the snowcoach and set off for West Yellowstone. In the winter, the park roads are closed to private vehicle traffic, and rather than plowing the roads, the park opts to groom them for over snow travel by way of snowmobile or snowcoach. A snow coach is a great way to see the park in winter as it sits quite a bit higher than a passenger vehicle and, with large windows, everyone has a great view of any wildlife we might encounter. Think of it like a cross between a short bus and a monster truck. They’re extremely capable in deep snow and made for an exciting experience for the whole group.
As we progressed through the park, we looked for bison, elk, moose and foxes. And while we struck out on all but the bison, this would only be our first of four days in the snow coach, and we would have plenty of other opportunities for photographing wildlife.
The following day we had an early start as our snowcoach driver met us for the day’s journey. Much to our surprise, the driver was Ranger Russ from Katmai! Some of you who joined us in September may remember him. He is an avid wildlife photographer and provided some great insight into the history, geology and ecology of Yellowstone, while still getting very excited to photograph wildlife with us.
As we made our way through the park, we were quickly interrupted by a pair of bison on the road. They were joined by a coyote who was looking to take the road most traveled and utilize the freshly packed snow on the road as it made its way through Madison Valley. We all got great looks at this coyote as she walked right past the bus!
A great start to the morning refused to let up as we progressed towards the famous Hayden Valley. While on the road we spotted a fox, two more coyotes and a pair of otters playing in the river. Add in a chance to photograph the Lower and Upper Falls of the Yellowstone, and a few snowy bison and we had a phenomenal day in the park.
The next morning we awoke in the midst of what ended up being the strongest snow storm of the season for Yellowstone so far. With gusting winds in excess of 40 mph, and constant heavy snowfall, we stuck with the plan to go photograph Old Faithful, but we were all a bit wary of the weather. After arriving at Old Faithful, having only seen two herds of bison and no other animals, we opted to quickly photograph the geyser, before heading back to West Yellowstone to go to the Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center. We often take guests to the discovery center on our tours as it guarantees an opportunity to photograph grizzly bears and wolves from very close distances. And, since these are captive bears, they don’t hibernate, so we knew we’d be able to get some special shots of bears playing in the snow. The whole group thoroughly enjoyed their time and got some fantastic photos of the captive bears and wolves. While they’re not wild animals, it’s still a special treat to get a chance to practice photographing such majestic creatures from so close.
The following morning was to be our final day in the interior of the park, so as we loaded up in the snowcoach, everyone was happy to see the clouds finally breaking in hopes that we’d get a glimpse of the wildlife that had been bedded down the day before while waiting out the storm. Despite good weather and great light, the group only got a short glimpse of a fox dashing into the trees, and a good long look at a bald eagle, but no other wildlife. Such is the life of a wildlife photographer.
Fortunately for our guests, the tour would not end at the conclusion of the snowcoach ride. We would spend the next two days driving through the famous Lamar Valley, in search of more wildlife. And boy, did it deliver! While the interior roads to Yellowstone are closed during the winter, the only road open to private vehicle traffic is the Lamar Valley road. This is because the small towns of Cooke City and Silver Gate are located between the park and the 10,947’ Beartooth Pass on the northeast corner of the park. With the abundant snowfall that occurs on the pass, the only reasonable way to access the towns in winter is by driving through the park, which we were happy to do for the final two days of our tour.
During those two days, we were fortunate enough to capture great images of a wide variety of animals. We got tired of shooting bison as we had so many great opportunities to photograph them, close to the road and covered in snow as has become synonymous with winter Yellowstone photography.
We also nearly got tired of photographing coyotes, as we had some fantastic displays, including a mating pair trying to “seal the deal” so to speak, in the middle of the road. We also had some very close shots of moose from the road and a great encounter with a fox as he took care of the leftovers from a recent wolf kill while fighting off hungry ravens.
All in all, we had a fantastic time enjoying the peace and quiet of a park that is often written off as being too crowded to warrant a visit. We experienced fresh snowfall daily, had some great meals, some good local drinks, and shared many laughs. Our trip left each of our guests hungry for more wildlife, but happy with the wonderful, once in a lifetime opportunities they had been granted.
If you haven’t had a chance to experience the beauty and wonder of Yellowstone National Park in the winter, join us next year when we hope to do it all again!
Chris grew up exploring the mountains of North Carolina, originally with his family on weekend camping trips and later as a self taught rock climber and backpacker, leading him ultimately to a degree in Recreation Management from Appalachian State University with a focus in Outdoor Experiential Education. Immediately after graduating, Chris drove west, knowing the mountains and opportunities for adventure were much bigger. Since then, he has worked in a variety of guiding applications, from small leadership non-profits, to adolescent wilderness therapy, to commercial hiking and tourism guiding in California, Arizona, Utah, Colorado, Wyoming and Montana, always with a camera in hand. Chris loves teaching and sharing his passions and experience with others and is sure to provide careful insight and education whenever the opportunity arises. Chris currently resides in Bozeman, Montana where easy access to Yellowstone National Park allows him frequent trips into the park to photograph wildlife and the unique geologic features of the area. When not behind the lens, he spends his time backcountry skiing, ice climbing, and mountain biking, always on the lookout for a new unique perspective to photograph. The mountains have always been a point of inspiration for Chris and he is excited to capture the beauty of the natural world in an effort to share the space he is so privileged to work in with those around him. For a look at some of Chris’ work, visit his website www.chrisgheenphoto.com