Yellowstone in mid-spring is hard to beat. The mountains are nearly shed of their winter snow and the valleys and hills are lushly verdant after a long winter’s dormancy. Everything here has come back to life as spring begins anew.
This year I had the privilege of taking Backcountry Journeys guests on back-to-back Yellowstone Wildlife Safari tours, which would take us to some of Yellowstone’s hottest wildlife spots. Our guests hailed from all over the country, yet all had the same goal in mind: to experience the season of Yellowstone when it is most vibrant and alive.
Trip One: May 26 – 30, 2019
Like all trips, we first convene and spend a little time getting to know each other. It’s this initial meeting that we line out everyone’s goals for the week and spend time getting to know one another. After a brief meeting, we head over to Montana Ale Works. The restaurant is a local favorite and features plenty of locally grown, farm-to-table fare that the executive chef blends into unique offerings with locally inspired flavors.
After dinner, we head back to the hotel to pack for the morning’s adventure. It’s a two-hour drive to Yellowstone from our initial headquarters in Bozeman, and everyone is anxious to get started.
After an early morning pickup, we drive through the dark from Bozeman to Yellowstone’s northwest gate near Gardiner. Gardiner’s the home of the famed Roosevelt gate, and it is the town that’s closest to Yellowstone’s administrative headquarters in Mammoth Hot Springs. It is in Gardiner where we’ll make our headquarters for the week.
Upon entering the gate into Yellowstone just after sunrise, the park doesn’t disappoint. We first encounter a herd of cow elk and then a pronghorn buck feeding along the side of the road. After a few shots, we get back on the road to head deeper into the Yellowstone wild.
The challenge of Yellowstone is that there is so much to see. Big landscapes peppered with wildlife of all sorts is nearly too much to take. The urge to stop is constant but we move on.
The first day is part introductory, and part photography. It’s a chance for everyone to be introduced to the park and get acquainted with the immense landscapes and nuances of the natural world.
Soon we are at Barronette Peak, an immense 10,000-foot peak that flows with waterfalls created by the runoff of the mountain’s snowmelt. After a quick landscape photography session, we head back to the Lamar Valley and spend some time photographing and learning about bison. With newborn calves in tow, bison are especially photogenic this time of year.
A short drive later we ran into the first black bear of the year. He was a two-year-old cub that was recently shunned from his mother. He fed alone alongside the road and made for some opportune photo ops.
After a trailside lunch, we scouted for more wildlife and eventually ran across a coyote, some mule deer, an elk and her calf, and a mature bull moose. The moose fed along the side of the road while we photographed it from a short distance.
Day three found us heading over to Yellowstone Upper Geyser. Along the way, we found a coyote hunting alongside the Firehole River and shot images of her. While I can’t confirm it with the utmost degree of certainty, I believe the coyote is the same female we encountered on our Winter in Yellowstone tour back in February.
Late morning found us at Old Faithful to watch the fabled geothermal feature erupt on cue. After spending a bit of time at the museum and visitor’s center we headed for lunch in West Yellowstone and enjoyed more local fare at the Slippery Otter. When in West Yellowstone a must see location is the Grizzly Bear and Wolf Discovery Center. This place gives you an up-close look at the most charismatic of the big Yellowstone predators.
On our return trip, we ran into a grizzly bear in the wild!
She was a mature sow with two cubs in tow and for twenty minutes, we watched her feed while her cubs played in the underbrush. She was a traffic stopper.
After that, we spent a beautiful evening photographing bull elk, songbirds like blackbirds, mud swallows, and bluebirds. Of course, the bison were animated as always and we took some time to watch a bison calf run a coyote out of the pack. We wrapped up the day by photographing some pronghorn and another bull elk that was perched high on a ridge and created some awesome silhouettes.
At sunrise, we had our first bear encounter: a mature bear that crossed the road in front of us at first light. He was feeding along the side of the road when another motorist stopped too close to him and he ran away. In Yellowstone, all visitors must remain 100 yards from bears but not all people adhere to this regulation. To that end, we lost a chance at a good bear encounter because of someone’s negligence.
As we headed past the Tower Junction area, we stopped and photographed fog in the lower reaches of the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone. The fog ebbed through the canyon in a near-dreamlike experience and made for some fantastic landscape images.
Shortly thereafter we found a cow who just gave birth to a calf. From the roadside we watched the calf take its first steps and nurse for the first time as its mother cleaned him and readied him for the challenging life of living wild in Yellowstone.
In the evening, we encountered one more black bear, some bison, and mule deer. We even found a mud swallow colony and spent some challenging, yet rewarding time learning to photograph these birds in flight. As a bonus, just as the sun was sinking, we saw a band of cow elk on a ridge.
On the trip’s last morning we saw and photographed a variety of wildlife from black bears feeding to bison sparring.
One of the more popular species was the animated Uinta ground squirrel. These little animated critters are fun to watch and photograph as they feed and look for predators. The morning, however, wound down and we were off to Bozeman where the group departed tired yet happy.
Trip Two: May 31 – June 4
Like the first trip, we met at the basecamp hotel for an introductory meeting. For dinner, however, we headed over to another local favorite restaurant, 14 North. This American style dining experience offers locally grown and inspired dishes. I opted for the bison, elk, and beef meatloaf and it was fantastic. Morning comes early, so we headed back to the hotel to pack and rest before a long day in the park.
Like the first trip, Day 2 started as an introduction to the park. We traveled through the mountain foothills into the Lamar Valley to get a taste of what Yellowstone offers. It didn’t take long until we encountered our first black bear. A mature sow who had a baby in tow. She was feeding near the road but her baby was hidden up in the timber. The sighting was brief but we were still able to get some great images.
The rest of the morning we saw more bison calves, an immature bald eagle, and a band of pronghorns. After a trailside lunch and a bit of rest at the hotel, we headed back out and spent the rest of the evening photographing a young black bear resting in a tree. I think I can speak for the group when I say that we were ecstatic with the sighting.
The first part of day three was a carbon copy of the first trip: we headed to Old Faithful, ate lunch in West Yellowstone, and then toured the discovery center before heading back to Lamar Valley to photograph wildlife.
In the Lamar Valley, we saw a grizzly bear in the distance in a standoff with a group of bison bulls. The grizzly bear stood and watched the bison but eventually ceded territory and ran away. While no one got images of the scene, it was still fun to watch. This time we got a good encounter with a hunting coyote, an osprey, and another band of pronghorns. The evening brought in some storms and moody lighting which made for some great rainbow photography.
Day four we saw bison on the move. The wolves in the Lamar Valley were active and while we did see some at distance, we were lucky enough to see a single male cross the road in front of us. The wolves increased activity, however, had the bison on edge and had them constantly on the move in the valley.
The pronghorns were a bit antsy as well. Since their breeding season is nearing we saw a pair of immature bucks sparring while a more mature animal made scrapes and thrashed the sage to show his dominance.
In a week-and-a-half since I first arrived, the first wildflowers were starting to pop and while the rest of the group shot images of a bull moose, I snuck some pictures of some of the native flora that’s showy this time of year.
Soon we were back on the road and found two bears. The first was a quick encounter of the two-year-old cast off as he fed alongside a hill. The bonus bear, however, was a beautiful cinnamon phase bear that created quite a traffic jam as people stopped to witness the creature.
On our last day, we once again found fog in the canyon. The valley was shrouded with an ever-changing mist that made the naturally harsh edge toward the ethereal.
Like most last mornings, the action seemed to be everywhere. A coyote hunting here, a ground squirrel there and sandwiched in between were mud swallows, bison, bighorn sheep, a red fox, and grand landscapes.
It’s hard to overstate it but Yellowstone is really one of the world’s most remarkable places for wildlife. The variety and number of different species we always see never become tired. The fact that you see most of the species from mere yards away adds to the appeal.
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 has been 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