“If a year was tucked inside a clock, Autumn would be the magic hour.”
It’s been hailed as America’s best idea, the creation of the world’s first national park system that today is responsible for the protection of such wildlands as the unforgettable Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks. And every Autumn, as the temperatures begin to drop, the crowds dissipate, and aspen foliage turns to gold, we at Backcountry Journeys take our clients on an epic journey through the greater Yellowstone ecosystem.
This trip represents perhaps one of our most diverse and ambitious schedules offered by BCJ. Over a span of eight days, we travel through the famous Yellowstone Caldera, witnessing violent geothermal eruptions. We marvel at the multicolored hues of Mammoth Hot Springs, Grand Prismatic, and dozens of other seething and bubbling springs and fumaroles. We watch as the Yellowstone River plummets over the 100 foot Yellowstone Falls where, over the last several thousand years, it has carved out the impressive Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. We venture south to see the jagged peaks of Grand Teton and the twisting form of the Snake River, wreathed in the yellow and orange hues of aspens and cottonwoods. And we travel deep into the northeast corner of the park to observe the natural drama of what has been dubbed North America’s Serengeti, the Lamar Valley. And throughout this entire circuitous journey through one of America’s most bizarre and dramatic wildernesses, we are surrounded by an incredible array of wildlife, from megafaunas like bison, elk, moose, and bear, to the feathered grace of bald eagles, great gray owls, and mischievous magpie jays and ravens; and of course, the famous Yellowstone wolves and their smaller cousins, the coyote.
We ran two groups of amazing clients on this trip, including several return clients, making the trip a real joy to run. We were blessed with some incredible landscape photography conditions, including a couple of early-season snowstorms that coated the park in a layer of glistening white magic. The fall color was peaking in Tetons and the wildlife was on the move in both parks. Though it is usually during the spring that the Yellowstone bears are more visible, we had some incredible sightings of both grizzly and black bear, as well as capturing some of those iconic images of bison fringed with snow and ice. And though there are always inherent challenges when winter weather arrives early, our schedule was largely uninterrupted by the weather (aside from having to cancel a couple of picnics due to cold temperatures), and our experience was greatly enhanced by it. I have run several groups through the Yellowstone park system over the last year, and photography-condition-wise, this was by far my favorite of those trips.
We break this trip into three sections; West Yellowstone and thermal features, Grand Teton, and finally North Yellowstone and the Lamar Valley.
West Yellowstone, The Caldera, and The Madison Valley
Yellowstone is home to the largest collection of geothermal features anywhere in the world. And, it is this strange facet of the region that initially attracted European descended Americans to the area. In 1806, John Colter, a member of the Lewis and Clark expedition left the group to join a group of fur trappers. A year later, he passed through what would later become known as the Tower Falls area and witnessed what he described as a place of “fire and brimstone.” Though Native Americans had resided in the region for nearly 11,000 years, Colter was one of the first people of European descent to observe the Yellowstone thermal features, and definitely one of the first to describe the features in English. It also just so happened that when Colter was describing the strange hot springs and geysers for the first time, he was recovering from wounds suffered in a battle with members of the Crow and Blackfoot tribes. So, most people dismissed his strange descriptions as ramblings of a man in feverous delirium. People began facetiously referring to the Yellowstone area as “Colter’s Hell,” and considered the fire and brimstone he spoke of to be figments of his imagination.
But, other Europeans, including the mountain man Jim Bridger, would later discover the thermal features for themselves. And, by the 1860s, expeditions were being sent out to this remote northwest corner of Wyoming to document scientifically what had previously been dismissed as fantasy.
Today, the park’s thermal features attract millions of curious visitors each year. And so, it is by no accident that we at Backcountry Journeys begin our expedition on the west side of the park amidst the largest concentration of thermal features in the park.
The Thermal Features
No visit to Yellowstone can be complete without witnessing the world’s most famous geyser; Old Faithful. Erupting every 90 minutes, give or take a variable window of ten minutes, Old Faithful erupts with a blast of superheated water and steam shooting over 70 feet into the air. Part of the Upper Geyser Basin, Old Faithful is just one of the dozens of thermal features in an area of just a few square miles. With our first group of clients, the hiker group, we walked the length of most of the boardwalks through the Upper Geyser Basin, witnessing eruptions not only from Old Faithful, but also Beehive Geyser, the Lion Geyser Group, and most dramatically, from Grand Geyser, which erupted violently for nearly ten minutes!
Timing is everything when hoping to observe geyser eruptions. Though Old Faithful is very predictable, other geysers are what you might call semi-predictable. They erupt on a regular basis, but the window for a potential eruption can vary from ten minutes (Old Faithful) to several hours (Beehive Geyser). But, with the first group, we were fortunate enough to see Beehive erupting as we waited for Old Faithful. From there, we hiked up to Grand Geyser, which has an eruption window that stays open for nearly an hour and a half. But, time was on our side, and after a twenty-minute wait, the Grand erupted in dramatic fashion, blasting a huge column of water and steam for what seemed like an eternity! After the Grand blew, we took the boardwalks back towards the Old Faithful area, stopping to photograph crystal clear, steaming hot springs as we went. And without planning for it all, we happened to be right next to the Lion Geyser Group right when it erupted with a powerful blast of magma-heated water.
With our hiker group on our second day, we began with a visit to Grand Prismatic Hot Spring. This multihued, enormous hot spring is the largest in the U.S. and the third-largest in the world. Brightly colored thermophilic bacteria line the edges of the spring, creating a technicolor contrast of reds and oranges against the deep blue of the spring water. There are boardwalks along the north side of the spring which allows visitors a safe path to walk near the water’s edge and observe the bacterial mats up close. But, to truly observe Grand Prismatic’s grandeur, one needs to see it from above, which our hiker group was able to do from the Grand Prismatic overlook. The overlook is about a half-mile from a parking area and is en route to Fairy Falls, the final destination for the day 2 hike. And it is from this overlook that some incredible compositions can be gained. My favorite approach here is to use a telephoto lens to create strange abstracts with the deep blue water set against the veinous rivers of bacterial colonies growing along its edges.
The thermal features are excellent photographic subjects in their own right. But, some of my favorite photographic compositions consist of using the steam columns and otherworldly landscapes as atmosphere and background with bison or other animals as the subject. And, with our second group, the ‘standard’ group, we found an incredible compositional opportunity like this. We were hurrying to a geyser in the lower geyser basin to shoot sunset when we came upon a herd of bison grazing amongst several huge steam plumes. The bison and the steam were being dramatically backlit by the setting sun. I took one look at the scene and immediately called an audible, stopping at a turnout on the Grand Loop Road to spend sunset shooting bison silhouettes cloaked in the glowing steam. It was one of my favorite setups of the trip, and one that could not have been planned better (if it were even possible to do so).
Great nature photography is often like this. You start out with a plan, but a better opportunity presents itself, and you have to be ready to adapt and change plans in a second. In all of my trips to Yellowstone, I’ve yet to come across this setup for a shot, and I expect it may be some time before I do again.
The second leg of our trip takes us due south and into Grand Teton National Park. This leg of the trip is a favorite of mine for several reasons. For one, we spend two nights in the town of Jackson, Wyoming and are treated to some top-notch cuisine while we are there. Unlike the rustic little old west towns of West Yellowstone and Gardiner, Jackson is an upscale community of about 9,000 year-round residents. It has all of the old west charm of the other towns, but with a top-crust panache. This leg of the trip is also extraordinary due to the incredible landscape opportunities offered by the Teton range. These are undoubtedly some of the most photogenic mountains in North America, with sharp rocky peaks ornamented by snow and jutting 13,000 feet into the sky. And in autumn, the kaleidoscopic foliage creates a contrast of hues that makes landscape photographers salivate.
The Teton Range runs north to south, with gorgeous valleys on both its eastern and western flanks. The bulk of the National Parkland is on the eastern side of the range. This makes Grand Teton an excellent sunrise park for photography. As the rising sun begins to peek over the eastern horizon, early morning light slides down the dramatic peaks and eventually onto the dapple foliage. One of the best vantage points for witnessing an epic sunrise in Grand Teton is at Schwabacher’s Landing. Here, a small dirt road provides access to a beaver-damned tributary creek of the Snake River. The damns have caused the water to rise into mirror-smooth ponds, making for excellent reflections of the mountains and fall foliage. On a windless morning, the reflections are near perfect. With early morning temperatures in autumn hovering around 20 degrees Fahrenheit, the ground is covered in crystalline frost, making for a beautiful foreground against the reflection of the mountains.
The wildlife viewing can also be fantastic in Grand Teton. Throughout the greater Yellowstone ecosystem, it is the best area for finding moose. With our ‘hiker’ group, we happened upon a mated pair just off the main park road early one morning. They were grazing amongst the sagebrush and were unbothered by our presence or the other wildlife photographers who stopped to photograph these gargantuan ungulates. They are the largest species of deer in the world and can be aggressive. But, these two were calm and tolerant. The bull eventually decided to take a load off and lie down in the sage, causing us to move onto other photographic opportunities in the park.
With our ‘standard’ group, we happened upon a young bachelor moose moving along that same stretch of the road as we entered into Grand Teton one afternoon. We were able to park the vehicles up the road of the moose as he walked in our direction. Though the afternoon light was a bit harsh, the vantage point was excellent, and all moose sightings are special, no matter the photography conditions.
We also had several bear sightings in Grand Teton. The first was with our ‘hiker’ group. A young black bear had found a berry bush on the side of Moose-Wilson Road and was sitting contentedly on the asphalt gorging himself. Park rangers had positioned themselves on his flanks to prevent park visitors from getting too close. Though we were unable to stop for a photo, we were able to get a good long look at the little black bear as we slowly rolled past his perch on the roadside.
Our ‘standard’ group was treated to a bear sighting better than just about any other I have ever had in either Yellowstone or Grand Teton. We had just finished shooting some sunset scenes of the golden fall aspens around Oxbow Bend. With the light fading, we had packed up and were heading into Jackson for dinner. And I had just committed perhaps the greatest mistake a wildlife photographer can make; I had put my camera away. The light was dim and it was raining lightly, and as we packed up, I thought to myself, “it’s too dark and we probably won’t see anything on the way back.” Big mistake. And this was especially hypocritical of me, as I had been preaching to everyone throughout the trip to always have their big lens out and ready because you never know when an animal may appear.
We were driving back along the main park road towards Jackson when I noticed a herd of bison moving towards the road. And, it appeared that there were three bison on their own up ahead of the herd. But, as we drove closer, I recognized the lumbering gait and shoulder hump of a large female grizzly bear. And she was being closely tailed by two young cubs, born earlier this year. Now, plump and fluffy in preparation for their coming winter sleep, they were comically jogging along behind their mother in a line straight towards the road. We pulled the vehicles up and parked along the roadside directly in their path. I radioed back to PJ, my fellow guide on this trip, “Grizzly bears! Coming straight for us!” I instructed everyone to stay in the vehicles and photograph from the windows. The three bears walked in a line straight for us, and though the hour was late and the light low, several guests were able to capture head-on shots of the three bears from less than 15 yards away. They reached the opposite roadside. The mother bear looked both ways, apparently checking for traffic, and they crossed the road there next to us. They veered to their right, walking directly behind PJ’s vehicle, which was in the rear. They ambled down the grass embankment towards a loose barbed wire fence. The mother bear inspected the fence, searching for a gap. She found one large enough, and the three scooted through and continued their walk away from us.
I have had several close sightings of grizzly in Yellowstone and Teton, but this was one of the closest, and the only truly close sighting of a grizzly bear with cubs. It was probably only because I had put my camera away that we saw the bears at all. Or so said the superstitious side of my brain.
The Lamar Valley
After spending two nights in Jackson, and spending the better part of three days exploring different vantage points of the Grand Teton, it was time to head back north into Yellowstone National Park and begin the third phase of the trip, the Lamar Valley phase. While Grand Teton is arguably the best portion of the trip for landscape photography, the Lamar Valley phase takes us deep into what is considered by many to be the heart of the Yellowstone ecosystem. It has the largest density of predators perhaps anywhere in North America, including grizzly bears, wolves, coyotes, and cougars. But this was not always the case.
After the “discovery” of Yellowstone and the subsequent management of the park by the U.S. Army in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, wolves were hunted to extinction within the park by humans. Coyotes were also targeted as well as cougars, which were driven from the park’s borders. And so began what became one of the greatest experiments in ecology, all be it accidentally in the beginning.
The obvious result of removing all of the top predators from an ecosystem is the flourishing of their prey, which was, in this case, the elk. Elk herds grew exponentially with the extermination of the Yellowstone wolf. Estimates put their numbers anywhere from 20,000 to 30,000 animals during this time period when the wolf was not present.
The size of these herds began to affect the ecology of the park negatively, as they overgrazed on aspen and willow. And this had a commensurate effect upon other animals in the park. Without large amounts of willow, the beaver population dropped and moose were pushed out of the park in search of better food sources.
But, as our understanding of the role of predators in an ecosystem changed, and the management of Yellowstone was moved over to the newly created National Park Service, the policies of park management changed. Beginning in the 1940s, biologists, conservationists, and park staff began what would eventually become a dedicated campaign for the reintroduction of the gray wolf. In 1973, the endangered species act passed, which outlined exactly how this process could go forward. The mentality of park managers was that if the damage was done by humans, then it was their mission to correct that damage.
In 1995, U.S. and Canadian wildlife officials captured 14 gray wolves from the Canadian wilderness to be released into Yellowstone. From 1995-96, a total of 31 gray wolves were reintroduced into Yellowstone. They adapted amazingly well, and within three years, their numbers in the park had tripled. Today, there are nearly 100 wolves living within the park boundaries, and the results have been nothing short of miraculous. As the introduced wolves and their offspring have hunted their primary prey, the elk, and subsequently reduced the elk population, the aspen and willows have rebounded. This has resulted in more beaver, moose, and other willow-dependent animals in the park. And with more beaver, which damn the rivers and streams, the river levels have changed, thus creating a better growing environment for the willow. And the beautiful cycle repeats and balances the entire ecosystem with the reintroduction of a single species of apex predator. With the better protections now enjoyed by Yellowstone wildlife, bear and cougar populations have also expanded over the last 50 years.
And it is in the Lamar Valley that this natural miracle can be witnessed most clearly. Big herds of bison, elk, and pronghorn roam the hillsides grazing. And, should you be on the search for predators, it is in the Lamar Valley where you are most likely to find them.
Wolves are naturally afraid of humans and with good reason. So, seeing them closely during the autumn is rare, at least more so than in winter when they are more visible and pressure from human visitors is much lower. But, with both groups, we were able to get a good look at the famous Yellowstone wolves playing alongside the Lamar River deep in the valley.
With our standard group, we also were able to observe a grizzly sow with a yearling cub in the Slough Creek area. She was about 150 yards from our vantage point napping in the grass and occasionally sticking her head up to look out for danger. With the hiker group, though the bears were further off, we found her and her cub feeding on a carcass on the banks of the Lamar River just north of the Lamar River Bridge.
One of the most memorable wildlife sightings in the Yellowstone’s northern range on this trip came as we were driving towards lunch in the small town of Cooke City. The early-season snow had left the roads partially covered and made progress slow. We had just left the Lamar
Valley and were driving through heavy tree cover. This area is often good for moose, and I had suggested everyone keep their eyes on the tree line and be on the lookout.
As we crested a small rise, a gigantic bull suddenly exploded from the tree line amongst a cloud of snow dislodged from the pine bows. He stopped directly in the road in front of us, no more than ten yards away. Our slow rate of travel allowed us to stop safely, but everyone in my vehicle, myself included couldn’t help let out a scream of excitement. It paused there for a moment, staring us down, and then continued across the road and into the trees on the opposite side. It was an interaction of no more than a few seconds, just long enough for me to grab my camera from the console and snap a few blurry pics of the massive bull slipping into the trees.
To me, this moose interaction serves as a perfect synopsis of both groups’ experiences this fall in Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks. We were a well-oiled machine, with an ambitious schedule and excellent photographic opportunities planned along the way. And, these plans yielded some fantastic photographs. But, as is almost always the case, it was the surprises along the way that have formed the most lasting of memories, often even without yielding a single keeper photograph. Like the grizzlies in Teton, the big bull moose will forever live on in our memories even if not in our camera’s memory cards.
Though our planned shoots are almost always incredible, it was also often the accidental discoveries that led to the best photographs, such as the bison herd grazing amongst the sunlit fumaroles in the lower geyser basin, or the incredible geyser eruptions that seemed to be performing just for us. It is always my hope on any trip that my clients walk away with some of the best photographs they’ve ever taken.
Not just from the week-long photographic instruction we offer, but as a reward for taking the time and risk to travel far from home and experience a place unlike any other.
The strange, majestic beauty of Yellowstone is a treasure not just for Americans, but for the entire world to experience. And, this past fall, it was an absolute honor to be able to guide two groups of adventurous souls through one of the earth’s truly unique ecosystems.
Ben Blankenship was born in Nashville, Tennessee. As a young man, he studied ceramics and fine arts. In college, he pursued filmmaking, writing, and photography. After graduation, he worked for nearly a decade in broadcast television as a video editor, photographer, and cinematographer. Over the last several years, he has transitioned into working full-time as a photojournalist and travel photographer. He has worked abroad in Costa Rica, Belize, and Uganda. His photographic passions include wildlife, conservation, travel, events, and documenting social and political events around the world. His work has been published in the New York Times, The Oregonian Newspaper, and by Photographers Without Borders. He currently splits his time between living in Costa Rica and Tennessee. See the most recent work on his website here: www.ben-blankenship.com