Fresh off of a Yellowstone & Grand Teton in Autumn ‘standard’ trip, Backcountry Journeys’ guide, Ben Blankenship, and I met our group for the ‘hiker’ version of the same trip, back in Bozeman, Montana.
While not part of the itinerary, per se, the opening day of a trip in Bozeman usually finds guests enjoying the town’s bustling city center. Bozeman is a vibrant town full of charming shops, outstanding restaurants, and a camera shop that may be one of the best around. When I checked in on everyone early on the first day, many of the guests had already arrived and were exploring all Bozeman has to offer.
Our trip orientations have changed. Initially, we’d just do dinner and spend time getting to know one another. Now, we provide a full presentation as to the trip, what we expect to see and photograph, and some general photography tips and advice. After dinner and the presentation, everyone is off to pack. An early morning departure and some time on the road is ahead of us.
Normally, time on the road is not very productive on a photography trip. However, I’d say that the time spent from Bozeman to Yellowstone is always valuable. The drive from Bozeman to Livingston and then to Gardiner gives us plenty of time to share historic and natural facts about Yellowstone and the greater Yellowstone ecosystem. Besides, the drive up Paradise Valley is extraordinary as you flank the Yellowstone River on its way to feed the immense Missouri River complex nearly 700 miles to the northeast of here. Wildlife here abounds and seeing elk, pronghorn, mule deer, and whitetail only hints at what we are likely to see in the park itself.
As we head by Yankee Jim Canyon and near the town of Gardiner, some notice the historic Roosevelt Arch – a massive man-made monolith that rises from the foothills and was once the main entrance to the park.
Next to the arch, elk fanned out in all directions. It is the elk rut so the bulls have the cows gathered up in harems. To ensure that no interloper bulls take any of the cows, the dominant bulls are always on the lookout. Here, near the Roosevelt Arch, this bull stands atop a knoll and keeps watch over his entire cadre of cows. It is an incredible photo opportunity.
The big bull is silhouetted against a morning Montana sky and is beautifully posed as guests shake the proverbial rust from their cameras. The elk herd isn’t in a hurry and stand around for us to photograph them for a while. Eventually, however, they move on and we head into Yellowstone’s interior.
By noon, we’d already made a stop at Mammoth Hot Springs and eventually make our way we to the Old Faithful Geyser. We are just in time. By the time the guests grab their gear and walk over, it’s not long and the geyser erupts. The stalwart thermal feature erupts about every 90 minutes and the timing of our arrival couldn’t have been better.
For the next few hours, we have lunch and hike the Upper Geyser Basin. On our hike, all of the major geysers were going off. Beehive, Castle, and the Grand Geyser discharged while we were there. It’s rare to catch all four of these geysers on display but we did just that.
In the evening, we headed to West Yellowstone where we’d eat dinner at the Slippery Otter and check in to a new hotel. Along the way, we encounter more elk along the Madison River. They are grazing on the river’s far bank and the scene is too idyllic to pass. So for the next hour, we stop and take in the beauty.
Breakfast at Three Bears is what you’d expect it to be in a resort town: hearty and delicious. It’s warm and cozy inside and the conversation is lively but soon we are traveling back into Yellowstone to discover new photo opportunities. Alongside the Madison, we see the same group of elk that we put to bed the night before. Still an incredible opportunity before us, we take some time to photograph the elk in the river.
While the afternoon temperatures are mild, the mornings are crisp as you’d expect early October in northern Wyoming. Before long, our fingers ached from gripping cameras and we headed upriver in search of other wildlife species. Bison was the species in store for us as we completed our morning wildlife drive alongside the Madison.
Mid-morning finds us at the parking area of the Fairy Falls and Grand Prismatic Overlook Trails. These trails, while flat, wind their way back into the edge of the Yellowstone wilderness and deep into the heart of ‘bear country.’ All told, the trail is about five miles round trip and we take our time as we traverse it. Our first stop is at the Grand Prismatic Hot Springs Overlook. This platform sits about the famed thermal feature and gives an otherworldly view of the colorful basin. From this vantage point, you can see the graduations of color as thermophilic bacteria thrive in waters whose temperatures are unsurvivable by humans.
Around the springs, the acidity of the water kills all plant life and what remains is a primordial landscape barren of all life save for the bacteria. It’s an otherworldly sight. While we stand there and look out over the Midway Geyser Basin, a chipmunk entertains us and the group turns their camera on the engaging rodent.
After a midday break, we head out in the evening to complete our tour of geysers and stop at the Lower Geyser Basin. While arguably not as attractive and charismatic as the Midway and Upper Geyser Basins, the Lower Geyser Basin is constantly active with thermal pools, bubbling mud pots, and the Clepsydra Geyser that erupts nearly continuously.
Our group stretches out around the area to capture their interpretation of the Lower Geyser Basin at sunset and by the time the sun goes down, we are treated with eruptions of not only the Clepsydra Geyser, but Morning, Fountain, and Jet Geysers also erupted simultaneously.
Rising early from our hotel in West Yellowstone, we head back into the park as the sun begins to rise. Elk and bison still blanket the river bottoms and the cool air has the animals on the move. We’re on the move as well. A grizzly sighting has us headed to the Hayden Valley to investigate. Once there, we learn the grizzly has moved on. However, we find three coyotes feeding on rodents in the oxbow of a meandering creek. Mere yards from the turnout, the coyotes put on a show in the beautiful morning light as the trip participants take their position to witness the encounter.
Soon the coyotes move on and we’re headed downstream along the valley in search of more wildlife. We see some swans and a pelican far in the distance but nothing worth stopping for. Therefore, we turn our attention back to landscape photography and make a stop at the Lower Falls on the Yellowstone. This is an iconic spot.
From Artist’s Point, we take slow shutter speed images of the waterfall and marvel at the scenic beauty that rocks and the elemental forces of wind and water create. From this vantage point, it is no wonder that this spot has inspired writers and poets for generations.
Following a picnic lunch, we are back on the road this time to Jackson, Wyoming. The drive offers a bit of downtime to talk about photography and discuss upcoming plans. Mostly, however, it’s a time to reflect on how remarkable it is here in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.
A couple of hours after we departed the Falls of the Yellowstone River we arrive in Jackson, Wyoming. Along the way, we travel the Rockefeller Parkway – a scenic byway that connects Yellowstone National Park to Grand Teton National Park. As we travel south, the scenery transitions from conifer forests then lakes and rivers to open aspen groves with the immense Teton Range towering over the valley. The views are simply spectacular.
That evening we travel out to shoot an evening scenic as the sun dropped over the mountains. However, a herd of pronghorns caught our attention and we spend some time shooting pictures of them as they interacted with each other in a broad sagebrush meadow. As the sun dipped behind the mountains, we did spend some time shooting pictures of the colorful sky.
An hour and a half before sunrise we depart Jackson for the Tetons. Our spot for the morning is a favorite of ours: Schwabacher Landing. Here a beaver pond impounds a creek and creates a mirror-like sheen that reflects the various phases of sunrise on the mountains and trees pristinely on the water’s surface. The whole scene unfolds slowly but is worth the wait.
After some spectacular landscape shots, we head over to the Mormon Barns. The Mormon Barns are part of an area called Mormon Row. According to the National Park Service, “…Leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or Mormons, sent parties from the Salt Lake Valley to establish new communities and support their expanding population. Mormon homesteaders, who settled east of Blacktail Butte near the turn of the 19-century, clustered their farms to share labor and community, a stark contrast with the isolation typical of many western homesteads. These settlers first arrived in the 1890s from Idaho establishing a community (named Grovont by the U.S. Post Office) known today as “Mormon Row…”
The barns come alive in the morning light and with the Tetons in the background, the shot of the mountains and barns may be among the most iconic of the area. While the guests take in the barns I spot some chipmunks feeding in the sage. Soon, some of the guests’ attention turns towards the tiny rodents as they scale to the top of the fragrant plant to feed on its florets.
After the barns, we spend some time looking for the famed grizzly bear 399 and her quad of cubs. She’s been fairly visible this season so we are eager to find her. Therefore, we drive to the park’s interior in search of her but to no avail. Instead, we head back to Jackson for a little downtime so guests can explore the quaint town.
For a town of 6,000, the shopping and downtown experience is nearly unrivaled anywhere else. Jackson is neat-as-a-pin, walkable, and full of like-minded people here for the beauty and grandeur of the mountains.
Once early afternoon is nigh we head back out to the wilds of Grand Teton in search of Bear 399. After hours of searching and miles on the road, we come up short. We did, however, run into famed nature photographer Tom Mangelsen in the field. A brief chat with him and we were on our way to a spot where another famed photographer made famous: the Snake River Overlook.
With smoke from distant wildfires in the sky, the mountains are surreally cloaked in a blueish haze. While there are no clouds in the sky the smoke scatters the sunlight in ways that add visual interest to the sky. From the overlook, this is the same spot that Ansel Adams photographed the Snake River and the Teton Range in 1942. While the trees are taller and the river is a bit more obscured than it was when the original photo was taken, you can still clearly see the natural inspiration that lured Adams to this spot nearly 80 years ago.
Although it’s still dark the crowds are already gathering at the popular Oxbow Bend location. Made famous by Ansel Adams, the Oxbow Bend is a lazy sigmoid-shaped curve in the Snake River that lies at the perfect angle to reflect the mountains and the vibrant fall colors of a thick stand of aspens at the river’s west bank. As we wait for the sun to rise, geese fly past and a muskrat swims circles in the slow-moving river. Once the first beams of light emerge over the horizon, you can hear shutters clicking all around. The light changes quickly and before long, the aspens glow in the golden morning night. Luckily for us, the reflections on the water are stunning.
Soon we are back on the road and headed back to Yellowstone’s Northern Range. We’ll lay our heads in Gardiner for the next couple of nights but those sojourns will be brief as we’ll spend most of our time in search of wildlife.
After check-in and a bit of time to reorganize gear, we are back in the park. Once through the Gardiner gate, it’s not long before we see a string of bighorn ewes strung across an impossibly steep hillside. They aren’t too far off so we pause to make images of them. Just down the road, however, we find a trio of mature rams browsing alongside the Gardiner River. Standing in some amazing light, they made for incredible photo subjects.
Even further up the road, we encounter some rutting elk. The bulls are excitable and vocal as they work to keep their harem’s close. The drama of the elk rut is always fun to photograph and we take every advantage of the opportunity.
On day seven we head up to the Lamar Valley. The valley along the Lamar River is one of the most productive wildlife habitats I’ve seen. Big game and the predators that pursue them abound here. It’s the pronghorn rut, so along the roads the unique mammal is highly visible as the males jockey for the does’ attention. While the pronghorns chase each other a coyote hunts for voles along the road.
Soon we see the hundreds of bison that make up the Lamar Valley herd. Earlier we got a report of a dead bison on the far side of the river and before we could find the bison, the throngs of people confirmed the location of the kill. Along the roadside, people gathered with spotting scopes and binoculars and peered in the distance across the valley. With the naked eye, we could see nine distinct specs moving about. A quick look through the binoculars and I could see the wolves milling through the sage.
Twenty-five years ago, biologists released wolves in this same area, and undoubtedly, the wolves before us are the decedents of those original canines. As we watch, the wolves play chase with one another and work their way along a seam where lodgepole pines meet the sage flats at the bottom of a broad foothill. While they are too far to effectively photograph, just pausing for a moment to watch them is worthwhile.
As we make our way up the valley we see more pronghorns but in the up reaches, where Soda Butte Creek meets the Lamar River, a bit of human activity clues us into perhaps one of our most exciting wildlife finds. Walking east to west, a grizzly bear mother and her two spring cubs make their way from the creek bottom up a hill and merely yards from our vehicle. From the vehicle, each one in the group can get amazing photos of the bears as they crossed the road in front of us and they flank us on the right. In all, the encounter lasted about three minutes but is memorable.
Satisfied with the sighting we moved on to have lunch. However, two hours later, we saw her again in virtually the same spot. A handful of pictures later and we had one of the best grizzly encounters I’ve ever experienced in Yellowstone.
By day’s end, we’d seen a nice variety of wildlife species and earned ourselves a nice meal at the Wonderland Cafe in Gardiner, Montana.
On the last day of the trip, the group was still abuzz about the bear sighting the day before. While our time was limited, we still make one last foray into the park. At sunrise, we shoot pictures of a roadside waterfall and then slowly make our way back to Gardiner. Although we see more elk around Mammoth Hot Springs, we choose to just watch them.
We’ve made plenty of memories on this trip and the elk are icing on the cake.
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