When I walk into the lobby, I recognize a few faces of guests who’d traveled with us before and I can’t help but notice one or two who look at our group with curiosity – wondering if we are the group in which they are looking. Breaking the ice I approach them and confirm that they are part of our group. In my experience, the initial contact is usually the most fiddly but those feeling quickly wane as the group comes together for the first time.
Hotel conference rooms are usually stale and uninspiring but when you fill it full of like-minded nature photography buffs, it becomes lively. Here we eat dinner and talk about each of the guest’s background and photography equipment, we talk about the week’s itinerary, and we share inspiring stories that lead us all to this one place.
Soon we all retire to our respective rooms for the night. Our trip to Yellowstone and the Tetons comes early.
When leaving Bozeman, we always predictably head to Yellowstone through Paradise Valley, Yankee Jim Canyon, through Gardiner, and into the most storied national parks in America. Although I’ve been here dozens of times, I’ll admit I have a tinge of excitement as we climb the hill from the north and arrive in Mammoth Hot Springs. This place is beautiful. Aside from the enormous thermal feature that continually gurgles hot, mineralized from the earth’s bowels, the historic buildings that make up the park’s headquarters are beautiful and harken back to a time when this country was singularly wild.
Fellow guide Trevor LeClair and I take the guests to the top of Mammoth Hot Springs so they can explore the terraces and photograph the otherworldly thermophilic bacteria found in the hot springs.
Soon we are back on the road heading to Old Faithful, the iconic thermal feature of the park. While not the biggest geyser, Old faithful (as its name would imply) is among the most regular. As soon as arriving, the geyser erupts while people from all over the world watch.
The weather, however, isn’t cooperative and it begins to snow heavily. Therefore, we retreat to the vehicles and head to West Yellowstone where we check into our hotel and take a quick break. This evening we have dinner at The Branch restaurant in West Yellowstone and talk about strategy for the trip.
After dinner, we take a drive up the Madison River where we search for wildlife but the weather had the animal’s pattern disturbed. So for sunset, we head to the lower geyser basin – an immense area of thermal activity that’s situated at the edge of a broad glacial moraine. The weather is breaking and the skies look promising for some dramatic sunsets. While snow’s not falling where we stand near the Clepsydra Geyser, it’s a whiteout across the valley to our north. The weather’s fickle this time of year and we take advantage of the moments when the clouds break.
At the base of the geyser uplift, skeletal lodgepole pines stand in ankle-deep water – killed by the acidity and mineralization of the water. With each step, a geologic oddity is in clear view. The Celestine Pool, the Red Sprouter, and the Fountain Paint Pot are just a few features in this geyser basin. Each has its personality and is worthy of photographic attention.
While day one started slow due to the weather and slow animal movements, each new day in Yellowstone always shows promise. We leave early and head over to the storied Hayden Valley. Wide-open, the Yellowstone River cuts through the valley and creates sagebrush habitat for a variety of wildlife including bison, elk, waterfowl, wolves, and coyotes. This morning, bison are on the menu and we see a few grazing around the valley floor.
We make our way over to the Lower Falls of the Yellowstone and up to Artist’s Point. Here is where artist Thomas Moran first brought this view of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone and the Lower Falls to the masses with his paintings. For the better part of an hour we photograph the cascade before heading in to eat lunch.
Along the way, we head over to the Midway Geyser Basin to photograph the Grand Prismatic spring. This colorful spring is broad and steam rises from it continually and the bottom margins of the cloud are hued blue and orange. Grand Prismatic is about 2 1/2 acres in size and 120 feet deep and like Old Faithful, is an iconic feature of the park.
In the evening we head back down the Madison River. As we parked riverside, movement in the trees across the river turned out to be a wolf. The wolf walked down out of the trees and paralleled the river for ten minutes. Seeing a wolf in Yellowstone usually isn’t that difficult but seeing one this close? That’s special.
We wake up in West Yellowstone on our final day on this side of the park. After a hearty breakfast at a local restaurant, we head over to the Grizzly Bear and Wolf Discovery Center to learn more about the local habitat and wildlife who live therein. It’s a great place to get close to some big animals and practice wildlife photography techniques in a controlled situation.
Since the south entrance out of Yellowstone was still closed, we make the drive through the rolling hills of eastern Idaho. It’s a beautiful drive that’s a departure from the pine-laden forests of Yellowstone. Here, the terrain is wide open and is cultivated for seed potatoes and as we drive through the area, tractors are hard at work cultivating the land for a new crop.
With the drive behind us, we check into our hotel, eat an early dinner, and head out to the Snake River Overlook in Grand Teton National Park. 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 leads Adams to this spot nearly 80 years ago. Although clouds obscure the sky, it’s a great lesson in black and white photography as one of the guests suggests the technique to deal with the extreme contrast in the scene.
The sun rises early in the north country so at 5 am we are on the road headed to our sunrise spot at Schwabacher Landing. This location is iconic as it provides a clear view of the mountains with the added benefit of a water reflection. The water in the creek is impounded by multiple beaver dams and the water they back up is placid. As such, the reflection of the mountains is pristine. Like the evening before, the clouds are still thick and the brilliant colors of the morning sun elude us. The scene is still breathtaking, however.
From there we head over to another iconic Teton location, 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 structures seem to glow with the warmth of the patinated, weathered wood and they make a fine foreground anchor in the larger composition of the mountains behind.
After we wrap in that location we head into the park to search for bears and other wildlife but the view of the Teton Range reflecting in the still waters of Jackson Lake caused us to pause – the overlook of the lake is beautiful.
By now, it’s time to head back to tow for a break. Today, we plan to explore some of the photography galleries in Jackson and have some lunch. Along the way, we discover some wildlife right at the edge of town. The town of Jackson is bordered by the National Elk Refuge and a huge wetland on the refuge backs up to a city park. In the park, various puddle ducks swim in the shallows while Canada Geese tend to their broods of goslings. The baby geese aren’t more than a day or two old and their precocious nature attracts the photographers in our group to them. For an hour or better, we photograph the geese and their babies and come away with some memorable images.
After dinner, we once again search for wildlife in the park and watch the sun go down over the mountains.
Originally, we’d planned to watch the sun come up over the Oxbow Bend of the Snake River but because of the stark nature of the trees this time of year, it wasn’t an exciting location. So we head into the park to look for bears that, so far, have eluded us.
Within seconds, three cars speed past us and we surmise that someone’s seen a bear up ahead. We continue through the interior park road when we run upon a traffic jam: that’s usually a tell-tale sign of some sort of noteworthy activity.
The crowds are once again correct.
We find a parking space and pile out of the vehicle just in time to see a mother grizzly bear and her cub working her way through the sage. The scene is exhilarating and we end up in the perfect spot to watch them walk past.
Excited for the bear sighting, we use that adrenaline to fuel us in the long drive from Jackson to Gardiner. The south entrance to Yellowstone is now open so we make the drive up through the heart of the park, around Lake Yellowstone, and stop at LeHardy’s Rapids on the Yellowstone River. Here, you may see cutthroat trout swimming upstream and jumping the rapids or see the American Dipper foraging for bugs on the rocks. This time, however, we see a brace of Harlequin ducks feeding and preening on the rocks. Although it seems like an inhospitable place for birds, these migrants from Alaska are right at home in the rough water.
When we get to Gardiner we check into the hotel and head back out for an evening shoot. Traversing into part of Yellowstone’s Northern range we find elk high on the ridges while bison are the rule for the lower areas.
On Day Six we finally make it into the storied Lamar Valley. Here, wildlife abounds. From the jump, we see pronghorn antelope in great light. The pronghorn is the fastest land mammal in North America and they are fascinating species to witness. Soon thereafter, we see huge herds of bison traversing the landscape.
In the valley, we see the ubiquitous Uinta Ground Squirrel – an animated rodent who lives amongst the sagebrush and hibernates eight months out of the year. These rodents are fun to watch and make fantastic photo subjects.
On our drive we soon see coyotes hanging out in the hills and bighorn sheep grazing on the brush in the foothills. For the rest of the day, we cruise around looking for animals and see plenty of pronghorns, more coyotes, and even a black bear.
The landscapes here are exquisite as well so part of the time we photograph mountain vistas in the Soda Butte Creek valley. This area of Yellowstone is beautiful and is a worthwhile place to visit even if no wildlife were present.
The last day of the trip started fairly laid back. It’s the end of a long trip and we only make a short jaunt into the park for one last attempt at finding some sort of wildlife. We see plenty of elk but the bighorn rams ultimately elude us.
To finish the day we head over to the obscure but beautiful Udine Falls. It’s some 60-feet tall and is right off the main road but you can’t see it from the road. As such, there’s hardly ever any traffic there.
When we head out, the drive back to Bozeman is lively and contemplative. Over the past week, we’ve experienced the best of what Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons offer. Although I’ve been here dozens of times, I never tire of the experience. From the banter of the guests, they are ready to return as well.
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
Don’t miss the next session of BCJ Live!
Bears Slideshow Presentation
with Russell Graves
Tuesday, November 2nd, 2021
11 am – 12 pm Mountain Time