After a long Montana winter, 2019’s spring has sprung at Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks. And for this year’s Spring Comes to Yellowstone and Grand Teton Backcountry Journeys workshop, we would be there to witness as the snow retreated, the aspen budded, and the park became filled with this year’s offering of fawns, calves, and cubs.
During this time of year in the rugged wilderness of Montana and Wyoming, the weather can be schizophrenic, and before the week was out, we would get a taste of all that the northern territory has to offer in terms of weather. But, we would also find incredible wildlife photographic opportunities as the animals that live in the parks showed off their new offspring.
We had an incredible group of clients for this trip, many of whom were returning clients from our Glacier National Park tour from last year. And, we would end up snapping thousands of photos over the week.
As is customary for Backcountry Journeys, the first day of our tour is a relaxed one. We would all be meeting in Bozeman, Montana, the largest town in close proximity to Yellowstone, and is a lovely mountain community of about 50,000 people. Amongst Bozeman residents, outdoor recreation and local business are major parts of life here. But, our stay would be short, as the following morning we would be heading into the park.
For the first night of the tour, all our guests were put up in the Hilton Garden Inn in Bozeman, and we met there that first evening for our guest orientation and introduction. We would also be dining in the Hilton’s restaurant, which serves some local flavor, such as bison meatloaf and almond crusted rainbow trout. Over dinner and drinks, we discussed everyone’s photographic experience and interests and learned about what everyone’s goals were for the trip. As we often hear, wolves were on the list of desired species to photograph. We hear this a lot, and we always provide the disclaimer that this is one of the most difficult species to photograph in the park. They are elusive and rarely venture near the road or other human-populated areas. But, by the trip’s end, we would be eating our words (you’ll have to read the rest to hear how)!
As dinner drew to an end, we went over the basic rules of the park and what the following day’s plans would entail. We said our goodnights and we all made our way to our respective rooms to prepare for a week of photography in what is one of North America’s most incredible environments.
We began the second day of our workshop over an early hot breakfast at the Hilton before embarking and heading into the park. One thing you can be sure of on any Backcountry Journeys tour is that there will be plenty of the best food to eat along the way. Once breakfast was done, we loaded up the vehicles and began the hour and a half drive into Yellowstone.
Our path would take us through Livingston, MT and then into Gardiner and the north entrance of the park. This is where the iconic Roosevelt Arch resides, built under supervision by the U.S. Army of Engineers in 1903. It was Theodore Roosevelt who laid the arch’s cornerstone himself.
We did not linger here though, as we would be returning to stay in Gardiner for the last two nights of the tour. After entering the park, it was a short, curvy drive up to our first photo destination of Mammoth Hot Springs. This incredible structure is actually a complex of over 60 individual named hot springs. The enormous terrace took thousands of years to be formed as hot spring water cooled and deposited layer upon layer of calcium carbonate, eventually creating the bizarre structure that exists there today.
From a photographer’s point of view, the hot spring provides opportunities to shoot otherworldly landscapes featuring multicolored steaming vents and skeletal remains of trees long ago killed by the highly acidic water that flooded their root systems. It also provides an infinite amount of options to shoot strange, colorful abstracts of the thermophiles (heat-loving bacteria) that grow in the near-boiling water.
From here, we loaded into the vehicles to head into the caldera to shoot some more of the park’s thermal features. But, before we could get there, we encountered our first bear of the trip! What we first saw was a line of traffic stopped along the side of the road, creating what we lovingly refer to as a “Bear Jam.” There are several other types of jams encountered in the park, but a “bear jam” is easily identified by the number of cars and the excitement visible on the faces of people standing along the road.
As we moved through the jam, we looked left to see a grizzly sow with three cubs! We found legal parking and unloaded to grab our first bear photos of the trip.
The sow was, as most of the bears are doing this time of year, grazing on spring grass. The tender green shoots are easily digested by the bear’s stomach and provide a good source of nutrients for the bears as they leave hibernation and need to catch up on caloric intake.
This large female grizzly with her three young cubs was about 100 yards out and in an open field. She made for an easy target, though the mid-morning light certainly left something to be desired. We would spend about thirty minutes photographing her and her cubs before they ambled into the forest and out of sight. So, we loaded up and headed on to photograph the thermal features.
As the midday light became too harsh for good photos, we headed out of the park through the Madison River Valley and into the town of West Yellowstone where we would be spending the next two nights. Here, we would break for a couple of hours to allow time for the sun lower in the sky before heading back into the park for a wildlife drive along the Madison River.
During this time of year, the days are long, with sunset not happening until about 9 pm. So, we would be having dinner early and then loading up for the wildlife drive after. This is a delicate sort of schedule because if dinner goes long, we lose a lot of time for shooting. We would need to refine this timing throughout the week depending upon our location and proximity to our shooting locations. But, luckily, West Yellowstone is only a short drive from the Madison River valley, and we would have nearly three good hours of shooting. And, this would prove to be important as this night we would witness what would become a mantra for the trip and potentially the name of my next band, “Rainbow, Red Dog, Sunset!”
As we drove through the river valley, the schizo spring weather was showing its fickle nature. That morning had been hot and sunny, with temperatures approaching eighty degrees. Now, storm clouds had moved in and were pelting us with rain. We stopped and photographed a trumpeter swan feeding in the river. Then, we found a herd of bison with several newborns romping around, which were only a week or two old. Bison calves are affectionately known as “red dogs” due to their red coats and comparable size to a large dog. As we were working to line up shots of the infant bison with the beautiful light of the setting sun, all the while with light rain falling, a beautiful rainbow emerged to the east! It formed a complete arc from horizon to horizon.
I worked hard to be able to compose a panoramic series to show the full breadth of the rainbow with bison in the foreground. I was, however, unable to accomplish this, but did get a decent pano of the rainbow and the river valley. Also, I should mention that one of our clients, Beth, took the liberty of taking my photo as I was squatted working on that pano. But, I also happened to be squatting over a bison patty (yes, that’s bison poo). She thought this was very funny and showed everyone in the group. Thanks, Beth!
For our third day, we would be shooting some of the iconic features of Yellowstone, including the towering Yellowstone Falls and The Grand Canyon of The Yellowstone. We began the morning with an early breakfast at our hotel, then loaded up to head into Hayden Valley before then heading to Grand Canyon. We had received reports of bears in Hayden Valley, and we wanted to see if we could spot them.
We encountered our first bear watchers at the beginning of the valley, but they were peering through spotting scopes at a grizzly that was at least a mile out. This being a photography safari, we moved on only to find another group of bear watchers with a grizzly feeding on a carcass about 200 yards off the road. The range wasn’t great, but the light was decent, so we stuck around for around twenty minutes to observe and photograph the bear, all be it from a bit far out.
Next, we turned around and headed back through the valley to shoot Yellowstone Falls and the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone from Artist Point. The is where would be doing our filter workshop session. Here we introduced the circular polarizer and the neutral density filters and how they come into play when photographing skies, water, and/or waterfalls.
After we had explored a range of exposure durations and filter combinations, we packed up to drive back towards the Madison River. But, after only being on the road for maybe a minute or two, I would be eating my words about being able to photograph wolves up close. I was in the lead car, and as we drove through a snow-covered clearing, one of our clients John called out, “Hey, is that a coyote?” I looked left and immediately recognized from the size of the animal approaching us and its long loping legs that this was no coyote. I grabbed the radio and called over to the other car, “Wolf, wolf! It’s gonna cross the road!”
We swung around and found a good turnout, and everyone leaped into action, cameras clicking as the lone female wolf crossed the road. Once across, she paused to urinate, glancing over her shoulder at us as she did. Then, she casually trod off towards to line of trees about 100 yards out. Due to my being the driver and not having my camera close at hand, I missed the close-proximity shot of the wolf and her over-the-shoulder glance but was able to capture a clear image of her back as she walked through the snow. But, our guests all were able to capture photos of the full interaction.
And, as quickly as she had appeared, she vanished into the trees, leaving us laughing and elated from having such a close encounter, and being able to capture it on film as well!
After an early dinner, we loaded up and headed back into the Madison River valley for an evening game drive. As we drove through the valley, we encountered a mature cinnamon black bear (a black bear with a light brown coat) working its way along the opposite side of the Madison River from us.
This bear provided an excellent opportunity to get close to it without danger due to the river serving as a natural barrier between us. For over an hour, we worked down the river bank, shadowing the bear’s movements and capturing hundreds of photos. The bear was casually grazing on grass and occasionally glancing in our direction, creating great angles of the bear apparently looking into the camera.
After an hour of watching and photographing the bear, it moved back into the woods and out of sight.
As the sun set, he headed back to the hotel to rest in preparation for another full day the following morning.
On the fourth day of our Yellowstone-Teton tour, we packed up our bags and moved out of our West Yellowstone hotel. Today we were going to be photographing Old Faithful and then heading down to Jackson Hole, Wyoming and to Grand Teton National Park. The weather would be challenging on this day, with temperatures hovering around 45 degrees with light rain falling. But we donned out coats, loaded up and headed out to make the best of it.
First, we would be photographing Gibbon Falls, a large waterfall just off the main road between Mammoth and Old Faithful. From here, we continued to Old Faithful to photograph an eruption and continue our work with filters. Erupting every 96 minutes, more or less, Old Faithful was the first named geyser in the park, and is a major attraction for park visitors. For photographers, it provides an opportunity to predictably photograph a geyser eruption. After photographing that morning’s eruption, we ate a picnic lunch on one of the terraces of the famous Old Faithful Inn and then headed down to Grand Teton National Park.
Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks are directly adjacent to one another. And, by driving south out of Yellowstone and into Grand Teton, drivers are able to move between the parks without ever being outside of a national park. We would be staying in Jackson Hole, Wyoming this night, and the drive between Old Faithful to Jackson is a beautiful one, moving along alpine lakes and thickly forested mountains.
After arriving in Grand Teton National Park, we stopped off at an overlook to give everyone their first glance at the grandeur of the mountains and snap a few midday shots before continuing into Jackson to check into our hotel. That night we would be dining at the famous Million Dollar Cowboy Restaurant before heading out to shoot the sunset from the iconic Snake River Overlook.
We headed out from the restaurant just before 7 pm to make the drive into the park and get set up to shoot sunset. As we left the restaurant, steady rain was falling, and the skies were gray. But, because we cannot predict what the weather will do in a few moments, or how different it could be thirty miles down the road, we crossed our fingers and hoped for the best.
As we entered the park, the rain relented and dissipated, and rays of sunshine began to bounce around the valley floor. It appeared that the weather was going to give us a shot after all!
The Snake River overlook is famous amongst photographers and nature lovers alike because it is the overlook from where Ansel Adams took one of his most famous photos of the Grand Teton. In fact, this photo made such an impression on me when I first saw it, that I attribute much of my interest in photography to that one photo!
We arrived at the overlook and set up our tripods and cameras to document to sun’s disappearance behind the jagged peaks. Rain clouds floated around the valley, creating a moody atmosphere.
Though the sunset was not the most colorful I’ve witnessed there, it was beautiful, with misty clouds illuminated by the setting sun as they moved between us and the mountains. After the sun had slid behind the mountains and all the best light had gone, we packed up and headed back to the hotel to rest up for the following day.
Our earliest mornings would be here at Grand Teton as the mountain range runs north to south and is best illuminated by the light of the rising sun. So, we were loading up the vehicles to head out well before 4:45 am in order to shoot sunrise from Oxbow Bend, an iconic photo vantage point from which photographers can get excellent views of Mt. Moran.
As we packed up, the weather was continuing to challenge us with cold rain. But, we crossed our fingers and hoped that perhaps it would break for us as it had the night before.
But, this morning we would not be so lucky. After making the hour-long drive to Oxbow bend, heavier rain was moving in and clouds were obscuring the peaks. But, we set up and waited, watching the gray clouds move through the valley, hoping there might be a moment of light if we waited long enough. But, the weather gods had other ideas. Instead, sunrise was just a slow lightening of the sky, obscured by thick rain clouds. By 6:30 am with it then fully daylight and Mt. Moran still obscured by clouds, we loaded up and headed further into the park to search for wildlife and shoot a few other vantage points.
Along the Snake River, we encountered herds of elk grazing in the rainy, misty clearings. We stopped off to shoot Jenny Lake from two vantage points, which turned out to be more moody, misty shots. We then headed along the Moose-Wilson road on the hunt for moose and other wildlife opportunities.
Our best shot of the morning turned out to be of an osprey nest just off the road with two adult ospreys there in the nest. It appeared that the female was sitting on an egg with the male flying around hunting for her.
By then it was midmorning and the light was growing harsh, so we loaded up and headed back to the hotel for brunch and an afternoon off in Jackson.
That night we would be dining at one of the best restaurants anywhere in the area, simply called ‘Local,’ and then heading out to photograph one of the iconic barns. But, again, the weather defeated us. By the time we arrived, it was raining steadily and a solid, pea-soup-thick bank of clouds had positioned itself low in the valley, completely obscuring the mountain range. We did our best and grabbed a few photos anyway before the cold, blowing rain chased us back into our cars. We headed back to the hotel to dry off, warm up, and rest in preparation for the following morning.
The weather did not break for us this morning. We did venture out to Schwabacher’s Landing in the predawn hours to see if there might be a weather window, but the mountains were still completely obscured. We waited around to see if there might be a chance for a glimpse of the jagged peaks behind the clouds somewhere, but they did not make an appearance. So, we headed back to the hotel for breakfast and a midmorning departure for Yellowstone.
We were heading back to where our journey had begun, to the north entrance of the park and the town of Gardiner for my favorite part of the trip, the wildlife photography in the Lamar Valley and Tower Falls areas.
But first, we would make to drive back to Gardiner along the banks of Yellowstone Lake. The lake still had several inches of ice covering it, with large chunks of broken ice along its shores. We stopped here and photographed the lake’s icy vistas and rocky islands. We also encountered a very wet and soggy looking bald eagle that perched in a tree for a quick photo before flying off. The snow was falling throughout the morning, and it was clear that much more snow had fallen the night before. We had now experienced the full gamut of Yellowstone spring weather, from hot sun to soaking rain and now snow showers!
From Yellowstone Lake, we headed back through the Hayden Valley and then through the Grand Canyon area where we’d encountered the wolf three days prior. We arrived in Gardiner for check-in and an early dinner. We would be heading to the Tower Falls area this evening in search of black bears!
Every spring in Yellowstone, several black bears venture down close to the road in the Tower Falls area to graze on green grass shoots. It is primarily females with cubs and subadults who come down here so as to able to feed in relative safety, away from the ranges of larger adult black bears and grizzlies.
We would need only just to enter the Tower Falls area that evening before encountering our first black bears. Just adjacent to the Roosevelt Horse Ranch, feeding only a few yards from the horses in their pens, we found a female black bear with three one-year-old cubs. We were familiar with this sow, as she had been seen and photographed the year prior with her three under-sized cubs of the year. It was feared by park staff that the cubs would not survive the winter. But, here they were, all three of them in apparent good health! This mother bear had succeeded in keeping her three cubs alive and they now were feeding vigorously on the grass. The horses in their paddock were quite aware of the bears there and did not seem to appreciate their presence.
We stayed with her and her cubs until the light grew too dark to shoot. We packed up and made the drive back to Gardiner. But, along the way, we would encounter three other black bears along the road! Though it was too dark for photography, it was great to see the bears running across the road and down into the forest.
After an early breakfast at the Yellowstone Mine restaurant in Gardiner, we headed out for the Lamar Valley. The Lamar Valley is often called the Serengeti of North America. It is here that the largest herds of bison roam, as well as one of the largest wolf packs in the park. Elk, pronghorn, deer, bighorn sheep, and Grizzlies are also regularly sighted.
As we approached the turnout for Lamar Valley, we decided to one more quick tour through the Tower Falls area first to see if there was a black bear near the road. And sure enough, there was a three-year-old male feeding on grass all on its lonesome. We stopped to photograph this handsome boy for a few minutes before heading into the Lamar.
After loading up and heading onto the Lamar Valley road, we had not driven for a mile before we encountered another bear! This one was a cinnamon black bear feeding just below the bridge that spans the Lamar River. While we were stopped photographing this bear, a small herd of bighorn sheep ewes appeared and crossed the road right in front of us. We had not even entered the valley yet, and already we were surrounded by wildlife!
After the bear moved off, we headed into Lamar Valley proper. We immediately encountered large herds of bison with dozens of newborn calves running around, which we photographed extensively. We moved through the valley, searching for great angles on the bison and water birds congregating around the small roadside ponds.
As the afternoon sun climbed high, we headed back through the valley the way we had come towards Gardiner for a short break before dinner.
On this night, we would have our earliest dinner so as to maximize our time on the game drive. After eating at 4 pm, we were heading back into the Lamar Valley. But, again, while crossing the bridge of the Lamar River, we encountered the same cinnamon black bear, but this time much closer to the road. We photographed the cinnamon bear for some time before continuing into the valley. We found more opportunities for newborn bison and pronghorn and took one more turn through Tower Falls and encountered yet another black bear!
This bear was a bit shyer and moved off into the woods shortly after we arrived. So, we turned around and headed for Elk Creek, a great location for Moose. And, sure enough, we found two moose there about 100 yards off the road, a bull with his antlers still in felt and a cow shadowing him. We photographed them until the sun was all but set and then headed back to the hotel.
This was to be our last day together on the tour, and finally, the sun had come back out in earnest. After a quick breakfast, we were loaded up and heading back into Lamar Valley. The light was beautiful and some of the guests were still after that perfect shot of a newborn bison with its mother.
So, we headed straight into the Lamar, skipping the Tower Falls area for the moment. As soon as the road dipped down into the valley, we encountered a small herd of female bison with newborns lounging just off the road. The light was perfect, and we were able to compose several shots with the bison framed against a dramatic, mountainous background.
We photographed this herd of bison until everyone felt content that they’d captured that perfect angle, and then we drove all the way to the opposite end of the Lamar Valley to show off some of the mountain goats that live on the cliffs there. They were quite far off for a photograph but were amazing to watch as they effortlessly moved along sheer mountain cliffs.
From there, we headed back to the Tower Falls area for our final bear search of the trip. When we arrived, we found several other photographers already there photographing the same female with her three cubs that we had seen the day before. But, this time they were very close to the road and in better light.
We used up our last hour in the park photographing this very calm mother feeding on the grass while her three cubs ran around and played behind her. These photos proved to be some of my favorites from the trip, especially of the young cubs.
Now, it was time to leave the park and head back to Bozeman. This trip had been an exercise in patience and perseverance due to some very big weather shifts, but in the end, we had found some amazing photo opportunities for both wildlife and landscape.
It was a trip that showed me that sometimes the shot in your head is not the one you get, but it can be the one you did not plan for that can be even better. We had a great group of guests, and I am definitely looking forward to next year’s Spring Comes to Yellowstone and Grand Tetons!
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
Don’t Miss the Next Session of BCJ “Live”
Image Review: Wildlife Edition
with Russell Graves & Kenton Krueger
Tuesday, March 2nd, 2021 at 11 am (Mountain)