Have you ever dreamed of seeing the beautiful landscapes and abundance of wildlife in Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Park, but debated on whether or not to book an autumn expedition with Backcountry Journeys? Then check out this trip report of the 2021 expeditions to gain more insight on what to expect for your next Yellowstone adventure.
During the autumn expedition to the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, we offered both standard and hiking tours. This post will cover both expeditions which were guided by myself and Russel Graves. The Hiker tour took place on September 9-26, 2021, while the Standard tour took place from September 27 to October 4, 2021. Considering every trip begins with orientation, I won’t include that in this report. Instead, I’ll mark “Day 1” as the first day into the parks. Let us begin!
Day 1: Hiker (September 10) & Standard (September 28)
To begin our expedition, we drove from Bozeman, MT, to West Yellowstone, MT, by entering Yellowstone National Park through the northwest entrance. On our way toward West Yellowstone, the Hiker tour passed by Mammoth Hot Springs so we could hike the boardwalk at Norris Geyser Basin, which is home to the world’s largest active geyser: Steamboat Geyser. Did we see it erupt? Sadly, It wasn’t our lucky day. However, there were plenty more unique features to photograph at the basin. This kept us busy until it was time to check into our hotel.
The Standard trip took a slightly different route. We started with photographing some elk near Mammoth Hotsprings. Normally, we would save Mammoth until later in the tour. However, we were gifted with the opportunity to photograph the silhouette of a big bull on a ridge. After that, we took a pit stop at Gibbon Falls, had lunch at West Yellowstone, then spent the rest of the afternoon at the Wolf and Bear Discovery Center before checking into our hotel.
That evening we worked our way toward Fountain Paintpots Geyser Basin to photograph the sunset. During the Hiker tour, we first visited Firehole Canyon, then proceeded onward to Firehole Lake Drive. There was a sudden change in weather as clouds rolled in, dumping heavy snow all around us. Disappointment began to rise as we feared we would miss our sunset opportunity. Then suddenly, our moods were lifted after we stumbled upon a herd of bison as it continued to snow. Shortly afterwards, the clouds rolled away, resulting in a lovely sunset at Fountain Paint Pots.
Firehole Lake Drive was the first evening stop during the Standard tour. After a quick drive, we stopped at Fountain Paint Pots. Unlike the Hiker tour, we didn’t spend sunset at the geyser basin. Instead, we returned to Firehole Lake Drive where we spent the evening hours at Great Fountain Geyser. The beautiful colors of the evening sky reflected off the pools of water surrounding the geyser. Right before the climax of the sunset colors, Great Fountain Geyser erupted, adding a little extra magic to the beautiful evening.
Day 2: Hiker (September 11) & Standard (September 29)
The next morning, we began our day with a wildlife drive along the Madison River, slowly working our way toward Midway Geyser Basin. After stopping to photograph bobby sock trees in the fog, the hikers spent the morning hiking up to Fairy Falls. As the sun climbed higher into the sky, the fog slowly began to clear up. This worked out great for our schedule because during the walk back, we had a clear view of Grand Prismatic Hot Spring from the overlook on Fairy Falls Trail. After the hike, we had lunch, watched Old Faithful Geyser erupt, then spent a few hours exploring the area and hiking the boardwalks. After that, we slowly worked our way back to West Yellowstone, stopping along the Madison River to photograph some elk in rut.
On our way to Old Faithful, the Standard group got to see Firehole Canyon before walking the boardwalk around Grand Prismatic Hotspring. After that we spent the afternoon at Old Faithful before stopping along the Madison River to photograph a lone bull bison foraging near the road.
Days 3-4: Hiker (September 12-13) & Standard (September 30- October 1)
After two nights in West Yellowstone, the journey continued toward Jackson, WY! However, we took a long detour to get there. Driving east across the park, we entered Hayden Valley to search for some wildlife and photograph the landscape. During the Standard tour, we saw a herd of bison that had some frost on their fur. Before concluding our morning cruise in the valley, we did a quick sunrise shot at Antler Creek.
The Hiker tour didn’t get as lucky. Dense fog blanketed the valley, preventing us from seeing any wildlife or photographing the sunrise. We attempted to visit the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone before breakfast, but the fog filled the canyon as well. As things began to clear up, both groups were able to see the Lower Falls in the Grand Canyon from Artist Point Overlook.
Once we left Canyon village, we drove straight to Jackson, WY, where we had lunch and checked into Snow King Mountain Resort. Due to the regulations in Grand Teton National Park, we weren’t able to do any hiking in the valley, so both the Standard and Hiker tour had similar experiences. Between the two tours, we photographed both the sunrise or sunset at Schwabachers Landing, which is famous for the reflection of the tetons in a small stream. The place was also home to a large beaver dam and an active beaver pond. Every now and then, we would get lucky and see the large, aquatic rodent. Our chances of seeing the beaver were greater in the evening.
One cannot go to Grand Teton National Park without photographing the barns on Mormon Row, which is also home to the famous Morton Barn. Both groups received the opportunity to do a sunset shoot at the barns. Another place we explored was the National Elk Refuge which was right outside of Jackson, WY. We saw some pronghorn on the refuge but they were too far away for any good photographs. The Hiker group later got the chance to photograph pronghorn and an aspen grove at Elk Ranch in Grand Teton National Park. During the Standard tour, we decided to visit The Shane Cabin which was built for the movie, “Shane.”
Both Yellowstone and Grand Teton are home to the iconic wildlife of the old west. However, one species you’ll have a greater chance of seeing in Grand Teton National Park are moose. Both groups did see some moose. The Hiker group saw a cow, calf, and bull near the road along Gros Ventre River, while the Standard group saw a large bull at Sawmill Ponds. Both bull moose were lying down in dense vegetation, making it difficult to get some good moose portraits.
Day 5: Hiker (September 14) & Standard (October 2)
Our time in Jackson Hole came to an end. It was time to pack up our gear and head north back into Yellowstone. However, we couldn’t leave before taking one last sunrise shot in Grand Teton National Park. This resulted in an early morning drive up to Oxbow Bend. The great thing about this site are all the elements that make for a beautiful landscape photograph. The Tetons with the red morning glow filled the background. Yellow aspen trees brought vibrant colors to the valley. And to top it all off, the Snake River in the foreground reflected the beauty of the landscape. After a cool morning by the river, we photographed aspen and cottonwood trees before having breakfast and hot drinks for the road.
After spending the morning in Grand Teton, we headed straight to Gardiner, MT, stopping only for a quick lunch break and restrooms at Old Faithful. The plan was to get checked into our motel, have an early dinner, then spend the evening photographing wildlife around Mammoth Hotsprings. There were a lot of elk in the area, but both groups received an additional surprise. The Hiker group was rewarded with the sight of a Great Horned Owl. We all sat on a hillside photographing the raptor for at least an hour. The bird’s light body isolated it from the dark background providing great opportunities for both a wildlife portrait and landscape shot. Meanwhile, the Standard group spent the evening watching and photographing pikas bouncing around the boulders at Sheepeater Cliffs. It was a great opportunity to challenge everyone’s wildlife photography skills. The pikas were both adorable and entertaining to watch and photograph.
Day 6: Hiker (September 15) & Standard (October 3)
Our final full day on this week-long expedition resulted in a trip to Lamar Valley to search for some wildlife. We saw lots of bison and pronghorn, and even a few wolves. Sadly, the wolves were too far away for a good photograph, but it was still great to see them. On our way to Cooke City, the Standard group saw a red fox who pooped before trotting away. The Hiker group, on the other hand, managed to spend some time photographing a couple coyotes in Lamar Valley.
As the valley began warming up and the wildlife action slowed down, the Hikers took a short, but strenuous walk, up to Trout Lake. It was a small, beautiful lake tucked away in the valley. This concluded their trip in Lamar Valley, so we worked our way back to Mammoth Hot Springs where we finished off the evening photographing a gorgeous coyote.
During the Standard tour, the crew left Lamar Valley in the afternoon to work our way back across the northern range. During the drive, we did get to see three black bears near Blacktail Plateau. However, we were unable to stop due to the lack of parking spots, so it was a quick photo as we slowly cruised on by. We then finished the evening photographing bighorn sheep and more pikas before returning to the motel.
Day 7: Hiker (September 16) & Standard (October 4)
After being stuck with Russel and I for nearly eight days in the parks, we had one final morning together. Considering we had to be back at Bozeman by noon, there wasn’t much time left to spend in the park. During the Hiking tour, we split up into two groups. One group departed early to catch flights out of Bozeman, while the other group took a quick trip into the park to say their farewells. During the standard tour, everyone came to an agreement to skip the final visit into the park. Instead, we all gathered one last time to have breakfast in Livingston, MT, before departing.
And that concludes our expedition.
Trevor LaClair is an explorer who is passionate about wildlife. He has spent many years working with and around animals of all kinds, both in captivity and in the wild. The animals he enjoys the most are megafauna and dangerous animals. After growing up in Missouri, Trevor ventured across the country guiding in different places, including the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem where he spent his free time tracking grizzlies and watching wolves.
After receiving his Bachelors in Fisheries and Wildlife from the University of Missouri, Trevor obtained a Masters in Biology from Miami University. During the past few years, Trevor has had epic adventures exploring places such as Komodo National Park, Serengeti, and the Great Barrier Reef. He loves playing outside and going on epic adventures. His mission is to inspire people around the world to appreciate nature and conserve this planet’s natural wonders. Through entertainment and education, Trevor uses the power of media to bring viewers on global adventures and up close to amazing animals. You can follow Trevor LaClair on his adventures by checking out his website trekkingwithtrevor.com.