Few places stir the imagination like Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks. These parks were host to the first trip that I ever ran for Backcountry Journeys (BCJ), and they remain some of my absolute favorites. One of the main reasons for this is the sheer geological and ecological diversity one encounters when moving from one area to another. From the geyser basins of western Yellowstone, the rugged mountains, and breathtaking valleys of the Northern Range, to the aspen lined Snake River of Grand Teton, a couple of hours drive will reveal a dramatic and changing landscape no matter which direction you choose to go.
Our Yellowstone & Grand Teton in Autumn trip is designed to take our clients across the entire swath of wilderness known as the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem(GYE), which encompasses two national parks and thousands of acres of national forest.
For photographers, this trip represents a unique opportunity to hone your skills in two completely different photographic disciplines, landscape, and wildlife photography. And though both fall under the umbrella of nature photography, the two approaches could not be more different, from lens selection, camera setup, and compositional considerations.
But, it is without fail that our clients leave this trip with memory cards full of images of some of the most dramatic landscapes and memorable wildlife encounters one can experience in North America. And this fall’s journey into the Yellowstone wilderness would be no different!
This year’s trip would be different in other ways, primarily due to the considerations necessary for traveling in the age of COVID. But, our head office did amazing work to draft a cohesive and science-based safety plan to minimize risk to our clients and staff. Everyone on the trip was wonderful at adapting to this new normal, and we were able to experience all that Yellowstone has to offer while also taking all possible steps to minimize risk. So to that end, I would like to offer a special thanks to Russ and Crystal Nordstrand for the long and thoughtful work they put into creating our COVID mitigation strategy, and also to our amazing group of clients for their adaptability and willingness to do what was necessary to ensure that everyone could have an enjoyable and safe journey.
Days 1-3: West Yellowstone and the Madison River Valley
Yellowstone National Park is a place rife with both natural and human history. It is home to the largest collection of thermal features (geysers, hot springs, and fumaroles) anywhere on earth due to the heat radiating from a partially molten magma chamber deep underground, the remnant of a cataclysmic volcanic explosion that occurred 600,000 years ago. It is a place where one can travel back in time and witness what our planet must have been like in its primordial phase. The park is also one of the last refuges for grizzly bears and wolves in the contiguous United States, a place where the ancient order of survival of the fittest can be witnessed first hand as predator and prey must compete in their quests to live and reproduce.
For our seven day journey through the GYE, our first goal would be to witness and photograph the thermal features of the park, the hot springs, and geysers that represent the most exciting opportunities of the park’s thermal features. From Bozeman, MT on our first morning we left in the predawn hours heading southeast for the North Entrance of Yellowstone National Park. Our first stop was Mammoth Hot Springs, a collection of thermal pools and fumaroles concentrated on an enormous hill of travertine and calcium carbonate. Mammoth offers photographic opportunities of colorful abstracts, lunar-like landscapes, and colorful mattes of thermophilic bacteria.
From Mammoth, we headed towards Old Faithful to witness the eruption of the most famous geyser in the world. Erupting consistently every 90 minutes (give or take) Old Faithful is a must-see for any Yellowstone trip. And thanks to the brilliant guiding (or very good luck) of myself and fellow guide, Russell Graves, we arrived at Old Faithful just before it erupted.
After Old Faithful and lunch at the Geyser Grill, our group loaded up and headed towards West Yellowstone through the beautiful and iconic Madison River Valley.
The Madison River was the inspiration for Norman Maclean’s novel A River Runs Through it, which was later adapted into a film starring Brad Pitt and directed by Robert Redford. Once you’ve witnessed the picturesque Madison River Valley firsthand, the motivation becomes clear. This small valley, with its rocky walls and winding river, looks like they were taken straight from a painting. The Madison is also an excellent place for photographing big bull elk during the elk rut as the males bugle and battle for control of groups of females known as harems. We would have several opportunities with these magnificent herbivores, which are the largest member of the deer family.
The following day and a half were spent chasing wildlife at sunrise and epic sunsets at thermal features in the Lower Geyser Basin, yielding some incredible opportunities. The bears had evaded us up to this point, but the following day would hold a wildlife spectacle that Russel and I had never seen before, even after years of running trips through Yellowstone.
Days 3-5: Artist Point to Grand Teton
In the predawn hours of Day Three, we made our way eastward through the Madison River Valley towards the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone and Artist Point, one of the most iconic views of the enormous falls of the Yellowstone River. Conditions were warm and sunny with some picturesque clouds moving through the sky. The waterfall proved as dramatic as ever, and from there we packed up and headed south into the Hayden Valley, a hotspot for spotting big predators like bears, wolves, and coyotes.
Several days prior, a video of a grizzly bear killing a bull elk had gone viral on the internet. Russell and I studied the video and came to the conclusion the video must’ve been recorded in the northern part of Hayden Valley. As we headed into the valley, we quickly saw that our assessment was correct, as several photographers were set up shooting across the river. We stopped to check it out and found the very same elk carcass as the one killed in the video with a massive grizzly bear taking a nap right on top of it.
The bear sleeping on the carcass was a 17-year-old male, according to park officials, but was not the bear that made the kill. We learned that after several days of gorging on the carcass, the bear that had killed the elk was challenged by the larger bear that was now sleeping on the carcass. The younger bear was pushed off the kill and the older, more experienced bear took up residence and the arduous task of chasing off competitors, whether they be wolves, bears, or ravens. And what remained was quite a spectacle, with the large bear snoozing atop the mangled remains of a massive bull elk, its rack of majestic antlers now pressed into the earth and its spine, stripped of meat, visible beneath the enormous claws of the bear.
After watching and photographing the bear for some time, we headed south towards Grand Teton National Park. Upon arriving in the park and driving along the shores of Jackson Lake, we saw that the fall foliage was peaking, with yellow-golden aspens and burnt orange cottonwoods dominating the landscape. The fall foliage of Grand Teton National Park is legendary. And with the jagged peaks of the Grand Teton Range creating a dramatic backdrop, this portion of the trip is where we would do our most grandiose landscape work.
We would shoot at Schwabacher’s Landing for crystalline reflections of the fall foliage and snowy mountain peaks.
We ventured to Mormon row to photograph the iconic barns.
We recreated the famous Ansel Adams masterpiece The Tetons and the Snake River, and we shot sunrise at Oxbow Bend, where the Snake River, wreathed in golden aspens, bends around in front of Mount Moran.
Day 5-7: The Northern Range
The final two days of our Yellowstone and Grand Teton tour would have us traveling back north to where we first entered the park in the town of Gardiner, MT. With memory cards brimming with images of technicolor foliage and rocky peaks, we switched to our long lenses for the section of the trip we lovingly refer to as the Wildlife Bonanza. The final two days of the trip would be filled with safari-like wildlife photography along Yellowstone’s Northern Range and into the Lamar Valley.
The Lamar Valley is famous for its incredible densities of both prey and predator and is one of the best locations in the world to see wolves. And though shy and difficult to photograph, we were able to see a pack of wolves playing and moving through the valley.
Other opportunities included beautiful bison portraits, pronghorn antelope, bull elk, bald eagles, and a gregarious juvenile coyote that I thought was going to jump in my lap for a brief moment as it ran along a dirt road before diverting into a small valley.
Throughout our seven days in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, we were graced with excellent, warm weather, beautiful dramatic skies, and encounters with all of the iconic species that make Yellowstone famous (aside from a moose). It is the belief of Russell and myself that the uncharacteristically warm, dry weather had pushed the moose to higher elevations for better grazing and more comfortable temperatures. But, that small disappointment aside, this was one of the best trips for landscape conditions and wildlife encounters I’ve had the pleasure of running in Yellowstone, which was made even better by our amazing and adaptable group of clients. Many of us have already started talking plans for meeting up next time we end up in one or another’s neck of the woods. And as always, after such an action-packed journey, I cannot wait to get back to Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks to do it again and see what we find next time!
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 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