Backcountry Journey’s visits to Yellowstone often are treated to photographic opportunities long before reaching National Park boundaries. On your way to, through, and from Yellowstone National Park, travelers witness an ever rarer marvel of the world, 34,375 square miles of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (GYE), one of the largest temperate-zone ecosystems on the planet.
Anticipating the size of the ecosystem, and seasonal changes matter greatly to those with photographic interest.
From one season to the next the colors of the park change dramatically, from a dynamic and full-bodied color palette to a nearly black and white winter landscape. The textural features of the landscape also change. The varying topographic features and dramatic elevation changes become smoothed by heavy snowfall. Yellowstone’s mountainous, often jagged, multicolored- earthen-toned-wild-lands turn to smooth, rolling, almost desert-like expanses; prepared for the cold, tolerant landscape photographers delight at the scene. Assuredly, wildlife photographers also experience a completely diﬀerent world in the winter season. With Yellowstone’s yearly average snowfall reaching 150 inches, wildlife sightings and photo opportunities often occur against a nearly white backdrop (higher elevations in the park can receive 200-400 inches of snow a year; no wonder the park has limited winter access). The Yellowstone Winter BCJ Tribe understands the snowscapes greater spotting opportunities, and witness significant behavioral changes by both predator and prey displayed in ways unseen in other seasons. These things are important for pre-trip gear prep and mid-trip travel and photo strategy.
The trip sets oﬀ traveling from Bozeman, MT to and through the North Entrance of The Park in Gardiner, MT, then photographing all the way down to West Yellowstone (Once inside The Park winter road closures aﬀect independent travel and require special vehicles with permit access). 132 miles of travel by car and snow coach makes for a big first day of touring. Elk, Whitetail and Mule deer, sometimes wild and captive bison, and a variety of birds stretch across the Paradise Valley as you enter GYE between Livingston and Gardiner. The Wonderland Cafe, a local favorite, is a great coﬀee stop on the way through Gardiner to Mammoth Hot Springs. Before transitioning to travel by snow coach the schedule permits time to visit the thermal features of the upper terraces of Mammoth Hot Springs. A wonder unto itself, The Terraces have been formed by the calcification of calcium carbonate that flows in a solution of spring water at a rate of over 2 tons a day. Fascinating geologic features also allow bison to take advantage of more manageable snow levels on the hotter ground which exposes greater foraging (a key point when considering where wildlife shots might be found). Successful wildlife photographers know that they can find the animals where the food is.
Our first opportunity to point our lenses at Yellowstone’s largest mammal came just below the Minerva/Juniper Terraces and The Canary Spring. Interestingly these thermal areas are both a blessing and a curse for bison. Though thermal features reveal food that becomes more and more scarce through snowfall, the teeth of the Bison are gradually worn down by its granular character. Thermal features are life-giving on a short term seasonal scale yet year after year they have a deleterious aﬀect on a Bisons life span. The Upper Terrace boardwalk meanders through Conifers and Junipers which attract birds wintering in the park. A 2005 article reveals the work of John King who determined the age of some of Mammoth’s Junipers to be 1,500 years old. Within the old forest, above the Canary Spring, a small group of Mule deer bed down and Townsend Solitaire fly and sing overhead. From this vantage point looking East Mt. Everts can be seen on the horizon and the valley at its footholds the Grand Loop Road.
Though the road disappears between Evert’s and the distant Prospect Peak visitors can imagine the famous Northern Road intersecting the Lamar Valley and eventually connecting with Cooke City. Visitors also know that road infamously intersects the range of more wolf packs than any other area of the park. With a little elevation gained at the Terraces of the Hot Springs a vista and some imagination brew anticipation for what Yellowstone’s Winter has to oﬀer. After lunch in Mammoth, the group departs having a first glimpse of the otherwise inaccessible park interior. Headed to West Yellowstone where a large portion of the trip is based, the group settles in after day 1 and prepares to awake to -20 degree weather.
Although cold, to say the least, the sunrise on the second morning unbeknownst to us came to signify the beginning of what would be one of the luckiest and most beautiful trips anyone in the group had yet experienced. A wonderful snow coach driver and wildlife enthusiast, Ben, then takes us along the Madison giving useful tips, like how to keep your window defrosted while putting your hotel room key to good use. We eagerly look riverside hearing stories of the recent animal activity. Stopping to glass bobcat tracks across the Madison we spot a bald eagle perched in a rather dead looking tree. Then, something moving uphill nearby. A grim-looking coyote with a hairless whip of a tail plunge steps in the deep snow moving up the Madison River hillside.
Though attached to the current critter viewing, a first of many, we press on and deeper into The Park, now more aware of the desperation that it can bring to its four-legged inhabitants. The warmth of the snow coach is welcoming. Not far ahead, the same eagle glides from tree to tree only to disappear across the river. There is a funny thing about looking out the window for wildlife. One looks so intently that the landscape seems to continually morph into the shape and color of every animal you so desperately seek to find, behind trees, on rocks or snowdrifts. In the early morning, and especially in the evening light, the mind of park visitors starts to plays games on itself. We endearingly call it, “Rock or Bison?” The common catchphrase that goes along with this unavoidable trick of the mind is, “Oh! I see a…. never-mind.” And, no sooner than the imagination can frustrate what the eye attempts to see in truth does Yellowstone show you its bounty, on this day in both bison and swan form. A day along the Madison serves a visitor well as they encounter both wildlife and Yellowstone’s most famous landscapes. Head South from the Madison to encounter the appropriately named Old Faithful. It is a must-see, as it is a reliable wonder with far fewer crowds through winter visitation. BCJ was fortunate to have great conditions while photographing around OF.
It is worth noting that viewing conditions of thermal features are very diﬀerent and highly variable in cold months. Cold and humid air mixing with the steam oﬀ thermal features can cause OF and the Geyser basin to vary from heavily atmospheric to completely shrouded in fog.
A day well spent in the park is ended equally well at the Wolf and Discovery Center in West Yellowstone. The facility is a great place to learn and practice with your camera just outside of the West Entrance. Yellowstone or not, facilities like these are lower stakes shots for wildlife photographers and allow you to hone your skills. It is not uncommon to be forced to work through snowy and changing conditions on winter visits to YNP. Snow can throw your autofocus completely out of whack and photographic opportunities are quick and fleeting. Wolf sightings are rare (especially within photographic range) and it is important to be able to manipulate camera settings to combat conditions. Be prepared. No one wants to miss a wolf shot. Shooting at the Discovery Center becomes a training facility for exercises in understanding manual or continuous focus, practicing manual exposure, or learning aperture priority and understanding the exposure triangle. Equipped with an ever sharper tool kit BCJ Tribe leaves the Discovery well practiced and prepared for what would be a very foxy day in the Hayden Valley.
Snow coach travel glassing for bobcats along the Madison is again one of the very best ways to start a day. On our way toward Canyon Village, we observe some springs and fountain geysers (Old Faithful the cone Geysers). A significant amount of the watershed in Yellowstone snows in or freezes over until spring. Rivers and their tributaries, creeks, streams, etc. become completely inaccessible to animals. River otters take advantage of thermal features flowing into the river systems, warmer temperatures keep the waters open year-round. They will travel good distances to access them when their home waters disappear. Sure enough, river otters appear not too far past the fumarole at Caldera Rim. Thankfully these curious little creatures don’t always mind company but they sure have a hard time staying put for very long. The three otters move up and down the snow banked river making for an interesting shoot.
Utilizing single point focus and manual focus modes are helpful when shooting slender, quick-moving aquatic critters like otters especially as they bask in a cloud of steam.
Seeing a wide variety of animals will fill a photographer with energy. Each viewing can bring a variety of unique challenges. Environmental factors often change at a moment’s notice. Light will fluctuate in and out of heavy cloud cover and humidity levels change. In good and bad light steam or freezing, water vapor can aﬀect the sharpness of an image. Unwanted atmosphere softens things which are compounded by long lenses. The very lenses used that respectfully “shorten” the distance between photographer and subject come with their own challenges. Overcoming, or rather developing, a tolerance for these challenges allows one to appreciate just how special it is when a shot comes together. Focus on having gratitude for each and every sighting, log a positive memory and become newly equipped to disarm the frustration that comes with “missing” a shot.
Fortunately, there is no shortage of chances to photograph in Yellowstone. As clouds break and fox mice, the Hayden Valley excitement can really build to a crescendo. Bright fluttering snowfall and distant blue skies create perfect color compliments to the orange fluﬀ of a foxes winter coat. Both near and far, the number of foxes seen in Hayden allows for both closeup and environmental wildlife shots. Finding satiation from a picnic lunch and ample red fox sightings bring the group the Lower Falls of the Yellowstone River. Nearly frozen and hiding half its 308-foot height behind a mass of accumulated snow the Lower Falls is a true winter wonder and those fording the cold likely find the viewing platform is theirs alone to enjoy. Riding high on winters wonderful wildlife, excitement can continue to grow as even rarer critters take advantage of a quieter park in the winter months. At canyon village, a pine marten scurries from one tree to the next showing its agility as it dashes through the snowbanks and into the forest.
The trip from West Yellowstone to Cooke city ends the snow coach travel for BCJ YNP Winter tour. Photographers eager to explore the Northern Range in two BCJ driven vehicles take advantage of the Parks only open winter road. The route from West to Cooke City allows for roughly another 100 miles of travel from one destination to the next and passes through the Northern Bison Range, Elk range and Wolf Range. As mentioned previously, animals are found where food and water are found. As the park fills with snow herd animals tend to move west toward Paradise valley making the Black Tail Plateau and Elk Creek areas, approaching Tower Junction, a hot spot for mid to late winter wildlife viewing; not that the massive expanse of the Lamar valley is not fruitful for spotting and shooting. BCJ survives challenging conditions near Soda Butte to photograph successfully in the Cooke City side of the park which sits at a higher elevation and channels weather through its mountainous terrain.
Spotting from a moving vehicle can be a challenge and its strongly recommended to take advantage of pullouts, look, listen and scan with binoculars to check what photo opportunities might form up. While glassing over blacktail plateau the group finds themselves watching a lone black wolf running full speed through deep snow in the distance. Sightings often occur more quickly than one can react and as in many situations only one or two photographers may be able to locate, zoom, steady, focus and capture the moment before an animal goes out of sight. Fortunately, good weather while traveling the northern road allows viewing of hundreds of bison, (in our case seven) moose that had recently dropped their antlers, Bighorn sheep, Mountain goats, coyotes and the 8-mile pack (after recently killing a bison) and a late-night fox taking up residence near Silver Gate. With enough, luck Yellowstone Winter can provide the prepared photographer a rare three dog day, viewing and photographing all three canid species.
Yellowstone can be a dangerous place in winter. Exposure, road conditions, accessibility, and limited services can discourage even the most adventurous. Taking advantage of a well-developed itinerary, trained guide staﬀ, and available resources for safe travel through remote areas is paramount. It makes for an incredibly enjoyable and unique photo opportunity unlike anything else.
Rest assured winter in Yellowstone is so radically diﬀerent than any other season that those who love the park are missing out until they have seen it both ways.
Dedicated to a life of learning, my professional, and personal interests showcase a commitment to continued education in many forms. This humble and eager approach to life first brought me to Photography, as it allows for investigation into all other subject matter. With camera and palette in tow, my commitment to personal growth, in body, heart, and mind has sent me looking inward and at other times sent me miles, by plane or foot, over mountains both literal, and symbolic in form. Having explored the limits of my abilities, I now more greatly understand the benefits of practical, field-based, learning experiences. The utility of experiential learning extends beyond reflective practices and serves to catalyze further artistic inspiration. Compelled to share this knowledge, I seek classrooms both indoors, and out, with an earnest desire to make a difference in the lives of people.
Don’t Miss the Next Session of BCJ “Live”
Night Sky Post-Processing
with Ben Blankenship
Tuesday, May 18th, 2021 at 11 am (Mountain)