Yellowstone National Park is exciting in any season. No matter the time of year it is an exciting place to be. Each natural pattern is full of nuance and changes daily so there is a good chance that what you see in Yellowstone today will change tomorrow.
Even though the weather was stable when everyone arrived, it would soon change. In the high country, winter already struck for the season and in a few hours, a big winter storm was expected.
Tuesday evening started like all trips start. The group met for a quick orientation meeting and then we were off to one of my favorite restaurants in Bozeman – Montana Ale Works. The local eatery features rustic appointments and is built into an old train depot just off the main downtown corridor. The food featured is typical American fare with a Montana take and offers such items as elk and beef meatloaf or bison potstickers. Their food is simply delicious. Throughout dinner we talked about the week’s plans and individual photographic aspirations and prepared for what Mother Nature had to offer.
Ice and snow can be a formidable adversary and on the first day of our trip we faced plenty of it. Leaving Bozeman well before sunrise, wintry conditions already plagued southern Montana. Road travel was slow and arduous. In fact, the interstate closed just after we passed on through Livingston. It was still dark and snowy when we rolled into Gardiner that morning. After a quick breakfast in town, we were ready to see what Yellowstone offered up this day.
At sunrise, we rolled past the Roosevelt Gate to the pay kiosk at Yellowstone’s north gate. The cordial, yet concerned, ranger broke the news to us: all of the roads in Yellowstone are closed due to weather. Here we are on a photo trip and we can’t take photos. Furthermore, since it was still so early in the morning we still couldn’t check into our hotel rooms. Six guests, two guides, and two GMC Yukons loaded with camera gear and no place to go.
Now it would be easy for the guides and guests to become frustrated in the face of the challenges provided but we improvised. With the generous aid of the Best Western in Gardner, they gave us a big hotel suite in which to crash. The suite was warm and roomy and provided a perfect backdrop for some educational presentations we had planned for the trip. A couple of hours of telling stories, showing pics, and answering questions was the perfect consolation for being snowbound.
During our downtime, my co-guide, PJ, and I headed out for a few minutes to scout while the guests stayed in the suite and prepped their gear. While wildlife abounds in the park it often spills outside the park’s boundaries and within minutes, we found a harem of elk cows being watched closely by a mature herd bull. While our wildlife safari isn’t officially started, elk at the edge of Gardiner is a pretty good consolation.
The elk were plentiful, active, and strung across a broad hill that flanked the Yellowstone River. When we first arrived at the herd, the bull was lying in the snow. Soon, however, he rose to his feet and put on a display of dominance for some satellite bulls that were nearby.
Halfway through our elk photo session I noticed that people were returning to the vehicles momentarily and then getting back out. I, too, was cold and for good reason: snow was everywhere, the temperature was in the teens, and a stiff breeze made wind chills in the sub zero range. However, we mustered on.
Everyone was having a great time and things got better when we learned that the five mile stretch of road from Gardiner to Mammoth Hot Springs opened. It was late in the afternoon but we decided to head into the park and visit one of the most iconic thermal features in the park.
Smelling the sulphuric gasses, I knew we were flanking Mammoth Hot Springs although steam obscured the feature. The springs are fantastic. Layer upon layer of calcium carbonate built up over thousands of years makes for interesting terrace formations while thermophilic bacteria tints the water an impressive shade of amber.
Nearly half an hour after our arrival, we pack up again and cruise back towards Gardiner for the last hour or so of sunlight. While our drive was brief, it yielded opportunities for more elk and some pronghorns. Dinner at the Wonderland Cafe was lively with conversation as weather was the big subject of the evening. Day one was in the books.
Overnight the clouds cleared and the temperatures dropped even more. Now below zero and with even more roads open, we headed into the fabled Lamar Valley in search of wildlife. The valley was nearly empty except for a few pronghorn antelope. Maybe because of the weather or perhaps the moon cycle but for whatever reason few animals were out this morning. Therefore we spent our time photographing the valley that was beautifully cloaked in snow.
We were nearing our turnaround spot when we stopped for a quick bathroom break. About the time everyone exited the vehicles, the valley came alive with the echoes of wolves howling in the foothills. We couldn’t see them or photograph them, but just hearing them sing their ancient song proved to be one of the trip’s highlights.
Mammoth Hot Springs was our lunch destination so we headed there and prepped for the afternoon shoot over in the Hayden Valley.
After a drive up the valley proved mildly successful, we persevered and was rewarded with some nice bison in the snow photos as well as a coyote who was hunting for mice right off the side of the road. We were the first to spot her and spent the better part of an hour shooting pictures of her engaging behavior. In addition, the elk were especially active and did not disappoint on day three of our adventure.
Night came and even colder temperatures descended on Yellowstone. At first light, we entered the Swan Lake Meadow where the temperature was -14 degrees Fahrenheit. Frigid by any standards yet the landscapes were stunning. Add steam and hoarfrost to the mix and we spent the morning taking otherworldly landscape shots. In addition, we found bison snow plowing for forage while frost and snow covered the beasts.
In the park’s interior, we make our way to Old Faithful and photograph her eruption. I’ve seen the venerable geyser multiple times but it does not disappoint. The guests weren’t disappointed either.
Nearly two hours after we arrived we headed to lunch in West Yellowstone and then to the Grizzly & Wolf Discovery Center. The center is a fantastic place to see all kinds of indigenous wildlife up close. With their newly opened otter exhibit, the center is even more engaging and endearing.
After heading back towards Gardiner, we spent the last of the day photographing Tower Fall. We even caught a glimpse of a black bear along the way.
Closing in on nightfall, we headed back to our base camp. Winding through the foothills is a cathartic experience and a chance to revel in nature. Around every curve is a chance to see something new. That’s when we saw a beautiful bull elk perfectly silhouetted against an evening sky. It turns out, elk were the star of the show all week. Just when we thought we were finished photographing elk, they would show up again displaying new and dynamic behavior.
The last morning of the trip we headed out to the Lamar Valley once again. As we approached the valley, it was shrouded in an icy fog. We pulled over to photograph the scene when a group of bison came across the river and slipped through the frosty sagebrush. In no time, it seemed, the bison roamed away and we headed upriver to look for more opportunities.
Instead of waiting where the bison were, he headed over to Slough Creek in hopes of seeing more animals. The wolf watchers were out in full force and while we knew that the canines were in the neighborhood, they were too far off to photograph. Therefore, we moved on.
Only a few miles away from our trip ending, Yellowstone provided us with one last photo opportunity. A beautiful coyote working its way across a ridgetop with a beautiful background behind. After it left, the group stood there in awe of such a magnificent place.
Nowhere else in North America can you find a diversity of readily accessible wildlife and landscapes that you’ll find in Yellowstone. A week before the trip we expected mild fall temperatures and stable weather. Winter often comes early to Yellowstone and Mother Nature did her best to thwart us. However, with eager and flexible guests and a determination to succeed, our Yellowstone adventure paid off.
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 traveled 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 other work and portfolio on his webpage www.russellgraves.com.