Photographing Fall in the Rockies: Tetons and Wasatch Ranges
For most, the Rocky Mountains are a stretch of mountains in Colorado and when you talk about
photographing the Rockies, this is what first comes to mind. Yet the Rockies stretch from northern New
Mexico all the way up into northern Alberta and British Columbia, Canada. The range covers over 3,000
miles north to south. So instead of covering 3000 miles, I will cover photographing fall in the Rockies while
concentrating on the two smaller ranges that are part of this larger transcontinental geographic feature:
the Tetons and the Wasatch.
As a nature photographer is there really any better season than fall? Autumn brings a welcome relief
from summer temperatures, a shortening of days, and a flurry of activity as wildlife prepares for the long
nights and lean days of winter. Deciduous trees start losing the chlorophyll from their leaves and the
classic summer green slips away as golds, yellows, oranges and reds take its place in the canopies. This
progression happens in stages starting at the highest elevations and working its way down the slopes to
the valleys below.
In this article I am grouping both the Wasatch and the Tetons together for two reasons. First, they are both
technically part of the Rockies. Secondly, they are close enough together that those looking to
photograph fall colors and wildlife can create a wonderfully diverse autumn trip and photo portfolio
from visiting both these areas in a single trip. Are you going to be able to do it in a day? Not really. But a
week is definitely realistic.
It is common enough for photographers heading to the Tetons to either fly into Bozeman, MT, and
spend time in Yellowstone before and/or after a shorter visit to Yellowstone’s southern neighbor: the
Tetons. There is also the option of flying into Jackson Hole airport, the only commercial airport
encompassed by a U.S. National Park. This can be the more expensive option since
the airport is small and caters to a very wealthy population and vacationers. My usual choice is to visit
via the Salt Lake City area, located about a five hour drive south of the southern entrance to Grand
Teton National Park. I find Salt Lake City to usually have decent priced flights, if flying in, and a great
place to explore some “locals only” type spots in the wilderness that resides just to the east of the city:
the Wasatch Range.
Depending on the timing of your trip in relation to the fall colors, I recommend spending a couple days
in the Wasatch before heading to the Tetons. In the Wasatch range, the mountain roads take you to
higher elevations than those roads in the Tetons, so if autumn colors have started, you can jumpstart your
trip with visits to places like Guardsman’s Pass which sits at about 10,000ft.
Be on the lookout for moose in the various lakes and ponds found throughout the region. This part of
Utah has a high moose population, though many are unaware of it. There is hunting pressure on this
population so they tend to be a bit more secretive than those found in the Tetons so it's not a given that
they will be seen each trip.
Typically fall in the Wasatch seems to only last for a couple weeks. Frequent fall storms and high winds
can dash a season pretty quickly and early snowfall can limit access in areas as well as take down the
delicate aspen leaves. But if you hit it at the right time, it can be absolutely stunning.
Note: quite a few of the mountain roads and passes in the Wasatch require either chains to be carried or
snow tires to be used if traveling after October 1st .
Explore the pull outs and take a few hikes to get the most out of a short visit to the Wasatch. For those
coming from lower elevations (looking at you my southeastern and Texas friends) do be aware of the
elevation and the impact it can have on your endurance. Know your limits and take it slow the first few
days. Yet these short hikes are well worth it as they offer an immersion into the nature around you and allow for more intimate images of Nature's details.
Heading north, the drive takes you through some high plains country. Pronghorns are a frequent sight
along the way and there are even a few chances to pull over to photograph them if you are quick
enough. Otherwise, I just enjoy the scenery that these rural bi-ways provide.
Once in the Tetons, the fun starts again with a very photographic subject dense area. The Tetons are one
of the youngest ranges in the Rockies and the Grand Teton peaks are just under 14,000ft should you want to
summit it at some point. The valley floor, where the majority of park roads are located, average about
6,500 ft in elevation.
During a fall visit, I will start my days by photographing one of the iconic locations such as Oxbow Bend
or Schwabacher's Landing. The Landing is my favorite though even as it becomes more crowded each year.
Here, not only do you get beautiful landscape images with the Teton range reflected in the Snake River
and its meandering fingers, but also you have the chance to observe and photograph moose as well since the river bottoms and beaver ponds make for ideal moose habitat.
One of the mornings I visited (Fall 2022) we had an inversion of dense clouds over the Snake River valley which made for an amazingly moody image. Something familiar yet very far from the majority of sunrise images taken here. Even better was that I was only one of three photographers at this spot that morning due to the clouds.
Once the sun is up, I start cruising the roads for other wildlife sightings. During autumn, my primary targets are moose and pronghorn as these species are both in rut, are very iconic western wildlife species, and are pretty reliable as well. Understanding the habitat and environmental factors that these species thrive in is also key to photographic success and will allow you to position yourself at the right times and places for the best images. This past fall, I had some amazing encounters with both these species as their habits and the weather we were having, provided little overlap when it came to prime photography times.
For example, moose easily overheat due to their large, dense, and dark bodies. If it is a warmer day (50-60°F+), their activity will usually be limited to the shoulders of the day in early morning and later in the afternoon into evening. Here this large bull was active first thing in the morning as he hung around with a female.
It was as if as soon as the light touched him, he was done and just laid down where he stood. Knowing it would be a long time before he moved again, I left, but my friend stayed another several hours and said the bull didn't move until very late morning when he disappeared into the forest, seeking cooler shade to finish resting I'm sure.
Pronghorn don't mind the heat as much and have facial features that protect their eyes from bright sun by shadowing them. This causes a challenge in photographing them as I like to have a bit of catchlight in my subject's eye to add a bit of life to the image. Those dark shadows also limit the amount of detail in the face and eyes. However, by photographing them during late morning or mid-afternoon when the sun is bright, the shadows are limited. This time of day, working with approach angles and the environment around them can bring together a very pleasing image. I personally loved capturing these big bucks as they stood in the glowing golden autumn grasses.
Beyond the wildlife, I also worked on more creative in-camera photography. This was the second time I worked with techniques such as intentional camera movement (ICM) since switching to the Sony A1. Using these techniques has a lot to do with muscle memory based around the balance and weight of your camera and the speed at which you move it during an exposure. The change in gear from the Nikon D500 to the Sony A1 means that the weight and balance is now a bit different than what I had previously "memorized." The mirrorless aspect with the electronic shutter and silent shooting modes also breaks my previously learned queues having to do with audio and tension feedback of the shutter button. So while my "keeper" rate was a bit lower than normal when it came to these images, it was certainly a learning exercise and my proficiency will come back as my muscles learn the new gear and unlearn the old.
Dropping back to the Wasatch Range of the Rockies, I spend several more days on the backend of my trip exploring. Autumn colors were finally setting in and dropping to lower elevations allowing for more wide angle images as well as opportunities to photograph down onto smaller scenes.
Ultimately, it is your adventure, but I highly recommend that if you are taking a trip to the Tetons, consider approaching from the south. Utilize the terminal point of Salt Lake City to more fully photograph the Rockies in Fall and explore what these fingerling ranges offer in the way of both iconic and unique vantage points that will surely have you bringing home a wide array of images.
Want to join me in these locations?
Join me this fall as we explore the Tetons and capture images very similar to these. Jennifer Leigh Warner and I are leading an all inclusive tour through Wildside Nature Tours in late September which is open to everyone to register. For women looking for a women's only trip, Sarah E. Devlin and I are hosting a women's only tour in early October in the Tetons. You can find more details on both these tours through the links below or by visiting my Photo Adventure page.
Wildside Nature Tours with Alyce Bender and Jennifer Leigh Warner
Women in Wildlife Photography with Alyce Bender and Sarah E. Devlin