Yellowstone In Winter*: A Trip Report
Note about settings: If an image doesn't have setting displayed, it is because they did not change between the image shown and the last image (above it) with settings listed.
To say I have been impressed with Yellowstone in the past would be a lie. Blasphemy I know, especially in National Park and photographer circles alike. These previous spring, summer, and fall visits have left me feeling unconnected to the land and consequently to the images created there. This trip was my final try. My final time putting energy, money, and time into capturing a place that seemed to keep me at arms length through uninspiring light and a lack of diverse wildlife sightings. I often wondered if it was the balance of the universe keeping things in check, because, let's be honest, does Yellowstone really need another photographer?
Getting back to the trip at hand, I had been invited last year to be part of a week-long group trip in January to Yellowstone. Things being what they are, the group dwindled down to just three. Jeff Pederson of Red Cliffs Photography was our leader as he is the local based out of West Yellowstone. Then there was Nancy Hall, a fellow photographer from South Dakota, and me.
Now I put the asterisks in the title because while there was no doubt it was winter, it was not a full fledged winter. We had been briefed, and all the research I had done pointed towards needing gear that could withstand -50°F temperatures and gale-force winds. My lack of winter conditioning, coming from an unseasonably warm San Antonio, TX, had me quite concerned and I stocked up on a new knee-length Columbia parka, insulated pants to go under the insulated snow pants I already had, electric gloves with wool liners. I even went so far as to purchase electric socks. How shocked I was when I touched down in Bozeman, MT, to sunny clear skies, temps just above freezing and I promptly stripped down to just my t-shirt, leggings, and beanie while pulling out sunglasses.
The nights were cold, so don't get me wrong. But the coldest temperatures we saw at dawn were between -14°F and -17°F, both temperatures I have seen before in Hokkaido, Japan, without issue. We also had only one morning with a bit of snow flurry. Nothing substantial. West Yellowstone had by far the most snow at this time as you will see from the pictures, but overall, the snowpack just was not where it should have been for this time of year. These conditions factor into the wildlife sightings we had so I promise this is not just space filler information.
West Yellowstone was the first of two base camps for us on this trip. We spent three days there - one outside the park and two on private snow coaches into the interior of the park. At this time of year, the vast majority of Yellowstone is closed to personal vehicles and the only way in is either by hired snow coach or hired snowmobile. Technically you can also go in on foot (cross country skis is the most popular self-propelled mode) but Yellowstone is quite large and the days short this time of year so winter hikers are usually just locals from town using some of the groomed trails for their daily exercise.
Our first day out saw us taking it easy as both Nancy and I had to acclimate to the altitude. West Yellowstone sits at over 6500 feet in elevation. For comparison San Antonio, TX sits at just 650 ft. Flying up as I did, I did not get to take a break half way and slowly adjust to the gain and, as any long-time reader of my articles has probably noted by now, I am highly sensitive to altitude increases after several bad brushes with altitude sickness. So note, if visiting from lower elevation areas, be sure to give yourself a day or three to acclimate when up here. Stop by a gas station and pick up a can of pressurized oxygen to sip on as it can make a world of difference.
With oxygen, lots of water, and camera pack by my side, we headed out to explore the areas outside the park in the surrounding mountains of Montana. Jeff, being local, was able to show us a wide variety of locations along with the history behind some of them like Earthquake Lake. We also found one of the herds of Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep. This herd was a great mix of all ages and sexes. There was obviously some left over hormones from mating season (ends in early January). The larger rams were pulling rank and guarding certain ewes from other rams. Yearlings were just kind of hanging out in small clicks throughout while still under the protection of their mothers.
One male had a very unique trait - he had one blue eye and one brown eye.
The following two days we loaded up in a snow coach - basically a 10 pax van on ultra large and ultra wide tires with low psi that can do a max of 25mph. These vehicles are some of the few that are allowed into the park during the season and are really the only way to photograph wildlife in the interior. Snowmobilers may get cell phone shots of bison and the occasional coyote (which they will tell you is a wolf) but you are not able to ease up on a scene or use a snow mobile as a blind the way you can the coach. Plus on a snowmobile you and your gear are exposed to the elements all day and limited to the gear you can bring, so why do that when snow coaches are available?
Snow makes for easier tracking when looking for wildlife. We saw tons of tracks along the road as we drove in; everything from squirrel and rabbit to fox and bobcat. Without sufficient snow however, these tracks stay in place for days at a time. Only the softness or crispness of the track helps indicate how fresh it actually is. Those with good memories and an eye for detail can also spot where animals have come and gone between our passing in the morning going into the park and when we would pass by again on the way out in the evenings. Made for an interesting journey regardless and a day in the field is still better than in the office.
Our first morning out we opted to take the route from West Yellowstone south to Old Faithful. Following the road as it meandered with the Madison and then the Firehole River, we came across many beautiful scenic landscapes, the snow minimizing natural clutter, steam rising from the rivers and geysers, and inversion clouds lingering over various basins. We took advantage where we could while trying to stay ahead of the other "crowds" that were to follow in the next hour or so.
And for the most part, that is the majority of what we photographed the first day. Yes there were plenty of sightings - a scattering of bison as always, a couple coyotes at a far distance, trumpeter swans which were positioned in areas of the river where I was not able to get any sort of quality shot, and the occasional bald eagle flying overhead. In general, it was my usual type of visit to Yellowstone just with snow. I was starting to get a bit uneasy, as if I had made a mistake bothering to come up.
On our way back to West Yellowstone, as the sun was getting low and the warmth of the day started having an edge to it again, we came across a coyote this time much closer to the road. She was just sleeping under a tree. Since it was the first real encounter we had all day, we decided to sit and wait with her to see if anything came of it. We didn't have anything else to do and this is part of being a wildlife photographer - waiting out your subject and hoping they do something before you lose the light.
For us, our wait was not terribly long before the coyote rose and started making its way long the river, where the frozen ice made walking easier than the deeper snow. Wind in her favor, she would occasionally sniff the air as she made her way west. Unfortunately for us, her river track meant she was moving away from our position, further into the landscape where we could not follow. But we paralleled her progress hoping she might swing back.
Because of our vantage point elevated above the river we were able to see what her nose had already detected: another coyote curled on the ice around the bend. As we watched the two coyotes greeted each other and then proceeded to play, bouncing back and forth, mouthing at each other, tails high and wagging. It was really something to see and brought smiles to the faces of those watching.
From a photographic standpoint though, they were a bit far even with my Tamron 150-600mm G2 with an effective range of 900mm due to the crop sensor in my D500. The setting sun behind them backlit the pair and the residual warmth was sending up shimmers from the snow and ice between us and the coyotes. These are the type of factors that can impact image quality and the quantity of images a photographer comes home with even if they have the skills. Personally, heat shimmers are the absolute bane of my existence and they crop up more than the average person realizes as you don't have to have extreme heat to have them appear enough to make shooting difficult, as this situation shows.
Once the pair split up, the female came back along the river to the area where we initially spotted her, investigating the snow covered river banks. We watched for a few more moments before leaving her as the area filled with snowmobile tours as everyone headed out of the park before dark.
The next morning we were up early and into the park via snow coach once again. This time we headed towards Haden Valley on the other side of the park through Canyon Junction. The first part of the trip was the same as the day prior as we made our way along the Madison River. This would turn out to be the coldest morning of the trip and we were treated to several very frosty bull bison along the river.
The bulls are often in very small groups of 2-5 individuals at this time of year while the females and their calves from the previous spring keep together in larger herds. Taking advantage of the bulls penchant to be spread out, especially in the wider open meadow areas, I worked on high key minimalist images.
Not going to lie, I find, regardless of the season, the drive from Norris to Canyon rather boring as it is almost exclusively an evergreen corridor without vista points or clearings. But it is the only cross-park road and the only way to get to Haden Valley in the winter on a day trip, so I try to just enjoy the continuous pattern created by the lodgepole pines and the accompaniment of other flora interspersed.
While both Norris and Canyon are known for their wildlife opportunities, this stretch of road is not known for much in the way of wildlife sightings other than in winter. In winter, this maintained road becomes an easier path for animals wanting to move from Haden Valley westward. Its not uncommon for there to be a bison jam if a herd has decided to leave the valley. We encountered a couple such bulls on the road but they let us pass without issue.
Now, with all I have said about this portion of the park/route, I have to confess that this road will live on in my mind for the remainder of my days for it was here that I had my first wild wolf encounter. Brief but unforgettable. Coming around a corner, trees ticking by, both our coach driver and two wolves slam on the breaks. One wolf, bold, black, and with eyes the color of a newly minted gold coin and a more cautious wolf, molted tan in color. As I was riding shotgun and the wolves had been traveling on the righthand side of the road, I was in their direct gaze path as they sized us up. Those glowing golden eyes just pierced right through me. As he and his companion dropped off the road into the forest, I released a breath I hadn't even known I'd been holding.
We all began considering how to approach the situation in order to get an image without impeding or stressing the wolves, all the while knowing other coaches would be coming up behind us in short order. Tracking the wolves as they worked their way through the thick snow and brush, we knew they would not want to stay in that mess for long. They had obviously been on a mission to cover miles before encountering us. Scanning the tree line, I spotted what looked to be the most likely spot for them to emerge based on tree spacing, distance from the vehicle, and limited snow berm. As they approached the spot, our driver gave us the green light to get out for whatever images the wolves would allow us.
Did I mention the snow coaches were tall vehicles? The tires are 44 inches tall by themselves. Then you have the additional height of the cab. The front passenger gets a small stirrup of a step to get up and down. Often I would have to set my camera on the floor boards before getting back into the vehicle as I needed to grab hold of the seat to help boost myself from the snowy/icy footing outside. Yes, well, when given the green light to capture what I knew would be the briefest of opportunities of wild wolves in winter, I was on the snow before anyone could change their mind. I don't actually remember touching the step. The wolves reemerged and covered the distance between the tree line and the road in three strides before presenting their tails and continuing on their way with not a single look back at the photographers or their monstrously large transportation. I once again released a breath I had yet again not realized I was holding.
I would have been perfectly fine heading home at that point if I wasn't so hopeful for another such encounter. From that moment on, everything was gravy. We continued into Hayden Valley were we made it a two-dog day with the additional sighting of several coyotes.
This was also the day we encountered our first bison jam of the trip as a very pregnant matriarch lead her small herd up the road to join a larger gathering.
A winter trip to Hayden is never complete without an image of THE tree. This scene has been a favorite of winter landscape photographers with a minimalist style for some years now. Here is my take given the conditions we had that day.
Returning to West Yellowstone that evening, we were given one more chance to photograph the female coyote we had seen the day prior, this time at closer range. We spotted her as she crossed the road and were able to observe her from a distance as she tried to snag a swan for dinner. Unsuccessful, she trotted directly towards us along the road before leaving the maintained surface for another vantage point along the river. I hope she went to bed full that night.
After two days in the snow coach out of West Yellowstone, we made a base change. Heading north, we moved our base of operations to Gardiner, Montana. This change allowed us to enter the park at Mammoth Hot Springs and travel through Lamar Valley in our own vehicles and at our own pace. This is the only road in the park open during winter for visitors to access on their own.
Pulling into Gardiner, there was a surprising lack of snow. Brown mountainsides and muddy fields made it seem as if spring was just weeks instead of months away. Upon entering the park, there was a bit more snow but patches of barren ground showed through in spots and much of the valley showed a blanket of snow interrupted by the protrusion of sage brush tips (historically well covered by this time of year).
Elk were also rather sparse in the area. We saw a handful of females within the park and larger herds in the hills surrounding Gardiner, but no big bulls at all. As Mammoth Hot Springs is a well known elk hangout year-round, again this was a change even for locals to witness. And while the elk were elsewhere, this seemed to be the year of the moose for northern Yellowstone. An evening scout the first night we were in town showed us there were a good number of moose in the area.
The following mornings we headed out early with the hope of photographing moose in the willows. The willows this time of year have a beautiful reddish bark that stands out against the snow and frost. They are an important food source for moose this time of year as well. The main encounter with this species was with this large bull, who had recently shed his paddles, as he grazed before laying down to ruminate in the weak winter sun.
After he laid down I slowly broke trail towards a thicket of willows that were further from the road and where we had seen some moose the evening before. I hoped to come across a few more moose before having to head back to catch up with the others at the road. When I reached my target willows I could see fresh moose signs but the moose had moved across the frozen river. The average bull moose weights between 1000 to 1500 pounds. Now I understood the ice had withstood several of these animals crossing it not long before I arrived at the banks but I was unwilling, alone as I was, to make the crossing myself.
There were several moose milling about within the willows on the opposite side that I was able to glimpse. When they decided to show themselves I was treated to a lone cow and a parade of several bulls of various sizes following after her. The two younger bulls had a bit of spirit and sparred for a few moments before they headed into the woods furthest from the road. Due to distance, I was only able to get a handful of images from this encounter.
It was still a really cool experience as I could hear the funny little vocalizations the boys were making at each other. Moose noises make me smile as they never seem to match the size animal they come from.
From there we moved on, photographing bison and the occasional mule deer as they appeared as we looked for foxes. Fox were the number one animal on my shot list as I usually photograph them in Japan during the winter and, with the ongoing travel restrictions, this is the second year I am unable to do that. Yet, this was not to be. Almost no one we talked with had seen, never mind photographed, a fox that week. The conclusion for those familiar with the animals of the region was that, due to the unseasonable warmth and little snow, the foxes were still following a nocturnal hunting pattern. Only the onset of extremely cold nights that have the foxes seeking shelter to keep warm will force them to hunt during the day at this time of year.
Without foxes, the next animal on my list was bighorn sheep and pronghorns. We had already had the early encounter with bighorns, but I would take more there I could since I was already there. Pronghorns are routinely seen outside of Gardiner in the lower elevation hills of Yellowstone. It was here we found them as Jeff had predicted.
It was also where I found out that Montana has cactus. Did not know this before this visit. But when taking the above picture, I had gotten down on the ground in my snow gear to create the low perspective I love so much. When adjusting to frame the animal just the way I wanted, I felt something bite into my lower leg. Confident it wasn't a snake at this time of year, I did what I had come here to do, capturing the image before turning to see what was going on. Lo and behold, I had several clusters of spines sticking out of my pants leg. Thankfully the insulation of the snow pants had stopped many of them and only the longest made it to my skin. A couple minutes of carefully picking out cactus spines before getting up and I had learned a valuable lesson about the local plant life.
We had an amazing afternoon with a large herd of both bighorns and pronghorns all within a half mile of each other. Partly cloudy skies kept highlights under control for the most part and allowed us to shoot until dark. It was just a pleasure to spend some quality time with wildlife in one spot. The lack of snow was seen most heavily in this area where bare ground and dried grasses filled the fore and backgrounds.
At one point this young pronghorn came sprinting up the hill and really stretching his legs. At first we thought there might be a predator of some sort over the rise we couldn't see yet. Turns out, this young buck had a bit of energy to burn. He proceeded to do probably about five or six laps around the field and the herd. You can tell from this first image how concerned the others were and I have a feeling this isn't the first time he has done this. By far the most entertaining pronghorn encounter I have witnessed.
Especially when he took a corner just a bit too sharp and almost wiped out! A true laugh out loud moment!
Overall, it was a good trip. I look forward to getting back to Yellowstone again during the winter in seasons to come. Maybe I will then be able to photograph fox and maybe more wolves.
P.S. - I found out that about a week after I had the encounter with the wolves that the black wolf I encountered was killed just outside the park's northern boarder by hunters. The three states that encompass the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem continue to exterminate predator species under the guise of protecting livestock. These states spend millions of dollars to support this activity after the federal government put millions into repatriating wolves back into this ecosystem for the greater good. Lobbyist groups were able to get species like the grizzly bear and wolves delisted during the Trump administration, leaving it up to the states in which the animals reside to determine their fate when they cross manmade protection lines like that of the National Park boundary. On top of that, Montana has allowed the open baiting, luring, and calling of wolves in order for hunters to attract them outside the park boundaries. This season hunters have killed 24 of Yellowstone's wolves, the most in any year and accounting for over 20 percent of the Yellowstone wolf population. NPS officials estimate only 90 wolves remain in Yellowstone and that this has caused significant setbacks to the species’ long-term viability and wolf research. At least one pack has been completely eliminated and others have suffered severe pack member losses. While many groups are trying to pressure US Fish and Wildlife Services to relist the wolves and a federal judge has put protections on them in all other states except Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho, there is more pressure needed from the general public. If you are interested in helping, consider contacting your Congressional representatives and Interior Secretary Deb Haaland with notes on your support to relist the grey wolf at the federal level. Follow conservation photographers like Candace Dyar for more details and updates.