Yellowstone – After Action Report

Photograph from Yellowstone National Park
Winter scenery from the Madison River at sunrise in Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming.

I had quite the time in Yellowstone National Park in early February. I’ve been there in the summer but have never experienced the park in the winter.

The primary mission on this trip was landscape photography, however, wildlife were also a major subject. The weather was blistering cold though. Many mornings beginning with the temperatures well below zero degrees F, and daytime temps seldom going above 5 degrees. Fortunately I packed the correct winter gear and didn’t get frost bitten.

Flying out of Denver to Bozeman, Montana, I spent the first couple of days in Gardiner, MT at the north gate of the park. In the winter, the only road open to the public is the road through the Lamar Valley from Mammoth Hot Springs east to Cooke City. I rented a Jeep Cherokee 4×4 in Bozeman and it performed well on the snow covered roads through the Lamar Valley.

I moved over to West Yellowstone mid-week. It was a three hour drive from Gardiner to West Yellowstone and the Gallatin Gateway road from Bozeman to West Yellowstone was packed with snow and crowded with vehicles. Treacherous driving, but scenically beautiful.

The weather wasn’t cooperating though. Most of the trip it was cloudy and spitting snow. Really good landscapes were tough to find until the last day in the park when the sun came out and the skies cleared. The temps remained low though.

On the trip I met up with a couple of friends, Jonathan Steele and Laurie Martin. Both experienced photographers who helped me out quite a bit when it came to understanding where I was and what to expect as my last trip to Yellowstone was over 10 years prior and my memory had faded. We traveled together in privately contracted snow coaches on the last two days out of West Yellowstone.

My best landscape work was done out of West Yellowstone while working from snow coaches. Wildlife was present just about everywhere we went during the week. The Lamar Valley was a little disappointing, as most of the wildlife was bison and they were usually at a distance, but we hit a few jackpots with larger herds showing up in close proximity on a few occasions. The Hayden Valley was a frozen tundra, but we came across coyote and the winter environment was something to behold.

Yellowstone National Park. Herd of Bison in the snow with geyser mist in the background on a sub-zero morning.

The Madison River and Firehole River on the west side of the park proved to be the most fertile photographic environment of the trip.

The dining options in and around the park were limited though. As is commonly the case with seasonal destinations in the Rocky Mountains, most restaurants are closed until tourist season begins in late spring. What is available is over priced and with poor selections. It is what it is though, nobody starved.

I didn’t take my laptop computer with me on this trip. I resigned myself to simply making photographs and relying on my ability to get shots without having to constantly review them in the camera or on the computer at night. It worked out fine. I enjoyed not having to lug around the extra weight and just about every photo I made was made correctly. No problems with the gear except for a 50mm prime lens crapping out, and no distractions chimping images while out working. I think this will be my standard mode of operation in the future. Detaching myself from the distractions of the Internet and computers made for a good work flow in the field.

Wild Coyote hunting in the deep snow of Yellowstone National Park.

The only part of the trip that presented a problem was the return flight to Denver from Bozeman. I was flying on United Airlines and at the Bozeman airport, they only have two gates to work with. Seems that the aircraft we were supposed to use flying to Denver got delayed flying in from California for some reason, which resulted in it disappearing from the flight status updates both at the airport gate and on my flight checker app in the iPhone. Both of their gates indicated incorrect information for departure and status, and the status screens on the wall near the gates were totally incorrect. I asked one of the gate agents what was happening to the flight to Denver and they gave me a line of bullshit, adding further to the confusion. Apparently, the airline was short staffed and incapable of communicating with the passengers. After a couple of hours of total confusion and mystery, we were finally informed of the flight status and eventually made the flight out. The pilot was quite aware of the problem and did his best to make up flight time by flying fast and low from Bozeman to Denver, shaving off at least 40 minutes of what is normally nearly a 2 hour flight. I ended up back in Denver a little over 1 hour later than scheduled.

When I arrived in Denver, we had more snow on the ground than Yellowstone, but the temperature was a balmy 45 degrees and a welcome warm up from the sub-zero frozen tundra of Montana and Wyoming.

My take-away from this trip is as follows.

The bison action was pretty good. Yellowstone is probably the best area for photographing bison in the United States, and adding the bison in snow shots to my portfolio was on my check list. Yellowstone scenery is spectacular, but the foul weather and limited road access limited the number of landscape opportunities. I was still able to add some winter landscape photographs to my portfolio and those should do well on my stock offerings. We did see other wildlife, but nothing exceptionally photogenic. Some elk, pronghorn, several coyote, bighorn sheep, and yes, even some wolves at extreme distance. No moose were encountered though. From a wildlife perspective it was mostly bison.

In retrospect, I enjoyed the trip very much, however, comparing the results and environment to Colorado, I honestly think I pretty much have the same thing to work with here in the Centennial State. Colorado has everything available as does Yellowstone, with the exception of the geyser activity and grizzly bears (which aren’t out in the winter anyway.)  Colorado has better mountains and better infrastructure, and it’s all accessible by vehicle from my home. The cost of the winter trip to Yellowstone National Park was a bit on the expensive side. I’m not convinced that my trip there will generate enough income to cover my costs, but that wasn’t really anticipated to be the case before I went there. No regrets, but I doubt I’ll spend the money to go there for winter photography in the future. I can do just as well here at home and experience much less of a financial hit doing it.

So, my toes are thawed, the gear has been cleaned and I have a suitcase full of dirty laundry to do before my next photographic adventure.

Next up, Monte Vista and the sandhill crane migration in early March.