After attending the Natural Exposures Yellowstone in Winter Photo Tour described in Part 1, I picked up a rental car in Bozeman and continued my winter adventure based in Gardiner, MT. Gardiner is only a few miles from the north entrance to the park and Mammoth Hot Springs. Highway 212 passes through the northern section of the park to Cooke City just outside the northeast park boundary. This road is maintained year round and is the only means to reach Cooke City during the winter.
Since I arrived in late afternoon, I decided to check the road conditions and get a feel for the locations I could safely stop the car to photograph and went for a quick reconnoiter into the park after checking-in at the hotel. Bison where close to the road, and with little traffic I stopped to photograph one group of bison eating grasses under the snow. One had a small tuft of fur on the end of one of its horns, probably a remnant from an altercation with another bison. I saw one bison run uphill through chest deep snow and took a series of photographs, not even thinking to switch to video. I caught a sunset from one of the viewpoints. After dinner in Gardiner, I returned to a pull out just before the Gardiner River Bridge to photograph the night sky. The sky was cloudless and full of stars and a low crescent moon provided enough light to see the hillsides. It was plenty cold, about -10o, and I worked fast to take a few images. The best results were taken at the 17mm, ISO 800, f4 at 30 seconds. The trail of the stars was barely visible when viewed at 100%. With the 50mm lens, the track of the stars was evident and not usable at over 20 seconds. It’s hard to focus through the viewfinder, and I resorted to using live view and increasing the ISO until I could focus, then reducing the ISO down to 800 to capture the image.
The next day started cold; at -27o it was the coldest day on this trip. The cold weather presented some interesting environmental conditions for exposure (photographically speaking). I didn’t feel it was too cold to work, as the car was never that far away. I did have to use gloves, and the layered clothing was comfortable enough. My strategy for shooting in the park was to drive the road between Mammoth Hot Springs and Soda Butte Springs at the end of the Lamar Valley and possibly beyond, stopping when something good caught my eye. The sunrise was below the nearby hills when I saw the first sundog, a refraction of sunlight through ice crystals similar to a rainbow. The low cloud of ice crystals near the ground was brightly lit up with the sunlight, and in the middle was a bar of color. I couldn’t see where the sun was rising over the horizon as it was behind some nearby hills. Not wanting to waste the opportunity, I made several sets of exposure for HDR processing as the brightness range was too wide to capture in one image. Then I drove ahead to try to see if there were sundogs on both sides and if there was the possibility of a decent image of the sunrise. It was obvious that the sun was well above the horizon and I took advantage of a location that had the sun behind a hill, otherwise the sun would have been too bright to capture the effect. As I entered the Lamar Valley I was able to capture the image of the southern sundog well above the horizon. The very low temperature of the air and the steam rising off the much warmer water of the Lamar River resulted in the trees and bushes being covered in frost. I returned to Gardiner to pick up lunch, stopping along the way to photograph the Gardiner River. There are paths and boardwalks that lead into the lower terraces of Mammoth Hot Springs; the low temperatures here resulted in great amounts of steam rolling off the hot water of the terrace. A wide view was nearly impossible to capture although by waiting for a clear break in the steam I was able to make a few good image of the “ghost” trees at the top of the terrace. The more intimate landscape images reinforce how cold it was, with layers of frost on the dry structures adjacent to those with hot water in them. Another trip down the road yielded a few coyote images taken at long range with a 500mm and 2X extender. This drive was mostly uneventful as I arrived at Soda Butte Creek parking area, turned around and headed back to a spot where I had seen two coyotes on the hillside.
When I pulled over to the side of the road, both passenger side wheels slid off the pavement into the soft snow and I couldn’t move the four-wheel drive Jeep Cherokee forward or backward. The road is kept plowed, sometimes daily to clear off any drifting snow. Although there are markers along the road, the edge of the pavement is hidden from view by the thin layer of snow there, and if the plow goes beyond the paved area, there is no way to know. The plows extend beyond the wheelbase of the truck so they can plow a larger path. Luckily, the folks in Montana are helpful and someone stopped right away even though he had a small car and no tow strap. We both tried our cell phones, but no coverage out in the middle of nowhere. The next pickup truck stopped and the driver had a tow strap and indicated he would turn around and be back shortly. I crawled under the Jeep and it figures there are no tow points on a Jeep. I found something sturdy on the rear axle assembly to attach the strap and he was able to drag the Jeep back onto the road. I was extremely grateful for the help. I figured I had enough excitement for the day as it was late afternoon and headed back to Gardiner. Just up the road I stopped to chat with Daniel Cox and Randy Kokesch who had come down to photograph in the Lamar Valley for the day. After carefully parking in a pull out, I told them my tale of woe, we compared notes, and I went on my way as the light was getting dim and they were heading back to Bozeman.
My second full day in northern Yellowstone was much the same as the first day, except that it was much, much warmer, in the 30s. Photographing at the lower terraces offered a clearer look at the mineral deposits as the amount of steam was greatly reduced. Two trips between Mammoth Hot Springs and Soda Butte Creek yielded a few scenics, good views of an American Dipper, black-tailed deer, elk, and bighorn sheep. On the first trip I found a traffic holdup near the Lamar Ranger Station; a dump truck with a plow had gone off the edge of the road and was settled at a precarious angle. I felt a lot less foolish than I did the day before for doing the same thing.
On my last day I did a quick drive to the Lamar Valley and made a few images of scenery, bison, coyote and a Golden Eagle. The drive back to Bozeman was uneventful, as were the flights back home.
All in all, this was a great way to see and photograph Yellowstone in winter. The combination of wildlife, scenery and thermal areas accessed from the west side of the park by snow coach and the independence of driving the northern road made for a very productive photographic experience.