23 September — 6 October, 2011
View the Galleries.
At the end of September, my wife, Chris, and I visited Yellowstone National Park and Grand Teton National Park hoping to see and photograph the yellow and orange fall foliage, abundant wildlife preparing for winter, and perhaps a touch of winter itself. We arrived with the leaves just starting to turn, scant wildlife, and temperatures in the 80’s for the first few days. We did find a herd of 200 or so bison spread out in the Lamar Valley and on the return to Mammoth Hot Springs we found a herd of ten pronghorn does with a buck keeping order. One evening we also had a few bighorn sheep come down the cliffs to the Gardiner River. The first evening we planned on eating at the park dining room anticipating the evening show; 30-40 elk cows with two or three bulls vying to keep track of their respective harems, and try to coax a few more cows from another harem. We saw one nice bull, and four cows. Where did they all go? The introduction of wolves to the park did reduce the elk herds, but to a greater degree than initially expected. This was a result of the overwhelming success of the wolf packs, which have done better than predicted. The wolf/elk ratio has probably hit an equilibrium; if there are not enough elk for one reason, let’s say a bad winter, there will be fewer surviving wolf pups due to less food available, then the elk with have greater success, and then the wolf numbers will increase.
We spent the first three nights based in Gardiner, MT, at the north entrance to Yellowstone NP. From there it is convenient to travel to the Lamar Valley, Tower Junction and the Canyon Village section beyond, and to Norris Geyser basin. Basically, the northern half of the park. Mammoth Hot Springs is the northern headquarters of the park services with lodging, dining, and conveniences (general store, fuel, post office, etc.). The springs for which the area is named, and the travertine cliffs here have changed over the years as geologic activity redirects the hot spring water below ground though subterranean limestone, dissolving calcium carbonate and depositing it as travertine (a bone white mineral) as the water cools on the surface. But that is not what creates the rainbow of colors at this, and all other, thermal features: it’s the thermopiles (heat-loving microorganisms). The color of the thermopiles is due to the temperature of the water. Cooler waters support the growth of orange, brown and green thermopiles while clear and yellow thermopiles thrive in the hottest water.
The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone has several viewpoints to easily view and photograph both the upper and lower falls and the Yellowstone River. There are also a number of trails that lead down into the canyon for a more intimate view of the falls. We visited the canyon on different days and at different times of day to get a variety of light into the canyon. While overcast conditions greatly reduce shadows in the canyon, the light is not dramatic nor does it bring out the intense colors of the rock. The sun cast heavy shadow on half the canyon for our visit to the canyon at midday, and a return visit a few days later at 3pm with cumulous clouds in the sky provided a brightly lit inner canyon.
Our next stop was in Jackson, WY, near Jackson Hole and the Grand Tetons National Park. Since we were so late in planning this trip,we opted to stay in Jackson, even though we would have an additional 20 minute drive into the park for sunrise. Sunrise opportunities are numerous in Grand Teton; Schwabacher Landing, Oxbow Bend, Molton Barn and Mormon Row. In our exploration we found a beaver pond near the road (about a foot away from the road) where one evening we watched two adult and two young beavers feeding on the bark and leaves of small branches within fifteen feet of us. We visited the location several times during our four days in Jackson and did repeat the experience.
Again, wildlife was somewhat scarce, with the exception of the beaver. We saw several elk cows and a couple of bulls in the early evening hours, but did not see a single moose. We did see osprey on a nest but the position made photography impossible, and saw a red tail hawk flying. In any case, the landscape photography opportunities were reasonably decent, even though proscribe forest fires at the south end of the park resulted in ground smoke at the base of the mountains. This is evident in the images that show a grey pallor on the lower half of the mountains.
We then moved on to Old Faithful Snow Lodge for the last five nights of our stay. This location gave us good access to the southern half of the park, and even drives to the Canyon Village area were not that far away. A large number of visitor accessible thermal features is in this area, including Old Faithful geyser. Photographing hot pools and geysers can be challenging as they produce large amounts of steam. Your luck will depend largely on the direction and speed of the wind, and the air temperature. On my winter visit here, there were times when you could hear a hot pool bubbling, but couldn’t see it for all the steam surrounding it. The higher daytime temperatures (low 70’s) while we were there offered up some interesting views of the thermal features. I concentrated on areas of the thermal features that had striking color or interesting compositions.
The wildlife activity did eventually perk up as the nights became cooler and the daytime heat finally abated. We saw several herds of elk along the Madison River, and bison herds could be seen at many locations with about 50 animals each, except for the big herd in the Lamar Valley. By far the best experience was viewing a pack of wolves in the Lamar Valley returning to an elk they had killed the day earlier. At one of the pull-outs overlooking Hayden Valley we overheard this tidbit of information from a couple that was deciding where to go next. One at a time the wolves would come to the carcass, chase off the ravens and magpies and try to pry meat from the bone. Since the carcass was in the river, one wolf tried to pull it up onto the bank to get at the meat that was previously submerged. Another big spectacle was the number of photographers who had lined up shoulder to shoulder in two locations.