Visiting and Photographing Yellowstone National Park

Posted by on Jan 3, 2013

Yellowstone National Park

In 1872 the United States established the first national park in the world, Yellowstone National Park. The main reason for the park’s establishment was to protect and preserve the geysers. But the area was also home to an incredible array of wildlife including grizzly bears, bison, elk and wolves. Unfortunately those wolves eventually vanished and by the 1970s, there was no evidence of a wolf population in Yellowstone. In 1995 66 wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone, coming from grey wolf populations in Alberta, Canada. This was highly controversial, and still is. Photographing those wolves was instrumental in our desire to visit Yellowstone.

 

Randy, Kathy and Chris at Yellowstone's North Gate

Randy, Kathy and Chris at Yellowstone’s North Gate

In October 2012, Randy and I and our friend Chris Humphreys spent a little over a week exploring and photographing Yellowstone. Leading up to this trip (starting maybe five years ago) I had started researching Yellowstone. I went to the National Park Service (NPS) website; I searched online for websites about Yellowstone wolves in Yellowstone and regularly checked out the Yellowstone web cams. I recently found a couple of good websites. One of the websites I found was Yellowstone Reports (yellowstonereports.com). You have to join this group. It is $20 a year, but reading the reports and meeting some of the reporters is how we saw wolves. We met Doug McLaughlin, manager of Silver Gate Lodging, who created a map of informal place names used by Yellowstone Reports, which you can buy from the website or from him, who is a great guy. The wolves were always too far away for my lens but he took some pictures for me using my SD card in his camera and shooting through his scope. Thanks Doug!

A fe members of the Lamar Valley pack thanks to Doug McLaughlin.

A few members of the Lamar Valley pack thanks to Doug McLaughlin.

 

Wolves, Wolf Watchers and Coyotes

Lamar Valley Wolf Watchers

The wolves are way across the valley near the tree line. Very hard to see without a scope and difficult to photograph.

We met some of the other wolf watchers also, they were all very nice letting us look through their scopes and explaining a little about the different packs and Yellowstone wolves in general. We saw wolves in the Lamar Valley and in Hayden Valley. They were really far away and even with Chris and Randy’s big lenses they were hard to shoot. But it was so cool just seeing them, especially through the high-power scopes you could see how beautiful the wolves are.

We drove around a LOT looking for wolves and other animals, filling up our gas tank every morning and making lunches and taking them with us. We also became familiar with all the restrooms, and by the end of the week knew which ones were warm, very important when the temperature outside is 10-18 degrees F. We spent our first few days in the Lamar Valley but after hearing about a grizzly bear near the Fishing Bridge and East Lake decided to wander down there.

Swan Lake in the Snow

Swan Lake with Blue Skies and a Dusting of Snow

We eventually did find the grizzly but not before we found a coyote hunting along the Yellowstone River. When we first spotted the coyote it was eating something. Something small with a tail but we couldn’t tell what it was. We stuck around and watched it and it started hunting again. Then we realized that the coyote was hunting muskrats! The mounds covered in snow near the edge of the river were muskrat lodges or nests. The coyote would sneak up to the nest very slowly and quietly, listening carefully until finally it would spring into action sticking its head into the nest as far as it would go! We didn’t see it get another one but we did see the muskrats swimming about just out of reach of the coyote in the river. It was snowing while we were watching all of this and we were all very impressed with the coyote not seeming to care at all about the snow and freezing cold water in the river. I do have to say that Yellowstone coyotes are much prettier than the coyotes in coastal California with their thick fur.

Coyotes Just Outside Yellowstone

These coyotes were behind us watching while we photographed Pronghorns antelope. When we realized they were there and turned around they nonchalantly trotted away.

Grizzly Bears

We eventually got down to the lake and were driving along the road to the east entrance when Chris spotted the grizzly across a meadow and marshy area.

Yellowstone Grizzly Bear Walking in a Snowstorm

Yellowstone Grizzly Bear Walking in a Snowstorm

At that distance it was just a slow moving big dark blob (again it was snowing fairly hard), but it came closer and closer until finally it was walking right along the road. There was a ranger watching the bear and when it came close to the road he followed along on the road to make sure no one harassed the bear. He had told us that this particular bear would often walk down by the lake and then head to the Fishing Bridge to swim in the river. We followed the bear (and the ranger) down the road until the bear wanted to cross. Then it disappeared down by the lake. While we were following the bear, we carefully made sure not to get in its way, but other motorists were not as considerate. Once we stopped because the bear doubled back and it was clear that it wanted to cross in front of us. Eventually it was able to but after having to wait for some inconsiderate tourists to go by. It was so exciting to see the grizzly bear and so close up also. It was so close I could see the eyes, which were just like every book I had read with a bear in it, reddish and small!

 

Scenic Yellowstone

Sheepeater Cliff

The strange formations at Sheepeater Cliff are similar to Devil’s Postpile in the Eastern Sierra’s.

But there wasn’t always a lot of wildlife to see. There was one day where all we shot were landscapes and scenics, which isn’t a bad thing because the scenery in Yellowstone is beautiful! We went to the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone and climbed down what seemed like a million stairs on Uncle Tom’s Trail to view Lower Falls from across the river. Then we went to Norris Geyser Basin to see the hot springs and geysers. It was interesting at the hot springs to see the frost forming on trees and bushes around them. Some form almost horizontal icicles as the steam is blown by the wind and frozen. We also drove the Upper Terraces Loop at Mammoth Hot Springs. Some of the mounds are covered with minerals in brilliant colors looking very other worldly. When the snow storms started rolling in we took advantage of the dark, dramatic clouds hanging over the snow covered mountains producing some wonderful moody images.

 

Red Fox, Swans and Bison

Beautiful Red Fox In the White Snow

A Beautiful Red Fox Hunts In the White Snow

In addition to the wolves and bear, we also found a red fox hunting in the snow along the road. It was beautiful with thick, red luxurious fur! Coyotes were plentiful and we took lots of pictures of them. And we found a family of river otters that played and fed in the river. On our first day in Yellowstone we went to Swan Lake, where there were a couple of swans floating elegantly on the water. Chris heard the honking of more swans, and while we were there a small group of swans gracefully circled the lake and landed in the lake with big splash! Another fun creature that we found were river otters! We found a family of four otters that played and fished in the Yellowstone River. And of course we saw and photographed lots of elk and bison. It was interesting to see the bison after it snowed using their huge heads to brush the snow off the grass so they could eat. On the colder days they would have icicles hanging from the long hair of their chin, neck and belly.

Bison in a Snow Storm

Bison in a Snow Storm

The bison like to use the roads to walk on. It makes sense to me as the roads are clear of brush and are relatively flat, easy walking. One morning on our way south we saw one walking north, very slowly, with a long line of cars behind him waiting for their chance to get past. On our way back to the motel late that afternoon we ran into him again, still walking on the same road! We were concerned about the possibility of him getting hit by a car in the night and the next day were happy to hear from the rangers that no bison had been hit by a car on that road the night before.

Watch out for the Elk

Bull Elk Shakes his Rack Threateningly

Bull Elk Shakes his Rack Threateningly

Around Mammoth Hot Springs there were lots of elk, a few bulls with huge antlers. Their heads seem so heavy with those antlers that it seems amazing they don’t tip over. They are seemingly very placid, eating or lying down around the buildings but we watched a video in the Mammoth visitor’s center of one attacking someone that got too close. Those antlers can do a lot of damage so we were very careful not to get to close or upset them in any way.

Time to Head Home, But it’s Been Fun!

On our last day, on the way out of the park we stopped to take some pictures of the three of us in the North Gate arch. We laughed like crazy as we put our cameras on timer then ran under the arch, waited for the camera to go off then walked back to check the image. Then we set the timers again and ran back under the arch for another pose. This went on for 15-20 minutes until we were all sure that we got a good shot!

Hooray for Yellowstone!

Hooray for Yellowstone!

In summary, it was a really great trip. I think we would have liked to see wolves more close up but they are wild animals and I feel lucky that we were able to see them at all. And we didn’t see any moose. Other people we talked to saw them and we went to where they said to go but weren’t able to find them. I am hoping to head back to Yellowstone, maybe in the spring and maybe then I’ll see the wolves close up, and see a moose, and make it to some other areas of the park that were closed, and get to experience the park in a different season. Spring might be nice when the bears are coming out of hibernation, and baby animals of all kinds are being born in the park. Hope to see you there!

I had so many images to share that I’ve created a new gallery just for my Yellowstone images.

Yellowstone Gallery

Kathy