Just got back from a brief but wonderful trip to Yellowstone National Park. I first visited the park in 2001 during a road trip with my twin brother and a friend. We drove through the Old Faithful area in the summer and witnessed the worst aspects of Yellowstone. There were hoards of people, huge RV’s everywhere, and traffic jams from people jumping out of their cars and literally chasing bears into the woods to get photos. We drove straight out of the park and left with little interest in returning.
In 2008, I met my fiancee and began visiting her family in Bozeman, which is just 90-minutes from Yellowstone. Jessi and her folks gave me a proper introduction to the park, bringing me to the less visited areas during the off-peak seasons. Since then I have been mesmerized by the animals and landscapes of Yellowstone and try to get there at least a couple times a year. Winter is my favorite season to visit. There are great opportunities to explore the backcountry on skis or snowshoes, and wildlife are easy to spot against the white backdrop of snow.
Last week I had a typically magical day in the park. Jessi and I got a casual start, skipping the dawn-patrol critter cruise in favor of coffee and snacks from Tumbleweeds in Gardner. We headed into the North Entrance at 9:30am and pulled over to watch some bighorn sheep grazing high on the hillside while we finished our coffee. A ewe and her yearling came in close and let me snap a close-up out the window.
A ram came down as well, but attracted the attention of another car, which seemed to think they were in a zoo, as they pulled up 10 ft. from the ram and got outside to take pictures with their phones. The leader of the group stood about 8 ft. from the ram and began mansplaining about YNP ecology… we left.
We hit the next pullout along the Gardner River to watch the steam rise and let the air temps to get closer to zero before we got our day started. After a minute or so we noticed there were a pair of mule deer bucks browsing in the riparian. It didn’t take long before the bigger of the males was just below us putting on a pretty good show and giving me a chance to take another snapshot out the window.
Next stop was Mammoth for some more hot beverages. The clerk told us an amazing story about an American marten that had been sneaking in and raiding chocolates out of the store. It almost sounded too crazy to be true, but sure enough I read about it later in a local magazine, they named the little guy Dean. We drove slow to Blacktail Ponds hoping to luck into an ermine or coyote, but didn’t see much besides a few buffalo and cow elk. It was barely above 0 F outside, but we were getting stir-crazy in the car and needed to get out and do some exploring. We try to pick a new place to wander around on every visit, and this time we chose to ski the plateau above Blacktail Creek. We were pretty miserable for the first half hour, unable to keep our noses and fingers from going numb, but finally the exercise got us warmed up. Besides some zig-zagging ermine tracks, there weren’t many signs of life, but we kept skiing and were content with the views of the plateau’s rolling white hills.
After skiing to the top of a knoll, we spotted a couple bull elk in the distance. Looking with binoculars, more and more bulls starting popping out until we counted 13 in all. I’ve seen small groups of bull elk before, but nothing like this. With their huge antlers, it was quite a site. To avoid disturbing the elk we followed a terrace along a stream headed a different direction. A little while later, another group of bull elk came trotting out of the stream and paused to check us out before heading over towards the other group.
We saw a cow moose on the way out and enjoyed the 3pm “evening” light, when the sunlight gets warm in color and casts long blue shadows off everything it hits. We never did find any of the ermine that had tracked up the willow bottoms, but we did see a couple coyote on the drive back to Gardner.
If you get a chance, go to YNP in the winter–you won’t regret it. For me, the trick to really enjoying the park is to be a casual photographer. I see a lot of serious photographers working the road system for wildlife, leaving the car only to stand in pullouts behind their big white lenses. While this is an extremely effective way to photograph wildlife, particularly wolves, it’s also a great way to miss out on the wonder of the park–do you really want your wildlife experience to include the sound of retired dudes comparing the merits of the new 200-400 zoom vs. the 600 mm prime? I don’t, though I do enjoy roadside action in limited quantities. On a recent October I visited the park without any camera gear and bumped into a badger as a thunderstorm rolled over the Lamar Valley; while I regretted not taking my first good shot of a badger, getting to enjoy an animal encounter without having to select AF points and f-stops was pretty nice.
Happy New Year!