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Trip Report:

Yellowstone Fall Photo Tour, 2012

Mary helping members of the group as we photograph at Little America,
one of our favorite locations in Yellowstone.

treeI've been doing Yellowstone photo tours for twenty-five years, the longest running tour Mary and I do. There is a reason, and that is Yellowstone is so diverse and exciting that there is always something great to shoot.

This year, when we did a day of scouting, driving from the Roosevelt Gate entrance at Gardiner nearly to Old Faithful, and down along the Madison River towards West Yellowstone, we wondered if this year would be the exception. It was a sunny, warm day and we'd started late, so the scenic opportunities had, for the most part, passed. We didn't see any wildlife, and we wondered if that was a fluke or if, this year, we'd be doing a lot of landscapes and scenics.

Our misgivings were for naught, as this year's photo tour proved to be one of the most exciting and diverse that we have had in years. Here's the report:

Day 1. We met at 4PM for an hour long briefing and review of the week's objectives and procedures, had dinner, did our orientation slide show and handouts, and concluded by 7:15.

sunDay 2. We began loading at 5:50AM for a 6:15 departure. Although a few stars were visible, the skies were partly cloudy and obscured by a veil of smoke. We headed south towards Hayden Valley, and as we passed some of our usual scenic stops we found we were too early, and the weather too warm for any frost, to justify a stop. As we headed to the higher elevations towards Canyon we stopped for a fireball sunrise, colored as such because of the smoke.
As we entered Hayden Valley we stopped at the first high overlook where wolf-watchers were parked, watching three wolves far in the distance. We had a reasonably good view of one of the black wolves, but except for a spotting scope view it was too far away to see.
As we traveled further into Hayden we encountered a large herd of Bison, and we spent some time shooting some panoramas of the bison, as well as portraits. The herd crossed the road and moved down to the Yellowstone River, and after moving along the shoreline the bison drifted into the river. Jogging along the opposite bisonshoreline the bison cast nice reflections in the river, and several of us shot scenes where, if flipped, would appear as if the bison were disappearing into a heat haze.
By now it was nearly 10AM and we headed to breakfast, but a cooperative Coyote along another pull-off warranted another stop. It was a young coyote, intent upon feeding upon grasshoppers. Eventually the coyote moved off, disappearing over a hill.

bisonAfter breakfast we had another herd of bison appear, and although we were hoping for a river crossing the bison just continued to move in closer, requiring us to continually back up to keep legal, outside a 25 yard distance. Nonetheless, a ranger pulled up and admonished everyone (other tourists were present) to back up, although everyone i n our group, and I believe everyone, was further than 25 yards. While the rule is 25 yards, the visual interpretation of this is subjective, and generally inaccurate.
We headed south, stopping at LaHardy Rapids where a tree glowed a brilliant orange-red against the rapids. Although this area is known for harlequin ducks they have apparently migrated on to the sea.
We continued south to the Bridge Bay boat dock, hoping to see mule deer or owls, and then continued on towards Silver City and the east entrance. On our way back we took tree
the overlook road to the Butte Lake Overlook where we spent nearly an hour photographing the dead trees, victims of the fires, as we looked for the letters of our initials -one of our shoothing assignments this year.
Lunch was at 4, as we headed north trying to avoid an upcoming thunderstorm. At lunch a Coyote trotted down a trail towards us, probably intent upon scavenging a handout. Some of us got a few shots but the coyote proved shy and veered off into the forest as it got closer.
A reflection at Nez Perce picnic area and a slow shutter speed river scene along the LeHardy Rapids on the Yellowstone River.

We finished lunch just as the rains began, and headed home between intermittent showers of rain and hail. At Swan Lake Flats, just as we began the descent into the lower portion of the park, a group of Mule Deer trotted down the hill and into a willow flat, so we turned around and spent a half hour in the failing light. As we headed home we encountered an Elk jam at Mammoth, where two large bulls milled about while about 50 cows occupied the intersection, keeping the park rangers busy as they tried to manage clueless tourists.
We arrived back at our motel and unpacked by 7:15, 13 hours later.

lamar Day 3. It was raining as we returned to the lodge last evening, and the rain continued through much of the night. At 6:15, as we loaded, the skies were dark, and as we headed through the Roosevelt Gate one small patch of predawn open sky was visible in the east.
We headed towards Lamar Valley and although we disparaged and joked about the wolf-watchers we nonetheless stopped and looked for wolves, and spotted seven far off in the distance. One juvenile crossed the road close to the group of wolf watchers, and we hoped that the wolf might circle and appear closer but the wolf did not. We continued towards Cook City, stopping at the overlook where we often find Mountain Goats. Five goats were there, and a dealer for Swarovski scopes stopped and showed us the goats through a 90mm objective, 70X spotting scope. Great view, and quite impressive.
The rep told us that the great gray owls had been in this field, and we spent a half bisonme

hour or so moving through the forest looking for the owls without any luck. Returning back towards Tower junction we photographed the changing foliage of the cottonwoods at two locations before continuing on to lunch, which was at 3PM. Afterwards we looked for a red fox that had been spotted nearby, but again without luck.
We hoped to return to Gardiner in time to photograph bighorn sheep but three extremely cooperative Mule Deer Does near Hell Roaring Creek waylaid us, and we spent another hour following these extremely habituated and cooperative deer.
At Mammoth several large elk bulls were still terrorizing the area, but we continued on, arriving back at the lodge at 6:15, 12 hours later, with a very successful day of deer, scenics, and wolf-viewing.

deer deerdeer
Bison cavort, jumping about and occasionally butting heads in Lamar Valley.
We had several opportunities with incredibly tame Mule Deer, although we did not see any large bucks ... and rarely do.

fogDay 4. Again it rained last night and the predawn sky was even more shrouded in clouds than yesterday. Our plan was to head to the moose along Pebble Creek but at the Petrified Tree turnout we stopped for twenty minutes or so to photograph an ethereal landscape of dead trees, distant mountains, and bands of fog. Later, in the Lamar Valley we stopped again for another landscape series of fog, aspens, and trees.
That stop may have cost us a glimpse of the moose, which were out once again but retreated just a few minutes before we arrived. I wasn't too concerned, as we had some great moody landscapes and no guarantee that the moose would have been there. Seize the opportunities as they present themselves.
We continued on to the great gray owl area where we scattered, hoping to find the owl. Jim and James saw a pickup truck stop and off in the distance they saw the owl. We shot it from two positions, moving a bit closer on the second, and I was contemplating moving another fifteen yards closer as the owl appeared completely unconcerned. Fortunately we did not, as one of Yellowstone's most amiable and friendly rangers, a model for how all of this park's rangers should present themselves, arrived and supervised our operation. Minutes before Mary had stopped someone with a small zoom lens from walking closer to the owl, much to the man's annoyance as he commented on this 'not being her park' as he left. The ranger applauded our self-control and our distance, even though we were probably fifty yards away from the owl and the 'legal' distance is 25 yards. While we watched the owl flew closer and the ranger suggested that we move back further to give the owl room for hunting. We complied, and the owl flew down, further away, to strike at a vole, and then flew off to distant trees.

That is a rock on the left and me on the right, blending well in the sage brush. We advocate that people wear camouflage clothing (not all do, however) not to attempt to hide from the animals but to simply be less conspicuous in the field. Sometimes unthinking tourists may walk up on a group to see what they are photographing, frightening off a subject that our group carefully approached (or let approach us). Camo clothing helps prevent this.

The ranger explained to the large group that had gathered about the 25 yard rule, but also mentioned that people could be ticketed if they interfere in an animal's behavior in any way. This is a bit frightening as this could be so open to interpretation and subjectivity. Last year, when we had a run-in with the antithesis of this ranger over a false claim of disturbing some pronghorns, we saw this provision applied. Our friendly ranger warned everyone that there are some new rangers that are gung-ho and ticket-happy, and will need 5 years or so of experience before they chill out. The ranger also may have said something about being cited for the length of time spent with an animal, which is really scarey since the ranger would have to time when people arrived at a location. It appears that Yellowstone's regulations are trending toward a looky-see attitude, rather than one where someone with interest can spend quality time with wildlife.
We headed to the fox area, but the fox didn't appear and we continued, planning on driving the Blacktail Plateau drive. A black bear, the one we were hoping to see bearat the Petrified Tree, had crossed the road and was now in a ravine near that turnouff, and the group managed a few distant shots.
Most unsettling, however, was that a woman was badly bitten by a coyote.  A group of people, or photographers, were shooting the coyote when it lunged at a woman, biting her on the upper arm and tearing her clothes and flesh. We met an eye-witness just a few minutes later and he said it was quite bloody. Later, we met another photographer who saw the coyote (we assume the same one) bite a man yesterday, but it only bit into his pants leg and didn't cut skin. He saw that coyote jumping up to look into car windows, so obviously people had been feeding it from their cars and created a monster.
We headed back to the fox and lunch, hoping to encounter the fox but again we were unsuccessful.  After lunch we headed directly to the Gardiner River and the bighorn sheep cliffs, initialsarriving around 4:45. The sheep usually come down to the river between 4:30 and 6, but with the rain of the last two afternoons the sheep may have enough water as they did not come down.
We headed home early, but a group of Elk at the Gardiner High School football field diverted us. We arrived back at 6:15, and had a group portfolio slide show at 7, concluding aroudn 7:40 for another long and very successful day.

While waiting for the bighorn sheep some of us took advantage of the time to shoot the towering thunderheads building up over the high country. Using a Singh-Ray Variable Neutral Density Filter I shot an extremely slow river rapids along the Gardiner River. One of our shooting assignments for the week was to find our initials in a natural scene. Incredibly, fallen aspen leaves lay in a J shape right next to a random group of pebbles that somehow, somehow looked like an M!

Day 5. The skies were clear this morning and without an insulating cover of clouds the air was cold and frost rimmed the grasses of the meadows. Our goal was moose, and despite some beautiful foggy valleys scenes in the Lamar and a moosepossible red fox (there was a photographer in the woods in that area but we didn't see his subject) we continued to Pebble Creek and the moose. A bull, cow, and calf were out in the frosty-white meadow and although the shots were distant they were still effective. However they didn't last long as the cow and calf soon drifted into the woods and the bull followed shortly after.
We continued on to the owl area but despite a thorough search we couldn't find the birds. At breakfast another tourist told us of the 13 wolves that he had a few minutes earlier, walking on either side of the road.
We headed towards the fox but at the Yellowstone River we found a small group of Pronghorns feeding next to the road. Two young bucks contested a small group of does, and for the next hour or more the two bucks contested for rights. One 'owned' the herd, but the other would come close only to be chased away each time. The victor would return to the does but within a few minutes would be on the run again, chasing the buck away.

pronghorn pronghorn

In Little America we encountered a great herd of Pronghorn that were obviously in the rut. A male continually challenged another that had possession of the does, although the buck would run off as soon as the head buck ran towards him.

pronghornSometimes the two ran quite close to us, and sometimes the herd would move close as the male tried mating with one of the does, but the observations were tainted by our fear that a ranger would come by just as the pronghorns moved within 25 yards and before we could back off to the legal distance again. We did our best to keep 'legal,' but the herd activity was so dynamic that the bucks often ran by us much closer. It was unsettling, as we were obviously not disturbing or interfering with the pronghorn in any way, yet we worried about the 'wrong encounter' at the wrong time. Eventually the herd crossed the road and, after numerous other chases, the pronghorns moved off into the sagebrush.

At Petrified Tree we stopped for a coyote that quickly moved off. We were worried, however, that this one might be the aggressive coyote that bit someone yesterday. After a brief stop at Undine Falls  we continued to Mammoth where we found a big bull elk. The elk moved off before we had a chance for shots, and although we cruised the area for a bit, both before and after a late lunch, we didn't have any luck.
We hiked about a quarter mile to where we'd last seen the bighorns. They had moved off the ridge and were now working a mineral or salt lick. Periodically they'd stop and playfully challenge each other, rearing up and slamming heads, then pushing and shoving for a few minutes before resuming their feeding.

At 4:30 we took the old stage road from Mammoth down to the park entrance, stopping to scope for bighorn sheep on the opposite hillsides. On our side of the river, and in an area where we've only had bighorn once before, Mary spotted two bighornBighorn Rams about 1/2 mile away. We drove further down hill, and after a quarter mile dead-head walk we found the rams on a steep hillside where they were lapping at a salt lick. Periodically the sheep would stop and bang heads, and twice reared up and came together in a smash, banging heads. Eventually the sheep moved off, and after following them to a sunlit meadow we watched as they headed back to the Gardiner River where, we suspect, they'd cross and join a large herd we finally spotted on the opposite side.
At 6, at the Roosevelt Gate, we stopped for a herd of elk and a bull, but the herd was settled and there were no real shots. Instead we did our group shot at the Yellowstone sign, then went to a local shop for an ice cream cone dinner. A spectacular day of moose, pronghorn, and bighorns!

frankDay 6. We headed to Swan Lake Flats for a sunrise, and as we approached the pull-off we entered a band of thick fog. Over the next twenty minutes as we waited for the eastern horizon to brighten the fog ebbed and flowed, creating mountaintop islands in a sea of fog. Just as the sun rose one of the heaviest bands of fog rolled in, obscuring much of the foreground and creating a true morning fireball. After breakfast we moved to the lake but the bed of fog never shifted and the distant mountains were too muted for effective images. I saw a Canada Goose perched upon a rock and went over to try to frame the bird against the band of gray. The goose moved off the rock and swam a few feet, then turned around and flapped itself back onto the rock for a pretty exciting portrait.

We headed back towards Mammoth, hoping to find some cooperative bull elk. Yesterday  six bulls had been in that area so we were hopeful, even though I really dislike photographing in that crowded, poor-background area. Fortunately soon after we passed through Golden Gate and into the aspens we found a great 7x7

This was one of my favorite images of the trip, as I loved the aspen foreground and the sense of habitat. A frame-filling shot of the elk would have revealed so little of its landscape, yet this is what most photographers immediately think of when they see a close elk.

bull Elk that was feeding close to the road. It was elk number 10, a problem elk that had had its antlers sawed off the previous year for too many punctures of passing cars. The elk fed close, and eventually climbed on to the road and walked down the center, finally moving off to graze in some short grasses. When one too enthusiastic photographer got too close the bull did a 10 step charge, causing the man to flee deeper into the woods. The elk followed, and we concluded the shoot.
We headed to Sheepeater's Cliff for a late breakfast, but today not even a chipmunk or red squirrel appeared for photos. The Pika that we've often filmed here are gone, and we suspect that weasels have wiped out the colony.
roaring mtraven
At Roaring Mountain we photographed the backlighted steam from this active geothermic feature. While there, a very cooperative pair of Common Ravens hopped up to investigate. This image is cropped.

We stopped at Roaring Mountain, surprised that the steam still showed so vividly this late in the morning. At the visitor center we heard of an elk carcass near to the road but when we drove by nothing was visible and we moved on. Continuing on to the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone Mary and I dropped off the people while we set up lunch.
After lunch we tried the elk carcass once again and now dozens of cars and tourists were lined up on the road. A black Wolf had returned to feed at the kill. With some difficulty we found a parking spot and spots for shooting. Stupidly, I stayed higher up on the road, hoping that another wolf might trot down the canyon (or the black wolf would leave in the same direction it entered) while Mary and most of the group went down to the carcass. wolf
Stupidly I stayed rather far away from the wolf, hoping that either another wolf would trot down the valley or our wolf would return by the same route. Had it done so, I'd have been in a great position. But, it did not! Mary shot the images below from a much better angle.

wolfThere they were close enough to have essentially frame-filling shots of the wolf in fairly open terrain. At one point the wolf lunged and charged after a  pesky Raven and several, including Mary, got some nice running shots as it left the elk. Eventually the wolf finished feeding and moved off, in the wrong direction, and the only view I had was a tail end shot of a black butt.


Mary got this shot as the wolf took off after a pesky Common Raven that moved too close to the carcass. Nearly everyone (except me!) got some variation of this sequence as the wolf charged across the grasses.

Since it was our last afternoon we were hoping to return early enough to begin packing and get to  dinner early for our farewell dinner.  The skies cooperated, as dark clouds had settled in and the light had failed, so that at 5:30 it looked as dark as it normally would an hour later, at true dusk. Ironically, as we drove home we passed far distant Mountain Goats at Golden Gate, the big elk now lying like a dying animal completely in the open. It wasn't any type of shot and it was far too dark, but it certainly was in the open!
Near Gardiner, at the cliffs a huge group of Bighorn Sheep had gathered. There were at least two rams present, and they looked larger than the ones we'd photographed the day before. Sheep were in several spots, and close to the road, but the light was extremely poor and we were not tempted to stop to photograph.
At dinner, at the Town Cafe, we reviewed the group's highlights and favorite shots and places. Somewhat surprisingly, the old stage road where we filmed the sheep yesterday was most people's favorite spot in the park , while owls, pronghorn, and wolves were people's favorite subjects. It was Randy's 59th birthday (one day early) and we had a surprise cake to celebrate, which concluded the night and an extremely productive and fun week that simply flew by.
When we reflected on our thoughts on Saturday, when we cruised much of the park in scouting, we were really worried. We'd spent our time in the western side, from Mammoth to Old Faithful, and the game was nonexistant. We were worried, but as we discovered, this was one of the most productive wildlife shoots we've had in years. Our 20 shot scavenger hunt was barely touched -- we simply did not have time.

. joe n mary


Read about our other years in Yellowstone to see more images, and to have a great idea of what you can expect on one of these tours. See
2008 2009 2010 2011 trip 1 or 2011 trip 2.
Refer to our BROCHURE to get an idea of next year's trip!

Visit our Trip and Scouting Report Pages for more images and an idea of what our trips to other areas of the country, and our foreign trips, are like. There you'll find our archived reports from previous years.