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Trip Report:

Yellowstone Wildlife and Landscapes
Photo Tour



For over 27 years I've been leading Photo Tours to Yellowstone, and for 24 of these Mary has co-led these tours. When we are asked what is our favorite US photo destination, we always answer Yellowstone. Why?

Yellowstone is always exciting, with the possibility of magic, of unique experiences, of encounters we have never had before. No year is the same, and no two trips are the same, so the photographic possibilities simply never end. Over the years Yellowstone has certainly changed. When we started doing photo tours here, elk were abundant, and were actually out of balance with the ecology. It was easy to find bull elk, as they were usually in one or more open meadows at dawn. Yellowstone's devastating fires of 1987 made huge changes, and now, almost 25 years later, the forests are beginning to once more claim the land. The introduction of the Gray Wolf nearly fifteen years ago has had an immense impact, increasing the biodiversity in the park while reducing the elk population significantly. Now, finding a great elk is a challenge, and photographing one is a true trophy.

pikaWe did well with a great elk this year, but we also photographed wildlife and landscapes often unknown to 90% of the park's visitors. One of the highlights of many, this year, was our time with the Pika, a small, chinchilla-like rabbit relative, that we filmed in two different locations. We also had great fun making the most out of what could have been disasterous situations, as when two different violent storms swept over us. Before they arrived, however, we photographed the lightning, something most of the participants had never done before.

Sadly, because of our extremely busy (or crazy) schedule this year, we could only do one Photo Tour, but happily it was one of the most successful. Our time went too quickly, but we are heartened to know that we'll be able to doing another Photo Tour next year, and we're hoping you can join us! Unfortunately, our schedule is again so busy that we'll only be doing one tour, so if you are interested, contact us as soon as you can.

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This is the complete day-to-day Trip Report.


Day 1, September 16. One of the all-time best days in Yellowstone, ever. Two days ago, one of our participants and a good friend, Sam, and I scouted the park in preparation for the start of the tour. In the Lamar Valley that day we had five Grizzlies, a mother and three cubs digging for grubs in a distant field, and a boar that had laid claim to a recently dead Bison. That bear simply hugged the carcass and slept, periodically lifting its head to scan the horizon. We hoped that, with the kill being virtually untouched, that it would still be active on Monday, today, the first field day of our tour.
We left at 6:15AM and drove directly to Lamar Valley, stopping only briefly at the Petrified Tree where a black bear had been seen yesterday. A nice buck Mule Deer, surprisingly still in velvet, was close to the road but the light was still quite low and we continued on. When we arrived, many of the roadside parking spots were already taken, and to be conservative I pulled in to the first lookout. Two days earlier, a bit further up the road we may have been a fraction closer, but I worried that those few spots would be taken and we’d lose valuable time.
bearWe climbed a short distance up a hill for a clearer view, finding that the carcass now had Five Grizzly Bears and Four Gray Wolves! Incredibly, the sow bear with her three cubs were feeding almost side-to-side with the boar, while the wolves circled about or occasionally moved in to try to snatch a quick bite. Most of the time one of the bears, either the female or one of the cubs, charged the wolf and drove it off.
I mounted a 1.4X onto my 800mm, and periodically our participants slipped in their CF card to do stills or videos as the bears fed and the wolves circled about. w
Eventually the boar wandered off, and an hour or two later the female led her cubs off, but as soon as she departed the wolves dashed in. Like most predators, the sow did not wish to share and turned and ran back in, driving the wolves off the kill. This happened twice, and the second time the female and cubs stayed and continued feeding, although it seemed that it was sated by then.
wolfOne of the wolves wandered off and appeared to moving towards us. Indeed it was, and it continued to trot towards the river. Mary had my lens mounted and shot a great series as the wolf ran rather close along the shoreline, before the wolf dropped down to drink, and then to cross the river, coming even closer. I quickly changed cameras with her and headed to the edge of the road, arriving just as the wolf finished swimming and was shaking its fur. The wolf continued jogging along the gravel river bar before climbing the nearest bank where, try as I might, I lost further contact.
Eventually most of us moved down to the river view hoping for another pass, as three more wolves still remained at the carcass. None moved, and we headed back uphill to continue watching the bears and the wolves, but as the sun cleared the clouds and backlighted the bears beautifully, the sun also generated heat waves and the clarity of the distant shooting was lost.
lWe headed out, driving towards the Northeast entrance where we hoped to spot Mountain Goats and great gray owls. We found the goats, quite far away on the side of a distant mountain, but through the scope we had a good view, and Mary located a small group of Bighorn sheep on another ridge. Mary and I circled the meadows looking for owls but were unsuccessful, but we heard of a great gray owl nest and headed there, hoping to see the adults or one of the now-fledged young.
We spent about an hour searching, but the going was tough, requiring climbing over fallen logs, going uphills, negotiating wetlands, etc. John showed us the improbable nest, just a pile of sticks that may have been a former squirrel or raven nest.
sodaEarlier, at breakfast, we had a coyote across the meadow but the coyote never moved close. After the owl search we headed back, stopping at Soda Butt, a now extinct geothermal feature. Heavy clouds to the west shrouded the white rock in shade, while the distant mountains glowed brightly in the sun. Waiting, however, we eventually had cloud breaks and got our shots, from a variety of angles. A herd of Bison further up the valley tempted some of us, giving great animal-in-the-landscape images.
It was now time for lunch, at 3:30PM! We ate at the Yellowstone picnic area, and while Mary cooked soup I took some to the overlook of the Yellowstone River, where foreground rocks shone brightly with patches of yellow lichens and the river, nearly 600 feet below, sparkled in the late afternoon light. The canyon’s opposite wall was in shade, so I decided not to shoot and hoped that we’ll return around mid-day when both sides of the canyon would be illuminated.

At 4:30 we headed towards Gardiner, hoping to catch the bighorn sheep coming down to the water. A construction delay and a turn towards home, where at the Phantom Lakes we spotted a Black Bear climbing up a hill. There was no parking available so we continued over a quarter mile to the parking area at the east end of the lakes. We’d barely parked when the bear appeared, and within ten minutes it had foraged towards us, grabbing clumps of vegetation in its jaws as it moved closer. The bear passed close enough for good shots for all, while our parking lot became a chaos of squeezed in vehicles, and the road completely blocked by illegally parked cars. As the bear continued uphill the traffic jam followed, but we waited a few minutes, as the bear finally disappeared over a rise.
There were no sheep at the cliffs, but we spent 45 minutes or so shooting the rapids at slow shutter speeds, completing a very successful first day.

sunriseDay 2, September 17. We left predawn, hoping for a sunrise at Swan Lake Flats and although the western sky looked open, the east was a thick canopy of black clouds. When we arrived, a group of bear watchers were already in place,, their scopes aimed at another Grizzly Bear lying on the opposite shoreline of the lake, guarding a freshly killed elk carcass. Although at least 250 yards separate the shorelines, the NPS had signs at the parking lot closing the near shore, where we’d normally shoot our reflections. This was ridiculous. Park regulations state 100 yards from a grizzly, but these signs placed everyone about a quarter mile away, and ruined the wonderful photo opportunities of the lake, or truly, viewing of the bear from the safety of an opposite shoreline over 200 yards away!
Meanwhile, a thin sliver of open sky appeared in the east, and with it a brilliant pumpkin orange-red sunrise, as the low, filtered sunlight set the eastern sky on fire. On the northern horizon clouds caught more striking light, and after a few minutes Electric Peak  caught the light, glowing orange in the angular light.
lightningTo our south lightning etched the blue-gray skies and several of us tried doing slow exposure lightning captures. The storm intensified and moved to the southwest, and the distant peaks over Swan Lake made a great foreground for the occasional strikes. The storm grew, and the skies above us darkened, and more lightning streaked across the sky. Some bolts struck on the opposite shoreline, less than a half mile away, and with the threat of the storm and lightning we retreated back to the vehicles, about a minute before the sky opened up in  a deluge.


It was now near 7:30 and we decided to return to the lodge for an in-room breakfast, and as the rain continued we did our Participants’ Portfolios, this time with the reflectionleisure of all the time needed, and not our usual, after dinner/fighting sleep program at the end of a day.
The skies by noon were promising, and after an in-room lunch we headed out, first to Mammoth Hot Springs where we photographed the hidden lake and the reflection of the Terraces, until another threatening storm sent us to the vehicles.


We headed towards Tower, hoping to get a perspective for this new storm, and at the high overlook at the Child’s Walkway we photographed more lightning now over the Mammoth area. The storm grew and circled to the north, then advanced over us, where too close lightning strikes and driving rain drove us into the vehicle.
A hard rain began and our vans shook with the intensity of the wind. Minutes later we heard the tat-tat-tat of hail stones, and the ground began to whiten. Suddenly we heard thuds, as if someone was smashing our van with a bat. I looked at Sam, sharing a look of ‘what’s this?’ Seconds later, the source of the booms was clear, hail stones that were marble to golf-ball size, pounding our roof, our hood, and our windshield. The earth was saturated and the pools formed at depressions or flowing down the trail looked like the Fountain Paint Pots, as muddy water exploded in the air as hail stones crashed. Soon the parking area and the open ground was a mix of floating hail stones and water, and the main road was a sheet of white. The hail eventually slackened, and we waited another half hour as the rain slowed. It was now 5:30 and growing dark, and with no change in sight we lheaded towards home.
The previous vehicles cleared a path for our tires, although between tire tracks and lanes the road was ice covered. I was concerned that our drive home would be a real ordeal, but as we started our descent the hail disappeared, as if it had accumulated only on the high hills, where we’d been parked. Later, on the news we heard that the Montana area had winds up to 70mph and severe storms throughout.

fallsDay 3, September 18. Storms and bad weather was forecasted so we planned for an in-room breakfast, before heading out towards Madison Junction. The prediction held true, and as we drove south through the park the skies were dreary and sprinkles dappled our windshield. We stopped for a lengthy visit at Gibbon Falls, where the overcast light made perfect conditions for shooting the waterfall, as there was no contrast and using slow shutter speeds, for silky water, was easy.
We headed towards Madison Junction where a traffic jam signaled something interesting, which proved to be a nice 6x4 Bull Elk and two cows and two calves. elkelk
The bull displayed nicely, spraying urine with abandon and stabbing the earth with his antlers. We had to backtrack several times as a cow or calve moved closer as they gradually worked their way downstream. With his herd gone, the bull eventually rose from his resting pose and walked towards us, giving great portraits before he unexpectedly crossed the river. It rained in varying intensity throughout the shoot, and we were not prepared, with our legs getting soaked as rain struck us from behind. Most of us had FotoSharp camou rain covers, and our gear was well protected. I've seen several different rain covers on our various trips and I'm convinced that the FotoSharp covers are the best value and quite effective. Other covers are often bulky and cumbersome, and gaggingly expensive, but the FotoSharp covers are inexpensive -- their largest is $54.95, their smallest $34.95, and the covers fold or roll up into a very small package. One shooter had a thin plastic cover that's designed, I presume, for a one-time use, and although that one is cheap, it's also ineffective and useful, max, for a shoot or two. Well, enough unsolicited advertising, but they're worth having!
The weather was still poor, and since we were soaked from rain we decided to head to West Yellowstone for a hot lunch. As we drove west the weather cleared and I changed our plans, reverting to our original picnic lunch plans. Mary wasn’t happy, as she read the weather and expected a storm to develop. She was off by 15 minutes, but we had to eat quickly and we packed up just as another violent storm arrived, with more hail.
The weather didn’t look as if it would change so we headed towards home, in heavy rain and intermittent sleet or snow. At Golden Gate we stopped to view some distant Mountain Goats, and to gaze at the snow covered slopes of Bunsen Peak. There we spoke with a couple who told us that most of the high mountain roads, Dunraven Pass and the road to Cook City, were closed because of the snowfall. Had we visited almost any other area of the park we’d have had a very hard time, but as it was, we only got wet.

We stopped at the Hoodoos where, earlier in the week, we did a brief search for Pika, the rodent-like Lagomorph (or rabbit) that dwells in talus slopes. We heard one earlier but saw none, but as I walked down the road I spotted one feeding on grasses close to the road. Over the next hour we waited for the pika to reappear, and as we gave up our friend John spotted another (or the same one if it moved up peakthe road). This time the Pika performed wonderfully, eating grass and hopping onto rocks several times for nice portraits. Eventually the pika wandered off, and as we turned to leave Bunsen Peak lit up in late afternoon light, its crest sugared with a fresh coat of light snow, its slopes shrouded at times with tendrils of wispy clouds. We finished the day’s shot photographing the Hoodoos against the glowing slopes of Electric Peak, while, in the distance, we could see much of the high country now covered in a blanket of snow.
We stopped at the Gardiner canyon area, hoping to find some bighorn sheep dropping down from the steep cliffs for a drink. No sheep were in sight, but the time was not wasted as we worked on slow-shutter speed shots of the Gardiner River, working on images for the shooting assignment. With mirror-lockup and slow speeds, we had some interesting results.

It rained as we returned to Gardiner, and although we plan on an early departure, if the winds do not blow the clouds off we’ll have another in-room breakfast. If not, we’ll have an extremely frigid dawn shoot!


Day 4, September 19
. The skies cleared some time over night but apparently not early enough for thermal radiation to create freezing conditions. The mountains were covered with snow, and as we pulled in to the parking area at Swan Lake Flats the nearly full moon was resting on the horizon. Before we could shoot it set behind the ridges. To the east, low clouds and fog blocked any real sunrise, and as we waited a fog bank settled over the lake, obscuring Electric Peak and cancelling any chance of an interesting sunrise shoot.
We headed to Sheep Eaters Cliff for breakfast, and afterwards I walked up to the grotto area hoping to find a Pika. Last year this area was devoid of these little mammals, and I suspect weasels or pine martens had wiped out the colony. John hadn’t seen any this spring, and with worries that the minimal snow cover either froze or starved them out, as pikas do not hibernate, I wasn’t too optimistic. To my surprise, however, I spotted one, and its haystack, where a pika will gather grasses, leaves, and forbes to dry for winter use, was quite close to the bottom of the rocks. I passed the information down and within a few minutes our entire group had quietly gathered, and after a long wait, the pika cooperated. Several times it perched conspicuously on rocks, sometimes with long tassles of grass sticking out each side of its mouth, or running along to its haystack with a pine cone stuffed into its jaws. It was a very successful shoot.
bisonWe continued to Artist Point where Mary and I dropped off the group and we drove off, to start lunch at the nearest picnic area. After lunch, although we were headed to Hayden Valley we delayed, as a nice herd of Bison were close to the picnic area and were framed beautifully by puffy cumulous clouds. When they finally wandered into the forest we drove off, hoping for more action in Hayden.
We were through much of the valley, having stopped for a scenic at the oxbow, when we spotted traffic congestion ahead. A group of River Otters were swimming in the Yellowstone, bobbing and dipping quite close to shore, and seemingly staying nearly stationary. We piled out of our vehicles and got to the roadside, shooting the otters until they started swimming upstream. Mary’s vehicle had to park further up the river, in the direction the otters were travelling, and so headed them off. My group followed, but with the frequent stops the otters made to play or fish, we quickly caught up. For nearly a half mile we otterraven
followed the otters, who sometimes swam so close we thought they might come ashore. Eventually they swam towards the opposite shore and, with a great experience, we left them. Later in the day, upon our drive home, the otters were active again, and we saw a large group of tourists by the river’s edge. The light was growing low and we passed on another opportunity.
After the otters we met a large herd of Bison grazing close to the road, with a wonderful background of snow-capped mountains. Traffic was heavy and there were no spots nearby, but a large pull-off was further down the road. A large Bull Bison stood at attention by the road, and stayed that bison
way long enough for most of us to make the quarter mile walk to reach him, as he seemingly watched over the herd. The shooting was excellent, with good sun light but beautiful clouds, and the snow-covered mountain, setting up the shot. bisonEventually the bison moved off and we returned to the parking area, where Mary and a few others had stayed behind to shoot Common Ravens, a bison crossing the Yellowstone in the distance, and two Bald Eagles sailing overhead.
We headed towards home, but Mary spotted some Trumpeter Swans she thought might swim our way, and a bull Bison that was walking down a trail, straight to the river. We pulled over, and the Bison did indeed go to the river, enter, and swim across to our side, in perfect light. Afterwards, we tried to reach the swans but they had moved back into the river and were swimming upstream, so we left them and continued our drive home, arriving at the motel at 7:30PM.


Day 5, September 20. The last day of our tour, and the last chance we had to fill in the gaps we still had in our shooting. On Sunday, we had distributed a 20 subject ‘homework’ assignment covering a diversity of subjects, with only two having anything to do with wildlife. Last night, most everyone reviewed their homework and today we all hoped to finish the assignment.


We were also missing several wildlife subjects, and with these two considerations in mind we headed toward Tower and the Little America valley.
Our shoot started with a moon-set shoot at the Child’s Walkway, the same area where we had the horrific hail storm on Tuesday. We arrived in plenty of time, with the moon still high in the sky, in contrast to the Swan Lake Flats area where surrounding mountains prematurely hides the setting moon. We shot several moon moonshots, and I did some full-frame images with the 800mm and a 2X on a 1.3X crop factor camera. Alpen glow eventually tinted the distant mountain tops and soon the valley was bathed in low, golden light, but the moon was still far from reaching the horizon. We moved on, hoping for mule deer.
Near the Petrified Tree turnout we spent an hour or two filling in some of the homework gaps, as this area is one of the best for showing the devastation of the 1987 fires. Everyone got into the shooting, which was clearly evident later that evening when we did the portfolio of everyone’s assignments. At a bathroom break we had a great Red-tailed Hawk perched in an evergreen, and afterwards we headed for breakfast at the Yellowstone picnic area.
It was now near 10AM and we headed into Little America looking for Pronghorn, and almost immediately had a buck cruising the sagebrush for females. We didn’t have much luck but a few more appeared further down the road and we moved on. The next pronghorn failed to cooperate and we were about to drive off when Beth saw two running towards us. We piled out of the vans and the pronghorns ran right to us, stopping at a small wet area to drink. When finished, the pronghorns walked off, paralleling us as they did so.
We stopped again at the Yellowstone picnic area for an earlier-than-usual lunch, where we met one of our friends and former D CNPC student and his scientist friends, who were all attending a wolf conference. Afterwards we headed to the Blacktail Drive, but to our surprise the road was closed, as it has probably been since the Tuesday storms. We’d planned to photograph the aspen groves here, but with that option out we headed towards Golden Gate where another very photogenic grove lies close to the road.


Our shooting in the grove included a lot of abstracts, with pan blurs, zoom blurs, twisted/swirling lens barrels, and straight aspen portraits. Our group attracted a lot of attention, as cars parked and people wandered into the grove, looking for the nonexistent animals they thought we were shooting. I found a cottonwood with a wound that attracted a Morning Cloak Butterfly, which prompted me to use the only piece of gear I still hadn’t shot, my flash.
By 4:20 we headed towards Mammoth and the back road where we could overlook McMinn Bench and search for Bighorn Sheep. At our first stop to glass the area Mary spotted a group of sheep near the roadside far below, and we headed as fast as we could down this winding, steep gravel road to reach the park road and the sheep. En route we passed several good Pronghorn opportunities, but everyone was satisfied with the earlier shooting and we continued on.
By 5PM we reached the Bighorns, six young males with half curls, sitting in a cluster on a pinnacle overlooking the road. Another, slightly larger male sat on another pinnacle, offering small glimpses of his head. The shooting of the six was good, but it got better when, one by one, each sheep rose and started walking east, climbing and paralleling the ridge above us. Eventually the sheep rejoined, and then in single file climbed to the top of the ridge where several posed, completely in the clear, framed by an absolutely cloudless sky.
It was the end of a great day, where we finished our assignment, captured our missing pronghorn and bighorn subjects, and had a great time in the aspen grove. We headed towards the lodge where, after dinner, we projected the homework assignment, marveling at beautiful images and reliving great experiences. Despite the tough weather, the Photo Tour was one of the best we’ve had in years!

Our group, on our last afternoon, from left to right: Sam, Joe, Clinta, Mary Ann McDonald, Larry, Glen, Joe McDonald, Beth, Maureen, Jocelyn, and Mark. Missing is Glenn's wife Dora, who was under the weather.

For equipment for the first time in Yellowstone I used the 800mm, instead of my usual 500mm. Stupidly, I had left my 28-300mm at home, but a call home on Frirday had the lens to me in time for our Tuesday shoot. I really love the compositional freedom (and not having to change lenses) this zoom permits, and Mary had her's packed and in use as well. For camera and long lens support, I used a Really Right Stuff long lens support system mounted to a Wimberley Gimbal head on a RRS leveling base and RRS TVC 34L truoid, Mary used her 500mm on a Wimberley Gimbal Head on a RRS TVC 24L tripod, a slightly smaller and lighter tripod than the one I use. We carried our gear in Gura Gear Bataflae bag bags, which are deep enough to hold a 500mm with a Mark IV camera mounted, or an 800mm, even with the hood, although it must be reversed.

We would love if everyone who did our Photo Safaris and Tours did one of our Digital Complete Nature Photo Courses to learn manual exposure, flash, workflow, and basic Photoshop and in-depth RAW conversion. We think everyone would get even more out of our trips if they truly were masters of the craft.

Although you probably won't need most of the information for Yellowstone, we are, in 2014, planning on running our Advanced Nature Photography Course which will be primarily concerned with Mastering Flash, remote or camera triggering devices like the Range IR, and macro photography. Contact our office if you are interested.

Refer to our BROCHURE to get an idea of next year's trip!
Exact dates and prices may not be updated.

Visit our Trip and Scouting Report Pages for more images and an even better idea of what our trips to Yellowstone are like. There you'll find our archived reports from previous years.