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Yellowstone Fall Photo Tour
Trip 1 Report


Read our day-to-day account of our second trip

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The day before our Yellowstone Tour was to begin Mary and I had an epiphany. We made an exploratory drive up to Jardine, a silver/gold mine little town that nestles in the mountains above Gardiner. We’d never been in this area before, and at every turn we saw a new, beautiful vista. We enjoyed the ride, and it brought into focus that most of our Yellowstone participants had never been in the park before, and each turn, each vista, would be new to them, and as moving and beautiful as this new drive had been to us. Later that day, as we scouted areas in the park, I reflectionfound a little pool beside a rushing stream where a pine tree reflected in the pool. It was a simple but a pretty scene, and I went back for my camera to shoot it. These two events generated something we hadn’t done before for our Yellowstone trips, and that was to give our participants a Shooting Assignment of 21 subjects to shoot in the course of the week.
The assignment was rather general, so the shots could be varied, but it put a focus on the trip as every stop we made had the potential of fulfilling some item on that assignment list. It made the tour specially rewarding, as there was, quite literally, always something to shoot and always a reason to be out, looking, for subjects. For Mary and I, it made for the most fun we’ve had in Yellowstone in years.
Yellowstone has changed over the years in the 24 or more years we’ve been coming to the Park. After the 1988 fires the landscape had changed dramatically, and the topography, once hidden by forests of lodgepole pines, was now visible and interesting. Elk, in those early years, were abundant, and virtually any open meadow had the likelihood that an elk herd would be in residence.
elkWith the reintroduction of the wolf over ten years ago everything began to change, and each year the elk herds became fewer and harder to find. Both the Northern herd and the non-migratory Madison River-Firehole River population have declined by 60% since the wolf reintroduction. Interestingly, in the environmental impact statement predicting elk predation, Park ecologists predicted a decline of no more than 20%, based on 100 wolves ten years later. Instead, from 31 wolves reintroduced in 1995 and 1996, the population had increased to 376 known wolves by 2006, comprising 31 breeding packs! 75 wolves, according to the impact statemen, would kill 1,000 elk each winter in the Northern Herd. Well, wolf numbers, and the amount of elk killed, both increased far more than expected. Read more about this in our October Question of the Month.

Now, elk are almost a trophy subject, for finding a good bull, or a good herd, is actually a challenge. While this wolf induced change has impacted upon our easy elk photography, the wolves have restored Yellowstone to an ecosystem that is now as it once was, before wolves were eliminated from the park in the mid-1900’s. The park is probably healthier now, but the elk are fewer and our photo tour has evolved from one quite heavily centered on elk to one far more diverse, with a greater emphasis upon the entire park, all of the wildlife and the landscapes too. The park offers more to us with this new appreciation, and our photo tour and the shooting assignment reflected this.

Here's the Day-to-Day Journal:


Day 1. Everyone arrived into Bozeman safely and without incident, which was especially noteworthy as today was the 10 year anniversary of 9-11. Appropriately, Clay, our lodge manager, hosted a fund-raising drive for the Wounded Warriors, asking for donations for an incredible barbeque dinner. Afterwards, we did our orientation and turned in early for our first full day afield.

Day 2. We loaded and left our lodge promptly at 6:15AM, driving directly to Swan Lake Flats where we had a bit of a fire-drill as we raced to capture the setting full moon. We had just minutes, but most of us got our gear out in time and captured some shots. Not long afterwards, we reversed directions and shot a fireball sunrise.
The lake itself was covered in fog, and ducks of several species flew through the fog to land unceremoniously within view of an adult bald eagle that we hoped would hunt. We shot our scenic as we waited, but the bird won and we left with the eagle still perched, looking about, apparently uninterested.
We had breakfast at our usual location where we usually have good luck with Pika, but today in both spots where we normally find this small, chinchilla-like lagomorph we didn’t have luck. Least Chipmunks and an industrious Red Squirrel worked the rocks, and Sandy and Kevin got some nice shots of the squirrel with pine cones in its mouth.
We stopped at Gibbon Falls, having a bit of difficulty finding this stop as the road had been constructed since last year and we took two dead-end turns that led, basically, no where. Stimulus money. The falls were great, and we spent well over an hour shooting at several different viewpoints.
Lunch, consequently, was late, 2PM, and afterwards we headed down the Madison River, stopping at each turnout to look for elk or coyotes. Far downriver, after the Iron Bridge, Mary waterfallspotted a cow elk in the river close to the road. We drove down, parked, and shot some nice shots of the cow before you returned to shore. Other elk moved through the pines, and the eerie, haunting bugle of a bull hinted at more action. Soon the herd entered the clearing, followed by the bull elk which we followed and shot, eventually leading to an exciting conclusion when the bull crossed the Madison River in front of us.
Now past 6PM, we headed north toward home, looking for more elk, moose, bear, or coyotes, but without any luck. As we drove down the final elevations toward Gardiner we stopped for three Big Horn Sheep, two ewes and one young ram, that fed along the river edge and later climbed the hill, walking or running right by us. A great conclusion, as we finally returned to the lodge by 7:45PM.

Day 3, Tuesday

We left promptly, heading toward Tower and, hopefully, the Lemar Valley. En route, we usually stop at a sunrise overlook to photograph the alpen glow on distant mountains but the sky colorwas murky and smoky and not promising for a colorful sunrise so we drove on. We stopped at another overlook that offered a broad view of the Hell Roaring Creek valley and the cascading ridges to the east. Seconds after we pulled in another car arrived, and almost immediately spotted several black Wolves that had bunched a herd of elk. In all there were six black wolves, three adults and three half grown pups, and although they ran about they never pursued the elk. Eventually they moved into some trees and disappeared.
We spent another hour or more working scenics, plants, landscapes, creative zooms, and more from this area. It was productive and fun, and most everyone tried a creative zoom, using a slow shutter speed and push-pulling while doing so. I worked on forest and macro landscapes, as the soft, smoky light created a pleasant softness to the images.
We continued on to Tower for a late breakfast, followed by a stop at the Basalt cliffs where we planned on shooting volcanism images and Yellowstone River landscapes. We did, but two Peregrine Falcons, an adult and an immature, stole the show, flying overhead and circling us, calling loudly as they did so. The shooting was challenging as we hand-held 500mm lenses, and dizzying, too, as we followed a bird as it flew in circles overhead. Nonetheless, we did achieve some great shots.


We headed out towards Lamar Valley, but a large herd of Bison dust-bathing, sparring, and milling about kept us busy until lunch. We returned to the Yellowstone picnic area for lunch, and then returned towards the Lamar, but more bison and Pronghorn antelope caught our attention. The herd eventually moved off, travelling to a large water hole where we shot bison-lake-sagebrush scenic shots.



By 5PM we headed towards home, hoping to encounter the Bighorn Sheep as they moved down the cliffs to drink at the Gardiner River. We reached the cliffs at 6PM, finding nearly a dozen sheep that were now heading back up slope. Still, the images were good. I saw several sheep further up the road that looked as if they were still descending, and after I walked up and radioed Mary the group joined me, and, for the next hour or so we filmed the sheep as they moved down or across the slope, getting right next to the road. I tried doing many slow-shutter speed pan shots as sheep trotted or ran down the steep banks, hopefully with some success.
We returned to the lodge by 7:45, everyone tired and happy after a very fulfilling day.

Day 4, Wednesday

It rained overnight, and the skies were overcast, dark, and dreary as we loaded the vehicles. As we started our drive towards Hayden Valley it began to rain again and with dark skies and miserable conditions we headed to Canyon’s Visitor Center where we had an early breakfast. canyonBy the time we finished the rain had stopped and the skies were clearing, so we headed to Artist Point on the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone for scenics.
We drove south, encountering a coyote near Otter Creek but the coyote moved off and only Sandy got a record shot. Several large herd of Bison were in Hayden, and we stopped at one herd where reflections made the images interesting. A Common Raven perched near our vans and cooperated, and everyone got some nice portraits with the bird posed against a clear background, the Yellowstone River.
After lunch we headed up to Mt. Washburn where a grizzly was reported and at a spot where we scoped for bears we took time to shoot an interesting dead tree for our weeklong assignment. Higher up, we found a Black Bear on the far slopes, perhaps two, as one looked black and later, in another view, we saw a bear that looked brown. Two were sighted, so we assume we saw them both.
treesWe had planned to return to the lodge by 6 for a slide show, but the burned forests on the upper slope was too good to pass up and we stopped traffic as we filmed, with everyone thinking we were working bears. Some tourists walked a hundred yards or more from their parking spots to reach us, and some didn’t believe we were only shooting trees.
We headed towards home, hoping to encounter bear or deer or moose while we still had light, and at one of the aspen groves we found a young Mule Deer beside the road. The deer was tame, and actually ran towards us to feed nearby before slowly wandering away. At one point the deer opened its mouth widely in a big grin, and luckily it was facing me, face on.



Driving home, Mary radioed that there was a great sky for a landscape Big Sky shot, but I didn’t hear her call. Later, we coordinated, and stopped for a cloudscape with a towering thunderhead, which we framed with foreground trees, rocks, and other photographers. We stayed until the last ‘alpenglow’ had faded, arriving home after 8:15 for a very long day that had started slow and unpromising, and ended wonderfully.

treeDay 5, Thursday
We headed toward Lamar, hoping to encounter wolves before they disappeared from any morning activity. Near Tower Junction, a foggy landscape and golden shadows stopped us for a few scenics, and later, at Little America, a Pronghorn Antelope teased us, grazing close to the road until we got out of the vans, where upon it turned and walked up a hill.

We continued, and as we entered Lamar we drove into a thick fog. A bison beside the road nearly vanished, and we tried our best to convey a sense of this ethereal scene. We almost turned back, but a pronghorn had us reverse direction again and
bisonwe continued through Lamar, as the fog gradually lifted.
Near the Northeast entrance Sandy spotted two Mountain Goats high on a distant cliff, but otherwise the drive was uneventful. Turning back towards Tower we spent some time at Soda Butte, photographing this extinct calcium carbonate hotspring.
After lunch we drove back to Dunraven Pass, hoping to see bears, but nothing was reported and we continued up Chittenden Road where we filmed the fire damage and plenty of wide-angle shots of flowers and landscapes. It was productive.
We headed back to the lodge early for our evening slide show, but at the Gardiner entrance we had great luck with a group of Pronghorns. We walked out to a trio of pronghorns that stood and began walking towards the main herd. That buck grew defensive and pushed the other pronghorn about, moving one within frame-filling distance of our group. A great way to end.


Day 6, Friday
The forecast was for rain today, and we began the day with a late, 7:30 breakfast in the room to avoid miserable weather outdoors. Further, leaving early we always miss any subjects because of our predawn commute. After breakfast we headed into the park, and on our way to Mammoth we met a large herd of Elk, including two good bulls that bugled and strutted about. Framed against a gray, stormy sky the elk made great silhouettes and the cows, up close in the sage, nice portraits.
We continued on to Mammoth and the terraces, were we spent another hour or so photographing the lowest terraces and travertine deposits. Mountain bluebirds, Western Bluebirds, and Clark’s Nutcrackers fed in the sage and pines, and we had some mixed success with the birds.

Our shooting assignment asked for aspens, the only area we had yet to visit, so we headed further up to a roadside grove. When we arrived no one was there, as expected, but as we began to photograph at least 20 other vehicles arrived, most with folks wondering whether we had an animal or a bear, and a few coming into the woods, puzzled, taking tree images without a clue as to why.
It was past 1:30 and past lunch, and it had begun to rain. We drove down to the cliffs to look for Pika and to have lunch, but the driving rain discouraged us to do either. Instead, we headed back to Mammoth to look for a picnic area but the rain continued, so we headed back to the lodge for an in-the-room lunch. Afterwards, with the remaining time everyone worked on their shooting assignment images for a pre-dinner slide show. This recap was wonderful, as the show was a great review of the wonderful images and sights we had during the course of a very productive week.