When entering Yellowstone National Park in winter you sense that you have crossed into another world, one of quiet softness hushed by a thick blanket of snow. Trees wreathed in frost loom like wraiths against the blue winter sky and towering waterfalls stand frozen in mid-plunge. The crisp icy air enhances the ethereal effect of Yellowstone's famous geothermal features. An exotic combination of mist-shrouded hot pools, bubbling paint pots, and steaming fumaroles creates an ever-shifting landscape of undulating clouds and mysterious shadows. It is an unearthly world of crystalline perfection.
"Yellowstone in winter is magical. It is truly a winter wonderland. See it with Jeff Vanuga who has been photographing Yellowstone for thirty years."
Seemingly deep in winter sleep, Yellowstone is alive with wildlife. Bison plow through deep snow in search of buried autumn-cured forage. Elk patrol the glistening white meadows and graze on grasses still green from the heat of nearby hot pools and bubbling springs. Numerous animals have emerged from the park's backcountry to congregate in the warmer and more hospitable lowlands and river valleys. Bighorn sheep have come down from their lofty summer range for the promise of a milder winter climate in the foothills.
For years, the highlights of our Yellowstone in Winter trips have come from our expeditions—using comfortable, specially-designed snow coaches—deep into the snowy interior of the world’s first national park. By far, the most spectacular snowscapes and wildlife photo opportunities have come from the remote interior valleys, canyons and geyser basins. For four days we travel by snow coach into the heart of Yellowstone’s most productive areas for photography.
To wander through the interior is to float through a fantasy landscape. Steam rising from numerous geysers becomes a super-cooled crystal fog. It drifts through the trees like diamond dust, collecting on every surface until entire groves become assemblies of ghostly druids bowing rigidly into the wind. Through this ever-changing landscape move the animals. Enveloped in fog, frost and snow, they appear as apparitions from out of the shifting mists—living phantoms haunting the landscape to be captured with our cameras.
From our accommodations in West Yellowstone and at Old Faithful we journey into the Madison Valley, to the Firehole River, and to the Fountain and Norris Geyser Basins. We photograph the thundering, ice-shrouded Upper and Lower Falls of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone and, with weather permitting, continue to the ever-changing snow and “skyscapes” of the Hayden Valley. On your right, trumpeter swans may forage along the frozen banks of the Yellowstone River. To your left, while starkly branching trees punctuate the whiteness, the drama of a tumultuous cloudy sky meets the stillness of snow-blanketed and subtly curvaceous hills.
We explore the fascinating Old Faithful area on foot. Some hiking on uneven surfaces and icy boardwalks or packed snow is required. The variety of geothermal features can best be photographed only when walking among the erupting geysers, pastel-colored hot pools, fumaroles and steaming run-off channels. Numerous big game species can be found in this area—the most abundant being buffalo, elk and coyotes. During the coldest days of winter, coinciding with the timing of our tour, the landscape is transformed into a winter wonderland of snow, “ghost trees” and graphic ice formations.
Traveling through the stunning Golden Gate by snow coach, our next destinations are Mammoth and our lodging in the small town of Gardiner, just outside the North Entrance. With lower elevations, this area typically receives less snowfall and therefore hosts overwintering bison and elk herds, among other wildlife. Using a chartered bus, we have a full day of photography, exploring from the McMinn Bench and Mammoth Terraces, through the expansive Lamar Valley, to Cooke City.
Join us on this magical journey through the crown jewel of America’s national parks with our exceptional leaders—one a wildlife photographer who lives there, the other a world-famous landscape photographer—who know the park thoroughly! Our time-tested itinerary offers maximum time in the field for photographing some of the American West’s most stunning winter landscapes and impressive big game animals.
Check out Jeff Vanuga's trip report from our 2017 tour.
Day 1 (Jan 25)
Participants fly to Bozeman, Montana, and transfer independently via scheduled shuttles to West Yellowstone, arriving in time for dinner. (D)
Using specially-chartered, track-converted snow coaches, we travel in the West Yellowstone area. We visit the wildlife-rich scenic areas along the Firehole and Madison Rivers and Fountain Geyser Basin. This section of the interior offers an enormous variety of wildlife, snow-encrusted trees, erupting geysers, hoar-frosted grasses and rugged mountain vistas. The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone is captured first thing in the morning, followed by the Hayden Valley and Norris Geyser Basin. (BLD)
We photograph the Midway, Biscuit and Black Sand Geyser Basins on the way to the Old Faithful area—they contain a wide variety of active geologic features as well as some magnificent elk and bison. Winter is a hard time for the park’s animals, but their lives are made a bit easier by the warmth of these thermal areas. (BLD)
We have a full day to explore the Old Faithful area on foot. From pre-dawn until sunset we photograph the Upper Geyser Basin, considered to be one of the premier winter photography locations in the park. With weather and timing in our favor, we hope to capture the shooting geysers against a backdrop of stars and tree-form silhouettes. (BLD)
This morning continue our exploration of the Old Faithful area on foot. Following lunch we travel through the Upper Geyser Basin and the Gibbon River area by snow coach to the Mammoth area, photographing en route. In the late afternoon we transfer to our hotel in Gardiner, Montana. Our lodging just outside the northern boundary of the park places us in close proximity to the McMinn Bench and the Lamar Valley, two of the richest wildlife areas of the park. (BLD)
We have a full day to explore the Mammoth Terraces and iconic Lamar Valley. Created by the flow of mineral-laden waters finding their way to the surface, the travertine terraces of Mammoth Hot Springs are part of the unearthly thermal landscapes conducive to abstract photography. Snow blankets, steamy vapors and colorful algae all add fantastical elements to your compositions.
Depending on conditions on the McMinn Bench and in Lamar Valley, we hope to photograph bighorn sheep, pronghorn antelope, elk, coyotes, and bison, and experience the thrill of a possible wolf sighting or two! (BLD)
Day 8 (Feb 1)
Following breakfast, return by chartered bus to the Bozeman airport in the midmorning in time for afternoon flights home. (B)
Above itinerary may be subject to change, depending on local weather and road conditions. Temperatures well below freezing are possible with the probability of ice and snow on roads and trails. Elevations on this tour range from 6,000 to 8,000 feet. To participate in this tour you should have reasonable endurance for short walks with your camera gear in wintery conditions!
The Yellowstone in Winter photo tour under Jeff Vanuga's leadership was a memorable experience. The tour itinerary, locations/stops and other details were expertly planned and implemented.
An awesome trip. An aspect of Yellowstone that very few people see—the wintery sights and sounds and having the park to yourself.
The ice formations are fabulous, from icicles in trees to the feather crystals on the grasses and fences, plus the frost on the eyelashes of bison.
—R. F. Norris