Yellowstone in Winter 2017 Trip Report

By Jeff Vanuga on Feb 24, 2017

Without question the best time to photograph Yellowstone National Park is during the winter.  The massive tourist crowds are absent, the park is blanketed in fresh snow, and the landscape is transformed into a winter wonderland.  Our adventure this year was no exception, and as I drove from my home in Dubois, Wyoming, to meet the group in West Yellowstone, Montana, I knew this trip would be epic.  The area around the Yellowstone ecosystem had experienced record cold temperatures and snowfall for over two months and, as I drove northward through Idaho and Montana, every inch of the landscape was a picture postcard scene.  The long-range forecast was now calling for warming temperatures and heavy snowfall, along with blizzard conditions, for the next couple of weeks.  Although snow is always welcome for a winter shoot, a little sun does provide some nice contrast, especially when photographing erupting geysers.  One thing I always emphasize to my clients is that “weather makes the picture.”  Time would tell!
 
Everyone in the group arrived safely and on time in West Yellowstone.  We met in our hotel lobby, made our introductions, and walked a short distance to one of my favorite places in West Yellowstone, Madison Crossing Lounge, for our welcome dinner.  
 
We spent the next three days traveling on our private snow coaches photographing when and where we pleased, capturing Yellowstone’s wildlife and renowned thermal features.  On our first day in the park we cruised along the Madison and Firehole River drainages visiting both Lower and Midway Geyser Basins.  One of my favorite locations to shoot early in the morning is Tangle Creek in the Firehole Drive area.  The landscapes in this little section of the park become a fairyland with heavy frost coating all the trees and grasses on any cold morning.  No matter if you are visiting the area for the first time or not, the scenes are jaw dropping.  Along the way we spent time photographing many of Yellowstone’s iconic wildlife species, including elk, bison, coyotes and bald eagles.  Then, as we were returning to West Yellowstone, we encountered one of the bobcats that frequent an area along the Madison River.  On our tours, we had run into these elusive predators four out of the past five years, although last year was a bust and no one had yet seen the bobcats this year.  They are extremely difficult to spot and blend in with rocks and logs for perfect concealment and camouflage.  This time we were in luck!  Along the Madison River, we spotted one of the cats lying in wait for waterfowl—waiting for the next meal to float by!  During the last light of day we photographed this majestic animal as it hunted along one of Yellowstone’s many waterways.
 
The next day we headed out for the long snow coach drive to Hayden Valley located on the west side of the park.  While cruising alongside the Yellowstone River we encountered a family of otters running and sliding on top of the snow-covered frozen river.  There was no open water in sight and it was obvious they were heading downstream in search of it.  At this point we had the drivers turn the coaches around (not easy) to follow the otters.  This turned out better than expected!  The family of otters treated us with over an hour of photo opportunities as they dined on Yellowstone cutthroat trout, played, and groomed each other on the edge of a frozen shelf of ice.  Otters are always on the move and to have them stay in one place for hours was a once-in-a-lifetime experience!  
 
The following day we drove to Old Faithful where we would spend the next several days capturing this world famous geyser basin.  As we headed southward a blizzard was beginning to move into the region.  The snow coach drive down gave us time to photograph Yellowstone wildlife and hit several of the geyser basins en route, such as Biscuit and Black Sand Basin, which we did not have a chance to visit previously.  With the expected blizzard now upon us the weather transformed the landscape to one that was surreal in nature and provided us with some very different photographic opportunities. 
 
We walked around the Old Faithful area shooting thermal features and bison.  With high winds and snowy conditions we had almost no opportunities to photograph some of the many geysers in this part of the park.  White steam on white sky really does not work, so I was a little discouraged by not having a little sun to give the geysers some contrast.  We watched several geyser eruptions but concentrated our photography on geothermal channels and pools, including Giant and Grotto Geyser which were brilliantly colored with filamentous algae, and other geologic features.  The colorful thermal channels and steaming pools provided a nice splash of color in an otherwise monochromatic white landscape. Two real treats were Morning Glory Pool and Crested Pool which were rich in vivid reds, oranges, blues and greens.  
 
Our last day was spent on the snow coaches heading back to West Yellowstone.  En route we photographed trumpeter swans, elk, and bison foraging in the deep snow.  In contrast to all the beauty of the landscape, some of the animals were starting to have a hard winter with the continual snowfall and snow depths reaching four feet or more.  Below average temperatures compounded the problem.  The bison were working nonstop moving large amounts of snow by sweeping their heads back and forth to reach the surface of the soil for a few bites of grass.  We photographed them on the rare occasions they picked up their snow-clad heads to catch a quick glance around to check for predators.  We also encountered an unexpected treat that I had never before heard about or seen before—fishing coyotes!  Yes, you read that right, a coyote was fishing for Yellowstone cutthroat trout.  Although we did not see it actually catch anything, it was a special and rare sight to see this guy fishing in the river. 
Our farewell dinner was at an exceptional restaurant called the Serenity Bistro. Tiny and with limited seating it serves fabulous food with a European flair.  We toasted to our successful adventure, to new friendships, and safe journeys home.  
 
The winter scenes in Yellowstone were nothing short of spectacular.  Postcard scenics everywhere you turned and animals in abundance along every stream and river corridor.  Although we encountered some rough weather with blizzard conditions and heavy snows, the trip provided several other unique photo opportunities: frosted bison faces, ethereal monochromatic landscapes, and some memorable wildlife encounters with a bobcat, otters, and even a fishing coyote.  Yellowstone always has much to offer the adventure photographer, especially in winter.  Even whiteout conditions can yield some great results!  Next year my colleague Jack Dykinga and I will be co-leading this trip.  Jack’s landscape photography is world renowned and I look forward to working with him.  The Yellowstone in Winter trips fill fast, so reserve your spot soon.  We hope to see you in 2018!   

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