Yellowstone & Grand Tetons in Autumn 2013 Trip Report

By Len Rue, Jr. on Nov 27, 2013

The best word to describe the September 2013 autumn trip to Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks is “snow.” Winter made a major effort to come a little early this year, so we had snowy conditions for most of our time on the higher elevations of the Yellowstone Plateau.

We spent the first day and a half down in the Jackson Hole area of Grand Teton National Park—this part of the trip gave us our only stretch of sun with blue skies. For this leg, we always stay at Jackson Lake Lodge where the accommodations and dining are excellent. Every morning is an early out in the dark so we can be in a good location and in time to catch the best light of the morning. On our first morning we photographed the historic old barns of Mormon Row set in front of the Teton Range. Later, a large herd of bison on both sides of the road presented great photo opportunities. As the day progressed we had blue skies for gorgeous landscape photography of the Teton Range up close, and we spent a good part of the afternoon down along String and Jenny Lakes. Our sunset shoot of the Teton Range was from Teton Overlook.

Early the next morning we set up for sunrise at Oxbow Bend. As the sun first lit up Mount Moran, the sky was quite striking—a major storm was beginning to move in, making for some dramatic images in great light. After the shoot we headed back to the lodge where we had breakfast (Jackson Lake Lodge does a great brunch) before leaving for Yellowstone.

The bulk of the Yellowstone Plateau is about 8,000 feet above sea level, so there’s quite a lot of elevation gain as the road leaves Jackson Hole and heads north into Yellowstone National Park. The southern portion of Yellowstone is still recovering from the 1988 fires that burned a large percentage of the park. Some members of our group really got into photographing the unique patterns in the decaying logs that litter the ground. In this part of the park, Lewis River Canyon is quite impressive and the first waterfall of the trip, Lewis Falls, always pleases. Our box picnic lunches were eaten at West Thumb, a wonderful place to get your first unobstructed views of Yellowstone Lake. West Thumb has an outstanding geyser basin with many colorful hot pools and geysers, and we spent a couple of hours photographing the geothermal features. On the drive to West Yellowstone, our base while we were in Yellowstone, the road parallels the Firehole River, passing through the Upper, Middle and Lower Geyser Basins. Along Fountain Flat Drive, we spent some time photographing two very cooperative trumpeter swans.

Since the reintroduction of the wolf in the 1990s, the number of elk in the park has declined and the animals are harder to locate. In the 1970s and 1980s you would regularly see them in some of the high meadows. But there are still a couple of elk harems that are always to be found along the Madison River early in the day. Every morning, we left West Yellowstone early to locate and photograph the elk along the river—and every morning presented unique shooting opportunities. The first morning we found and photographed a big bull elk breeding a cow—which you don’t often see. Later that day we photographed at Gibbon Falls, Norris Geyser Basin and Mammoth Hot Springs.

On our second early Yellowstone morning we had another great elk photo opportunity and worked on a different big bull elk about seven miles down the road from the first. After we finished with the elk, we drove to the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. The winter storm that had been threatening for a couple of days finally started to dump snow. It came down so fast accumulating about four inches in around two hours—and Yellowstone turned winter white. Roads had to be plowed and all road passes were closed. It was the first snowfall of the coming winter and it covered everything with a gorgeous layer of new snow. It gave a whole new perspective to our photography.

We were able to get down along Yellowstone Canyon and we photographed there and at the Lower Falls of the Yellowstone—the new snow and low cloud cover making for moody images. We continued down through the Hayden Valley to Lake Village on Yellowstone Lake, where we turned around and headed back to West Yellowstone—a little early so we wouldn’t be stranded in the park after dark. It snowed off and on all day.

The winter weather continued and on our third Yellowstone day we stayed on the major roads and spent most of the day photographing the various thermal areas around the Lower Geyser Basin. It continued to snow, or threatened to snow, all day.

On our final day in Yellowstone we work our way back down to the Grand Tetons and Jackson Hole. It had snowed another couple of inches overnight night so early in the morning we photographed the elk in the snowy, winter setting. The elk did not disappoint. We were able to get some excellent images of elk among snow-covered lodgepole pines. As the big bull moved through the grove of trees, he rubbed his antlers on the branches, knocking the snow down onto himself. Afterwards, we photographed the Middle Geyser Basin with colorful Grand Prismatic hot spring in the stormy, wintery setting. We spent the afternoon at Old Faithful watching the geyser go off, seeing historic Old Faithful Inn and the new Visitor Center.

As we returned to Jackson Hole, some of the aspen leaves that had still been green only the week before, had turned a beautiful golden color and we photographed the trees positioned in front of the stormy Teton Range. The next morning we all said our good-byes as we headed home. During the week in the Grand Tetons and Yellowstone, our autumn tour had also given us a taste of early winter and a bounty of different shooting opportunities.