2011 Yellowstone & Grand Tetons in Autumn Trip Report

By Len Rue, Jr. on Oct 17, 2011

After spending several decades as a professional wildlife photographer, I am often asked to name my number one favorite place to photograph.  Without question, my answer is always, “Yellowstone.”  And why not?  It has it all!  For big game, Yellowstone has wolves, grizzly bears, black bears, elk, mule deer, moose, bighorn sheep, pronghorn, bison, mountain lions—the list goes on.  For unparalleled scenery, Yellowstone has mountain vistas, spectacular rivers and lakes, plunging waterfalls, vast forests and one of the largest and most photogenic geothermal areas in the world.  Toss in the incomparable Grand Teton Mountain Range—located just to the south—and you have an area filled with photographic opportunities without end.

Our September 2011 Yellowstone & Grand Tetons in Autumn tour was filled with photo highlights from my favorite destination:

•    A week of excellent weather and deep blue skies with just enough clouds to enhance the sunrises and the sunsets.

•    The fabulous scenery in the Tetons from early morning mountain reflections in a series of mirror-smooth beaver ponds along the Snake River to the park’s string of photogenic glacial lakes.

•    The southern part of Yellowstone, where the road hugs the rim of the Lewis River Canyon, and where we photographed a unique forested area that is undergoing a “rebirth” from the devastating 1988 Yellowstone fire.

•    One of my favorite places—Yellowstone Lake.  You can never get enough of the beauty of this huge lake, bordered on the east by the Absaroka Mountains.  Add impressive Lake Yellowstone Hotel, built in the early 1890s, for a truly great panorama.

•    Eating our picnic lunches—and photographing the bold, unwary gray jays that patrol the area—after spending part of the morning at the Upper and Lower Falls of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone.

•    Looking for—and finding many of—the highly photogenic wildlife species in both parks.

We started our trip in the Tetons at Jackson Hole where we stayed at Jackson Lake Lodge—world renowned Teton accommodations with excellent dining.  We were up before dawn at every opportunity to be at our shooting sites to capture sunrise.   We visited iconic “Mormon Row,” photographing some of the beautiful old historic barns erected in the 1800s by some of the valley’s first settlers.  Though you may not recognize Mormon Row by name, if you’re an outdoor photographer, you’ll definitely know the images.

We hit all the hot spots along the Snake River, Jenny Lake, String Lake and Leigh Lake and I made sure we were stationed at a prime afternoon vantage point to capture sunset over the Tetons.

We headed to Yellowstone National Park, stopping along the way for photo opportunities as they presented themselves.  The Teton Range from the north end of Jackson Lake always makes for a great photographic panorama.

Following lunch at West Thumb we spent a couple of hours photographing the West Thumb Geyser Basin which hugs the south shore of Yellowstone Lake.  We then drove up through the park past Old Faithful to Madison Junction and out of the park to the Montana town of West Yellowstone.

One of the most memorable highlights of our week was photographing the elk.  With elk, a great photo opportunity can present itself any morning—different weather conditions, backdrops, angles and animal behaviors.  During autumn in Yellowstone, the very first item on our daily schedule was to drive along the Madison River and look for elk bulls with harems.  We were not disappointed!  In a meadow we found a bull with several cows.  We photographed nonstop as they crossed the river, coming up near us, and crossed the road before working their way up into the timber where they stayed for the day.  Years ago, before wolves were reintroduced to the park, elk would stay down in the meadows for much longer stretches of time during the daylight hours.  Now, they have much better protection from wolf predation when up in the timber.

An important note:  Anytime you photograph big game, like elk, you need to do it safely.  Study and know the behavior of your subject.  Learn to recognize the danger signs in order to avoid trouble.  Use the proper photo equipment—large telephoto lenses in order to capture good photos from a distance and avoid stressing the animal.

We traveled north to Mammoth, taking a little known dirt road down to Gardner and then headed toward Tower Junction stopping to photograph Tower Falls.  We then proceeded over Mount Washburn and Dunraven Pass where the vistas are spectacular.  On the way over the pass we just missed seeing a grizzly bear that had gone into the timber about one-half hour before we arrived.

Heading south along the Firehole River, we spent a couple of hours photographing at the Midway Geyser Basin, which is one of my favorites.  Just before reaching Old Faithful, we encountered a bison herd very close to the road that gave us great shooting opportunities.  Excellent photos were taken of both a couple of big bulls, as well as the cows in the herd.  After eating our box lunches at Old Faithful, we spent the rest of the afternoon there—there is so much to see and do.  Old Faithful Geyser is of course the star attraction but the Upper Geyser Basin also beckoned.  All things must come to an end and unfortunately really great things seem to end even faster.  We arrived back at Jackson Hole for a farewell dinner at Jackson Lake Lodge.

My favorite place to photograph, a wonderful group—many of us made lasting friendships—and a week filled with wildlife and a remarkable variety of landscapes.  It couldn’t get any better!  When we returned to the Tetons, after our days in Yellowstone, we found that many of the aspen trees had turned bright yellow—presenting us with bonus images of rich fall color to add to our already memorable week of photography!