Yellowstone in Winter 2013 Trip Report

By Jeff Vanuga on Feb 12, 2013

Of all my photographic trips to exotic places, Yellowstone in Winter has to rate as one of my all-time favorites. The location is so exquisite that I have returned year after year since the early 80s to revisit the park in wintertime and photograph its wonderland of fire and ice. This year I had the pleasure of leading two groups of photographers into the park’s wintery interior for a photographic exploration.

Both trips cover identical itineraries but which were altered a bit at times due to light conditions and wildlife sightings. Our first few days were spent exploring the areas from West Yellowstone to Midway Geyser Basin and north to Norris Geyser Basin, the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone and Hayden Valley in private snow coaches. On the first day, en route to Midway Geyser Basin, the Madison and Firehole Rivers are magnets for wintering animals. Along these wildlife corridors our groups photographed elk, bison, coyotes, wolves, eagles, swans and other wintering wildlife. On one of our explorations, our real score was photographing a pair of wild bobcats along the Madison River. This was a once-in-a-lifetime sighting—never mind capturing them on camera. Wolves are, of course, elusive but we were treated to them early in the first week, near the Mary Mountain Trailhead. One of these fine creatures had a bad case of the mange and had the appearance of a lion with literally no hair on his chest and back and just a tuft of fur at the end of his tail. He was forever afterwards known as the Lionwolf for rest of the trip and entertained us on several occasions.

On day two our expedition took us to Norris Geyser Basin, the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone and Hayden Valley. Travel to these three destinations makes for a long day, but yields big rewards. Norris is one of the hottest spots in the park and contains three main basins: Porcelain, Back Basin and One Hundred Springs Plain. We had enough time to cover most areas but were fully entertained by what we were able to shoot while walking for just a couple of hours. The rest of the day was spent photographing both Upper and Lower Falls and the truly grand landscape of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. If time and weather allowed, we visited Hayden Valley where possible sightings of buffalo, wolves, otter and swans awaited.

On our third day we worked our way south from West Yellowstone, visiting several new geyser areas, including Biscuit and Black Sand Basins before arriving at Old Faithful. Here we enjoyed our evening meal and a lecture/slide show by winter keeper and photographer, Steven Fuller. A longtime resident of the park, Steve has photographed the wonders of Yellowstone for over 40 years. Widely published over the years, Steve shared his images and many stories from his life in the park with us.

Old Faithful is the heart of Yellowstone’s thermal areas and contains about 25% of all geysers found in the park. The winter landscape is a magical wonderland and thermal features of geysers, fumeroles, thermal pools and hissing steam vents add to the drama of a landscape in conflict with fire and ice. The atmospherics in these areas photographed under a variety of lighting conditions, are simply a photographer’s paradise. Here, we spent one and a half days walking the Upper Geyser Basin and photographing some of Yellowstone’s most famous geologic features—Old Faithful, Castle Geyser, Beehive Geyser, Lion Group and many more.

After finishing our exploration of the Upper Geyser Basin, we boarded our private snow coaches and worked our way through the park to Mammoth Hot Springs. Because the drive usually takes all afternoon we made several photographic stops along the way to shoot animals, Firehole River Basin, Gibbon Falls and other points of interest. Following our arrival at Mammoth, we enjoyed our evening meal and prepared for next day’s journey to Lamar Valley. The area is best known for its wintering wildlife, including buffalo, elk sheep and the elusive gray wolf. An early morning start paid off as we were able to observe and photograph a female wolf, howling and seeking a mate, from the Blacktail Pack. This offered some exceptional photographic opportunities and the thrill of listening to the call of the wild at relatively close range. Our last afternoon was spent at Mammoth Terraces where we were treated to more of the special geologic features Yellowstone has to offer.

The next morning we headed to Bozeman where the trip concluded and everyone departed for their home destinations. Overall, we had two great trips and to match that I was fortunate to have a great bunch of folks to share in the adventure. Whether your real interest lies in landscapes or wildlife, everyone returns home with a quiver full of world-class images. To whet your appetite for the upcoming trips to Yellowstone in Winter, you can view some of the images taken on this year’s adventure. Be sure to sign up early! See you there!