Yellowstone in Winter 2016 Trip Report

By Jeff Vanuga on Feb 09, 2016

The sounds of silence.
Anyone who has traveled with me in the past is aware that Yellowstone in winter is one of my most favorite places on the globe to photograph.  No matter how many times I have visited the park in winter it is always a new and fresh experience.  The weather plays the biggest role in transforming Yellowstone into a magical winter wonderland—and imagery is never the same due to the changing dynamic landscape.  Snow, hoar frost, ice, and the contrast of cold weather and hot thermal steam transform the landscape from season to season and day to day.  No two scenes ever remain the same and the 2016 trip was as different and as varied as any I have done in the past.
As with all winter tours, we start in West Yellowstone. Using two private 15-passenger custom snow coaches gives each participant adequate space for photo gear.  For two and a half days we drive around Yellowstone visiting wildlife areas along the Madison and Firehole Rivers, with stops at iconic geyser basins, such as Lower and Midway Geyser Basins.  Bison are the most popular animal seen in the park and everyone looks for the frost-covered bison to photograph—which is almost guaranteed.  During our explorations, we concentrate our efforts on any animal we find, such as coyote, elk, fox, ravens—and wolves if we should be lucky to find any within camera distance.  On our third day we continue by snow coach to Old Faithful.  From here we spend the entire day traveling through various geyser basins, including Biscuit and Black Sand Basins en route to Upper Geyser Basin. 
This year, we spent quite some time searching for a bobcat that frequents the Madison River drainage, but with no luck.  They are extremely elusive and difficult to spot with their cryptic coloration, perfectly blending into their environment.  We gave it a good effort, but the cat had not been seen that week by anyone else so we had some comfort knowing that our time was not wasted.  Our last full day with the snow coaches was spent exploring Gibbon Falls, Norris Geyser Basin, the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone with stops at the Upper and Lower Falls, and concluding in Hayden Valley.  After two and a half days exploring Yellowstone we added many first-class images to our portfolios of landscapes and wildlife.
On the third day we arrived at Old Faithful late in the afternoon.  We spent the next day and a half exploring this basin, which contains the highest concentration of geothermal features in the park, including some of the largest geysers, including Old Faithful, Grand, Daisy, Riverside and Lion Geyser, along with thousands of smaller features such as fumaroles and hot springs.  Some of Yellowstone’s wildlife frequents these areas and our group scored big on a pair of coyotes feeding within yards of one of the boardwalks.  The coyotes hunted, howled and ate voles right in front of several participants—and the events were captured with a minimum of focal length.  On the afternoon of our last day at OId Faithful we took the snow coaches northward to our next destination, Mammoth Hot Springs.
After a night at Mammoth we are again up early in the morning for the drive to the Lamar Valley in search of mega fauna.  We managed to score on some large bull elk, bighorn sheep, and bison, but the wolves remained elusive.  They were seen miles away and really only with powerful spotting scopes.  The Park Service was trapping wolves that week with helicopters and, of course, the animals wanted nothing to do with the human presence and kept their distance from curious tourists—and photographers. 
We managed to make it to Cooke City for lunch, where we ate at a place called Buns and Beds, a stop one would not normally make unless it was recommended by a local.  The setting is an old log building where, in spots, one can see outside through cracks in the logs.  One might question our choice.  However, once lunch was served, our group could not stop complimenting the fantastic food at this out-of-the-way diner.  Everyone agreed that they had the best burgers and ribs (cooked outside on a giant grill) that anyone could remember eating.  A real surprise considering the funky atmosphere! 
After lunch we gradually made our way back to Mammoth where we concluded the tour with a shoot at Mammoth Hot Springs Terraces.  The sculpted travertine (calcium carbonate) tinted with shades of brown, orange-red and green algae make for ideal late afternoon photography and a fitting end to a wonderful week.
One thing that is particularly special about a trip to Yellowstone in winter is the lack of other visitors.  In contrast to the record 4.2 million people who visited the park this past year—mostly during spring, summer and fall—winter remains a quiet season.  Since the park recently limited winter visitation by changing the open rule and now not allowing 2-cycle snowmobiles, which were loud and polluting, but only vehicles using the best technology standards, one can experience tranquility in the park once again.  There were numerous times on our trip when we were the only people walking the geyser basins or photographing the wildlife.  Occasionally we would see a few groups of clean-burning and quiet snowmobiles or snow coaches transporting a few tourists.  Other than an occasional sighting of our fellow Homo sapiens, the park was left to us to enjoy in quiet solitude. 
Coyotes howling, thermal features hissing and spouting steam, and rivers and waterfalls flowing—that was our audio entertainment for the week amidst the “sounds of silence.”  The focus of this trip is not only to obtain world-class imagery of an iconic national park, but to savor the solitude of a wilderness of 2.2 million acres that is experienced by only a few hardy travelers every winter.  A nice contrast to the rat race and noise of humanity that we typically encounter every day!