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Yellowstone in Winter
2023 Trip Report

On the western fringes of the Yellowstone Plateau lies one of five gateway communities to Yellowstone National Park—West Yellowstone, Montana. In winter, snow averages range from 3.5–5 feet. That combined with bitterly cold temperatures, it is considered by many a desolate place. How low can the temperature go? This high elevation town at 6000 ft holds the lowest recorded temperature for any residential community in the contiguous United States at -66F (-54C). During the winter season, the town is very quiet. A few hotels are open, there are restaurants to suit every palette; gift shops, gas stations, two small grocery stores and of course several bars where locals gather frequently to watch sports on big screens, eat, drink, play pool or shoot the breeze as they say in this part of the world. Visitors to the area also enjoy the Wolf and Grizzly Discovery Center with captive wolves and grizzly bears along with an iMax Theater. Many people photograph the animals in their semi natural environments at the Center and it is a good place to practice your photography skills and work your equipment prior to entering the park. Snowmobiles freely move about town, and they are a popular recreation activity in the backcountry with easy National Forest access. Cross country skiing, snowshoeing and even fishermen use it as a destination during these cold winter months. West Yellowstone is also the location of the West Entrance of Yellowstone National Park and a popular gateway for tourists and photographers like us, both in winter and summer.

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Our 2023 tour began in this tiny town of West Yellowstone where for the first three days we explored the interior of the park on a custom-made snow coach designed with upgraded suspension and massive 42-48” balloon tires which literally float over this frozen landscape. These snow coaches are quiet and smooth compared to the older tracked vehicles which frequented the park. Today, these newly designed vehicles have replaced the tracked versions which were rough, loud and had high maintenance requirements. As daylight approaches, we are treated to several open rivers because of thermal activity, thick fog, hoar frost covered trees and glimpses of wildlife. Trumpeter swans are still sleeping in the open waters of the Madison, Firehole and Gibbon Rivers and all eyes are straining to see wildlife such as bison, coyotes, wolves, foxes, and other illusive species. As the sun rises, we are treated to a magical winter wonderland that few people experience.

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Every morning brought a new adventure with no set-in-stone plan until we are literally loading the coach. Weather, temperature, atmospherics, fog, and any intel from previous days sightings of wolves and other critters dictate our plan of action. During the first three days we visited Midway, Norris and Lower Geyser Basins along with Hayden Valley and the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. We spent a fair amount of time and energy driving to these destinations while at the same time keeping a keen eye out for photographic opportunities along the way.

On Day 3 we transferred our group via private snow coach and photographed our way to the Snow Lodge at Old Faithful. We spent 2 nights and 2 mornings at the comfortable accommodations that sit adjacent to the world-famous Upper Geyser Basin. The next morning, we are up and out early to view the unlimited photographic landscape opportunities. Our main emphasis is on landscapes during our morning walks, but wildlife can be anywhere in the park. So, our motto is “be prepared.” Our full day of walking ranged anywhere between 3.5-6 miles and folks walk at their own pace to photograph what interests them in the time allotted here.

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Day 5 brought us back to West Yellowstone via private snow coach where we had a great dinner and prepared for the next morning’s snow coach adventure. We spent the last day photographing landscapes and a small herd of bull bison in the Hayden Valley area.
Wolves were very difficult to locate the entire month of January and well into February as we experienced above average snowpack that had a profound effect on all the animals in and around the park. Trapping and darting of the wolves by researchers also hampered our efforts. Eventually we hit pay dirt when a pack of wolves killed a young bison yearling in Midway Geyser Basin along the Firehole River. We happily took images that evening for perhaps 15 minutes and then all plans were radically changed. First, a spotter plane came over the pack tracking their movements around the carcass (one wolf had a GPS collar). Next, a helicopter roared in over a nearby ridge and made numerous attempts to dart one of the wolves from the air. We watched with mouths agape as the helicopter scattered the pack in all directions. But persistence paid off for the researchers and a dart finally made its mark on a straggler that was separated. Within a minute the aircraft landed in the Rabbit Creek thermal area out of sight of our cameras. Besides the initial shock, my first reaction was that we are screwed for the week with wolf images. But patience pays off!

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The next morning, we went straight to the kill site to see if there were any wolves or other predators in the area. Sure enough, a lone white wolf had a few last morsels of her meal and trotted off into the distance. Seeing where the wolf was headed and knowing the topography of the park, we jumped back into the coach and intersected her before heading into the woods. This wolf was not involved in the prior days trapping, so she was very tolerant of our presence. We stopped and photographed as this wolf gave us a howling display in the adjacent open meadow and when the chorus was completed, she walked by our group of photographers down along the roadway without a care in the world. Not a sound was uttered by our group as this spiritual experience was caught on camera.

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The wolf encounter was clearly the pinnacle of the week, but we were fortunate to get several great predator images of wolves, coyotes, foxes, and a bonus of a pine martin. The last time I photographed one of these illusive creatures was 40 years ago—so it was a special treat for me and all the other photographers in our group.

Overall, we had nothing short of a fantastic trip. Our group was treated to a mix of weather with snow, low temperatures, fog, wind, and even sunshine which really was not present for much of the previous month in the region. We checked all the boxes from a landscape perspective, hitting all the major geyser basins such as Upper, Lower, Middle Geyser Basins, Norris Geyser Basin, and the Mud Volcano area. And as for wildlife, some real special scenes and encounters with animals large and small. 

Next year we are planning another Ultimate Yellowstone adventure and hope to see you on the trip. Until we meet again, take a look at some of the photography that was captured on this year’s trip for insight into another stellar trip in 2024.

Upcoming Related Tours

Yellowstone in Winter

Capture images of the very best of Yellowstone’s snowy interior—unique geothermal features, snow-encrusted landscapes, and iconic wildlife—with an expert leader who knows the park intimately. Flexible itinerary with five snow coach days and short walks to explore geothermal areas and landscapes.

January 25 - 31, 2025
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