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Yellowstone in Winter Tour One
2024 Trip Report

The book entitled The Lost World was a science fiction story published in 1912 followed by the movie in 1960 about an expedition to a remote plateau in the Amazon Basin where prehistoric animals still survive.  Yellowstone has many similarities to a “lost world” by being isolated by nine plateaus forming one giant high elevation plateau called Yellowstone National Park.  The animals that inhabit the park are also out of a time machine including keystone species like the gray wolf. 

The park sits in a remote area of the lower 48 states with over 90% in the northwest corner of Wyoming.  Although a few million visitors come to this area from the middle of May through October, just a fraction of that number visit in winter.  Access to the interior is only via specially built snow coaches and a handful of group snowmobile tours.  During winter months, heavy snow closes all the inner roads to regular vehicles and tourists and by mid-December the park reopens only by private snow coach or snowmobile tours.

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On March 1, 1872, President Ulysses S. Grant signed the Yellowstone National Park Protection Act into law, marking the birth of the world’s first national park. In 1871, the famous painter Thomas Moran and photographer Henry Jackson accompanied the Hayden Expedition, painting and photographing their way through this magical landscape. Their works were instrumental in influencing Congress to establish the world’s first national park.

Following in the footsteps of these early photographers and painters, our group of intrepid travelers embarked on three daily trips into the quiet interior of the park from our home base in West Yellowstone, Montana.  We spent each day riding in comfort in our private snow coaches. These are commercial vans outfitted with massive 42” low-pressure tires and beefed-up suspension.  The ride is quite cushy for such a large rig and we devoted these days to exploring the park’s remote corners.

Our daily plans and destinations were fluid, contingent upon weather patterns, road conditions, and potential wildlife sightings from preceding days. While some outings focused on wildlife encounters, others prioritized capturing the park’s breathtaking landscapes. Ideally, a balanced mix of both would accommodate everyone’s interests, yet Yellowstone’s unpredictable weather dictates the rhythm of our journey.  Despite all the variables, we managed to photograph some of the iconic locations like Hayden Valley, Norris Geyser Basin, and the Lower Falls of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. 

Every day, we scanned this snowscape for wolves and other predators. Several times, we came across coyotes and a lone fox, but the wolves evaded us. We did see three packs during our travels, but at half a mile or more. Viewing them was “almost” as exciting as photographing them, and on separate occasions, we saw the Wapiti, Mollies, and the Rescue Packs. It was my first time seeing so many in one trip, but the photographic opportunities eluded our efforts.

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Although we dedicated a significant amount of time and effort to finding wolves, other creatures, large and small, also made their appearances, filling in the gaps. One iconic example is the bison, which saw its population decline drastically from 30 million at the turn of the century to a mere 26 animals isolated in Yellowstone Park. Through captive breeding programs by zoos and private collections, the wild bison population in Yellowstone, as indicated by last year’s census, now stands at around 5,000 animals, marking one of many conservation success stories surrounding Yellowstone Park.

Bison are one of my favorite subjects in all seasons but in winter it makes it extra special with snow covered landscapes and thermal steam rising in the distance.   And who could resist a snow faced bison! Some of the other species found at this time of the year are trumpeter swans, otters, moose, pine martin, ravens, grouse and the most elusive animal of all IMO, the snowshoe hare.  The tracks are everywhere but the hare is never seen.  A master of its environment! 

There were more trumpeter swans seen on this trip than in the last couple years.  These winter migrants come down from as far away as Grande Prairie, Alberta, Canada and find the warmer waters of the park desirable for overwintering.  We took several opportunities to photograph them along the Madison and Yellowstone Rivers.  

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After the first three days touring in the snow coach, we transferred by snow coach again and spent two nights at the Snow Lodge at Old Faithful Geyser Basin just to photograph the magic of the highest density of thermal features on the planet.

Altogether, Yellowstone has over 10,000 thermal features, offering a window into volcanic influences such as hot springs, fumaroles, geysers, mud pots, and colorful thermophilic communities that thrive in extreme water temperatures. These thermophiles, consisting of bacteria and algae forming filaments, have a significant influence, adding splashes of color to hot pools and thermal channels formed from water runoff from geysers and thermal activity. Some of these become central themes in our photographs, enlivening an otherwise monochromatic landscape.

After two nights at the Snow Lodge, we headed north via snow coach to Mammoth Hot Springs, and the following morning, we headed out on the Northern Range which is open year-round to private vehicles to Cooke City, Montana, the end of the road in winter. This portion of the trip is mostly wildlife-oriented, keying in on wintering bison, elk and various predators and scavengers.

A short distance west of Mammoth we ran into the Rescue Pack of wolves a long distance away doing what canines do, sleep.  We spent some time in this area waiting for any movement, but darkness came first.  This area has gradually seen disappointing wildlife numbers in recent years and we have decided to eliminate this leg of the trip and spend additional wildlife time with snow coaches in the park’s interior in 2025.

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We also spent some time photographing Mammoth Hot Springs, which is adjacent to our hotel and within walking distance.  From here we had our final dinner and the next morning headed to Bozeman, MT where the VOPS tour originated. We had a great group of participants from around the world and everyone enjoyed every minute of the tour.  Great photography and too many laughs to count.  A jovial group I might add!

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Overall, it’s a magical time to visit the park when crowds are absent, and one can hear the distant calls of wolves and coyotes, experiencing peace and tranquility on a grand scale. It’s a place far removed from everyday life, where most of us live. Yellowstone in winter is an excellent place to relax, photograph and reflect and to connect with nature. As a nature photographer, it’s one of the top locations in the world, and modern technology enables us to navigate around in the throes of winter in warmth and comfort and with people that have common interests in travel and adventure. And of course, a keen interest in photography.

I’m often asked where my favorite location is to capture, given the many locations and countries I have been to in my long career in photography. The answer is always the same: “Yellowstone in Winter.” It’s the primary reason why I moved to Wyoming, a short distance from the park, over 40 years ago. I still like to think of it as a lost world!

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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