Yellowstone National Park in Fall – Prime Time for Photography

by Mark Van Bergh | November 1, 2004

© Mark Van BerghWhat is it about a place that we as photographers feel compelled to go there, not just once or twice, but many times, perhaps year after year? Is it the location’s natural beauty; its unique geologic features, the abundant wildlife, the challenge of creating photographs that are able to convey our own experiences and emotional responses to the surroundings? Or maybe just the chance of meeting new people who share our passion for photography? Yellowstone National Park offers all of that and more.

The photographic possibilities in Yellowstone are near endless for a nature photographer. Yellowstone is probably the best location in the lower 48 states to photograph wildlife, which includes bears, bighorn sheep, bison, eagles, elk, moose, pronghorn antelope, trumpeter swans and, if one is lucky, wolves. For the landscape photographer there is the “Grand Canyon” of the Yellowstone, numerous waterfalls, lakes, rivers and streams, mountains, and sweeping prairies. Unique hydrothermal features including geysers, hot springs, paint pots and more offer opportunities not found anywhere else in the U.S., and can add mood and mystery to an otherwise “ordinary” landscape. Frequently, you can have several of these features in your viewfinder at the same time.

Pathway © Mark Van Bergh

I first visited Yellowstone in August 1968, when as a child my parents took us on a driving tour of the west. Although that visit is etched in my memory, it was not until the mid-1990’s that I returned, this time with a keen photographic interest. That trip, in September, after the hordes of summer tourists had departed, was just the start. I have since returned numerous times, in September and in winter, to experience the magical place that is Yellowstone. For a photographer, I believe these are the two best times to visit Yellowstone. This article focuses on fall photography in the world’s first national park.

Although fall does not last long in Yellowstone, it probably is the most intense period for photography in the park, due in large part to increased wildlife activity. Mid- to late September finds elk in the rut. Bulls are joining herds of cows and does, bugling and jousting with other males for the right to assemble harems of as many as 60 cows. All mammals are beginning to sport beautiful winter coats. Bears are foraging to fatten up before winter’s hibernation. Aspen groves in the northern part of the park (particularly near Mammoth) are taking on their famous golden glow. It is no surprise, therefore, that mid- to late September finds many photographers visiting the park.

During one visit, at Elk Park (near Norris Junction), the late afternoon sun illuminated two large bull elk in the rut jousting for control of a large herd of cows. They locked antlers, pushing each other back and forth. The clacking of antlers echoed throughout the meadow. It was a wildlife photographer’s dream come true, as evidenced by the numerous photographers, professional and amateur, gathered along the edge of the meadow hoping to capture the action. The line of tripods and long lenses reminded me of a major sporting event.

While the number of photographers may put some off, it is not always like that. Indeed, on a different trip during the first week of September, it was almost like having the park to your self. Although normally a bit early for the rut, I had numerous encounters with a large, proud bull elk and his harem in the meadows near Madison Junction. Younger and smaller bulls in the area would come close, but none challenged him for control of the herd (at least while I was there).

In October, moose go into their rut, although your odds of seeing moose in the rut are better in Grand Teton National Park to the south – which also is a great fall shooting location, but that’s a different article. Elk, although no longer in the rut, still populate the park. Tourists are, for the most part, long gone. Chances also increase for an early snow to add interest to your photographs.

Moose © Mark Van Bergh

A nature photographer who enjoys photographing landscapes and wildlife will face the difficult decision of how to prioritize his or her shooting. While there are some locations that can be good for either, generally speaking, the prime locations for one are not the prime location for the other. For example, a wildlife photographer may want to scout the open meadows near Madison and Norris Junctions, looking for herds of elk that come out from the forest in the early morning and late afternoon. The landscape photographer may prefer to be along the shore of a lake or river for sunrise or sunset, or perhaps in a geyser basin looking for interesting early morning or late afternoon shots of steam vents, fumaroles, or if you’re lucky, an erupting geyser. One of my favorite subjects in Yellowstone is a backlit tree with steam rising through its branches, which creates fascinating displays of light rays as the steam drifts through light and shadow.

A logistical advantage for the photographer trying to do both is that the sun generally needs to rise above tree lines and mountains to illuminate the meadows where the elk are. Depending on the location of the elk, and the sun, it is certainly possible to do some sunrise landscape shooting and then head for the meadows, or reverse the process in the afternoon when the meadows have gone into shadow.

Generally speaking, my first priority in the fall is wildlife, which also seems to be the case for most photographers in the park at that time. Having made this decision, the next question is where to concentrate my efforts. Yellowstone is a large park and wildlife are not located in just one area. If you only have a day or two, my suggestion is to concentrate on a limited area, rather than trying to take in the whole park. It simply is too large. If you have more time you can explore other areas.

Bison © Mark Van Bergh

For example, many photographers looking to photograph elk will concentrate their efforts between Madison and Norris Junctions. Here, meadows located along the Madison and Gibbon rivers near the two junctions are prime elk territory. These locations are sufficiently close that a photographer can easily work them together. Other wildlife in this general area includes bison and coyotes. I also have seen moose in the meadow area just past Norris Junction on the way to Canyon. Trumpeter swans also are frequently seen in the Madison River between West Yellowstone and Madison, and in the Firehole River south of Madison towards Old Faithful. One of my favorite spots for sunrise is along the road from West Yellowstone, just before Madison Junction, where “S” turns in the river and rising steam on cold mornings are backlit by the rising sun (this area is just behind the Madison campground). Although ever hopeful of also finding an elk or two crossing the river or grazing along the riverbank at such times, I had such luck only once when “unfortunately” it was a young cow rather than a big bull.

This area, and south to Old Faithful, also is home to much of Yellowstone’s easily accessible hydrothermal areas, including Norris Geyser Basin, Midway Geyser Basin (which includes Grand Prismatic Spring and its luminous displays of green, yellow, orange and red), and the Lower and Upper Geyser Basins. Firehole Lake Drive leads to Great Fountain Geyser, which in addition to its eruptions can be a good sunset location with pools of reflective water in the terraced base of the geyser. You also may see wildlife wandering through the geyser basins.

Another general area for elk is Mammoth Hot Springs. South of Mammoth, you may see moose near Indian Creek and Willows Park. A few miles north of Mammoth, before you reach the park’s north entrance in Gardiner, looking back to the east are the slopes of Mt. Everts, where bighorn sheep frequently graze. Be sure to take binoculars to scout the mountainside for bighorn before hiking up with your equipment. Along the last mile or two of the road to Gardiner, and along the gravel road behind the high school just past the park’s original entrance, you have a good chance to see pronghorn antelope. Mammoth Hot Springs also features the colorful travertine terraces formed by hydrothermal activity. The terraces are best photographed in morning light once the sun rises over the mountains.

The Lamar Valley area, defined broadly here as the road from Tower Junction to Cooke City, can provide opportunities to find bison, coyotes, elk, moose (closer to Cooke City) and the now famous Yellowstone wolves. The wolf population in Yellowstone has grown rapidly since fourteen were reintroduced several years ago. The original packs have now grown into several, which have spread through the park. But the Lamar Valley remains the prime viewing area for wolves. However, the odds of getting an opportunity to photograph the wolves are not good. Frequently, the wolves are seen at a great distance across the valley. For wolf watchers with spotting scopes, this may be fine, but for photography it is not. That is not to say that you cannot have a photographable wolf encounter, or even a good one, just that it takes perseverance and luck. The longer your stay in Lamar Valley, the better your odds, but do you want to give up opportunities to photograph a variety of other subjects in the hope that you will have a chance encounter with the wolves? Only you can make that decision.

Near Tower Junction towards Canyon is Tower Falls, a 132 foot waterfall that can be photographed from a viewing area, or the base of the falls at the end of a steep half-mile trail. Continuing the drive towards Canyon, you may find bear, and on the slopes of Mt. Washburn you can find bighorn sheep.

Tower Falls © Mark Van Bergh

As its name implies, Canyon is the location of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. Separate roads take you to vistas along the canyon’s north and south rims. The vistas provide views of the canyon and Upper and Lower Falls. Because the canyon is so deep, light generally reaches the bottom only from mid- to late morning until early afternoon.

Continuing south to Fishing Bridge and Lake you go through the Hayden Valley, where you can find herds of bison in the meadows along the Yellowstone River. One afternoon, after a leisurely lunch with some other photographers, we watched and photographed as a herd of bison crossed the river towards our location. Trumpeter swans also are frequently seen here. The Fishing Bridge area offers the possibility of moose near Pelican Creek, swans and otters in the Yellowstone River at and near Fishing Bridge. Bears are sometimes seen along the road east of Fishing Bridge. That road also takes you through Sylvan Pass offering a variety of scenic opportunities. Yellowstone Lake, which is just south of Fishing Bridge, also offers scenic opportunities, particularly at sunrise and sunset. The West Thumb Geyser Basin is further south along the lake.

Heading south from West Thumb takes you towards the park’s southern entrance and Grand Teton National Park. Opportunities for wildlife along this route are far more limited, although it does provide scenic opportunities including Lewis Lake, Lewis River Falls, and Moose Falls, which is only about 1.5 miles from the south entrance. Willows growing along the Lewis River sometimes attract moose. If you have several days, and the timing is right, a side-trip to Grand Teton for fall colors, and better chances of spotting moose, is well worth the time.

Personally, if I am on a more extended trip I will combine a few days in Grand Teton with a longer stay in West Yellowstone and Gardiner where more reasonably priced accommodations are available than the lodges in the park. From West Yellowstone I can concentrate on the area between Norris Junction and Old Faithful. Gardiner provides easier access to the Mammoth Hot Springs and Lamar Valley areas. For campers, even closer access to these areas is available from campgrounds at Madison and Norris Junctions, and Mammoth. Over the years I have had more successful wildlife photography opportunities in the Norris to Old Faithful area, which also provides a multitude of other subjects. Thus, for shorter visits, I stay in West Yellowstone only.

But this only scratches the surface of the photographic possibilities in Yellowstone. Books can and have been written on the subject. My goal here has simply been to provide a glimpse into the many reasons why fall in Yellowstone is a photographer’s paradise.

About the Author

Mark Van Bergh has been photographing nature subjects for about twenty years. Photography was a casual to serious hobby until his first trip to Africa in 1993 when he got "hooked" on wildlife and nature. Mark is a long-time user of Minolta equipment (starting with an SRT-101) and now uses Minolta's (Konica-Minolta's) professional bodies (the Maxxum 9 and before that the 9xi). His "G" series of pro lenses range from a 17-35mm zoom to a 600mm f/4, and many in between. His primary films of choice are Velvia for landscape and Provia 100F for wildlife.

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