Yellowstone in Winter 2019

I just returned from my Yellowstone 2019 trip. Everyone knows of Yellowstone National Park and its geysers. Millions of people visit in the summer months. But it was a whole new experience to stay in “yurts” in the middle of the park, in the middle of winter. It was another amazing adventure, loaded with all sorts of weather; snow storms, winds, bright warm days, and mixture of all the above. This was also a time for me to really put my new Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR lens to task on my D850.

The key this year, was finding a place where I could actually stay inside the park and not have to travel 40 miles each morning to reach the central areas of the park. That meant I was able to be at key locations right at sunrise. The park was loaded with bison and I saw well over a thousand of them. Also quite abundant were coyotes and eagles as I saw multiples each, every day of the trip. Staying out of sight were the wolves and elk, at least in the middle section of the park. Although. there were some signs of activity that occurred at night.

The trip started with the drive from the Bozeman airport to the west gate. This highway leaves Belgrade, Montana and heads south through Gallatin National forest, before entering Yellowstone National park for approximately 20 miles, ending at the small community of West Yellowstone. This is a busy thoroughfare but it transverses through beautiful country side with many miles hugging the Gallatin River. Keeping an eye out here provided some wonderful animal sightings and photo opportunities.

West Yellowstone is a small community just outside the west entrance to the national park. There are a variety of hotels and restaurants, and small shops, most all catering to tourists coming to visit Yellowstone. One of the attractions available is the Grizzly discovery center, a animal rescue facility located on the outskirts of the town. This facility is home to a number of grizzly bears, wolves and various raptors that have been hurt or orphaned and can no longer live in the wild. There are several large areas that house these animals and allows visitors to view them and see them up close. This provided a very nice afternoon activity prior to heading to the camp the following morning.

Mother nature decide to visit and left 4-6 inches of snow overnight and it was still snowing the next morning. A snow coach comes and picked me up from my hotel. and its a very short drive to the park entrance, where the adventure really kicked up in high gear.

The first day encompasses a trip to Old faithful lodge and geyser area with stops along the way, and then a trip to our final destination some 40 miles away. The first animal sighting was bison in the distance just off a part of the Madison river. Bison became the theme of this trip as this small herd was just the beginning. This stop was also my first opportunity to see how bison use their heads to swish away the snow and get down to the plants below.

Yellowstone is well known and full of volcanic features, such as geysers, hot springs, and mud pots and they lined the road, but it doesn't lack for other amazing landscape vistas, rivers and waterfalls. Our southern trip extended to the iconic Old Faithful geyser as the snow kept falling.

Old Faithful

Gibbon Falls.

With the snow falling the bison searched for food.

Day one ends with arrival at Yurt camp and learning about all the nuances of back country "Glamping". This was amazing, as there were individual “tents” each heated with propane heaters, and then two main yurts which housed a kitchen and main gathering and dining area. The food was exceptional and there was plenty of it. This place was amazing with the only possible exception being the outside latrine.

Being a photographer, the next morning started while it was still dark and everyone in my group was provided with a wonderful breakfast of Oatmeal, fruit, bacon, eggs, toast, cereal, coffee, and juices. The day's procedure is explained and then we are allowed to make our own lunches from a variety of breads, meats, cheeses, fruit, snacks, trail mix... more than you can imagine. Then its loading up the cameras into the snow coaches and we were off before the sun has risen. Our first stop is Otter Creek bridge named appropriately as we are looking for otters and within a minute or so the binoculars had a pair in sight, several hundred yards off. This is the first real test of my 500PF as the light was low due to overcast sky and the otters 300-400 yards away. I was ecstatic at the sharpness of this lens. (more later on)

We jumped back into the snow coach and head upstream hoping to get in front of the otters. it turns out the otters were swimming upstream and we managed to stay with them for almost 3 miles. They would swim under the water, and then get up on the snow and ice. They would harass the swans and ducks, then disappear only to re-emerge a minute later father upstream.

This continued on for about 45 minutes, us watching sometimes following on foot, but mostly getting back into the snow coach and driving a 1/4 mile or so and setting up waiting for the otters to catch up. Then at one point one otter comes to the surface with some type of meat, turns out part of a trout. Looks like they will try to eat it there on the ice, but no, the otters turn around and head down stream, and we quickly lose sight of them.

With our otter friends done with their playing and off to eat a hardy meal, we continue on and our attention turns to landscape. The upper and lower falls of the Yellowstone river are nearby and the weather is improving and so we take full advantage.

Now the day turns to getting to Hayden Valley. Its a few miles and lots of forest to travel, fortunately we do see some new wildlife. A bald eagle is perched in a tree and numerous trumpeter swans glide along the riverside

Upon arriving in the Hayden valley, we encountered more bison, several different herds of 20-30 or more and one with more than a hundred members. They were spread out all long the valley, with maybe a dozen different herds total in the valley.

The weather was constantly changing. Patches of blue sky and sun followed by clouds and snow. The wind was whipping around, and I kept getting this feeling... Boy, I'm glad I'm not a bison and in this cold for months.

Later in the afternoon, the predators first appeared. Coyotes are the first to show, off in the distance, just one, but then there are two, maybe three,

We end up on a very windy slope near the Alum river where the sun was just exploding on the horizon as it slowly sinks in the west, marking the end of day.

The next morning, with relatively clear skies, we decided to try to get some sunrise photos. The weather was a crisp 5 degrees F. It was partly cloudy yet small snow crystals float in the air. The trip started in the dark but slowly lightens as we climbed up Mt. Washburn. Arriving at the vista, my strategy then became a matter of finding the best composition location. Most landscapes always do better with a foreground feature, so I was in search of a foreground element.

Sunrise on Mt Washburn

Later on, the brilliance of the main beam of light from the sun, urged us to find other vistas, before the magic of light disappeared.

The weather had definitely changed, the sun was out, the snow sparkles and 'diamond dust was in the air. (These are small little crystals of ice blown around by the wind.) The animals are up and about and more active. The bison are running and jumping and squaring off with each other. The little "Reds" were especially active and frolicking, and making a nuisance of themselves.

Early that same morning we got our first sign of wolves, as tracks were spotted and a trail through the snow arrived at the road. The tracks followed the road for over 3 miles and then disappeared. A little ways further along we sighted a carcass with a variety of scavengers feasting on it. No wolves, but this was a bison carcass so it required something like a pack of wolves to take it down. But, all other meat eaters were taking turns cleaning up the remains, coyotes, bald eagles, ravens, etc.

Notice the Bald Eagle chasing away the ravens.

The day continued with various sightings of more bison and the coyotes were really out in force.

The big guys have to rock a couple times in order to stand up.....

Near the end of the day we finally spot one of the animals I really wanted to see. A red fox. Unfortunately she's quite a distance away on a hilltop, but thanks to telephoto lens I was able to get a few reasonable shots.

As the day winds down the bison were still dominating the scene.

Our final day, we primarily followed the Madison river from Norris Basin out to West Yellowstone. This provided some more landscape and animals especially bald eagles and coyotes and a new species, which I had never seen before.

Norris Geyser Basin.

A Muskrat, is similar to a beaver but its tail is flattened vertically. The tail works like a rudder and helps the muskrat maneuver in the water.

Thanks Yellowstone for a wonderful experience!

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