Yellowstone National Park in Winter

March 21, 2015  •  8 Comments

Hey everyone, sorry for waiting so long to post but I have been fairly busy moving and I don't have internet these days. I just arrived to my new home in Columbia Falls, MT, and I figure it would be a great time to recap my winter in Gardiner, MT.

Well it came and went pretty fast, and I'm not really sure I would call it a winter. It resembled winter at times, but most of February was over 50ºF everyday. It even rained so hard one day that I thought I had been transplanted back to Florida. Regardless, living near Yellowstone was a very cool experience and I got to see and do some pretty spectacular things. The first and most obvious is the wildlife. I saw loads of bison, elk, deer, coyotes, wolves, pronghorn, a few foxes, some new birds, a even a few weasels. This area is the only place where I have ever been able to use the old, "Sorry I'm late. I couldn't leave my house because there was a bison in the way" line and people don't even bat an eyelash. The park receives over 3.5 Million people per year and only about 120,000 visit in the winter. I have now spent so much more time in the park during the winter that I don't even remember what it looks like in the summer. If you've never been in the winter, I would say this is a pretty accurate representation what you could see in a few days, or in a few hours if you are the lucky type.

I arrived the first week of November and I was very excited about the fact that I was going to be near the park all winter. I had visited the previous winter and had a spectacular time. It was already fairly cold, about -10ºF, but not very much snow on the ground. Our first foray into the park was a drive with some friends down to Norris Geyser Basin just before the road closed to wheeled traffic for the winter. It was awesome to say the least.

RoadblockRoadblock Norris Geyser Basin ReflectionsNorris Geyser Basin Reflections Ghost TreesGhost Trees Front Porch SunriseFront Porch Sunrise

Most of my free time was spent trying to get further in the park. When we did go we usually saw some pretty awesome things.

Bald Eagle - Haliaeetus leucocephalusBald Eagle - Haliaeetus leucocephalus Canary Spring PanoramaCanary Spring Panorama Upper TerracesUpper Terraces Undine FallsUndine Falls Bull Elk in Blacktail FlatsBull Elk in Blacktail Flats Lone Tree in YellowstoneLone Tree in Yellowstone Home on the RangeHome on the Range

My first attempt to find some wolves came one morning after a coworker told me they found a wolf kill in the Gardner River. By the time I had got off work it was already too dark to try and see it so I decided to wake up before sunrise and head down the the river. I was greeted with a pretty spectacular sunrise. You can also notice the lack of snow. 

Lava Creek Trail SunriseLava Creek Trail Sunrise Sheep Mountain Sunrise PanoramaSheep Mountain Sunrise Panorama

When I eventually found the kill site it was almost completely stripped clean. We arrived to ravens and magpies feasting and a lone eagle soaring overhead.

My Favorite Band (of Coyotes)My Favorite Band (of Coyotes)

Then we finally started to get some snow. Not heaps, but enough that the park was able to open up the road for oversnow travel for the season. One of the days I was able to travel to the interior on a coach trip it was it was -35ºF in West Yellowstone, which is where we were heading for the day. But when it's cold in Yellowstone, I think it's the most beautiful. Especially near the thermals.

Natural Black and WhiteNatural Black and White Crepuscular Rays in YellowstoneCrepuscular Rays in Yellowstone

On the way out to West Yellowstone the weather was SPECTACULAR. The Madison was teeming with waterfowl and even though it was extremely cold, the sun kept you just warm enough that you weren't uncomfortable.

Trumpeter Swans on the MadisonTrumpeter Swans on the Madison Coyote on the RoadCoyote on the Road Coyote Near 7-mile BridgeCoyote Near 7-mile Bridge

As the sun started to set, we stopped to get some photos of the views on the ride back to Mammoth.

The Long Road HomeThe Long Road Home

Then the new year rolled around and we got the first real snow of the winter season. A few dumps that totaled over 2 feet over the course of the week and it was starting to look like winter. Also, I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to spend a few days out in Lamar Valley at the Buffalo Ranch for a program on Wolves. The coolest thing I learned was about the history and reintroduction of wolves into the park. Only a week before this program was the 20th anniversary of the reintroduction and little did I know I would be snowshoeing out to the original pen site where the wolves were kept back in 1995. On the trip it was obvious that we were in wolf territory because of all the recent tracks just behind my cabin.

Yellowstone's Deadliest PredatorYellowstone's Deadliest Predator Coyote Tracks in LamarCoyote Tracks in Lamar Snowshoeing in Lamar ValleySnowshoeing in Lamar Valley

The next morning we woke up before the sun and headed deeper into the park to look for wolves. We heard howls at a distance and eventually found wolves, but they were extremely far away. Even though I couldn't see wolves close enough to shoot them (with a camera), it was still a beautiful morning in the valley at -15ºF.

Predawn at the ConfluencePredawn at the Confluence Hoarfrosted TreesHoarfrosted Trees Rams on the RidgeRams on the Ridge

And one even came down a little bit closer to say good morning.

Through the FrostThrough the Frost

The day eventually turned out to be a spectacular day for scenery. Especially near Soda Butte, which is one of my favorite places in the northern part of the park.

Sunny Day at Soda ButteSunny Day at Soda Butte A lone TreeA lone Tree

Winter light in Yellowstone is pretty awesome, especially in Lamar. The light changes so quickly and you shot can change from minute to minute. These two shots were only takes about 15 minutes apart. 

Afternoon in Lamar Valley PanoramaAfternoon in Lamar Valley Panorama Sunset in Lamar ValleySunset in Lamar Valley

It was a great ending to a great day. The next morning we got up early again and headed out to look for wolves. We heard there had been a kill overnight and the wolves were spotted heading south of the road. When we arrived to the scene, we had missed the wolves again but got to see some very cool birds and coyotes pick at the scraps. The pecking order is that the wolves kill, the coyotes scavenge, followed by eagles, ravens, and magpies. We missed the wolves but got to see the rest. 

King of the BirdsKing of the Birds

After leaving the kill site we hiked out to a historic den site where we were able to get a first hand view of what a wolf den site looked like. When we arrived back at the road a passing visitor informed us that there was a "wolf" on the side of the road a few miles back. Now it's not that I don't believe people when they say they see wolves, but because they said it so nonchalantly, I assumed that it must have been a coyote. The person informed us that they had a photo and was happy to show us. Sure enough it was a wolf, so we all piled back into the vehicle and made our way in that direction.

Historic Wolf DenHistoric Wolf Den

When we arrived we were greeted with this lone wolf that hung out for a minute or two before deciding he was bored and leaving the scene. I think it was probably my wildlife highlight of the winter.

Napping on a RockNapping on a Rock Lone Wolf (2)Lone Wolf (2) Shaking off the SnowShaking off the Snow Lone WolfLone Wolf

After that weekend the weather started to change. We stopped getting snow, but it also started to warm drastically. It was getting above freezing as a high everyday so if you wanted to ski, you needed to go early before the snow turned to mashed potatoes. So the best day of skiing we had came on a trip out to Tower Fall. We headed into the park and into the inversion. 

Foggy SunriseFoggy Sunrise Summit Soda at Calcite SpringsSummit Soda at Calcite Springs Tower Fall SkierTower Fall Skier Nature ProvidesNature Provides

My next big trip into the park was getting the opportunity to head over to Hayden Valley. It was another beautiful day outside and even though the snow in Mammoth was mostly gone, Canyon and Hayden receive much more snow and are usually much colder temps also. So when we started out on our trip the snow conditions were pretty bad, but got better by the time we were halfway to Norris. 

Norris Geyser BasinNorris Geyser Basin View from Lookout PointView from Lookout Point Grand Canyon of the YellowstoneGrand Canyon of the Yellowstone Lower Falls from Artist PointLower Falls from Artist Point MeanderingMeandering Swans through the TreesSwans through the Trees

Not long after our trip down to Hayden, I visited Old Faithful for the day. Even though we were inside most of the day, we had a great ride down in the morning and a beautiful sunset on the way back in the evening.

Snowy Gibbon FallsSnowy Gibbon Falls Lone BisonLone Bison Bison on the FireholeBison on the Firehole Beaver Lake SunsetBeaver Lake Sunset

My last snowshoe hike of the season we decided to go find a cave I had heard about. We did end up finding it and we were not disappointed.

Ice CaveIce Cave

The last weekend I was in the park before moving would be the full moon. So as a goodbye trip we decided to grab some beers, drive out into Lamar Valley, and look for a good place to watch the moon rise. We weren't really sure where it was going to happen but right as we made our way past Pebble Creek campground the moon popped over the ridge. We had to wait a few minutes for the clouds to clear, but when they did we were able to grab some great shots. 

Full Moon over Thunderer in YellowstoneFull Moon over Thunderer in Yellowstone

As a cherry on top we got some nice color at sunset as well.

Alpenglow in Lamar ValleyAlpenglow in Lamar Valley

There were things about the winter that could have definitely been better, but most of those things were out of my control. The weather being the main one. I was really hoping for a chance to get out and ski often, but it seemed to snow during the week when I was working, and melt by the time the weekend rolled around. Despite all that, it was an overall great experience and reminded me how spectacular a place Yellowstone is. I really need to get back to the park again during the summer so I can see the park away from the road corridors.

As for now, I am getting excited about the possibility of what this summer brings now that I live in the Glacier area.

Lake McDonald ShorelineLake McDonald Shoreline Crashing Waves on Lake McDonaldCrashing Waves on Lake McDonald Lake McDonald Shoreline SunsetLake McDonald Shoreline Sunset Lake McDonald Valley - March28, 2015Lake McDonald Valley - March28, 2015

Once I find a place to live and settle down I hope to be able to send regular updates. But until then I will keep getting out and shooting whenever I can. I hope this finds you all well and hope to hear from you soon!

-Jake


Comments

Jeff Stamer(non-registered)
Hello Frank,
I'm going to be visiting Glacier with my son from Aug 14-17. Any tips for a obsessive photographer that you would like to share based upon your residence there this year?
Vicky Dickens(non-registered)
What a treat - thanks so much for sharing with all of us. Your stunning photos really capture the beauty and transport me right back to Lamar Valley and our wolf adventures! How lucky we were to have you in our group. Looking forward to photos of Glacier next.
Fred Engel(non-registered)
Jake, fantabulous photos!! Looking forward to seeing what you come up with in Glacier!
Jackie Wilson(non-registered)
I loved our time in January at Lamar Buffalo Ranch. Your photography is magnificent! My friends and I were so very fortunate you were part of the group and that you so generously shared your pictures. Good luck in Glacier!
Janet(non-registered)
Stunning photography! Thanks for posting
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