Enchantment In A Winter Wonderland

Yellowstone 2024 Trip Report

Breathtaking scenery, unique wildlife encounters, good food, and special camaraderie made our first Winter in Yellowstone trip a wonderful success. Our group—a mix of favorite past clients traveling together again and newcomers who immediately felt like old friends—had the opportunity to photograph bison, moose, coyote, elk, pronghorn, fox, eagles and other birds, as well as stunning landscapes and the geo- and hydrothermal features that abound in the world’s first national park.

As we do on most tours, arrival day included a slideshow and a brief talk on general photography techniques and what to expect in the coming days, followed by dinner. Our first night was at the Best Western GranTree Inn in Bozeman, Montana. It was great catching up with everyone and recounting favorite moments from past trips. (Word to the wise: If you ever order the loaded nachos at the GranTree, be prepared—one serving could easily feed four or five average sized humans!)

After breakfast the next morning we decamped to Gardiner and the Absaroka Lodge, our base for the next two days. There we met our guide and driver, Michelle of Yellowstone Wolf Tracker, who wasted no time getting us into the park for our first photo foray. Michelle and I had worked together previously in Alaska, so I knew this group would be in great hands. She’s extremely personable and knowledgeable in all things Yellowstone. No question caught her off guard, whether it referred to wildlife, geology, weather, restroom stops, or where to get an early morning espresso.

One thing that was immediately evident was that one van was not going to be ideal for a group of nine photographers and their gear. Wildlife lenses take up room and many of our photographers have two cameras at the ready at all times. A quick consultation with Michelle and within an hour we’d hired a second van and driver, which allowed for the needed extra space for all of us and our gear.

We made our way well into the Lamar Valley, stopping for whatever wonders Mother Nature decided to grace us with. First up: a herd of American Bison coming up the side of the road toward us. These beasts are enormous and have a majestic, almost mythical quality. We would have multiple opportunities to observe and photograph them, and each one was special.

After the bison, a truly beautiful coyote with gorgeous thick winter fur appeared, and we got to spend about a half-hour with this crafty canine who’s such an important part of the park’s incredible ecosystem. My favorite moment was when the coyote paused on the side of the slope and looked back at us. The distance in the background really highlighted the expanse of the park and it was exhilarating to be close enough to capture nearly full-frame images.

In an unexpected surprise (because they’re so tiny), Michelle spotted a northern pygmy owl atop a pine tree off the roadway. This beautiful bird is not much larger than a fist and usually takes off when people are near, so it was a special bonus capture for us all.

Of course we had high hopes of photographing the elusive wolves of Yellowstone. Our guides were in touch with other guides and throughout the day we made several stops with hopes of seeing them, but they didn’t materialize. It’s unusual to be close enough to

On the way back to Gardiner, we stopped for a few landscape shots and were able to capture some female pronghorn in the fading light. A wonderful first day in the park!

That night we all met in the small community center for an incredible meal prepared for us by a local private chef. The intimate atmosphere and excellent food made this a great way for the group to relax and bond. All agreed it was a much nicer experience than getting back in the van and heading to a restaurant. After dinner, we off-loaded media cards and shared images on our laptops, another thing that can be difficult in a noisy or crowded restaurant.

The next morning and all subsequent mornings, our 6:45 a.m. departure ensured that we arrived at the park entrance just before the 7 a.m. opening time, ahead of most other wintertime visitors. As all wildlife photographers know, capturing critters as they greet that sweet morning light can make for incredible images.

A beautiful light snow started falling, which changed the light but added to our first encounter of bison bedded down. By playing with our shutter speeds we could freeze the snowflakes or create a streaked effect of the snow in motion. Both techniques emphasized the conditions animals have adapted to in order to survive in the harsh climate.

Farther down the road we stopped for a short hike to get some interesting winterscapes and I took some nice portraits of the photographers as they set up their landscape shots. Not long after, we came across two golden eagles perched in a tree just off of the road. The snow was coming down so heavily at this point that we couldn’t get a clear shot of these beautiful birds but it was incredible to observe how they put up with the wintery conditions. What an amazing gift it is to be able to watch wild creatures in their element.

At one point we saw a pack of wolves off in the distance but too far for photos. Luckily Michelle always has a spotting scope, so we could at least observe them that way. It’s amazing to know they’re out there, even if they don’t often come close enough for photos.

As we continued to explore the park, the snow finally subsided. We came upon a group of female elk and photographed them against a beautiful, patchy snow–covered mountain backdrop.

To conclude our photography for the day toured the boardwalks at Mammoth Hot Springs. By then the sun was out and we had fun just being outside and capturing some details of the colorful, steaming springs.

That night we had another amazing meal crafted by a different local chef and served in our private dining area. Afterward, Dr. Nathan Varley, owner of Yellowstone Wolf Trackers, our partner for this venture, presented a slideshow and informative talk on the wolves of Yellowstone. Nathan has been involved with the reintroduction of wolves in the park since the program’s inception in 1995. His passion for wolves, and Yellowstone, was palpable and infectious. Thank you Nathan!

Day 3 in the park found us with a landscape opportunity and nice sidelight sweeping through the mountain peaks in the distance. When we came across some bison near the road and popped out of the van for a few quick pics, we were surprised and delighted to see a gorgeous red fox, about 100 yards away, on a bright white snowscape. This session was a photographer favorite—the fox’s reddish orange fur stood out in perfect clarity against the snow- and tree-covered hills and snowy fields.
As we observed the fox hunting for a meal, two moose lounged nearby in the trees. We wrapped up our session there in preparation for heading back to the entrance, but the gifts kept coming. We came across some bison on a frozen lake with interesting shadows in the background. Even better, a beautiful bull elk resting atop a hill in gorgeous light, with blue skies behind. We concluded our time on the north end photographing some female bighorn sheep with their young and, nearby, a group of pronghorn lounging in a scenic hill area.

Halfway through the day, it was time to head back to the entrance for lunch and on to West Yellowstone for Day 4. We had a scenic drive west to the Grey Wolf Inn and Suites, where we would spend our final two evenings. We arrived around dinner time and rather than go out, we opted to order in and have our meal in the hotel lounge, which had tables and a cozy fireplace. The pizza, wings, and salads turned out to be incredibly tasty, so much so that we all agreed to do the same thing the following night. We’ve found that our clients really prefer to have time to talk and connect and share images, so we always try to provide private or semi-private (but always delicious) meals to accomplish this.

After dinner, Michelle shared a unique local experience with the group. Across the road from our inn, is the Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center, a nonprofit educational organization that houses some grizzlies and wolves who cannot survive in the wild. Despite the freezing temps, Michelle lured a few of us outside to talk with the wolves. We howled at the moon and were rewarded with a companionable howl back from the resident wolves. What a beautiful chorus and magical moment! We spent the rest of the evening sharing photos, bonding, talking about the trip, the images, and life in general. It’s easy to see why our clients develop close friendships and plan future tours together.

Our 4th and final day in the park was snowcoach day. The snowcoach, which takes us to the interior roads that are closed to vehicle traffic in winter, resembles an almost toy-like giant tour van with huge snow tires and large windows along the sides.

We followed the Firehole River, stopping at various geothermal features, had lunch at Old Faithful, and stopped anytime we had a wildlife or landscape opportunity. We enjoyed walking out on the boardwalks amongst the bubbling, steaming, hot springs, capturing colorful details and bare trees that created interesting shadows in the snow.

In one spectacular moment, we were lucky enough to capture a herd of bison as they marched single-file across a wide expanse, with hot springs and trees in the foreground and mountains in the background. It was truly magical to see and photograph.

Several times we came across trumpeter swans in the river. Low sunlight against dark waters really made them pop.

We had another special time with a coyote. This beauty was walking on the snowy road toward us so we were able to get some nice head-on images. It crossed the embankment into the woods and peeked at us from behind trees, making its way through the woods. Not long after we came across two coyotes together searching the riverbank for a meal. It was another moment that just made one feel so grateful to be there observing wild creatures in their element.

We timed the lunch break so we could be at Old Faithful for an eruption. The eruption was fairly weak and the background of white clouds made for some uninteresting photos but the experience was worth it. How often do you get to eat lunch in front of an erupting geyser?

After lunch and more gorgeous landscape opportunities, we came across a group of bison along the edge of the river, making their way toward the bridge we were on. They got to the snow-covered road and turned and walked away from us, disappearing into a beautiful snowscape. The entire procession was a treat to watch and photograph.

The last gift Yellowstone presented us was perhaps the most unique and unexpected. While driving we stopped to view some bison along a river. As we were photographing those, a bald eagle swooped down between the bison and grabbed a trout out of the river. The eagle carried the catch over to the other side of the river and started eating.

It wasn’t long before a raven (a very large bird, but who seemed so small next to a majestic eagle) entered the scene and pestered the eagle for some fish. Ravens are incredibly smart, and this one reached out and tugged in the eagle’s tail feathers in hopes of distracting it from its meal. The eagle shrugged it off and kept eating. When the raven got too close to the fish, the eagle would lurch at it and the raven would back off, and dance went on. It was really hard to climb back in the snow coach after witnessing this interaction. It took me forever to narrow down the hundreds of images I took at that spot alone.

The final night was once again filled with good food, laughter, image sharing, and howling with the wolves. We had a special group of people in a special place. Old friendships were strengthened and new bonds formed. I am truly appreciative that I get to spend time with these gifted photographers and to be able to call them all friends.