NATIONAL PARKS: Yellowstone in Winter

Story by Jerry Ginsberg. Photography by Kevin Horsefield

Winter Wonderland

Winter Wonderland © Kevin Horsefield

Yellowstone, the world’s very first national park and one of the most popular, was established in 1872. Most of us think of it as a place to visit in spring, summer and fall, but certainly not in winter.

Wyoming winters can be brutally cold with great snow accumulations. The Yellowstone Plateau where the park sits averages 8,000 feet of elevation. This high elevation makes the sun more intense and the alpine weather patterns more dynamic and unpredictable.

Sound forbidding? Well, it can be. Indeed, the park was pretty much devoid of wintertime visitors until the advent of specialized cold-weather tourism several years ago. Since the cold is often intense and the snows deep, what’s the point, you might ask?

Spectacular images and true adventure can be yours if you are willing to brave the elements. The landscape is completely white and pristine. While the earth is covered with fresh snow, the rivers run their courses uninterrupted, and the geysers, fumaroles and other thermal features continue steaming, bubbling and erupting. The great contrasts that result can present significant exposure challenges, but with help from the low angle of the winter sun, today’s sophisticated sensors should cope well.

Bison search for grass in a winter landscape. © Kevin Horsefield

Bison search for grass in a winter landscape. © Kevin Horsefield

Another big attraction is the wildlife. Despite the omnipresent chill, winter is an exciting time of year for the mammals here. While most of the elk seek lower elevations toward Jackson, Wyoming, and the bears are deep in their winter slumber, the bison, foxes and especially Yellowstone’s famous wolves choose to spend their winter in the park’s enveloping quietness.
These residents can make for a lot of excitement and opportunity for photographers. Bison and other large mammals have to work hard to find food and survive the long winter. The weather takes a toll on them, diminishing their strength. All of this creates opportunities for the wolves. The prey are slower and the predators are hungrier. Think of it. If you are very lucky, you might be at the right place at just the right moment.

Even if you don’t see a wolf pack out hunting, the bison make wonderful subjects. Whether warming themselves in the many hot pools, standing in snow up to their bellies or laboriously searching for food, these are photogenic animals. With their huge, heavy heads pushing the deep snow around in search of a few strands of grass and the snow sticking to the bisons’ beards, opportunities for both loose compositions and tight head shots are possible.
The movement of the animals and the need to handhold your camera and react quickly make today’s stabilization technology a real boon.

Winter lodging choices at Yellowstone are somewhat limited. Just beyond the park’s north entrance, some of the motels in Gardiner, Montana, will be open in winter. Inside the park you will be able to enjoy the Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel and the great Old Faithful Snow Lodge.

There are just two choices for getting around the park at this time of year: snowmobiles (snow machines) and snow coaches.

Snowmobiles offer the advantage of visibility and mobility, but they are noisy and open, and riders are exposed to the elements. The number of snowmobiles allowed is held to daily limits, so you will likely be combined with a group of non-photographers. This will limit the time available to photograph your chosen subjects, and the wildlife tend to keep their distance from the noisy snowmobiles.

A better choice is boarding one of the warm and relatively comfortable snow coaches. It is even possible to join a coach full of photographers heading from the Old Faithful Snow Lodge to locations such as the Canyon area or the Madison River. Being with others of like mind is almost always more conducive to a better working situation.


Jerry Ginsberg is a widely published freelance photographer whose images have graced the pages of hundreds of books and magazines. He has photographed all 59 U.S. national parks as well as most of South America with medium-format cameras. Jerry is also an artist-in-residence for 2015 at Petrified Forest National Park. More of Jerry’s work can be seen at www.JerryGinsberg.com. E mail – jerry@jerryginsberg.com.

Kevin Horsefield has been a dedicated nature and landscape photographer for more than two decades. He uses skill and patience to capture new scenes on a geologic time scale in the most dramatic light. Guided by the principle that light is everything in landscape photography, Kevin searches for emotion and the expression of his vision without an over-reliance on technology. His archives include images from some of the best locations on six continents. More of Kevin’s work can be seen at http://kevinhorsefieldphotography.com

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