Story and Photography by D. Robert Franz
Winter in Yellowstone National Park is a magical destination for nature and wildlife photographers. Yellowstone is a surreal world of snow, ice, steam, frost and fog. Winter is a time of solitude and tranquility. Summer crowds are long gone leaving the amazing scenic wonders and dramatic wildlife of the park accessible for serious and studied nature photography. I would assert Yellowstone during winter an absolute bucket list location for all nature photographers.
Yellowstone’s interior closes to all traffic early in November and then reopens for the winter season in mid-December. The interior then remains open until early March. Visitation is strictly controlled by the park service. Only limited numbers of snowmobiles and snow coaches are allowed into the park. Currently the total number is less than four hundred per day. When compared to the twenty to thirty thousand vehicles entering the park on an average summer day Yellowstone seems virtually empty. You will need to join a guided snowmobile or snow coach tour. There are also regularly scheduled snow coach trips into Old Faithful from West Yellowstone and Mammoth. Reservations should be made well in advance. You can find lodging in West Yellowstone and Gardiner, MT, Mammoth Hotel and the Snow Lodge at Old Faithful within the park, along with Jackson and Cody Wyoming.
The incredible beauty of the Yellowstone’s Interior with vast snow covered landscapes, steaming ethereal thermal basins, and frost covered wildlife give photographers an endless variety of striking subjects. Geysers erupting in clear cold conditions can be spectacular, much more impressive than during the summer months. Frosted ghost trees around the thermal basins make excellent subjects. For Interior wildlife the fourteen mile stretch of the Madison River from West Yellowstone to Madison Junction is excellent. Be on the lookout for bobcats hunt waterfowl, muskrats and other wildlife along the river. The area near Seven Mile Bridge is a hotspot for spotting them. You can also photograph elk, coyote, waterfowl, trumpeter swans, and occasionally wolves in the area. The meadows in the Lower Geyser Basin and the Hayden Valley are excellent for photographing red fox. Wolves are often seen in the valley as well. Bison concentrate in the thermal areas to feed on exposed grasses. These bison can become frost covered which makes them excellent photographic subjects.
You can photograph the northern range of Yellowstone National Park on your own. This section of the park is open to private vehicles and includes the Lamar Valley which is famous for it’s outstanding opportunities to view and photograph wolves. Entering the parks north entrance you have 52 miles of road open to explore. The road ends at Cooke City Montana, just outside the Northeast Gate of the park. Lodging in available in Mammoth, Gardiner and Cooke City. Wildlife photography can be excellent. Much of the parks wildlife migrates to the northern range to winter. Driving these roads you’ll be able to locate and photograph bison, elk, mule deer, bighorn sheep, pronghorn antelope, wolves, coyotes and much more. The northern range also has some superb landscape photography locations to concentrate on. The spectacular Mammoth Hot Springs complex shouldn’t be missed. Frosted cottonwood trees and low lying fog in the Lamar Valley can provide some dramatic scenes. Rugged mountain vistas featuring the rugged Gallatin or Absaroka ranges will demand your attention.
When visiting Yellowstone during the winter be prepared for extreme cold conditions. Below zero temperatures occur nearly every night that the skies are clear. The Lamar Valley is perhaps the coldest location in the park. I’ve been in the valley with temperatures as low as -42 degrees Fahrenheit. By dressing properly and taking sensible precautions with my camera gear, I’ve had no problem photographing in temperatures that low. Think layers and make sure to have a warm hat and well insulated boots. Keeping your hands warm is the most difficult task for photographers. I’ve tried many different types of gloves and mittens over the years but am still searching for the ideal winter photography gloves. Chemical hand and toe warmers are very effective. Make sure to bring as supply of them along with you. I hope this article will help inspire you to visit Yellowstone during the winter in the future. You’ll be glad you did!
Robert Franz has been a full time professional wildlife photographer for over 25 years. With formal training and degrees in wildlife management and geology he has extensive knowledge of the natural world. His photography has been extensively published worldwide. Robert has been leading photo tours in Yellowstone since 1990 and leads several winter tours each year including two upcoming in 2017.
Robert along with his wife Lorri and their Great Dane Shelby live in the heart of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem and specializes in exploration of that unique area. For more information on his 2017 Winter Yellowstone tours please visit http://www.franzfoto.com.