What happens when you start with one of the most dramatic geothermal areas in the world, add the largest wildlife preserve in the contigous United States and remove the millions of summertime visitors? I had to find out for myself, so I after reviewing a number of guides tours of Yellowstone in Winter, I settled on Dale Robert Franz and his photography tour. Dale has a Masters in Wildlife Biology, a Doctorate in Earth Science and has had over 15,000 of his photos published in pretigious national magazines. Plus, he lives in nearby Cody Wyoming and is in Yellowstone well over a hundred days a year. This is his turf and he knows how to shoot wildlife.
Read about his tours at:https://www.franzfoto.com/photography/
From Los Angeles, I flew into Bozeman Montana and was picked up by Dale and driven in his Ford Transit (with tall windows and snow tires) into Gardiner Montana, where we spent the next four nights at the the local Super 8 motel.
There were four of us photographers plus Dale, all of us male. At age 66, I was the oldest, the others ranging from their mid thirties to early sixties. We turned out to be a very compatible group. I would happily travel with these guys again.
Gardiner is at the North end of Yellowstone park, at the junction of the Yellowstone and Gardiner rivers. It is a small town, particularly in Winter. In the last census, it boasted a population of 875 people. I think we saw about 50 of them while we were there. We saw quite a few more elk and pronghorn antelope on the outskirts of town than we saw people in town. That said, we had excellent meals at the Yellowstone Mine, The Corral and the Wonderland Lodge and Cafe. Gardiner also has a decent market, much larger than anything we saw in West Yellowstone, later in the trip.
Welcome to Gardiner, Montana
Our daily routine was to have breakfast at the hotel around 6 – 6:30 AM and get on the road around 7:00 AM. Dale would then drive us into Yellowstone park (the ranger station is at the end of town). From there, we would spend the morning looking for animals and beautiful landscapes. Dale obliged anyone who asked to stop and take a photo. Since we had checked into the hotel by mid afternoon, we drove into the park for the few hours before dark. The road into the park follows the Gardiner River on it’s way towards Mammoth Hot Springs, which is both a geothermal feature and a cluster of hotels, camping and restaurants (all closed). The hot springs add 170 degree water to the Gardiner River, creating a long stretch of warm water called the Boiling River. This is a popular spot for bathers, even in the snowy winter. We found a nice spot along the road to photograph steam coming off the river on our last afternoon.
Gardiner River in the afternoon
Mammoth Hot Springs is also the site of the former military barracks called Fort Yellowstone, the courthouse and post office. The historical significance of Fort Yellowstone is that it was the genesis of the National Park Service. Dale reminded me that Yellowstone was the first national park ever established anywhere in the world. When it was established in 1872, it was known simply as “The National Park.” The Interior Department was nominally responsible for the National Park, but didn’t have the resources to protect the park from poachers, vandals, miners, hunters, railroads and other commerical interests.
In 1886, Congress decided that the military should guard and manage the park. Lt General Sheridan led the 1st Calvary into the park and established Fort Sheridan (later, Fort Yellowstone) by Mammoth Hot Springs. This is the same General Sheridan that developed the “scorched earth” policy when fighting the Confederate Army and that later said during the “Indian Wars” that, “The only good Indians I ever saw were dead”. He helped wipe out native people in Texas by encouraging poachers to slaughter four million buffalo, depriving native people their main food supply. To his meager credit, he did recommend expanding the National Park to include more contiguous rangeland so as to provide a more complete ecosystem for the wildlife. Under the Army’s management, the National Park was protected in a way that continues to serve as the model for the modern Park Service, right down to the style of hats worn by Park Service employees. As Wikipedia tells it, “During its tenure at Yellowstone, the army developed regulations that put emphasis on protection of park resources, safety of visitors, and positive but effective visitor interaction. Under the watchful eyes of the army, the geothermal features, forests and wildlife of Yellowstone were protected from vandalism, fire and poaching. These practices were adopted by the National Park Service and continue as a foundation of National Park management policy.”
We made two stops at Mammoth Hot Springs, the first on the cold, overcast afternoon the day we arrived. On that day, I decided to use the steam and low light to isolate sections of the travertine terraces we could see from below to make abstracts from details. This was in line with a thought I’d had before the trip. Having seen a lot of photos of overwhelming landscapes in Yellowstone, I determined to try to tell some of the smaller stories found in the details. Ideally, to reduce some images to a very simplified essence, much like the Japanese art of flower arranging or haiku style poetry.
Mammoth Hot Springs detail
After leaving the hot springs, the first wildlife we saw were buffalo (Bison Americanus). We were excited but it turns out they were plentiful every day of our time in the park. I quickly came to respect the buffalo for their ability to survive in the severe cold with so little forage. During the winter, buffalo sweep the ground with their faces, clearing away the snow to find remnants of dried grass in the frozen mud.
Dale said, “It's like in Spring and Summer, bison eat the cereal. In the Winter, they eat the cardboard box.”
He explained that they mostly live off their fat in winter. They conserve their energy by avoiding any unnecessary movement.
Bison by the road
I learned from Dale to “shoot towards the right” or overexpose my photos slightly. This is because the buffalo are so dark that they look like black spots on a dull white background if you expose your photo towards the middle of the histogram. This is very different from how I usually shoot landscapes. I normall expose towards the left (dark) side of the histogram because I want to capture the highlights in the image. I usually expose a third to a whole stop towards the dark, knowing I can pull the darks back up in Photoshop but I can’t recover highlights in the sky if they are blown-out white. With wildlife in snow, the colors of their fur come out and the white snow just looks whiter. I would not likely have thought of that. Thanks, Dale.
Single bison in snow - Notice the slight over-exposure?
Pair of Elk
I like the simplified palette in these scenes. There are only shades of white, black and brown. The limited colors provide coherence and help set the mood.
Our first dinner in Gardiner was at the Yellowstone Mine. I had salmon baked on a cedar plank with sides of steamed broccoli and zucchini, plus a baked yam with honey butter. The meal also came with a green salad and rolls. It was gourmet quality in a town I expected would only serve buffalo burgers. Since I don’t eat red meat or dairy products, this restaurant was a real treat in what could otherwise be a hungry trip.
On our first full day in the park, we began driving about 7:00 AM, seeing a bit of dawn through the mostly cloudy skies.
Single bison by the road in pre-dawn overcast light
A hint of dawn up the road ahead
At our first stop, Dale introduced me to the concept of an “animalscape”, a photo that uses animals as an element of a landscape. One of the other participants (also a David) waded out into the snow to get a better angle on the buffalo (He is a former Associated Press photographer and will do what it takes to get a good shot). As you can see, once you step off the road, the snow gets deep fast. It’s very deceptive because the snow blower that clears the road makes the area on either side of the road look flat. It isn’t. We saw two cars and a full sized bus that had gone off the road, probably by trying to park on the shoulder. If one wheel gets just a little over the edge, the whole vehicle slips off.
Animalscape - Using animals as part of the image design
Fellow photographer David, getting the shot
We stopped to photograph a small herd of buffalo at Tower Junction from behind a split rail fence. Dale reminded us, “Park rules are to stay 25 yards away from all animals - 100 yards from a predators”.
I said, “Does that apply when we are behind a fence?”
Dale said, “They can jump fences.”
“Oh.” We all backed up.
Buffalo at Tower Junction
As if to prove the point, 10 minutes later we saw a couple of young buffalo running and cavorting in the snow. I saw a sign indicating a trail to Fossilized Trees and asked Dale what that was about. He said that redwood trees had been buried in hot ash about 50 million years ago and fossilized upright because while they were buried, groundwater soaked minerals from the ash into the tree stumps and hardened them. Other forests grew on the soil above these trees and were again buried in ash and fossilized, leaving multiple layers of fossilized forests. These are particularly abundant at Specimen Ridge but also near Tower Junction and other areas in and around the park. There are no other petrified forests in the world that are actually upright. These are unique. These trees had first been reported in 1808 by John Colter, the first white trapper who explored the Yellowtone area as “trees made of stone that will break your axe if you hit them.” This account was generally disbelieved at the time as were his tales of “rivers on fire”, “the smell of brimestone” and “hot water shooting into the air”. People at the time described the Yellowstone area as “Colter’s Hell.”
We continued East on highway 212, towards the Lamar Valley and ultimately Cooke City (The continuation of the Yellowstone Loop Road from Tower Junction is closed in winter as is the continuation of 212 beyond Cooke City).
The Lamar Valley was once famous as a place for viewing wolves hunting elk. Wolves had been exterminated between 1872 and 1926 and were re-introduced in 1995. Wildlife biologists had noted that since the extermination of the wolf, elk populations had exploded which in turn degraded the landscape by killing off young trees. Over-grazing was causing erosion, disrupting the ecosystem and even and changing the course of rivers. Re-introducing the wolf did a remarkable job of resotoring the landscape and the balance of nature. As recently as 5 years ago, wolves were more plentiful in the park. They declined from as many as 300 individuals to around 100 today, probably because they killed off and changed the behavior of their primary food supply, elk (who had previously flourished due to the absence of wolves). Wolves then killed off rival packs.
What we did see in the Lamar Valley were two coyotes, one of whom was working on the remains of a carcass buried in the snow. The coyote was about 300 yards away. Dale let me borrow his 500 mm lens with 1.4x extender on a tripod to get a clearer shot. My favorite from that series occurred when a freeloading bird landed nearby and tried to look inconspicuous.
Coyote, with Magpie trying to look inconspicuous
Continuing East, we stopped on a bridge over the Yellowstone river to look for river otter. We saw their distinctive tracks but no otters.
Yellowstone River - tracks but no otters
We also stopped in a canyon to shoot the “snow pillows” on rocks in the stream below. In keeping with my desire to get the “small but elegant story”, Dale and I both shot grasses sticking up from the snow.
Dried grass in snow
Further down the road, near the confluence of the Lamar river and Soda Creek, we saw Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep on the left side of the road and a bald eagle and a river otter on the right side. The otter was only visible for about 30 seconds. The can swim quite a way and also can hide under sheets of ice if there are air pockets.
Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep
Pawing the ground
Nose in the snow looking for food
Close up - I like the snow on his horn tip
River otter across the road
And a Bald Eagle across the river
While not so photogenic, the Goldeneye Ducks commonly called “dippers” can dive under water and walk along the bottom looking for food. Amazing how animals adapt to their environment.
Goldeneye ducks - "Dippers"
The next landscape of interest is Soda Butte, a small buildup of calcite from a thermal vent. We saw a bison working the creek there, looking for grass at the water’s edge.
Continuing East, we passed Baronette Peak and other interesting mountain scenery on our way to lunch at Cooke City.
There may have been more than one restaurant in Cooke City but we ate at the same one two days in a row. The town looked mostly abandoned (there is only one road in after all) and it was snowing when we arrived. The restaurant was nothing to write home about, but the woman running it was cranky in an amusing way. Her best line was, “Are you snowmobilers or photograhers?” with a disdainful tone at the word “photographers”. She served us anyway. On the way out of town, I saw an incongruent sign on a snow covered and boarded up building advertising “Formal Wear and Tuxedos” We stopped for that the following day when it was sunny.
Downtown Cooke City
"Tuxedos and Formal Wear" available in Cooke City!
We spent the rest of the day making our way back to Gardiner. In the forest along the way to the Soda Butte, one of our group (Patrick) spotted a moose in thick brush. I don’t know how he saw it. I was not able to get a recognizable photograph of a moose through the trees. The name “Moose” is an Anglicized version of a Native American name which means “twig eater”. This is because moose eat the twigs of willows. Other than buffalo, we didn’t see much wildlife on our drive back to Gardiner, but just as we were leaving the park, we saw a herd of elk. Continuing past the Roosevelt Arch, we saw a herd of pronghorn antelope beside the road and later a couple of bull elk.
Moose at the gate
Moose by the gate with Gardiner in the background
Pronghorn Antelope - blending into the landscape
Pronghorns blend so beautifully with their environment that we didn’t see them until we were passing beside them. They are amazing animals, apparently unrelated to any other animal in North America. They can run at 60 mph, making them second only to cheetahs. I asked Dale why they can run so fast when they have no predators anywhere near that speed. Dale replied, “They used to be hunted by saber-toothed cats before the last ice age. They aren’t going to let that happen again even though the cats are now extinct.” That night, I dined again at the Yellowstone Mine, this time on an excellent chicken dish.
Day Three Again at 7:30 AM we headed into the park, but this time the skies were not overcast but patchy clouds and sunlight instead. Steam from Mammoth Hot Springs was more interesting though the weather was colder (around minus 17).
Mammoth Hot Springs pre-dawn
We stopped at a pass into the “Little America” section of the park (so named because it has a little of everything – plans, streams, mountains) to take a shot of the morning light with a little blue sky. Driving further, Dale pointed out that every tree had a large rock next to it. “These are called nurse rock,” he explained. Every tree has them. Apparently, they catch a little more runoff water, helping their tree to survive.
While admiring the pillows of snow on top of the boulders, one of our group spotted a coyote sitting on top of one of the boulders. While we were stopped, someone notice a pair of coyotes under a tree a few hundred yards away on the other side of the road. I thought they made a lovely scene with the tree branch arched above – a coyotescape.
Coyote on his perch
Coyotes under tree
We didn’t see any wildlife in the Lamar Valley, so after taking some shots of patterns in the snow we proceeded on to Soda Butte.
Soda Butte with sunshine
The view was completely different with blue skies and greater visibility. The bison that had been working the creek was now plowing through the snow in the adjacent meadow.
Single bison landscape by Soda Butte
Frosted pines on our way to Cooke City
Giant icicles along the river
Seeing less wildlife, we took more scenic shots before and after lunch. We did see a bighorn ram on a rocky outcrop near where we had seen the herd the previous day. Dale dropped us off to get a shot and had to turn back to a turnout spot a mile or so behind us. While there, he saw a moose eating willow twigs. He brought us back to that spot when he picked us up but the moose was gone.
Ram on the hill
Willows but no moose
Late in the day as we were approaching Tower Junction, we saw a coyote walk past us on the road. Of course we all piled out of the car and began to follow it. That coyote shortly joined another in a courtship ritual just 30 feet from the road. We could hardly believe our luck to see so much action so close to the road.
Our return was delayed slightly by a herd of bison blocking the bridge over the Yellowstone River.
Bison on Yellowstone River Bridge
That night after a terrific dinner at the Wonderland Cafe and Lodge, I borrowed an Irex 15mm lens from Dale to try a little night photography. I have to say, I love that lens. It is sharp from edge to edge with none of the barrel distortion and coma that I have come to associate with wide-angle lenses. Here is a shot at the Roosevelt Arch with the Milky Way.
Roosevelt Arch with Milky Way
The Roosevelt Arch is so named because Theodore Roosevelt happened to be vacationing in the park when construction began. He was invited to lay a cornerstone and say a dedication. The sign across the top of the arch says, “For the Benefit and Enjoyment of the People”.
The next morning was our coldest day in the park. Prior to this trip, the coldest I had ever been was 7 degrees above zero (at Bryce Canyon in February of last year). On this trip the highs were in the 30’s and the lows, well this particular day set the record at minus 24 degrees. Fortunately by this time, I had purchased both hand and foot warmers and had adequate clothing.
After stopping briefly to the the pnenumbral light (also called “The Belt of Venus” it is the colored light in the sky opposite the sunrise of sunset – actually the Earth’s shadow) before dawn over the mountains, we headed into the Lamar Valley. What Dale was hoping for and what we did in fact see was a light fog rising off the snow, coating the bare branches of cottonwood trees with hoarfrost. It was absolutely stunning. I nearly froze my fingers off getting photos in that early light.
Belt of Venus
Lamar hoarfrost - White on white
Lamar hoarfrost - Backlit Cottonwoods
Lamar hoarfrost - Curving stream and Cottonwoods
One of the features of the Lamar Valley I learned about that day was that the Lamar Buffalo Ranch was where the Bison were brought back from the brink of extinction. Apparently, there were only about two dozen buffalo left in Yellowstone Park, down from the 30 to 75 million that once roamed the plains of North America. As noted above, they were systematically hunted to deprive the Native Americans of their food supply and drive them onto reservations. The Park Service located and purchased a fewmore buffalo from a tribe in Washington State and a rancher in Texas in an effort to obtain some genetic diversity. Today there are around 5,000 buffalo in Yellowstone Park and they are reproducing at a rate that requires capturing and killing those buffalo that leave the park. The killed buffalo are largely given to the local tribes. Buffalo are also raised commercially in many locations as they are extremely hardy and don’t congregate at water sources.
Lamar Buffalo Recovery Ranch
The single bison (adult males are usually solitary) by Soda Butte made a particularly beautiful animalscape this day.
Buffaloscape in fog and willows near Soda Butte
This being our last day in the Gardiner area, we returned to Gardiner for lunch. We ate at the Corral, which as the sign states features buffalo burgers. I wasn’t hopeful of finding something I would like so I was delighted to order grilled chicken on panini with pesto and sun-dried tomatoes. Absolutely delicious.
"Buffalo Burgers, Shakes and Fries" featured at The Corral
In the afternoon, we went back into the park to photograph Mammoth Hot Springs in better light than we had our first afternoon. We took the trail from the upper parking lot, past the geothermal features down to the parking lot below. I took more time than the rest of the group but I am really happy with the results of my efforts.
Mammoth Hot Springs - thermophile colors - Abrasoka Mountains
Mammoth Hot Springs - Steam rising
Mammoth Hot Springs - Travertine stair steps
Mammoth Hot Springs - Travertine pools
Mammoth Hot Springs - frost on pine needles by thermal pools
Mammoth Hot Springs - frosted branch & lichen
Mammoth Hot Springs - Travertine in snow
Mammoth Hot Springs - Ghost tree sunburst
Mammoth Hot Springs Ghost Tree and travertine detail
After that, we drove all the way back through Livingston and Bozeman before turning West to get to West Yellowstone. We checked into the Brandin Iron Motel for the next three nights. To continue reading, click the link below: