Colors and Wildlife of Grand Tetons and Yellowstone
Late September and early October is one of the best times to visit Grand Tetons and Yellowstone National Parks…at least this is what I have been told. I have never been in the Grand Tetons but have visited Yellowstone on two occasions - in the early 2000’s in the late Fall and recently with Jared Lloyd Photography tour in January. One can definitely fall in love with the area and therefore I have decided to come back to Yellowstone but also visit Grand Tetons between the 26 Sep and 4 Oct 2017. This was a a first time for my wife to see this part of the US, and we planned a lot of hiking admiring the Fall colors but of course I have also focused on photography. Besides my long lenses I have taken the opportunity for some landscape photography to immortalize the Tetons and epic landscape of the Yellowstone. With the launch of my new webpage, I have also posted some first hand impressions on my Blog while I am using this space to provide some more detailed description for anyone interested.
How did we get there?
We flew from Houston, TX to Salt Lake City, UT on Delta, rented a 4x4 car and then took a slow pace 5 hrs drive to Jackson, Wyoming where we stayed for the first 4 nights. There are other options such as fluing to jackson from SLC or on United via Denver, however, I have decided on the vehicle to avoid issues with my photo gear on smaller planes and also - the drive from SLC to Jackson is actually quite picturesque and rewarding. My assumption also (although I do amdit I did not check!) was that renting the appropriate vehicle in SLC will be much easier and cheaper than in relatively crowded Jackson.
Ok, so the following few sentences are not endorsement of any kind of properties we have stayed in, I am simply sharing my observations for anyone who wants to check it out. In Jackson we stayed in the Wyoming Inn - a hotel approximately 1 km from the 'center' of the town. Its a very nice, quiet and well appointed venue, close to Albertsons for people who would like to buy some groceries and right across of few reasonable restaurants - walking distance anywhere really. Convenient parking and friendly staff. I definitely would stay there again if in town. One advise - despite many hotels and B&Bs in town, its quite challenging to find a good room at the last moment in a touristy season - e.g., we booked this hotel 10 months ahead! Majority of people visiting Yellowstone stay either in West Yellowstone or Gardiner, which often makes a lot of sense. However, this time I decided to stay inside the park, and have booked a cabin at Snow Lodge at the Old Faithful complex. It provides one with an easy access to many places in the Park, maybe except the northern range which really is much easier accessible from Gardiner. Cabins were very convenient, maybe somewhat rundown and could benefit from some face lift. The ease of parking the car next to the door, and an absolute quietness during the night were a real advantage. However, this proerty needs to be booked a year in advance to be safe. And of course, one can check out the Old Faithful eruptions frequently :)
What did we see - Grand Tetons
First thing I have to say - a LOT of tourists! Its actually quite unbelievable how many busses full of people (especially from the Far East) loaded and unloaded at every little sightings or attraction. But, that aspect aside, its an excellent time of the year to catch a glimpse (or more) of mating Elk and Moose. I personally found elk quite shy in Grand Tetons (as compared to Yellowstone) and only well displaying very early morning around Jenny and Spring Lake (a definite stretch with the light availability, even for cameras like my D5). Whereas Moose did show very well, primarily along the Gros Ventre and Antelope Flats, with at least 5-7 sightings of various bulls in 3 days. The best shots always come with patience and in this case it was very similar - my best photos of moose happened at the end of one day and 3 hours wait (animals were resting in the long grass). I also had a great moose sighting when having a hike with my wife along the Phelps lake where the entire moose family came down to the lake for a drink and a swim! As usual, I did not have long lenses with me but managed to observe great spectacle of life. Other thing is that it was around 11 am and sun was quite harsh for any chance of spectacular photos. Mule deer was also quite abundant with one evening session close to the Moose where males approached us within few meters feeding peacefully. I did have few attempts at the Wilson-Moose road, but after seeing difficulties with parking, large crowds and constant rush of rangers trying to align unreasonable tourists, I simply gave up. Having saying that, apparently there were good sightings of black bears during our stay. And yes, we had a very good morning sighting of large herd of bisons and I managed to snap of view interesting shots. Finally, we did manage another couple hikes with my wife around Taggart and Bradley lakes, and one around Jenny lake - the latter is somewhat crowded around waterfalls, but otherwise very pleasant and a definite must for any nature lover. I have had couple of early morning landscape sessions at two iconic spots - the Schwabacher Landing and the Oxbow Bend - both sites are full of photographers, but there are plenty of spots and if one takes a few minutes of time then a fresh spot with new perspective can be found. Am I satisifed? - YES, am I hungry for more - u BET! We did not see one of my elusive owl species - the Great Grey, plus did not explore properly the northern part of the park where sightings of grizzlies were reported daily.
What did we see - Yellowstone
I thought that there are a lot of toursist in GT - major mistake! Yellowstone was simply overflowing with tourists...ok, yes, they were primarliy arriving by buses and tens of cars from 9 am and disappeared around 5 pm, and yes, they primarily overcrowded main Geyser areas. When we showed up at the Norris Geyser basin (which is a definite must to see as it provides completely different feel as compared to the area around of Old Faithful), we had maybe 10-20 people walking the trails. We have planned our days similarly to the Grand Tetons, where I have cruised Madison very early morning to catch the Elk's rut rituals and spending the mid day visiting various Geyser and spring sites, just to return back to Madison for the evening golden hour. The verdict is simple - each of the geyser trails between Madison and Old Faithful should be visited - Lower, Mid Geyser Basins, Biscuit Basin, Grand Prismatic and definitely paved trail around the Old Faithful - the latter offers some possibility of grizzly sighting if one is lucky enough (primarily in the evening). One other nice hike for the waterfall lovers, providing great view of the entire Geyser Basin is the Mystic Falls Loop. As I already mentioned in my blog, we were unlucky as the road between Norris and Mammoth was closed (repairs) thus limiting possibility of easy drives to Mammoth and along the Northern Range. Having saying that, we did take on the Dunreven pass down to the Tower Junction and to Cooke City via enchanted Lamar Valley. It was great ride offering beautiful vistas of the Yellowstone highest peaks and Northern Range, which also promises possible encounters of bears and other mammals, however, we did not see anything interesting wildlife apart from large herds of bison. Oh, no! I would forget - yes, we did see wolves via long range scopes of the local 'wolf-watchers' :)
Yellowstone is one of these habitats that will leave any nature enthusiast coming back over and over (even if Lamar was almost completely empty of animals this time). The landscape, geysers, change of seasons, unpredictable weather, and fantastic wildlife are very difficult to compare to anything else that I have seen in my travels thus far. While its not large area, even short distances may take a long time to cover (a bison jam is a good example). It is also good to know the behaviors of local wildlife and have a knowledge of their movements. The Grand Tetons - wow, completely different from Yellowstone, but left me super hungry for more. I am already thinking about a 2-3 day trip before end of the year...in search of my elusive great grey owl!
Photos on this page (from the top) Grand Tetons from Schwabacher Landing; Bull Moose crossing Antelope Flats; the Old Faithful during its medium size eruption; Male grizzly between Grand Tetons and Yellowstone; Bull elk in the rut in Madison valley between the junction and West Yellowstone, Grand Tetons from the Oxbow Bend; Female Pronghrons at the Antelope Flats, Grand Tetons; Bison's portrait, Lower Geyser Basin, Yellowstone; Mule deer in Moose, Grand Tetons. More photos on my Blog, plus in Portfolio and Galleries.