Three weeks ago my buddy David Aleksandrowicz, an avid landscape and architecture photographer, and I went for a photo trip to Yellowstone. Finally I had a chance to sit down and share with you my experiences from the trip. For those of you who don't know what Yellowstone is let's start with a bit of trivia.
Yellowstone established in 1872 holds title of first national park in the world. It stretches across three states: Wyoming, Montana and Idaho and is most probably best know, other than for Yogi bear, for its geothermal features like geysers, hot springs, hot pools, you name it. Anything that has to do with boiling hot water is there. Two thirds of world geysers are located in Yellowstone.
The reason why you can enjoy all the geysers, pots of hot clay, pool of steaming hot water and other wonders of natures comes from the fact that park seats on Yellowstone Caldera, the largest underground super-volcano structures in the world. The volcano is so big that it's really hard to wrap your head around the concept itself. It is few hundred kilometers wide and deep and if it ever erupts again, like it supposedly did last time around 70 thousand years ago, the massive chain of explosions will wipe out Wyoming and adjacent states creating the cloud of dust that will cover pretty much bigger part of North America and could potentially kill most of sunlight hitting earth for couple of years pushing us back to ice age. So when in park please do not drop those 1 cents into the geysers...better not provoke volcano ;)
Yellowstone park is also a home for the countless wild animals including black and grizzly bears, deers, bisons, wolves, coyotes just to name few more prominent. In short Yellowstone is a real wildlife paradise for photographers and nature-lovers.
There are are five main entrances to the park, one on each side of the park (one extra on north-east). We decided to get to the park from North. We have flown to Billings in Montana and drove via Livingston and Gardiner all the way to Madison campground.
Word of advice for those of you who decide to take the same route. Billings is s small town with the biggest attraction being the airport which paradoxically you won't find any signs or directions to it through the whole town. Make sure to get the directions beforehand if you do not want to get lost on your way back to the airport.
If you get to Billings after 10pm, like we did, don't expect to find any place where you can eat hot food other than some fast foods. Even then be careful as most of them are closing before 10pm. The only option we were able to find in "downtown" was drive-in of Burger King...yeah.
Also be careful with Google maps driving time estimations. It's total nonsense. It gives you a 3.5 hour drive time from Billings to Madison, a distance of 340 kilometers (around 210 miles). You would have to have average speed of 100km (70mi) per hour. Good luck with this. Up till Livingston you have highway so no big deal. However once you start going towards Gardiner the road narrows to a single line in each direction with a lot of curves, and wild animals popping here and there. 80kph (50mph) is what you'll do on average. Once you pass Gardiner and enter the park you have over 60km (40mi) of windy mountain road to Madison where deers and bisons cross the road on a whim. Driving more like 60kph (40mph) is what you will be doing. We were also driving at night and with the sever rain around Billings area. This slowed us down considerably even on a highway and extended our drive time to total of over 5 hours. I think it is safe to say you can do it in 4.5 hours if there is no unusual weather conditions on the road.
There are dozens of campings. Some only for tents some only for RVs but majority of them can accommodate any camper. We have chosen Madison as being right in the center of the park with reasonably looking camp ground located mainly in the forest yet still with open space offered by Gibbon river's valley.
I have visited couple of different spots in my life including places with very unpredictable weather like Rocky Mountains in Colorado or Cliffs of Moher in Ireland. I have never experienced such huge weather condition variations as we got exposed to in Yellowstone. The weather there is an absolute mess. Temperature can change within few hours from 0 Celsius (32 Fahrenheit) to 20+ Celsius (80+ Fahrenheit). Sun, clouds, and rain occurs in no time. You rarely have a time to put your rain jacket on or put off your polar before the atmospheric condition will flip upside down and you either will get wet or start sweating like a pig.
First few days were really cold and gloomy with heavy clouds hanging low moved quickly by strong wind which occasionally let the sun break in for few minutes or puncture a cloud causing a drizzle falling on us unexpectedly. Nights were cold with frost. Our pajamas du jour set include double trousers, couple of layers of long sleeve shirts including thermals, polar and jacket. Tucked in 0 degree certified sleeping-bags we were able to survive night without risking frostbites :)
Later during the weak the sky cleared out and around Thursday the temperatures reached a peak of 28+ Celsius degree (85+ Fahrenheit). Nights got a lot warmer and we were sleeping in a t-shirt and long sleeve shirt with unzipped sleeping bags. During the day we still put multiple layers of clothing in the morning that we were able to drop as the day unfolded. Usually by noon we were hiking in shorts and t-shirts.
Yellowstone is pretty much divided into grid formulated by eight villages. In the north we have Mammoth in the west and Tower-Roosevelt in the east. Going south from Mammoth we get to Norris. West and slightly south of which we have Madison. In opposite direction east and slightly north we have Canyon village. Further down south from Madison is Old Faithful. Driving east from Old Faithful you'll get to West Thumb. Going north from West Thumb will take you to Lake Lodge and Fishing bridge villages. If you continue north you will get to Canyon village and eventually to Tower-Roosevelt. From Tower-Roosevelt you can drive west to get to Mammoth.
Basically there are two big loops:
- North loop: Norris (B) - Mammoth (C) - Tower Roosevelt (D) - Canyon (E)
- South loop: Old Faithful (B) - West Thumb (C) - Fishing Bridge (D) - Canyon (E) - Norris (F) - Madison (G)
We arrived at Madison campground a few minutes after 4am in the morning of Saturday 22nd June. Setting up a tent in a freezing 0 centigrade (32 F) on random spot while tired and deprived of sleep and food is probably not the most enjoyable of activities yet we managed to go through the process very efficiently and without whining.
After brief nap we had to wake up to register our stay and move the tent to the designated camping spot. Our journey into wilderness of Yellowstone has begun with serious warning! We received short briefing from the lady registering us warning about bears being quite intrusive this year and entering camp sites looking for a food. She told us that park ranger had to be called that morning to scare with the riffle a bear who decided he wanted to enter the campground.
Most of camp spots in Yellowstone are equipped with tables and fireplaces and Madison is no exception. As you can see on a photos David and I enjoyed bonfires and grilling bear steaks...just kidding we got nice smoked sausages at Albertson in Billings.
Our tent was more of a light desert tent and on couple occasions leaked a bit but no major floods have happened and it protected us well against elements.
Just a few minutes of drive north from our campground was a small creek and a pool of water that in the morning produced magnificent mist. Fifty meters off the pond was a plank wood path that leads up and around pond. I have just turned around in right moment to spot the sun starting to break through the wall of trees and backlighting wooden path.
Firehole Lake Drive
Fifteen minutes drive south from Madison is a Firehole drive. We passed this area couple of times and never seen anything interesting. One morning we get there around 6am. Heavy fog was wrapping whole meadow. Everything looked so different than during the day. We spotted this dead tree trunk sticking out backlit by the sun trying to cut through the curtain of fog.
After some time the sun was able to win over the fog and droplets of a dew start sparkling in first beams of sun. Half an hour later the sky cleared off and within a minutes the whole meadow transformed into a sunny pasture with disturbing burnt tree trunks.
We followed Firehole drive, passed some geysers and bumped into another interesting fog formation. Fog in Yellowstone is the number one phenomena even more so than geysers. It is not just a regular fog it comes in many shapes, densities, temperatures and shows in most unexpected places.
Old Faithful and Biscuit Basin
Geysers are landmarks of Yellowstone and there is no other place in the park with more geysers than Old Faithful. It is a real feast for the eyes. Unimaginable blend of colors and shapes of most unusual kinds. It is a real "geyser porn" if you will.
Some of them are just colorful pools of water other are almost colorless, some are almost lethargic while others are very much alive constantly growling, puffing, steaming and spurting water around. Finally we have the sleeping monsters, like good Old Faithful geyser itself, that don't look appealing from outside and are quiet for most of the time waiting for the right moment to erupt, ejecting tons of water in a span of few seconds as heigh as 30 meters (100ft) into the air.
Whole Old Faithful area is a one big and well organized trailhead along paved or plank wood paths. Every few meters you will see new geothermal formation. Some of them are breath taking and some not so much, however overall they look stunning. Even after novelty wears off and you think you have already seen it all you might run across one that will surprise you like Chain pools and Bottomless Pit pool on the photo below.
Once we reached the end of Old Faithful trail we decided to cross the street and get to the Biscuit Basin a home of Sapphire Pool then we took Continental Divide trail to came back to Old Faithful. Along Continental Divide trail I had a chance to take a snap of Little Firehole River.
Located on the North East corner of the park is a tiny village with small general store called Tower-Roosevelt. To get to Tower we drove from Canyon village north. First you need to climb Mount Washburn for good couple of miles of windy road. While descending we were enjoying breath-taking vistas of Mount Washburn, however not the highest definitely the most prominent peak of Yellowstone Plateau. Sadly there is not that more much to see in Tower apart from that.
There is a short hike starting at General store and leading to the Yellowstone River. Right at the beginning of the hike you can enjoy distant view of Tower waterfall then you can continue trail and descend to the Yellowstone riverbed.
Canyon to Fishing Bridge Road
Road from Canyon village south to Fishing Bridge cuts through vast grazing meadows and open space running along Yellowstone river. Landscape there is like taken straight from Tolkien's "Lord of the ring". Among see of green grass meanders happily Yellowstone river. But this idillic land looks very different at 5am in the morning. Tucked in thick and soggy blanket of morning dense fog it looks very uninviting and sinister like from the horror movie.
Part of Grand Loop road between Canyon and Fishing Bridge is the place where we encountered bisons and deers on numerous occasions. Bisons are very mellow and well accustomed to people presence. However peaceful they'd look do not get misleaded by their slow moves they can easily run after you when feel threatened. One time when overtaking bison strolling at night along the road he got agitated or/and scared and started chasing our car. They are not very fast animals as they max 45kmh (30mph) for a short period of time but that's still double of what you could do :)
Probably 15 to 20 minutes drive north from Madison, a few miles after you pass Norris campground there are two lovely lakes adjacent to each other - Twin Lakes. We drove by them couple of times without even noticing them as they are sitting hidden behind ugly wall of trees. One day we were coming back from Mammoth and the rain was about to break off so we drove slower than usually. All of a sudden David spotted clump of yellow lilies peaking through dark wall of trees. We jumped out of a car with our cameras and I was able to grab this lovely photo of lilies right before it started raining heavily.
We came back to the same place next day in the morning to witness beautiful sunrise mist floating above calm waters of the lake. The lilies were still there in pristine state like they knew we would be back.
The other day we were driving towards Twin Lakes and we saw this small pond. It was very early in the morning and the heavy overcast sky was hanging low above our heads emphasizing sinister look of burnt trees flooded by the water. Taking advantage of atmosphere created by the weather we also stopped by Twin Lakes and sinister sky and mist created very different look of the lake and lilies than the day before.
Old Faithful to West Thumb Road
This part of Yellowstone was one of the least impressive to us. Road is going a bit through higher elevation but most of the time sheltered by trees so tightly that you can't see anything around you other than forest. Other than one photos taken during our lunch break I don't think I have any other photo from this area.
Grand Prismatic & Goose Lake
Grand Prismatic spring and Goose Lake are located in the middle of the way between Madison and Old Faithful. The spring fully deserve its name. Symphony of bright and vivid oranges and yellows, from the bacterias flourishing in the hot, sulphur water, in juxtaposition with coolness of blue sky and blanket of mist constantly changing form and shape creates quite a view. Next to Grand Prismatic is other geothermal structure called Excelsior Geyser Crater. Worth checking as well.
Goose Lake and Fairy Falls
Behind Grand Prismatic Pool and Excelsior Geyser Crater there is a trail leading to the Goose Lake. The lake is a bit off the main trail. Sitting on the side causing not many people actually bother to get there. Access to the lake is not very friendly either as it is blocked by swamps. Dead tree trunks helped us to get close to the water.
Continuing along the trail there will be a well marked left turn. If you take it and continue for the next 3km it will take you to the Fairy Falls. It is a nice loop that leads through massive open space and grazing meadows where you can see bisons.
Even though Fairy Falls are off the bitten path they seems to be quite popular destination. When we got there, there were more than twenty people already hanging around. But most hikers do not access falls going along Goose Lake like we did. They get onto the trail right at the end of Grand Prismatic Pool. It's shorter but it is definitely less enjoyable. You will be walking all the time in woods and not be able to enjoy great open spaces and grazing bisons if you had taken the trail along Goose Lake.
Be aware that this area is a grizzle bear land. David and I seen clear paw prints in the mud.
East Entrance Road
If you drive from Fish Bridge towards Mary Bay and then continue in this direction you will reach east entrance to the park. However before you get there you will be passing a vista point overlooking south of Lake Yellowstone and Grand Tetons peaks. Standing there I saw a sea of burnt - dead - trees. They died with the last big fire of 1988 that affected staggering 700 000 acres, over 30% of the park area.
You can find reminiscence of the fire through the park yet this place is definitely a clear indicator of the scale of the fire. What you see below that looks like blades of grass are actually tall trees.
On other occasion we get up at 4am to get to Fishing Bridge and capture sunrise in Pelican Creek (first photo in the article) and then we decided to continue to drive along the lake toward East entrance looking for a nice spot for the breakfast.
Suddenly we have noticed photographer with big, fixed focal, telephoto lens - always a sign of serious stuff going on. We were lucky. On the hill on the opposite side of a road was young grizzly bear fixing his breakfast of juicy grass roots and maybe some berries for dessert. The bear was literally standing no further than 50 meters away from us. Neither David nor myself took any long telephoto lenses with us for the trip but luckily enough combination of 70mm and 24MP allowed to get 4MP crop of the bear.
Bunsen Peak is accessible from Grand Loop Road south of Mammoth. There is a trailhead that starts on the parking lot where Glen Creek cuts Grand Loop Road.
This is quite a demanding hike. You start at elevation of around 2000m and you have 600m to climb in 3.4km (2.1mi) long hike. The views while you're climbing are fantastic. You will see Mammoth as well as Terrace mountain in the west and Mount Holmes and Antler Peak at south west.
The only real issue we encountered were mosquitos the size of wasps that were just popping out of nowhere when the hike lead through woods in its lower part.
We reached the top of the Bunsen probably after an hour doing three short stops to take some photos along the way. The weather was fantastic. Clear, blue sky with puffy clouds. Temperature was pleasant such that we could hike in shorts and t-shirts. One of the most amazing thing are pockets of snow still sitting on the side of the peak that theoretically is way below the limits of perpetual snow. What is even more disturbing is that pockets of snow were not hidden in the shades, on contrary they were exposed to the sun for most part of the day.
Once we got to the top it was very windy. Yet we managed to get great panorama of the valley below.
We didn't want to come back the same way and decided that we will descend on the other side of the peak. Initially the trailhead was leading in a correct direction and then it started turning towards Mammoth. We decided to take shortcut and after short but rough descend we landed at the bottom of the peak on it's south-east side on a trail leading back to where we started our hike few hours earlier.
Upper and Lower Falls
Upper and Lower Falls are literally 5 min drive south from Canyon village towards Fishing Bridge. Skip the Upper one, the real deal is the Lower one. It is massive waterfall created by Yellowstone river dropping almost 100m down and creating what is being called Grand Canyon of Yellowstone. Of course it's nowhere near the size and majesty of Grand Canyon in Arizona, yet worth checking out.
David and I visited the place twice. First time we were there it was rainy, ominous and deserted. I've taken one photo and we rolled back to the car. On the second visit it was sunny and hot with hundreds of tourists hanging around. We walked along both ridges of the Grand Canyon as the hikes are only few kilometers long each. The views are spectacular.
We also took few hundred steps down to the viewpoint at almost base level of the waterfall. It is pretty strenuous climb back so make sure you are in good shape before you decide to go down. We have seen few people really struggling.
Yellowstone lake is a massive water reservoir that provides spectacular views on the Grand Tetons. There are many opportunities for great photography. Unfortunately they require great lighting that usually happens only in the morning right before the sunrise. The problem with June trip is that the sun rises very early around 5am. So to get to the lake shore before sunrise we had to get up at 4am and that still left us only we few minutes of workable light. We should probably get up at 3am to have enough time.
Yellowstone weather was of no help either. The first few times we were exploring lake shore the sky was so gloomy and overcast that there was no point pulling the camera out of a bag.
Probably the most interesting part of the lake, that is available for general public access in easy manner is the part from Fishing Bridge towards East Entrance. First you can enjoy magnificent views from shore line around Pelican Creek then further east is Mary Bay. Around Mary Bay you have gorgeous Pond trail hike that starts by the Indian Pond and leads to the beach of Mary Bay. It is beautiful and relatively short and flat loop.
Artist's Paint Pot
Just 5 minutes North from Madison on a way towards Norris is a magic place called Artist's Paint Pot. This place is a kingdom of hot bubbling mud, fog, and smoky sulphur vapors. There is a short path from parking lot leading through the land of mud, fog, dead trees and sulphur. Early morning the backlit mist and trees look so disturbing that it is very hard not to stop by and contemplate this dark land for a while.
Once you pass no-mans land of mud and sulphur vapors the path turns and goes into the woods. It is worth following the path as it leads to Paintpot Hill. After a short climb you'll be rewarded with great panorama of Mount Holmes with its peaks still covered in snow.
Blakctail drive is an 10km off-road starting in the middle of the road between Tower Roosevelt and Mammoth. This is bear territory and probably one of the best places to meet them. Even though they avoid people as much as possible if you get there early in the morning you might be lucky. We have seen mum bear with his cub along the road and then other day another bear with two cubs at the end of the road in late afternoon. But the bears were definitely too far away from us to take any reasonable photo. Instead we took advantage of "magic hour" and snapped photo of a meadow with great lighting right before sun rose above distant peaks flooding everything with its merciless light.
Mammoth is probably largest and oldest village in the park. It is effectively guarding north entrance to the park. The most famous geothermal feature of the Mammoth is the Minerva Terrace, a part of large springs complex.
Unlucky to us the terrace was dry. We did not know why. I found out later that this was due to the recent earthquake where the spring vent was shifted causing the terrace to dry out.
Luckily to us some other springs like Palette one were still active and simmering in the late, hot afternoon sun revealed rich colors and thick textures rendering beautiful photos.
Little less know fact, north of Mammoth, around 5 min drive there is a hot spring dumping boiling hot water into the...guess... Boiling River that then mixes with Gardiner river creating a pools of warm water. The place is open to public. You can swim there...or shall I say soak yourself in warm water. David and I tried it and it's nice and warm as advertised though be prepared the place to be seriously crowded.
If you want to see bisons in large there probably is not a better place in Yellowstone than Lamar Valley. It is located in north east end of the park around twenty minutes drive from Tower Roosevelt. Vast grazing fields along the Lamar river attract bisons from all over the park. The morning we get there the bisons were gathering coming from higher elevations to the valley. The herd by the river counted probably few hundreds animals and growing. All these brown dots on photo below are bisons. There were dozens of baby-bisons cheerfully fooling around.
Ten days spent in Yellowstone were total abuse of my body by the elements. Waking up at 5 am and earlier did not help either. Yet it was a great time for my soul. Letting my brain to clear by unplugging from the matrix of every day life was priceless.
I clearly haven't seen everything I wanted to see and there is probably tons of other places that I even don't know exists that would be worth checking. I would definitely love to come back to Yellowstone in Fall or Winter...actually anytime :)
Here are two great David's photo galleries: