Yellowstone is a land of colorful bubbling mud and spouting geysers, a magical winter wonderland, a place of vast scenic beauty, and the best place to photograph wildlife in the lower 48 states. We hope you’ll find this Yellowstone Photography guide useful!
Without venturing far from your car, you can photograph bighorn sheep, bison, pronghorn antelope, moose, deer, elk, bears, pelicans, trumpeter swans and other animals and birds. Great vistas, an extraordinary canyon, waterfalls, wildflower filled meadows, and spectacular thermal areas beckon your camera.
When to Go
Yellowstone is a very popular park and most people visit Yellowstone in July and August. Traffic is terrible; lodging and camping sites are hard to find. If you must visit in the summer, consider staying in a gateway town or beyond. If you get sick of the traffic jams and crowds, you might want to spend more time in the surrounding National Forests. The wildlife is not as abundant, but there is plenty of it. Redrock Lakes northwest of the park is a good area for wildlife. For gorgeous scenery, you can’t beat the Beartooth Scenic Byway. Another alternative is to hike into the back country for some respite from the crowd. Summer, though, has the best weather and glorious wildflowers.
September and October are wonderful months to visit Yellowstone. There are fewer people and possibly some fall color (usually the beginning of October). The weather may be a little nippy and snow storms are possible, but with some luck, you may have good weather. Moose, deer and elk look their best in full antlers in the fall. Bison come down out of the high country and bighorn sheep may be found near the road as they descend from Mount Everts. After the first snow storm of the season (usually early November, though it could be earlier), all the entrances are closed except the route from Gardiner to Mammoth to Cooke City in the north.
Winter is a magical time to visit Yellowstone. From mid-December to around mid-March the park is open to oversnow vehicles. Much of the wildlife in Yellowstone now gathers around the warm thermal areas. Geysers and steam rise in eerie mists, and the landscape is coated with snow. Once the snow starts to melt, it is difficult for oversnow-type vehicles to get around, so most of the park is closed again until spring. Winters are bitter cold in Yellowstone, so plan to dress appropriately. There is a special section on Winter in Yellowstone in this guide. A winter tour of Yellowstone is quite different from a summer or fall one.
It is hard to say when spring begins in Yellowstone. It depends on the weather and not all roads open at once. The north entrance is always open to Cooke City. The road from Mammoth to Norris is sometimes open as early as late March. The entrance from West Yellowstone is usually open by mid-April. The rest of the entrances usually open in May except the road from Red Lodge to Cooke City. This road, The Beartooth Scenic Byway, may not be open until late May or early June. If you can get into Yellowstone in spring (May and June), you will find plenty of wildlife still near the roads in the valleys and along the waterways. The added bonus is the opportunity to photograph newborn animals.
Planning Your Photo Shoot
Weather is very changeable in Yellowstone, even during the summer. Plan visits to thermal areas on sunny days. Geysers need some blue sky behind them for contrast. If you like more steam rising from your geyser, try a cold morning. Many thermal pools show off their best colors when reflecting a blue sky, so midday is usually the best time to photograph them.
After a day of photographing in a thermal area, size up the possibilities for a sunrise or sunset shoot. Geysers backlit by a low sun are dramatic. The possibility of a backlit shot depends on where the boardwalks are located in relation to the geyser and the sun and when the geyser is scheduled to blow. You will need to get a schedule of geyser eruptions and explore the possible vantage points when you are there. I’ve suggested some that might offer good possibilities.
The major thermal areas are located on the west side of the park. Try to visit the very popular geyser basins early in the morning when they will be virtually empty. By 10:00 a.m., the boardwalks are packed with people.
A sunny day is also the best time to visit the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. The vista points are west-facing, looking up-canyon to the falls and are best from mid-morning to early afternoon. Yellowstone Canyon is located on the east side of the park, midway up the loop road at Canyon Junction.
On overcast days, plan to photograph wildflowers and secluded waterfalls. It would probably be better to plan to photograph wildflowers in the morning before it gets too windy, and then do waterfalls in the late morning and afternoon. Early and late in the day are the best time for wildlife, and so schedule a wildlife destination as a first and last stop every day you are in Yellowstone.
What to Bring
Everything you own. A telephoto is essential for wildlife. You can usually get by with a 200mm or 300mm lens, since the animals are quite tolerant of photographers. A longer lens would be handy for a rare shot of a grizzly (you don’t want to be close to one) or when pronghorn antelope or bighorn sheep feel like keeping their distance. You will be doing much your wildlife shooting from your car, so plan on some sort of in-car support such as a window clamp or a wedged tripod or monopod. Tripod, wide angle lenses and a close-up system will all be needed as part of your arsenal for this special photo adventure. A polarizing filter can add more contrast to your “geyser with blue sky” shots.
If You Only Have a Day
If one day is all that you have, here is a quick itinerary to get you to some of the best spots. See below for specific information about each location.
If you are arriving from the south or southeast, spend your time in the area of Fishing Bridge and Hayden Valley photographing wildlife. If you are coming through Cooke City, spend your early morning hours photographing wildlife in the Lamar Valley and then take the east side Loop Road to Canyon. If you are entering from the north through Gardiner, concentrate on the wildlife around Mammoth, visit the Terraces, and then take the Loop Road via Tower Junction to Canyon. If you are coming in through West Yellowstone, concentrate on the wildlife along the Madison River and then take the Norris-Canyon road to Canyon.
Visit Artist Point, Inspiration Point and take the north rim drive along the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone.
Cross over to Norris and spend the afternoon photographing the geyser basins from Norris to Old Faithful
Visit the wildlife locations around Madison.
If You Have More Time
The more time you have, the better. On your first day, follow the tour around the park (see below) so you can get an overview of what Yellowstone has to offer. Keep your telephoto lens on your camera and ready for that unexpected wildlife shot. Then spend the rest of your time concentrating on a particular area. During the summer, driving around Yellowstone is a real pain with all the traffic, so it is best to just park or concentrate on a stretch of road. If you only have a few days, the best areas to concentrate on would be from Norris to Old Faithful and from Fishing Bridge to the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone.
If you have time and find the crowds tiresome, spend some time in the Lamar Valley and in some of the National Forests around Yellowstone. These areas have spectacular scenery, abundant wildlife, wildflowers and waterfalls, and surprisingly few people.
Photographers may go wherever the public is allowed and take both personal and, in most cases, commercial photos. If however, your photo will be used in advertising or your picture-taking activities impact park resources or interfere with other visitors enjoying the park, then you must obtain a permit. For a permit or more information contact the Public Affairs Office, P.O. Box 168, Yellowstone National Park, WY 82190; (307) 344-7381, ext. 2201. https://www.nps.gov/yell/index.htm
Getting around Yellowstone is easy. Practically all the major features of the park are within a short distance of the figure-eight Grand Loop Road. You might want to drive this road stopping at some high points to get a feel for where you will want to concentrate your photographic efforts. Then, spend several days working certain sections of the park.
This tour covers the park counterclockwise beginning at Mammoth Hot Springs. It is circular, so you can begin anywhere or do it in a clockwise direction.
North Entrance – Gardiner to Mammoth
It is five miles from the north entrance to Mammoth. The main road follows the Gardner (spelled differently) River. To the east is Mount Everts and bighorn sheep country. During the summer the sheep are high in the mountains. In fall, and especially winter, the sheep will come down to the river to drink or may be seen on the cliffs above.
A one-way north gravel road from Mammoth back to Gardiner. Along this road near the park boundary is a good place to spot pronghorn. If you don’t have any luck finding pronghorn antelope around the entrance, try the area just north of Gardiner. You may also see mule deer near the entrance area.
Mammoth Hot Springs
Mammoth Hot Springs is where you’ll find the park headquarters and other tourist services. This is one of the few areas of Yellowstone that is open to automobile transportation year round.
During fall and winter, this is a great place to photograph wildlife. Herds of elk graze on the lawns of the administration buildings and tame Uinta squirrels are eager for handouts. During winter, the Mammoth area is a haven for elk, antelope, and bison who seek the warmth and access to food in the warm thermal areas. Deer frequent the Upper Terraces
Besides the wildlife, the major attractions in the Mammoth area are the travertine terraces made from calcium carbonate. Where they are still active, the terraces colored in shades of pastel reds by small plants and algae. Older terraces are grey and newly dormant terraces are white. A self-guided trail over boardwalks takes you to the various terraces. The most spectacular, and most photographed, is the Minerva Terrace. Low morning light is best here.
A one-way loop road (1.5 miles), just beyond the parking area, leads to additional terraces and some hot springs. On the upper terraces are twisted junipers you can use to frame your photos.
Mammoth Hot Springs to Norris Junction (21 miles)
The road from Mammoth Hot Springs winds south. It passes groves of aspens that turn gold in autumn and the Hoodoos, a jumble of travertine boulders. A mile beyond the Hoodoos is some brilliant yellow lichen-covered rocks called the Golden Gate. The road then passes over the Glen Creek Gorge, a good place to stop to photograph 47-foot Rustic Falls tumbling into the gorge. The valley then opens Swan Lake Flat and Swan Lake where you are likely to find trumpeter swans. Just beyond Indian Creek Campground the road passes through Willows Park where moose often graze early in the morning.
Norris Geyser Basin
A short road leads west to the Norris Geyser Basin, taking you to a photographically interesting thermal area. Bring a wide angle lens and plan to spend some time here.
From behind the museum you have a good view of Porcelain Basin. The trail goes through an area of white thermal deposits stained with reds and yellows that resemble porcelain. This is also a good winter photo destination. Various geysers will be erupting at various times, and they have color schemes ranging from yellow to red. Nuphar Lake near Congress Pool makes a very picturesque setting with its blue-green waters.
The Back Basin Trail leads to Steamboat Geyser-once the highest (380 feet) in the world. It doesn’t erupt much any more but that can change. Nearby Echinus Geyser erupts roughly every hour to 75 feet. Other colorful subjects in this area include the beautiful green pool of Emerald Spring, and the deep blue waters of Cistern Spring.
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