Working the Winter road in Yellowstone

Yes, I know it’s summer and we are trying hard to forget winter, but I am always a few months behind in my image editing so here is a posting that re-visits the winter of 2012.

Dead snags and snow above Canary Spring

After five days of exciting and productive winter animal photography (blog post coming) at Animals of Montana near Bozeman in late February-early March Brenda and I drove to Gardiner for some winter photography along Yellowstone Park’s only open road. The 50-mile road from Gardiner’s Roosevelt entrance to Cooke City is maintained by the Park Service with plows and sanders to allow the residents of Cooke City access to Gardiner and beyond. While the road is well maintained it does have steep, slippery sections, especially in areas that do not have much exposure to the sun. Elsewhere, winds drift snow across the road, especially in the Columbia Blacktail Deer Plateau. Occasionally the drifts block a lane thus requiring attention from maintenance crews. Driving with winter tires is recommended. Some pull-outs are kept clear and many of these will be occupied by wildlife (wolf) watchers with spotting scopes. Winter visitors may also opt for snow-coach tours into the interior from Gardiner-Mammoth or from West Yellowstone.

Coyote (Canis latrans) Trotting along Park Road

One of Yellowstone’s major animal attractions is the grey wolf, re-introduced to the ecosystem in the mid 90s. Casual visitors such as us have little opportunity for close encounters. Most of my sightings have been distant. We were lucky this time with two encounters at close range, one of which turned into a ‘grab-shot’ photo opportunity. The lone wolf crossed the road right in front of our vehicle and I had time to set up the long lens before it ambled off. Normally Park rules prohibit approaches closer than 100 yards, but in this case the wolf crossed the road right in front of our vehicle. Unexpected crossings like this emphasize the need to drive with care and be observant. It’s important to have a camera within reach and bean bag or window mount too.

Lone wolf walking on Columbian Blacktail Deer Plateau in late winter

Of course we had to endure (with envy) the ‘you have been here yesterday’ comments from other visitors. Wolves had killed an elk in the Gardner River Valley. Coyotes, magpies and ravens were scavenging the carcass by the time we passed by.

I regard myself as a generalist photographer. While I enjoy wildlife photography I don’t let it dominate my approach to seeing nature. I am also attracted to landscapes, flora and abstract subjects. I try to balance my photography when I make short visits such as this to exotic locales like Yellowstone. It saves me from being disappointed at not seeing or photographing the ‘star species’ and often yields just as satisfying images.

Thermophyllic algae and bacteria encrusting dead grasses in an Upper Terraces hot springs at Mammoth

Even though 2011-12 had such a warm and unusual winter we were fortunate to have fresh snow in early March. Over four days we experienced variations in weather, from clear skies to near-whiteout snow squalls. Gardiner is not very busy at this time so motels were inexpensive and rooms were available, although we did reserve ahead. The Park closes winter operations into the interior by mid March and we were surprised to see that establishments like the Mammoth Hotel actually close up for a few weeks while interior roads are plowed and made ready for the spring tourist visitation.

A herd of elk (Cervus elaphus) walking in a line on a snowy slope on the Columbia Blacktail Plateau

Please visit my 500px pages for a wider selection of images, including: Yellowstone animals and Yellowstone Scenics. We will be travelling west shortly so I will be taking about a month-long break from blog posting, unless I have some time and Internet access.