A snow day: Yellowstone - Alexander Becker

A snow day: Yellowstone

Published 04/05/2018

When my brother moved out to Montana last summer, I was happy for him as it seemed like a great job, a cool location, and selfishly, close to Yellowstone National Park, essentially a mecca for wildlife photographers. I was able to spend a couple days in the park the previous August primarily searching for bears, with no luck, but still had a great time.

When my parents asked if I wanted to go out for a visit this March my reply was 'duh.' Any chance to see family and photograph wildlife can't be passed up, especially when you have a shot at bears recently out of hibernation and in winter conditions. Spoiler alert though, we didn't see any bears despite utilizing the whole family as a four party search team.

While you always want to see bears and wolves, it's never expected so you can't be too disappointed. And Yellowstone still delivers on amazing wildlife.

First and foremost, it's impossible to go to Yellowstone and not experience close (as in on the road for those who haven't been in the park) encounters with Bison. It's amazing how common these beast are once you enter the park, and how quickly you're able to ignore seeing a 9 ft, 1000+ pound animal while looking for "more interesting" species.

These close opportunities give ample opportunities for profile shots, as seen below. Note the bit of snow on the bison's chin.

You might be thinking "it's a bit late for snow in late March." If you were....well just keeping scrolling.

The next trip to Yellowstone was calling for light snow flurries. "So what?" we thought as our pre-sunrise alarm went off and we hit the road. Light flurries quickly turned to heavy snow and we kept repeating "this is fine" in an attempt to calm each other / ourselves. Once we got to the park entrance, the ranger asked us "have you been here this morning?" "nope" "watch out for slipoffs, it will be slow going". "Whats a slipoff?" my dad and I asked each other. Turns out it's when a car...literally slips off the road. We slowly made our way into the park, trying to reach Lamar Valley (bear and wolf hotspot). Finally, the snow got so heavy that we decided this was no longer safe and turned back. We pulled over to grab some shots in the snow as we were turning around. You can see how heavy it's coming down in a similar profile to the shot above. Not great.

Staying true to the theorem of four seasons in one day, by the time we committed to turning back, the snow had begun to slow down and we decided that with the sun peaking out behind the clouds, the roads seemed safe again, so we pressed forward back into the park. Take two.  

The snow was still coming down at this point, although not as heavy, making photography a bit easier. The Bison didn't seem to mind the inclement conditions, although they didn't seem to necessarily love it either.

The elk on the other hand, seemed to enjoy it really; having no problem taking a snooze.

Yellowstone in the snow, and especially with falling snow, is truly gorgeous. While searching for wildlife it's easy to be discouraged when you don't see any, but with such a phenomenal setting, it was just such a pleasure to take in the snowy pines, mountains, and expansive fields. 

As an added bonus, spotting wildlife is a bit easier with the high-key scenery. At one point, we pulled over to check out a lone bison in the snow. I heard my dad aggressively tapping on the window and looked over to see him pointing at something behind me. "This is it" I thought "this is where I get mauled by a grizzly." Thankfully it was a perched bird. It ended up being a second year juvenile Bald Eagle, but since we couldn't identify it at first and it was my dad's sighting, we decided to call it the Joe Eagle in his honor.

I decided on a loose crop here to show off the falling snow and a taste of the beautiful scenery Yellowstone yields.

We drove around for a bit longer in the park looking for bears and wolves with no luck, but we did end up watching a coyote hunt for a bit. The photos unfortunately showed some heat shimmer (what happens when photographing something through a layer of heated air, in this case, due to the sun over a snowy field), which kills detail in fur and feathers. However, one coyote, traveling along the road gave a remarkably close pass, while giving us a seemingly skeptical look.

After this coyote, we headed out of the park. One the road out, we saw a bighorn sheep grazing by the road, pretty cool.

The last trip we took to the park also had some snow, although not nearly as much as the prior visit. We saw two more coyotes, but at too far a distance to photograph unfortunately. In fact, most wildlife was scarce on this drive through, although in the end we found some cooperative Elk. One allowed a relatively close approach, enough for some profile shots. 

After wrapping up with these Elk and getting back into the car, a magpie flew and landed on the Elk's head giving a great pose. Unfortunately I was already in the car and in no position to take the shot, therefore giving me something to kick myself over for the rest of my photographic career.

I was able to redeem myself slightly by getting a portrait of a magpie in the snow at a different park. Really cool looking birds.

All in all, it was a great couple of visits to Yellowstone and the unexpected snow made it even better. Even better still, however, was the time spent in Montana hanging out, bathing in the hot springs, and eating a unbelievable amount of amazing food with the family.