Let’s face it, 2020 has been a disaster on many levels. I’ve mostly been stuck at home, and nearly all of my scheduled trips have been cancelled or rescheduled for next year. Twenty-twenty was lining up to be an active year for me in the field, possibly one of my best given the variety of trips that were planned. But it was also important to me in a historical context.
This year marks both my 10th anniversary as a full time professional photographer, and it’s the 20th anniversary of my 2000 trip to Yellowstone. That was the first YNP trip that really sparked my interest in nature photography and kicked off this wild journey! Those are a couple of important milestones, and I’ve been wanting to mark these occasions with some retrospectives related to my work. I guess self-quarantine is a perfect excuse to write and publish some of that stuff, so without further ado…
Ranking All 50 of My Yellowstone Trips
When I went back and counted up my trips to Yellowstone National Park a few weeks ago, I tallied an even fifty. A perfect number for this type of list! Trip Number Fifty-one just wrapped up of course, but I guess that will have to wait to be included in the Top 100 Trips list a few years from now.
So, how did I go about ranking all of my park visits? It wasn’t easy, and I had to lay down some judging criteria. First, though many of these trips were connected to photo tours I was leading with clients, the client experience was not a factor in determining rankings. So many of my trips with guests are special because of the people that join me, and I’ve developed some close relationships and friendships that started with our shared experiences in Yellowstone… but I’m not here to rank my favorite clients.
These trips are ranked based mostly on the photographic opportunities, memorable and rare wildlife encounters, and other special or significant personal moments that occurred during my visits. Some trips scored bonus points for being longer (more good sightings!), but that wasn’t always an important factor. I’ve had some very short trips that scored well. A few visits also got a boost in the rankings (or perhaps dropped) due to detours or side trips that occurred in the general area but weren’t within the parks themselves. It should also be noted that I may have visited the park at separate times within the same season. Generally, these trips are counted separately, unless the time between visits was very short. And yes, even though I practically feel like a part-time resident of the area, I don’t really spend nearly as much time in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem as I’d like… so visits to our property are mostly considered “trips out to the park” at this point.
I did not define an exact scoring system, so a lot of this was based on feel and how fondly I remember certain experiences. Unfortunately, most of the trip reports from the older adventures have been lost due to the crashes on the old Yellowstone.net site where they were first posted, but thankfully my memory hasn’t faded too much yet. Also, a good chunk of these photos are not found in the photo archive yet! Though they may have appeared on my old website or elsewhere, I haven’t had a chance to reprocess and upload photos from before 2013 or so.
Yes, this is a very personal list, so it may not mean much to you, but I hope you’ll enjoy reliving some of the high(and low)lights from these adventures.
We’ll start at the bottom: trips #50-35.
#50: Early September, 2010
There are a few trips—like the next one on this list—which were focused more on family affairs or, in this case, work at our property in Silver Gate. With other priorities, my photography was bound to suffer. This trip in early September was one of two short ones that fall which were scheduled in order to finish the construction and furnishing of our first cabin. If I recall, this was the trip when we towed a U-Haul trailer full of supplies sixteen hours in one day across Washington, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming and back to Montana. We spent a lot of time hauling, unpacking, and making multiple supply runs to Billings. There was very little time to get into the park and shoot.
I think when I eventually published a combined Fall photo gallery from 2010 on my old site, a grand total of five images from this one made it in. I was this close to saying none of them were memorable (the one I’ve found most useful over the years was a shot of wolf watchers!), but I did just convert this beastly billowing bison to monochrome, and he looks okay. So hey, one decent photo!
#49: October, 2017
In order to compare and rank all of these park visits, I had to check out the photos from each trip and jot down a few notes to summarize the highlights and lowlights. For this trip, I wrote:
“October 2017 – Family trip.”
That was it. No notable wildlife sightings. Yikes. Checking the trip report for this one, it comprised only a single blog entry. And this was a week-long trip! Of course, the circumstances surrounding this trip ensured it would be pretty low-key. It was our second road trip out to our property with our son, who was still less than a year old. So it’s not like I was going to get a lot of park time. But the exploration I did enjoy yielded very little in the way of wildlife photo ops. Two-thirds of the images that made it into the 2017 photo gallery from this trip were landscape shots!
#48: Late March/Early April, 2007
It took me a while to figure out that spring was Prime Time for wildlife in the park, but even then, my timing was off initially. Before I ever made it to the park in May, I took two trips in early spring, a time before the roads into the Yellowstone interior begin to open up. As a result I was stuck in the north waiting for more wildlife to emerge in what is generally a transition time. I didn’t even have the stark white beauty of winter to fall back on. The park is more of a thawing, brownish mess. I was even too early for bison calves on this trip. But hey, the bluebirds were showing up.
Otherwise, this trip produced one or two memorable bison moments, and some fleeting sheep and eagle encounters that left me with one or two decent images.
Fortunately, I made several Yellowstone trips in 2007, and the ones that followed were all far better than this one.
#47: September, 1997
This was a very short visit, only my second trip to the park ever, following my first outing in 1988. I was still in college at this point, and had convinced my girlfriend that we should make a side trip to Yellowstone on our way to the Washington-BYU football game that kicked off the 1997 season in Provo. I couldn’t tell you how long we stayed, and I recall very little from our scant days of exploration (the few photos I have are on print film somewhere). The main thing I remember is that we took a few hikes and on one of them found perhaps the largest bull moose I’ve seen in Yellowstone. But I can’t even remember the name of the trail, and I certainly never saw that moose again. The one moment that has stood the test of time is my only Yellowstone porcupine sighting to date. It was walking along the pavement as we drove the Norris-Madison road at night.
With so few memories, much less photos from this trip, one could argue that it should be even lower on the list. But it helped bridge the gap between my first trip and my next trip in 2000… the one that kicked off my nature photography passion in earnest. Without this trip there to rekindle the Yellowstone spark, it’s possible 48 other entries in these rankings may not have happened.
#46: October, 2011
The later you visit Yellowstone in the fall, the more sporadic things get when it comes to wildlife. I had a chance to play tour guide for my father (his first visit back since our inaugural trip together in ’88) and step-mother, but we couldn’t go until mid-October. Some people have really good luck in October. After the first few days of the month, I’m generally not one of those people. This trip was memorable solely because it was so quiet on the wildlife front until one of my biggest What If? moments occurred on our final day.
There was a very nice Golden Eagle encounter on the Blacktail Plateau, of all places. I very rarely see Goldens there, and this one was perched on the ground, being harassed by ravens.
Otherwise, we had nice mule deer and chipmunk encounters. It’s also notable as the only trip during which I’ve tried using my LensBaby tilt-shift lens extensively (Update: I used it a couple times on my recent June 2020 trip!). The results weren’t great (Update #2: not great in 2020 either).
Anyway, about the lost moment. We were returning to the cabin at the end of our final (slow) day. Just two miles before exiting the park, we approached the Warm Creek area, where a few meadows open the landscape up and offer greater sight lines. There in front of us, on both sides of the road, the entire Lamar Canyon Pack of wolves was spread out. It was just us and eleven wolves. Oh, AND the lead wolf watcher… who normally had turned in by this point of the afternoon. He had obviously detected the close radio signal and came back into the park looking for them.
We couldn’t stop the car to let the wolves cross, as he was beckoning us forward to his pull-out up ahead. I simply obeyed. By the time we pulled over and got out, most of the wolves had crossed and melted back into the trees. It could have gone down as one of my greatest wolf encounters and would have written a very different ending to an otherwise slow trip. Instead, it remains one of my most memorable missed moments.
#45: November, 2005
This was my first time visiting the park outside of the busy summer tourist season. I was finally beginning to understand that Yellowstone’s seasons each offer something different. These days, I probably wouldn’t bother visiting in November (though if Jenn let me go and hang out at our property for the month, I wouldn’t turn it down!), and this remains the only time I’ve ever been in the park in late fall.
It went about as well as could be expected. Black bear footprints in the snow marked one of the few signs of big predator activity at that point. Bison, mule deer, bull elk, and pronghorn looked nice in their new winter coats, but the highlight was provided by another ungulate.
This was my first encounter with a bighorn ram, and it made the whole (3 day) trip worth it. To date, I had only seen ewes and lambs up on the slopes of Mt. Washburn in summer. To have a small bachelor herd pass within close range of us, looking big and buff in their dark brown winter coats, was a thrill.
#44: April, 2017
This was the other trip in 2017 (along with #49) that we took with our son. He was less than three months old. Family Getaway With a Newborn + Early Spring Timing = Limited Photo Ops. Of course it was great to get away, but it wasn’t a fruitful trip, photography-wise. There were a few nice moments, particularly on my final day in the field when a brief snow storm came through the Lamar Valley.
That was also the day the park interior roads opened down to Canyon, so I made the drive down. A sort of pilgrimage, more than having any realistic expectation of great wildlife sightings (I ended up with ravens and a few landscapes). As I wrote in the report from this trip, the rarest sighting was a leucistic robin spotted on the way home.
#43: Summer, 2001
One of the trips from the “early years,” when I was still shooting cheap print film. Thus, no photos to share. In fact, I’m not sure I took all that many photos on this trip. It was the year after my “rediscovery” of the park in 2000. I was the only one from the 2000 group who wanted to return the next year… so I came out on my own. I still didn’t know what I was doing, camping at Madison Campground as I always had. I recall a construction project forced me onto the road at 3:30am in order to drive all the way around the southern end of the road loop just to get up to the Lamar Valley at sunrise… it really was a poor choice for a home base. The tent I had borrowed from my folks was massive and unwieldy, so I slept in the car. Late in the trip I decided to hike the Slough Creek trail with no real plan in mind. Sixteen miles later I made it back to my car. Very sore and tired, I decided to head home early.
That doesn’t sound like a very appealing trip, but I do recall getting my first-ever wolf sighting and photos (the distant Druids in the Lamar), and more importantly, this trip established my tradition of coming back to the park every year. It was important for me to stick to that routine—returning to Yellowstone each year was a matter of pride early on—and those repeated trips helped my photography flourish while rapidly developing my love for the park.
#42: Late September/Early October, 2010
This was my second fall trip in 2010, piggybacking #50 on this list. It was also a cabin-related outing, our final visit before opening our property for vacation rentals. At least for this trip we allocated a bit more time. I remember specifically pushing for some free time at the end so that I could get in a bit more shooting and even visit the Grand Tetons briefly.
Though there weren’t many photos to come out of this short trip, there were a couple of nice moose sightings, including this one in Yellowstone’s northeast corner, not far from our place.
We also hit the Tetons at the peak of the fall color.
For such a short trip (3-4 days) it did manage to produce a few keepers. And I actually produced a short video compilation from my fall trips (Warning: it’s perhaps my most rudimentary and boring video, due in part to a lack of usable footage!):
#41: January, 2014
I led two winter photo tours during this trip, and what I remember most is how quiet it was on the wildlife front. My clients were wonderful, so it was frustrating not being able to find much more than bison and coyotes for them (of course, every individual in the first group cited “wolves” as their main goal, so I’m sure that jinxed us!).
We found some nice landscapes, and had some good times together, but talk about winter desolation… no wolves, no foxes, no weasels, no otters, no owls, no bobcat. It was heartening to hear that a number of those folks returned to the park on their own and managed to have better luck later on. Luckily, we’re all still on speaking terms, and I’ve managed to stay in touch with and visit with several of them again since this trip. Some even risked another trip with me (with better results)!
View the Yellowstone Winter 2014 gallery (also includes December ’14 photos).
#40: April, 2006
Another one of those early spring trips (three in the bottom eleven… take note if you’re thinking about visiting at that time of year!), but this one was a bit later than the other April jaunts I’ve mentioned. And yes, that meant there was more wildlife activity. Winter carcasses were just being uncovered as the snow receded, so I managed to see some of the first black bears scavenging after they emerged from their winter sleep.
To this point I’d still had very few “close” bear photo opportunities, so it was pretty nice seeing the two or three bears out and about during this visit. There was other activity as well… it’s amazing how much different just a week or two can make in April. Bison calves were dropping, and I had a nice encounter with the bighorn ram herd near the Yellowstone River Bridge. There was some decent bird activity as well, with a few good eagle sightings, Ospreys returning to their nests, and Sandhill Cranes migrating through the park before the snow had receded.
#39: Summer, 2002
From the early era of my Yellowstone exploration, this was the last trip during which I exclusively shot film (I would trade off between film and digital for a couple years after this). By 2002 I was moving up in the world… slide film instead of cheap print film! So once again, most of the images are tucked away in a box somewhere and still need to be scanned.
As I mentioned when discussing the 2001 trip, these early visits were important in terms of renewing my bond with the park on an annual basis. All the trips from the early Aughts were with friends too. Fun road trips which, in later years, were rarely repeated. So they remain special on a personal level. The 2002 road trip—for which I managed to convince my friends from the 2000 foray to return—had a few special moments. At one point we found ourselves out in the Lamar Valley at sunset. It seems like I’m rarely in the park at sunset any more, so this really was a rare occasion. Fortunately for us, we found a nice big pronghorn buck resting out on the floor of the valley. We walked out to him and set up a fair distance away. He stayed put in that fantastic light, which paid off for us.
The other notable thing about this trip—and I can’t understate the importance of this—is that it featured my first bear sighting. Five trips and I finally landed a bear! We were hiking the Lost Lake trail when some passers-by mentioned that there was a bear up ahead. Having been skunked so many times before, we took off running. It was actually a bit of a haul (all the way at the end of the Petrified Tree Drive!), but we did manage to spot it, a cinnamon black bear. Terrible photos, but a momentous occasion in my Yellowstone history nonetheless.
#38: December, 2014
You’ll find photos from this short trip in the same winter gallery as the January ’14 visit mentioned above. This time, I was back in Yellowstone in early December. It’s still the only time I’ve been in the park then. Perhaps a bit too early for serious winter action, though also a bit late for the bighorn sheep rut. For a week-long adventure there wasn’t much variety, but the trip was “saved” by some good bighorn shoots (even if they weren’t fighting much), as well as one cooperative fox toward the end.
There were a couple of brief sessions with ravens and a very close Bald Eagle that I enjoyed, but the fox and sheep remain the standout moments from this otherwise quiet trip.
#37: January, 2008
This was my very first winter visit, and it was more of an extended weekend than anything (we flew in). As with most winter trips, bison were ever-present, but it’s mainly memorable for two predator sightings. On a very cold, clear day in the Lamar Valley, the Druid Peak wolves were high up on a hill above the road. They were distant, but the setting and bright colors were lovely. It was the best encounter I ever had with the Druids before they disappeared.
On our drive back to Bozeman at the end of the trip, I spotted my first bobcat! It was quite challenging finding a safe place to turn around so I could try to get photos. Of course, the moment I stepped out of the car on the opposite side of the road, the cat bolted. I got one blurry picture of what was always known as the “blobcat” from that point on. Since then I’ve still only ever seen two other bobcats on Yellowstone trips, with the Blobcat producing the best photo op to date.
I should note that demerits were handed out for this trip, which may have affected its ranking. During a late afternoon snowstorm in the Lamar, I carefully pulled back onto the road after checking my mirror and blind spots, only to find a speeding truck barreling down on me from behind. They had no lights on and were going over the speed limit (according to a witness I ran into days later), so I was taken by surprise. My two-wheel-drive rental car didn’t stand a chance on the icy road. The truck managed to pass me, but not before taking off my mirror and scraping the side of the car. Good thing it was a rental!
#36: Summer, 1988
Perhaps it’s fitting that we end the first article in the Yellowstone 50 countdown with my first-ever visit to the park. My father took me on a road trip in early summer. I don’t remember a ton from this adventure, but a few moments are still lodged in my mind. Chief among them was our arrival at our first campsite at the Madison Campground. Just as we pulled up, a large bull bison walked right through it!
Welcome to Yellowstone! Not a bad introduction to the park. Because it was my first trip it’s obviously significant, and I held onto fond memories of the place for many years afterward until I could return. It’s also interesting to note that this was the summer of the big fires in ’88… but before they started! I wish I had clearer memories of what the park was like then, so I could compare it to present day. In truth, as a twelve-year-old I was not a morning person, so I spent a lot of time sleeping in the car whenever my dad dragged me out early (I finally got my revenge this year). So yeah, the memories are fuzzy, but the journey was significant and stayed with me.
Check Out More of the Yellowstone 50!