Welcome back to the “Yellowstone 50,” where I rank my first fifty trips to our first national park in honor of my 20-year-anniversary of the Yellowstone trip that really ignited my passion for wildlife photography. If you missed the first part of the list (the bottom), as well as my criteria for these rankings, check them out here. Otherwise, let’s kick off the second part of the countdown!
Trip #35: September, 2007
This trip fell in a stretch when I was squeezing in as much travel as possible due to the flexibility of my job at the time, but all that really meant was taking a lot of trips that were all pretty short. It seems like a lot of my visits between 2005 – 2009 were in the three to four day range. That’s not a lot of time, so when I did manage to land one or two really good photo opportunities, the trip was a (relative) success.
This was another one of those brief adventures, only about four days. But there were a few significant things I remember about it. First, and most importantly, it was my first time visiting the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem in the peak of autumn, and that included a trip to the Tetons during some good fall color. In the Tetons the moose put on a nice show, by far my best batch of moose encounters to date. Back up in Yellowstone, I enjoyed something a bit more meaningful.
I had just seen my first Great Gray Owl a few months earlier during my spring trip. This time, I had a chance for extended owl shoots on a couple of different occasions, which were tremendous. To this day, roaming these woods looking for Great Grays is one of my favorite Yellowstone pastimes.
#34: February, 2011
This marked my second park visit during the winter of 2010-11. I spent a few days at our cabin before New Year’s, and then returned to meet up with friends in February. The notable milestone on this trip was my first snow coach trip into the Yellowstone interior (which, in a roundabout way, eventually led to my first guiding experience soon thereafter). The interior experience didn’t yield anything memorable, in terms of wildlife sightings… the usual bison, swans, and thermals.
The north was better. I actually enjoyed the -40 degree day we had. Those are still the coldest conditions I’ve ever endured, but it was bright, sunny and beautiful in the Lamar that day. There were some nice bighorn sheep moments, and a good fox encounter. One of the more unique finds was… a deer mouse!
I can say with a straight face that it’s by far my best (actually, it may still be my only) mouse shoot in the park to date. Don’t worry, there was a bigger highlight: otters!
Back in December I had enjoyed a memorable session with otters in the Lamar, so I was keeping an eye out during this trip. A couple times I strapped on the snowshoes to go look for them… and the effort paid off.
As it turned out, they were just around a bend in the Lamar River, so that by the time I reached a good spot to set up my tripod, I was completely out of sight of the road. I was wearing a poofy, bright teal ski jacket, so if I had been visible I definitely would’ve attracted attention. But somehow I stayed out of sight. For the next two hours I had the otters all to myself in the middle of the valley. It was remarkable. And they put on a nice show. I got enough footage to create a fun video when it was all said and done.
Oh, and this encounter actually caused me to miss the first quarter or so of the Super Bowl, which kicked off that afternoon.
#33: Summer, 2003
This was one of the trips from the my Early Era (~2000-2005), which were mostly road trips with friends. I was just starting to find my way as a photographer, and had recently acquired my first digital SLR camera (Canon 10D). I continued shooting film occasionally, usually if there was some sort of extra special landscape or other scenic photo opportunity, and that paid off in a particularly memorable sunset shoot on the Madison River that used up a whole roll of slide film.
This late June/early July trip also featured my first clear bear photo sessions, including my first ever grizzly bear sightings.
If this all looks and sounds familiar, it’s because I just published the reprocessed gallery from this and my 2004 trip in the photo archive.
#32: September, 2018
By this point I’d entered the stage of Fatherhood that was preventing me from spending a lot of extra time on my own in the park outside of my photo tours. This trip only lasted about a week… it was just the tour, and that’s it. We split time between Yellowstone and the Tetons, the latter of which hadn’t peaked in terms of color (it’s the first time I can remember Yellowstone’s colors being better, timing-wise at least), and we had a few moose and one nice otter sighting down there.
Without question, the highlight of this trip was a spectacular sunrise shoot on Swan Lake Flat with rutting elk.
In a way it was kind of what I had hoped for when we arrived, but it far exceeded my expectations. Swan Lake Flat can be a moody morning wildlife location, and I had some hints of elk activity in the past. We arrived in time for the sun to appear on this cold morning, and eventually heard bugles. What followed was the best elk shoot I’ve ever enjoyed, as I wrote in my trip report.
#31: Summer, 2004
From 2003 to 2006, I had moved my summer trips up a bit earlier, from late July and August to late June/early July. This was paying off in slightly better sightings, though I still had not figured out that I should be coming even earlier to improve my chances of photographing wildlife. The summer 2004 trip was very similar to 2003: a few new sightings, a good Mt. Washburn hike, but overall very few of what I’d consider to be long-term “keepers” now. Which is probably why I recently threw the photos from both trips into the same gallery in the archive.
There’s a major highlight from this trip: my first otter.
It was hauling a big golden cutthroat trout when we spied it swimming in the Yellowstone River, and by the time we set up on shore it was heading in our direction. It pulled the fish out on a log and feasted right in front of us. Since then, otters have become perhaps my favorite subject in the park, and it’s still very tough to top this, my very first encounter with the species (though I would say I have done that!).
The Washburn hike on this trip may have produced my favorite wildlife sighting on that particular trail. Near the summit, the morning fog was quite thick when we encountered the herd of bighorn sheep we were looking for. Eventually conditions cleared, giving me a chance to photograph the sheep frolicking in the snow.
This trip also included a very memorable overnight experience in the Yellowstone back country. We hiked to Shoshone Geyser Basin via Lone Star Geyser (which we were fortunate to see erupt). When we arrived at our campsite, near the shore of Shoshone Lake, we went to check out the geyser basin… but ended up having to sprint through it because the mosquitoes were absolutely horrendous. Truly the worst I’ve experienced anywhere. We were inside our tents by 5pm because of the bugs. The next morning when a ranger paddled over to check our backcountry permits, we mentioned how we hadn’t seen much in the way of wildlife. He replied, “yeah, because they know the mosquitoes are so bad around here.”
It may not be a coincidence that this was the last time I did an overnight backcountry hike in the park.
#30: July, 2007
This was my third of four visits in 2007, and it went fairly well. Another summer road trip with friends, and we enjoyed a nice mix of sightings. Sheep on Washburn (and even a distant fox with a jumble of rodents in its mouth), an otter at Trout Lake, fledged Great Horned owlets, and a couple of black bears were among the notable sightings.
There was also a good encounter with what was then known as the Dunraven Sow. This grizzly bear had two new cubs with her, and we found them near the road one morning.
Remarkably, a couple weeks later she was spotted with four cubs! It’s thought that she had adopted two cubs from another sow (bear “adoption” has been documented in other instances… Teton Grizzlies #399 and her daughter #610 were thought to have traded a cub one year).
There were also a couple of nice thermal photo ops, believe it or not, on this trip. We got to watch a double eruption from Grand Geyser, and also walked all the way to Morning Glory Pool.
I was pretty proud of myself for managing to get the entire pool in a single photo without any sign of the boardwalk (for reference, you need about 15mm of focal length to achieve that)!
#29: Summer, 2000
I’ve mentioned this trip a few times already. It was my third trip to the park, and my first as a budding photographer that kicked off this long run of repeat visits. I talked my friends into taking a road trip, having fond memories of my first trip in ’88 (#36) with my father. The itch to get out and explore was getting more serious, and having graduated college a year prior I was starting to gain more opportunities to enjoy independent travel.
It was cheap print film—including some black and white film—and terrible light for the most part, based on what I see here… I definitely had little clue what I was doing as a photographer at the time. But hey, it was perhaps the most important trip I’ve ever taken to the park. Highlights included the first-ever hike up Mt. Washburn. An impromptu decision… only a couple of us wanted to go, so we told the remaining member of our party that we’d only go a few hundred yards up the trail. We called him from the pay phone at the fire lookout on the summit. It was my first encounter with the bighorns there, and started a tradition in those early years of hiking Washburn at least once each trip and trying to be the first one to the top (that streak was broken by someone who biked up the mountain one year!).
#28: Fall, 2015
This late September/early October visit kicked off with my fall group tour, and ended with a private day tour toward the end of the trip. It was one of the earliest trips I documented in trip reports for this blog (moving them from the old Yellowstone.net forum), which I had just started that spring. I remember enjoying a decent amount of wildlife activity on the tour in Yellowstone and the Tetons, with some nice moments put on by elk, bison, moose, and grizzly bears (my first view of Raspberry and Snow, who had emerged for the first time the day I left the park that spring). Smaller critters also offered brief glimpses. Among them: sapsucker, owl, foxes (including a cross fox), a mushroom-eating squirrel, and a very large family of beavers at Schwabacher’s Landing.
The fall colors were pretty good, and the bison in particular did a nice job posing amidst the scenery on a couple of occasions.
The trip ended with my private one day tour, and though things were dying down by this point, we had a nice outing, punctuated by a very special sighting. I managed to track down a Great Gray Owl in the woods for my clients. It’s still the lightest GGO I’ve seen…
This one appeared to be a juvenile, but is the closest I’ve come to finding a leucistic owl. The next day I went back to the same area and found a different Great Gray, this time an adult. I never saw the light one again.
#27: August, 2016
I warned you at the beginning that these trips didn’t need to be long to make an impact. This was a “cabin work” trip. Lots of unpacking and set-up was needed to prep our recently-constructed second cabin for rental. We were there for close to a week, I think, and I never made it into the park (not counting the drive through at the start and end of the trip… I still remember seeing wildfires dotting the hillsides of the park).
This trip makes the list for one sighting, which occurred right on our front porch.
I had been out on the deck stacking discarded boxes when I noticed a small critter bouncing past the deck in the grass. I figured it was one of the red squirrels that we often see on our property, and ignored it. An hour later I was out again and spied the same movement… and that’s when I saw it was not a squirrel. It was a weasel! Not just any weasel… my first short-tailed weasel.
Amazingly, it not only stuck around, but spent time bouncing up and around our deck, hiding in the cardboard, and practically crawling over our feet. Good thing I had hauled my camera gear out just in case!
The rarity and intimacy of this sighting made it an extra special surprise. That earns this one hour encounter a pretty high spot on the list!
See the Yellowstone 2016 gallery in the archive (also includes spring and fall photos).
#26: Summer, 2005
This is the last of the “Early Era” trips, before I began to branch out beyond summer and try Yellowstone at other times of year. The trip was only five days, and for this one Jenn and I made the odd choice of flying in and out of Boise, renting a car and driving to and from the park. Not ideal, and it came back to bite us in a way (see below).
This was my most fruitful trip to date from a photography perspective. We had nice sightings of beaver, my first American Avocets, and my first otters at Trout Lake—on July 4th—including pups!
Otter pups weren’t the only cute babies we saw for the first time. This trip also featured our first two coyote dens. To this day I still check out the den locations when I drive by in spring, but to my knowledge they’ve never been used again.
Another very memorable encounter occurred near Elk Creek. Late June is the height of black bear mating season, and we had five black bears (ranging between two years to adult age) within a couple hundred yards of each other. Love was in the air, and we saw a challenge between rivals and a standing dance between a courting pair. I’d say that by today’s standards the photos are pretty sub-par, but it was certainly a standout moment.
We drove up Dunraven Pass early one morning for the the traditional Mt. Washburn hike, spotting several elk on the way up.
Early in the hike, we encountered another large herd of elk. They saw us and disappeared into the trees. We continued to climb, and eventually heard bleating sounds emerging from the forest below. We spotted the elk running out of the far side of the tree line… chased by a grizzly bear! And of course this was the one time I forgot the bear spray in the car. Fortunately, we did not see the bear again, but as we neared the summit, one of the elk popped out and stared us down across a snow bank.
For me, the best shoot on this trip occurred down at Fishing Bridge. Our visit coincided with the trout spawn in Yellowstone, and American White Pelicans were taking full advantage. They were floating in the river just beyond the bridge, waiting for fish to surface. The current would carry the pelicans downriver, and eventually they’d lazily fly back up and settle in the water again.
One could sit on shore and land a number of decent flying pelican shots with relative ease. It’s still the best pelican shoot I’ve ever enjoyed.
Interesting postscript to this trip: On the Fourth of July we had to drive back to Boise. We were making our way down the west side of the park to get out the West entrance, when we got caught in a bison jam just beyond Gibbon Meadows. It lasted three hours. The only good thing to come out of this is that we were driving through southeastern Idaho in the dark, and every small town we passed was having a fireworks show. An unexpected treat which almost made up for the three hours of sleep we got at the hotel that night before our flight home.
Check out More of the Yellowstone 50!