Welcome back! We’ve entered the top half of my Yellowstone trip rankings. So far in the “Yellowstone 50,” we tackled visits #50 – 36 and #35 – 26.
When I compiled my list of park visits and tried to rank them, I found this part of the list to be the most challenging. These are the good but not great adventures, and seeing how most Yellowstone trips are, by nature, good, things get a bit muddled. There’s a mix of shorter and longer trips here, and usually what separated them were the number or nature of unique or extra special sightings. A visit punctuated by an All Time Wildlife Encounter might beat out a stay that was simply consistently good. Let’s wade in and see if we can sort through them all.
Trip #25: Spring, 2017
Let’s face it, trips starting in May are rarely bad. In fact, I’ve never truly had a bad one. I had been coming to the park in May for thirteen years running (Coronavirus ended that streak by one day), and at #25 this is the lowest-ranked May trip on my list! And don’t get me wrong, it was a good trip, but perhaps one of those that was consistent without offering up a truly memorable or outstanding encounter.
There was some good variety in late May/early June this time. As I wrote in my trip report at the time, it started strong with my best otter encounter in a few years.
It’s also the only time I’ve actually witnessed the otters traveling between Trout and Buck Lakes. This trip provided some nice photo moments. A few good bison landscapes and some photogenic marmots stick with me. The bears, oddly enough, were fairly quiet during the trip. I only came away with a few black bears and no grizzly bear “keepers” made it online. My photo tour was highlighted by my closest Peregrine Falcon encounter in the park to date, a nice fox, a cooperative badger, and the very unique scene of a coyote swimming past a flock of geese on the Yellowstone River.
There were a couple of excursions out of the park that yielded mixed results. A long round trip to a fox den at Ennis provided a brief sighting of kits as darkness descended (not worth the 4 hour drive back home!), but the eastern Idaho wildlife reserve visits that preceded the Yellowstone leg of the trip were quite fruitful.
See the Yellowstone 2017 gallery in the archive (also includes April and October photos).
#24: Spring, 2016
This is one of only two trips I can recall which were split up in two parts, with a week-long break at home in between. Given the relatively short time away, I count them as single visits. This was the last spring trip before our son was born (in fact, I was told we were expecting when I returned home following the first leg), so it was my last longer Yellowstone experience. These days my solo time in the park is generally limited to a week, followed by whatever tours I’m leading.
This was an interesting year in general for me, as I was on the road for most of the first half of the year. It got a little insane, and while I saw a lot in Yellowstone, none of the photos from this particular visit made my year-end favorites list. Too much competition, I guess, but perhaps also a sign that it was another good trip without any truly remarkable moments.
It was a good trip for owls, as I had both Great Grays and Great Horned in the park, and my first excursion out to Idaho over Memorial Day Weekend yielded four more owl species. Unlike 2017’s spring trip, this was a pretty good one for bears, with a nice mix of black and grizzly sightings.
I thought the birds cooperated nicely as well, aside from just the owls. To this day, this remains one of my favorite raven photos.
I also got to see the best singer in Yellowstone—the Sage Thrasher—again. Turkeys, avocets, grouse, sapsuckers, and even late spring Harlequin Ducks made appearances in front of the camera.
You can read the trip reports from this journey here, and check out the Yellowstone 2016 gallery in the archive (also includes images from August and September).
#23: May, 2010
Interestingly enough, I remember this one more for things that went wrong than those that went right. But the good moments were significant enough to slot it above the ’16 and ’17 spring trips.
The trip featured my first weasel photo op. After a tip from the late Bob Whitney, I traveled to the west side of the park and staked out a spot where Bob had some luck seeing a weasel in recent days. Unbelievably, it actually appeared for me!
This was my first park trip shooting video, a distraction that lasted for a few years during my trips but offered opportunities to have more fun processing footage at home.
One of those videos focuses on grizzly bears, and there were a few good sightings. Most park veterans will remember this as the year “Quad Mom” debuted four cute cubs of the year (four grizzly cubs are a rarity in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem… though it should be mentioned that famous Teton grizzly #399 recently emerged with four cubs this year!). I only saw Quad Mom one time, from a distance, and it was one of a few good grizzly encounters. At the start of the trip I witnessed a sow with an older cub feasting on an old bison carcass, only to have a grizzly boar come rumbling down the hill to get in on the action. The mom kicked out the cub on the spot and welcomed her new suitor.
The best grizzly moment came late in the trip, but it was sandwiched in between some not-so-great moments. I wasted a lot of time on this trip missing out on wolves. The Canyon Pack had made a kill just across the river from the Otter Creek Picnic Area, and over the course of several days I would stop in to try my luck seeing them. It’s a great viewing spot (some may remember that the Hayden Pack actually had a den there a few years before that produced some great pup sightings), so it was worth coming back to. Unfortunately, I kept missing them. Either I showed up too late or I left too soon. Finally, I got fed up. I never did long stakeouts, but I vowed to wait them out. I sat at Otter Creek for ten hours.
It was the first time in a week that a wolf never appeared. On the plus side, I had plenty of nice conversations with folks that day.
It was all rather frustrating. I finally left the picnic area and began to drive back north. Heading up the west side of the loop, I came across a massive wildlife jam. Dozens of people were waiting on a grizzly sow and two cubs to emerge. I found a place to park and joined the throng. And soon there was movement. What came next was one of the best grizzly encounters I’ve enjoyed to this day.
The bears put on a long and wonderful show, quite close to the road. Aside from one photographer who was occasionally screaming with a beet-red face at everyone (I still remember him ten years later), it was all quite fun. I filled up a few memory cards with some nice photos and video.
The bears finally headed off and the crowd dispersed. I decided to review some of my images in the car. In the midst of swapping memory cards, I ejected one of them from the camera and it flew. Gravity grabbed hold and sent it arcing downward, directly into the slot between my seat and the center console. A “one in a million” shot, but even more impressively, it flew straight down and landed, corner first, in the sliding seat track on the car floor. And jammed in there. Seriously, it was stuck. I spent the next forty-five minutes trying to pull it out. My backside was hanging half-way out the door most of the time. And oh, by the way, it began raining heavily around that time.
I had no leverage to yank it free with my hands. I finally had to resort to pliers. By the time I gained adequate purchase and was able to free the card, it was literally torn apart. 8GB of precious grizzly footage vanished, just like that.
Following the failed wolf stakeout, this was the last straw for me. I packed up and left for home a day early, figuring it would be best to avert any further disasters.
And to think that, after all that, I still look back fondly on this trip.
#22: Winter, 2010-11
At the end of that year, I was back in the park for only my second winter trip. This was the first of two visits that winter (the other came in at #34), and it only lasted a few days. It’s the perfect example of a fairly quiet trip highlighted by one major encounter that shot it up the rankings.
I didn’t count too many notable wildlife moments over the four days or so I was in the northern range (remember, I didn’t get into the interior for the first time until February). There were some nice opportunities with bighorn sheep, and I had my first winter fox sightings—including a cross fox—the last couple days of the visit. But the trip really comes down to one very special moment, which occurred on New Year’s Eve. Many of you who have followed my work for a while will remember this…
I was out in the Lamar Valley and started chatting with a couple that had arrived on the scene. I don’t recall what I was photographing at the time (how I wish the trip reports still existed!), perhaps I had slogged out through thigh-deep snow to try for the cross fox. During our conversation the subject of otters came up, and they casually mentioned they had just seen some otters farther down the valley. This got me excited, so I asked them to show me the way. Sure enough, when we arrived at the appropriate pullout, we could see three dark shapes moving around out by the river. So I strapped on my snowshoes—something I should have done with that fox—and went out.
The otters were active around the thawed-out stretches of the river, and eventually one managed to pull a trout onto shore. It was somewhat far away, so I eventually turned my attention to the other two otters, which were a bit closer. And that’s when I missed the Bald Eagle flying in to try and steal the fish! I thought I had just missed out on the most dynamic moment of the day.
I was wrong.
Two coyotes soon appeared. This could spell trouble for the otters. Coyotes had been known to ravage whole families of otters before.
I had even seen pictures of a Yellowstone coyote chasing an otter in winter, so I was prepared for action. It just didn’t unfold quite the way any of us expected.
Otter vs. Coyote remains one of my more famous photos from the park. It was definitely a pantheon moment in my own Yellowstone history. Completely incredible, and unexpected, yet even more satisfying because I was set up and prepared to capture it as it unfolded. This encounter alone places this trip in my Top 25.
My photos from this trip are not yet in the archive, but here’s a video compilation:
#21: Summer, 2006
By 2006 I had started to branch out a bit. However, following my November, 2005 (#45) and April, 2006 (#40) visits, I had yet to unlock the secret of spring. I was back again in late June/early July, but this was probably my most fruitful visit during that period.
There were a few firsts on this trip. It included my first visit to the Grand Tetons as a photographer (my dad and I made a day visit during our first 1988 trip, but I hadn’t been back since). More importantly, it was my first time seeing bear cubs! Appropriately, they belonged to Rosie, a bear I would become more familiar with over the next couple years. However, during our first encounter with her, the cubs were out of sight. They were tucked away at the top of a tree… perhaps because a wolf was in the meadow below, watching and waiting! It was Day 1 of our stay in the park and I’d landed by far my closest wolf sighting to date, yet it’s something that’s almost an afterthought when I think of this trip.
My first bear cubs were tremendously important to me, so when I finally had a chance to see and photograph them a couple days later, I was thrilled. At the end of the year I named this my favorite photo of 2006 (though in hindsight, another photo op from this trip was far better). This was the encounter that finally convinced me that I needed to get to Yellowstone earlier in the year (well, that and seeing photos from other photographers online), when bear cubs are even smaller. The next year included my first late spring trip, though it would be two years before May paid off with good cub sightings.
My friends and I honored the then-annual tradition of hiking up Mt. Washburn, and once again we encountered the bighorn sheep families near the summit. This time, we caught some of the cute lambs in wildflowers, which made for a very nice experience.
The other main thing I remember from this trip was our many hikes to Trout Lake in search of otters. If you recall, I had only discovered the otters at Trout Lake the previous summer (#26), so I was eager to show them off to my friends. The first two hikes yielded no otters. Ugh. As the end of the trip neared, we agreed to give it one more try. Our previous attempts had occurred in the afternoon and late morning. This time we opted for early morning. Coming north from our Canyon home base, we were chased over Dunraven Pass by a thunderstorm, which produced a tremendous double rainbow at sunrise on the north side of Mt. Washburn as we descended toward Tower. We reached the Trout Lake trailhead and started hiking at 6am. By 6:30, we had an otter! It was very rewarding, and it gave us a decent session, even catching a fish and consuming it in front of us.
But it wasn’t that last venture to Trout Lake that produced the best photo moment. It was the previous one, when we didn’t see any otters. Instead, we found a family of goldeneyes, which offered up this scene.
Over the years it’s been one of my most popular images (it remains my most popular photo on Flickr, which used to mean something), and if I looked back at my Best of 2006 choices today it would be my favorite photo hands-down. But so much of how we judge these photos, be it in the past or future, is defined by all the experiences that lead up to and then follow them. When it comes to my summer trips, I still look back on this quite fondly.
#20: Fall, 2014
When it comes to these rankings, autumn trips are probably handicapped a bit. First, I haven’t spent nearly as much time in the park in fall as I have during other seasons. If you break down my trips by season, it’s actually fairly evenly-distributed (Spring leads with 16 visits, the rest range between 10-12), but many of the fall trips fell outside the peak window, lasted only a few days, or were centered around family time and/or cabin work. That and wildlife (which is an important factor in my rankings) can be terribly inconsistent at this time of year. In fact, this was the trip during which the only bears we saw were two distant dots. Great fun for the tour client who had come all the way from Australia mainly wanting to see a bear!
But this is another of those cases where a trip stands out for a small collection of good sightings and one great one. This visit featured my first Yellowstone ibis sighting and photos, along with some memorable photo moments with bison, moose, and elk.
But it took another all-timer to vault this trip up the list. A friend and I went into the woods to search for Great Gray Owls. As is often the case during my Great Gray searches, we found something else instead. Fortunately, it wasn’t another bear (that’s happened twice!). We were just returning to the car when a small furry shape dashed through the nearby abandoned picnic area. A pine marten!
American martens have long been near the top of my wish list. Like their weasel cousins, they’re fast and generally elusive. Most of my previous sightings had come from behind the wheel, as one dashed across the road. I’d also had one infamous miss, where the wrong equipment and wasted time setting up a tripod cost me my first real good marten photo. I think this was maybe my ninth or tenth marten in Yellowstone… but it was my first good photo opportunity (and no, I’ve never been interested in photographing the ones that are fed outside the park).
To finally get clear photos after all that time, and in this somewhat unique spotlight from the afternoon sun, was amazing. I’ll be absolutely shocked if I ever produce a better marten photo the rest of my life.
View the Yellowstone Fall 2014 gallery in the archive.
#19: Winter, 2018
I’m a bit surprised that this trip landed here. On the surface, it feels like it should be higher. Over the course of a couple weeks from late January to early February, there were some excellent opportunities to photograph winter bison that produced some dramatic black and white images. Including my most famous YNP image to date.
Bison weren’t the only highlight, however. During one of my tours we were fortunate to catch a lunar eclipse, on the other tour we saw (and heard) my first screaming red fox, had brief otter sightings, bighorn sheep put on a show, I actually enjoyed a couple of thermal shoots, and there were some excellent bird moments. This magpie photo is probably the best image I’ll ever produce of the species. It landed on my year-end favorites list (ironically, the award-winning bison above did not!).
BUT… this trip was not without issues. I mentioned at the beginning of this series that I did not base rankings on my tour client experiences, but there was a tour-related issue (that had nothing to do with my clients) that marred this trip for me. A few months prior to my first scheduled tour, our snow coach operator gave away my reserved dates to another photographer, forcing us to reschedule. A hassle? Absolutely. But we managed to get that all worked out since nobody had secured airline reservations yet. The bigger problem revealed itself during the trip.
Instead of heading into the park interior on a snow coach as scheduled at the beginning, we had to start in the park’s northern range. While we were up there, the Wapiti wolf pack was making kills left and right near the road in the interior. Visitors were coming away with incredible photos (including those from what was supposed to be our coach). By the time we finally got into the interior, the wolves had actually left and gone up into the northern range! So the interior was pretty quiet. To add further insult, the northern range suddenly got even more active, so the flipped script hurt us twice. I’m still bitter.
You can read the full trip report starting here, and check out the Yellowstone Winter 2018 gallery in the archive.
#18: Winter, 2011-2012
This was another one of my shorter winter trips from the time just before I started leading tours. During this stretch we would head out to our cabin the day after Christmas and stay through New Year’s, before Jenn had to return home for work. So I’d get maybe five days or so in the park. This visit featured another quiet snow coach trip into the interior, a smaller bull moose on our property, a close miss on a weasel (that was on the wrong side of my car as it bounded through the snow), and a Golden Eagle feasting on a coyote carcass. All well and good, but let’s talk about the wolves.
Wolves made this trip special. There were actually two encounters. The first one is largely forgotten, a medium distance viewing opportunity with the Blacktail Pack on Blacktail Plateau. Not “dot” distance, but not terribly close. They did put on a nice howling session.
The real magic happened on New Year’s Eve. I ran into some photographers I knew, who had mentioned that wolves had made a kill in the northwest corner. As we were based in Silver Gate, any action in the northwest usually escapes my attention unless I hear gossip, so this was a valuable tip. We went and checked it out.
Wow, what a spot for a carcass. It was in China Garden, just a mile or so inside the north entrance. The carcass was on the other side of the river (so the park service couldn’t drag it away), and there was a long wide shoulder directly across from it, allowing several cars to park. These days, I guarantee they’d set cones up there and wouldn’t let people get near it. Back then, we could camp out the rest of the day and wait.
At first, just a brave coyote and magpies came down. Around 1:30 or so in the afternoon, the first wolf appeared on the hill high above us.
Four members of the Canyon Pack descended. This included the alpha pair: black (okay, rapidly graying) male 712M and the white alpha female.
It’s the best view I ever got of them over the years, and I had chances to photograph all four of the wolves (the other two appeared to be black and gray yearlings).
The alpha female was the only one brave enough to approach the carcass.
If you’d like to learn more about this wolf’s remarkable story, I wrote about her a few years ago.
I can’t say it’s my favorite wolf encounter in the park. Nor is it my closest. But to be honest, it’s probably the best. The setting, proximity, the Canyon alphas… it was all a perfect set-up. Oh, and I almost forgot that I made a video from this trip:
For those keeping track, this was my second straight New Year’s Eve featuring a Hall of Fame wildlife moment (see Trip #22 above). I hoped for a three-peat the following year, but instead all I got was a cowardly wolf watcher falsely accusing me of stopping in a No Stopping Zone as he scurried away to his truck, even though I’d been standing with everyone else for fifteen minutes before he showed up. Wait, and that trip’s even higher on this list? I guess something good must’ve made up for that guy’s presence…
#17: September, 2008
This wasn’t my first peak fall trip (that occurred the year before, #35). It wasn’t the longest. The autumn colors weren’t at their best. But it had some good sightings and ended up being a very important visit in terms of giving me an excuse to drive beyond the GYE for another wildlife sighting.
I recall a number of different good coyote sightings during this trip. The song dogs looked quite handsome in their autumn coats. There were otter sightings in both Yellowstone and the Tetons, and I found a few moose as well. On Signal Mountain, I came across a bachelor herd of mule deer. Not massive bucks, but the largest I’d seen to date and they were hanging out in a lovely setting.
The biggest moment of the trip occurred on my final morning. I had to leave the park from the west entrance, and by chance got wind of a kill made by the Canyon Pack the evening before. The kill site just happened to be on my morning exit route. It was impossible to miss the spot. A couple dozen cars were already occupying the few precious pullouts along the densely-forested stretch of road. By the time I was able to park and walk back to join the crowd, very few open sight lines were available. You had to pick your spot and stick to it, and just hope that when the wolves returned, they’d stop in the open space between the tree trunks in front of you!
It was my first time seeing the Canyon alpha female (center, above). Though I had seen the Canyons on a kill a few months earlier, she never showed up when I was there. The few wolves in the group (they actually hadn’t achieved official pack status yet) flitted in and out between the trees. There were only five of them. The lone pup shown above never made it through the winter.
The random moment I recall vividly from this morning was that a red fox walked right in front of the mob of photographers… and everyone simply ignored it. At the time I had enjoyed relatively few fox sightings and had no decent photos of them yet, but I didn’t want to lose my spot, and apparently nobody else did either. Priorities.
That was quite a nice wolf sighting, but it wasn’t as good as the wolf encounter on my previous entry on this list. So why is this trip ranked higher? Mainly because after Yellowstone, I drove down to Utah, where I landed my first wild mountain lion photos! That remains my favorite wildlife encounter of all time. I actually cut Yellowstone short in order to have time to try for the cat in Utah, but without the park visit as an excuse to drive east in the first place, I never would have made it down there.
#16: September, 2016
If you only get one day in the park, can you make the most of it? Technically, I got photos on two days during this cabin-work-related trip, if you count the drive through the park the afternoon that we first arrived. But after that it was all work until about one ~10 hour stretch of free time to explore. So let’s say I had about twelve hours in the park, or the equivalent of one day. I didn’t even bother writing a trip report.
Let’s start with the day we arrived. After the drive from Seattle, we made it into the park with a little light to spare. It was enough to pause for one good sighting before heading to Silver Gate. A handsome red fox was hunting in the long autumn grasses near the road, providing a good half hour shoot before it wandered off.
A distinctive notch in its right ear and its dark orange coat made this individual pretty recognizable, so I was able to deduce that I had photographed the same fox earlier in the year during my winter trip. It’s not too often that I get surprised with a great sighting like this on the day we arrive at our property, but the random fox or grizzly bear may emerge, and it sure sets a nice tone.
Of course, it’s not like I could build on the momentum. We only had a few days, and for me it meant only one free day left in the park. So a couple days later, I ventured out to see what I could find in the allotted time.
Rutting pronghorn gathered in Little America, and I stopped to photograph ravens in Hayden Valley (always a treat), but after that I headed south with a specific goal in mind. Many people had been photographing Great Gray Owls recently, and I hoped to try my luck. It wasn’t hard. A younger owl had been out hunting for much of the day near the road, so I joined the action and got to spend the next few hours with it.
It was an incredibly productive session, filled with a mix of close portrait opportunities, flight shots, and more.
My day outing ended with a bonus: a second red fox trotted through the campground while we were waiting on the owl!
For a trip limited to essentially a single day, it’s hard to ask for a more productive outing. Not to say I haven’t done better in a single day… but if this is all you get on your entire trip, it’s considered a big win!
View the full 2016 gallery in the archive (also includes spring and summer photos).
Check out More of the Yellowstone 50!