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Ranking My First Fifty Trips to Yellowstone: #15 – 6

Ranking Fifty Yellowstone Trips

As I honor the 20th anniversary of the Yellowstone trip that ignited my passion for wildlife photography (#29 on this list), I’m progressing through all fifty of my journeys to the park. If we broke the list into tiers, I’d say we’ve reached the “Really Good!” level. These are the trips that either consistently produced good wildlife sightings or photo ops—not surprisingly, two-thirds of the remaining entries are spring visits—or they fulfilled some very specific goals. As always, Pantheon Moments played a role in separating one good trip from another.

If you’ve read all the way through my rankings thus far, thank you! If you missed the first three parts of this retrospective, you can check them out here: #50 – 36, #35 – 26, #25 – 16.

 

Trip #15: Spring, 2018

The next two entries followed the same formula: I drove out to the park around Memorial Day Weekend, had a week or less to myself, and then led my spring photo tour in the first week of June. This seems to be the new normal for spring visits, since I can’t spend too much time away from family, and Jenn hasn’t been able to come out in May in recent years. So spring visits have become more about making the most of my limited time than they were in the past… though thankfully this hasn’t caused me to fret over missed opportunities or wasted time. I’m able to catch up with friends and simply enjoy being in the park.

So what separates #15 and #14 on the list? Not much! In the 2018 version, I still had time to make stops in Montana and Idaho on my way to the park for some extra wildlife shooting (in 2019 I didn’t), and the 2018 photo tour was quite unique in that we set major daily goals and hit them every single day. That’s simply unheard of. It was quite a good trip, and a nice way to bounce back after more low key visits the previous two springs (#25 & #24).

So what happened on this one? Baby animals put on a nice show. Black bear cubs, coyote pups, and moose calves all cooperated during the tour. I actually ended up with two coyote dens during the trip… these were my first in several years.

Coyote Pups

At the start of the trip I arrived in time to catch an active badger sett before mom moved her kits. There were foxes… swallows put on a good show (my best Tree Swallow shoot… exciting!), and we had a nice showing from the mountain goats on the Beartooth.

One of our goals on tour was to find the grizzly bear family near Yellowstone Lake that was so popular with visitors. The sow (nicknamed Raspberry) had kept her cub for an extra year, and we did manage to track them down for a very nice morning session. I was particularly happy to get a different kind of bear shot that I’d never taken before, just as the sun was about to crest the eastern hills.

Grizzly Bear

Overall I didn’t come away with a massive amount of photos, but that’s not surprising given the current limitations on time. But the success of the photo tour really helped cement this trip’s place in the Top 15.

The reports for this trip start here, and you can view the full Yellowstone Spring 2018 gallery in the archive.

 

#14: Spring, 2019

Okay, so this was pretty much the same scenario. Timing was almost exactly the same, but I didn’t have the bonus side trips to Idaho and Montana preceding it. So what made it better? It was probably the fact that the major wildlife sightings were a bit more unique. I had a lot of the stuff that makes for a good spring trip: grizzly bears, badgers, good sunrise elk shoots, but a few encounters really stood out.

When a trip provides the “best shoot ever” for a certain species, it definitely gets bonus points. While out roaming the backcountry with a friend, we stumbled upon a male Dusky Grouse pursuing two females. He really did his best to show off for them… everything from drumming, to jumping, to beeping, and displaying. It was a prolonged show, and I was even able to document the change in color in his combs (“eyebrows”) from yellow to red as he got riled up.

Dusky Grouse Combs

It’s those little behavioral moments that really stand out after you’ve spent so much time getting to know a place. On this visit I also witnessed my first bear-on-elk kill, as an adult black bear allowed her yearling cubs to toy with (and consume) an elk calf while it was still alive. A rite of spring, but the first time I’d actually witnessed any part of this ritual while the prey was still alive.

Grizzly bears were active on this trip, starting with a handsome grizz that was roaming the floor of the Lamar Valley just as I drove through the park on my way to the cabin on Day 1. The bear that was attracting the most attention this particular spring was over on the west side of the park. A sow had emerged with three cubs before I arrived, and by the time I was in Yellowstone she was down to two. It was out of my normal area of exploration, but I decided to look for her one morning with everyone else… and had some nice luck as they popped out of the woods right below my car.

Grizzly bears

I don’t spend a lot of time chasing grizzlies, so this was one of the nicer shoots I’ve had with the species in Yellowstone in some time.

Another baby animal moment occurred during my tour, and featured something I’d never witnessed… ravens and pronghorns interacting! In this case, a pair of newborn fawns (only a few hours old) were being checked out by a couple of ravens. The fawns were equally curious.

Pronghorn Fawn and Raven

To me, moments featuring interspecies interactions (especially ones I’ve never seen) add to the special nature of Yellowstone. It’s another reason why the park always shows me something new, every time I visit.

But I also dig reunions with familiar subjects, especially those that may be harder to get. Like when I was alone with this black wolf for a few fleeting moments from about 100 yards.

Gray Wolf

It was definitely a well-rounded trip from start to finish, with some exceptional encounters sprinkled throughout.

View the Yellowstone Spring 2019 gallery in the archive.

 

#13: May, 2009

I consider the stretch of spring trips from 2007 to 2009 to be pretty special. It was a very good run to start my now-annual tradition of late spring visits. Of those three springs, 2009 was (spoiler) perhaps the least successful, but it had enough memorable and unique encounters to stand proudly on its own.

There were a few firsts on the visit: my first Harlequin Ducks at LeHardy Rapids, and my very first Yellowstone fox den (I’d seen a den in Jackson the year before). I had to work hard for this one. As I mentioned in a previous post, I rarely do long stakeouts, but in this case I knew where the den was (under Buffalo Bill’s old cabin outside the east entrance), so it was just a matter of waiting things out. I think we were there seven hours before we caught sight of any kits.

Red fox kit

When they did emerge they put on a pretty good show. It was worth the wait. Other notable photo opportunities included a Great Gray Owl in the woods near Phantom Lake, a beaver lodge built on the wrong side of the road near the Confluence in the Lamar Valley, a couple close views of the Blacktail Pack, and a severely injured moose with a calf. She eventually succumbed to her injuries, which presumably came from a bear or wolves.

Badgers stood out on this trip. An active sett offered photographers opportunities to watch and get pictures for three weeks, which is nearly unheard of given how often badgers dig new holes. At one point I caught the mother out on a hunting excursion, where she showed off some unexpected behavior: mousing!

Mousing badger

I’d never heard of badgers doing that before, nor had I seen it again until I caught some obscured views of one hopping a couple weeks ago. But certainly nothing approaching this kind of hang time.

Last but not least is a moment back at LeHardy Rapids, where Jenn and I went looking for Harlequins again, but instead, found pelicans. Not what I expected (I’ve never seen a pelican there since that day), but we took advantage of it to get some interesting shots. And Jenn definitely won the session. I quickly showed her how to dial in her settings to try some motion blurs—something I had been trying to perfect with the ducks in the same spot—and she pretty much nailed it on her first try.

American white pelican by Jennifer Waugh

It remains the best photo she’s ever taken, in my opinion, won a Top 100 commendation in the first Yellowstone Forever photo contest, and hangs proudly in one of our cabins.

 

#12: February, 2016

A few winter trips cracked the top fifteen. Winter can be a challenge. Wildlife is inconsistent, as I mentioned when discussing other trips at this time of year. But when it does appear, there can be some really special moments. The setting of a Yellowstone winter is so unique compared to any other time of year that you can create some really magical frames behind the camera. This trip offered up a few of those opportunities. But first, wildlife specifics…

Something all of my recent winter trips have in common is that I can’t find a bobcat. Bobcats have been seen along the Madison River for a couple weeks nearly every winter, yet I seem to miss them (either a little too early or a tick too late) every time. Even this winter (2020), we found tracks but never spotted the cat. The 2016 trip started with a private shared snow coach excursion with other photographers to go search for the bobcat. All we found were a few coyotes.

It was a significant trip for canids. At the very end of my winter tour, we had an opportunity to see sixteen(!) members of the Mollies Pack march across the Lamar Valley. That’s quite a spectacle, and they were easy to spot against the stark surroundings.

Mollies wolves

This was the most wolves I’d ever seen together at one time, by far. A pretty nice way to cap a tour too!

But the canid species that put on the best show was the red fox. So. Many. Foxes. Incredible. There was quite a bit of snow this particular winter, and whenever that’s happened since I started visiting the park, the foxes have been more active. My theory is that it’s more difficult for them to hunt in deeper snow, so they have to put more time into it. Both in the northern range and in the park interior, foxes seemed to be everywhere. On multiple days in the interior we had 6-7 different foxes!

I came away with some of my all-time favorite fox shots during this visit, both in color and black and white.

Red fox

Red Fox

It was actually quite a good trip for black and white photography. I mentioned the photogenic winter environment, and it provided some lovely moments with bison.

Bison at Midway Geyser Basin

For a full recap of the trip, check out the trip reports starting here. And I highly recommend viewing both photo galleries from this trip, Wildlife & Scenery and Foxes (I told you they were good to me!).

 

#11: July, 2013

This is probably the one outlier in the top 15. First, a summer trip. Second, it was very short (3 days). And it also happens to be the only time I’ve gone out to Yellowstone on any sort of assignment… even if it was self-assigned. In this case, the main excuse for the trip was to conduct an aerial photo excursion over the park for the first time. I chartered a plane (at great expense!) flying out of Bozeman, and enjoyed a two-and-a-half hour flight over the park.

Some thought had to go into this, especially given the cost. I had been in Yellowstone in May and June. Why do this in July? Well, the main goal was to photograph Grand Prismatic Spring from the air. North America’s largest hot spring is a massive pool full of incredible hues, as the name implies, but if conditions aren’t right, the colors may be muted or obscured by steam. I wanted to show off the colors as well as possible, so I needed to aim for a time when I knew the air temperature would be warmer, reducing the steam coming off the park’s thermals. Fortunately, it worked out perfectly in that regard. But I also had to decide when to fly. I chose a late morning start time, so that we could arrive over the spring when it was a bit warmer. The downside of a later start was missing out on some potential wildlife viewing opportunities from the air. We did catch some herds of bison, and actually saw one grizzly bear out in Pelican Valley. Some day I’d like to do this again with wildlife observation being a more prominent goal.

Anyway, the Grand Prismatic part definitely worked out.

Grand Prismatic Spring

I got exactly what I wanted, and it paid off, as sales and licenses of this image subsequently paid for that expensive charter flight.

Flying over Yellowstone is a special experience. Seeing familiar haunts from a brand new perspective was great, and I was also afforded a chance to see new areas I’ll probably never visit on foot.

Pelican Valley

Burned trees

But I mentioned I had three days in the park, not just one, right? The flight was my first day, leaving two more days to explore. And I had other assignments I set for myself. First was to check in on the Great Gray Owl nest I had photographed that spring. To my delight, the chicks had fledged and were hopping around neighboring trees. I had a nice session with a hunting adult one evening as well, producing one of my favorite “GGO” shots.

Great gray owl

Assignment #3: Otters at Trout Lake. It had been years since I’d visited the park in summer. This was the perfect opportunity to see if perhaps the otters would be back at Trout Lake trying to catch spawning fish. Though I didn’t witness fishing activity, I did score otters, including my first pup sighting in many years!

River otter pup

Assignment #4 involved finding the mountain goats on the Beartooth Pass, and I achieved that goal as well. Four for four! Pretty good at any time of year, much less a short summer trip.

View aerial photos and wildlife photos from this trip in two separate galleries in the photo archive.

 

#10: Spring, 2014

I’m kicking off the Top Ten with… a trip for which I still haven’t processed photos. Yikes. To be fair, there are many images to sort through in this one (close to 10,000, which is a lot for me), and it came during a pretty intense period of travel. I can barely keep my head above water these days, processing images from my current trips. Until Coronavirus confined me and everyone else to our homes, I had not gone back to reprocess old trip photos in quite a while. And have you noticed by now how most of my other pre-2014 trips aren’t in the photo archive either? Maybe this summer I can finally get to this one.

We’re now getting into the part of the rankings where the preparatory notes I took for each trip are getting quite long. I don’t think I can list every highlight, but here are are a few that stood out for this particular visit. Which, by the way, lasted nearly a month. I’m pretty sure it was my longest Yellowstone trip to date.

First, some more challenging or unique sightings, a few of which occurred outside the park: mountain goats on the Beartooth, my first good shoot with Burrowing Owls in Montana, and a couple of very cool reptile sightings! I saw my first horned lizards while searching for the wild horses east of Cody, and I saw my first two (and still only) bull snakes at Mammoth Hot Springs.

Bull Snake at Mammoth Hot Springs

Rosie the black bear—by this time, it was the “new Rosie,” as the Rosie I first saw in 2006 had long passed away—surprised everyone with triplets this spring. They put on quite a show.

There were moments with grizzlies, beavers, lots of baby animals, and even a great weasel encounter during one of my tours. Two other encounters stood out.

For a week or so there was a moose cow that had given birth on a gravel sand bar in the middle of a river outside the park’s east entrance. As she waited for her calf to get stronger and more sturdy on its legs, the temperatures spiked, sending extra snow melt down from the mountains and raising the level of the river quite rapidly. For several days in a row, the moose tried to lead her calf across the rushing river, but it either got too scared, or, as was the case when my tour group was there, it got swept away by the current!

Moose and calf

The calf did manage to return to shore safely, as I showed in my trip video from that spring.

Eventually, the mother was able to lead her calf across later in the week, but this was one of the more dramatic moments I’ve seen play out during my time in the park. The other memorable wildlife moment didn’t involve as much drama, but it was simply packed with a lot of activity. The Canyon Pack had been active on the west side of the park. Thirsty for wolf photo ops, I spent a fair bit of time visiting a couple of meadows where they had made a kill. One day, while staking out a carcass, we got wind of otters down the road. So we took off and did manage to find them just as they were going past the Gibbon Meadows picnic area. Anticipating their route upstream, Jenn and I managed to spot them swimming under the famed Chocolate Pot thermal feature, and then waited for them by a small waterfall. We guessed right, and they showed up to put on a short private show as they navigated the white water at the base of the falls.

Otter bubble bath

Otters bring me so much joy, and to see them taking a bubble bath was extra special. But we weren’t done with them. They continued up the river, so we were soon back at our original spot, staking out the wolves. We warned everyone that otters would be arriving, but right then the wolves showed up! The Canyon alphas appeared along the far tree line. They never got super close, but it was my last sighting of the beautiful white alpha female (see trip #18 for more on her). And then the otters arrived. Wolves in the background, otters in the foreground… what a combo!

 

#9: May, 2011

We’ve arrived at perhaps my most infamous trip. The Yellowstone adventure that, for many years, I referred to as “the worst trip ever.” And it’s here in my Top Ten. Hmm…

So what went wrong?

First, we’ll start with the missed opportunities. There was a lot happening in the park this particular spring. Bear and wolf activity seemingly everywhere. Somehow, I kept missing a lot of the best moments. I remember heading back to the cabin from the Lamar Valley early one evening with Jenn, only to miss a grizzly bear that popped out in the golden light at the Confluence. I turned left somewhere on the east side of the park one day. Had I turned right, I would have seen wolves. I turned around at the lake instead of driving a bit farther east… if I had, I would’ve caught an otter sunning itself on a boulder.

These types of misses kept mounting (and grating at me) over the course of two weeks. And then we decided to go see the wild horses.

I had never visited the McCullough Peaks range east of Cody before, but it wasn’t too far of a drive, and by all accounts was fairly easy to explore. Along the highway we found an entrance into the area where the horses roamed on BLM land. There was one sort of gravel-ish road that went for a couple miles. Everywhere else, we could see dirt tracks running in different directions where folks had driven. We found our first horses driving one of these tracks.

Wild horses

Then it started to sprinkle a bit. In fact, it had rained on and off in the days leading up to our excursion, but we didn’t think much of it until we came to McCullough Peaks and noticed some of the roads looked a bit muddy. A friend had mentioned that there was mud in spots, but that “if you get into a rough patch just drive up onto the sage for extra traction and you’ll be fine.”

We avoided the really bad spots, and kept going on the gravel drive until it ended. On the way back I spied a couple more horses in the distance. A dirt track led out to them. Jenn warned me not to go. I said we’d be fine.

For the first time in my life, I was wrong.

We made it out a couple hundred yards before things got really dicey. I drove onto the sage off the track, but it made no difference. We were slipping and sliding until eventually we just sunk. Uh oh.

Subaru stuck in the mud

As you can see, this was nasty mud. Thick and cakey. The biggest surprise at this point is that we had cell phone coverage, something we don’t enjoy at the cabin or in most of the national park. So we were able to call a tow truck. But the fun had just begun. I had to walk back out a couple miles to meet the truck on the gravel road, which did eventually show up. The driver was young, and pretty confident. I warned him about going off the road, but he went for it with gusto…

…and got the tow truck stuck.

The next two hours mostly involved us trying to get his truck free. I was on my knees digging mud out from under his tires. Meanwhile, Jenn was posting on Facebook giving a full play by play. To this day it remains one of the most popular threads on my page.

We eventually got the tow truck far enough along where it could reach our car with its cable. So he gave us a yank and Jenn drove to freedom. Then only the matter of getting the tow truck free remained. Finally, the kid called his boss. An hour later the tractor arrived to pull out the tow truck. By the end, the horses had actually wandered closer to check out what was happening.

Subaru stuck in the mud

Safe and sound back on the gravel, we settled the bill. We had AAA, but that didn’t cover incidents on “non-maintained” roads, and we had declined the roadside assistance coverage from our insurer (which would have covered the towing) thinking AAA was adequate! Seven hundred dollars later, we were free to go. We drove back out to the highway and picked up speed, and that’s when the whole car started shaking. There was too much mud still caked underneath! So we went to a carwash, and spent an hour trying to spray everything down. Got back on the road… still shaking. We had to take the car to a repair shop so they could raise it up and give it a proper cleaning.

All-told, the excursion cost us over $800. But it cost me something else too.

The next day we were so worn out from our misadventures in Mudland that I chose to sleep in and not go into the park right away. And that’s when I missed one of the all-time bear sightings.

A grizzly sow with young cub (whom I’d already barely missed several times during the trip) put on a show for nearly every photographer in the park, and at one point the cub climbed onto mom’s back and stared at everyone while she chowed down on a vole. This classic photo moment was captured by many people, and it landed in several publications and photo contests (in each instance, the photos had been taken by somebody different). In all my years, it remains my biggest miss in the park.

To add further insult, on the route between Mammoth and Roosevelt, a massive boulder rolled onto the road and blocked access for several days. We actually had to escape Yellowstone early by driving east and up to Billings before turning back west to head home to Seattle.

No wonder I hated this trip so much!

So why is it in my Top Ten now, exactly? Well, the frustration and anger faded over time (the car story certainly remains entertaining), but if I look back at what I did see and photograph on that trip, there was actually quite a bit going on. I may have missed out on the most epic grizzly bear moments, but there were a number of other bear encounters that produced good photos. I missed some good wolf stuff, but there were three separate wolf encounters that produced adequate photos or video.

But my biggest takeaway from this trip all these years later is how good the birds were! Back then I didn’t have much of an appreciation for birds, and even today I’d probably trade most of my good bird photo ops for a chance with that grizz cub on mom’s back. But now when I look through the photos from this visit, I’m amazed at how many great bird moments there were.

I had my first encounter with the Sage Thrasher, we had a Golden Eagle and ravens sharing a carcass with a grizzly bear, there were nesting bluebirds and flickers, Harlequin Ducks at LeHardy Rapids, a goldeneye doing yoga, my first Eared Grebes, my first displaying Ruffed Grouse, mating kestrels, my first Yellowstone loons… holy cow! The best bird sightings of the trip, however, went like this.

On that day I slept in, post-mud, and missed the great bear action, something good did happen. I saw my first Williamson’s Sapsuckers. Simply a gorgeous bird and now a Yellowstone favorite. Look at those colors!

Williamson's Sapsucker

On a foggy morning in Hayden Valley, we found a foursome of Sandhill Cranes. They eventually took off and flew through the mist over the Yellowstone River.

Sandhill Cranes

And one day while I was out on foot in Little America, I found an amazing tree that housed multiple nesting birds. Both flickers and Mountain Bluebirds were holed up inside, so I waited to see what might unfold. The male bluebird arrived on top of the tree, and was suddenly joined by male and female Cassin’s Finches!

Mountain Bluebird and Cassin's Finches

Simply an incredible lineup. This remains my best bird trip ever in the park.

I needed some time to let the wounds from this trip settle, but once that happened and I could look back at what this trip produced with a little less emotion (and a greater appreciation for avian subjects), I realized how great of an adventure this really was.

 

#8: May, 2008

Square in the middle of an epic three year stretch of spring trips, the 2008 May journey proved that this time of year really was the greatest show in Yellowstone. Spring is the perfect time to see baby animals in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, and they certainly delivered. There was some other nice activity too, including three separate close wolf encounters.

My first encounter with the Canyon Pack occurred when they made a kill near Canyon Junction. Two wolves, 587M and the black alpha that would eventually be collared as 712M, spent some time near the carcass on a dark morning. I wouldn’t see the white alpha female until fall that year (#17). There was also a lonely black yearling hanging out in the Sheepeater Cliff area. And perhaps my favorite photo came during a completely random encounter on the Petrified Tree Road. Two wolves, possibly from the Agate Pack, sprinted past. Though not tack sharp, the unique coloration of this wolf and the look it gave me are etched into my memory.

Gray wolf

I saw my first fox den on this trip. It required some effort, as we had to drive all the way from our home base in Gardiner to Jackson for a day trip. The foxes were denning in the town, and we stood on a sidewalk, enduring some occasional light rain showers, waiting for the family to appear. Eventually the adult trotted in with a meal, and we were afforded a few minutes with the kits.

Red Fox with kit

There were more babies, including my first badger den (though that didn’t end well for the kits, as coyotes caught at least one of them). We had a great show with a grizzly sow and cub on Dunraven Pass one day, but the absolute highlight of the trip was provided by Rosie the Black Bear. If you’ve been reading through these entries, you may recall that I saw my first bear cubs in the summer of 2006 (#21). That was Rosie’s new brood from that year, though by the time I saw them in summertime, the cubs were growing fast, and weren’t quite as fluffy and adorable as they might have been in spring. So I had to wait two more years until Rosie produced her next set of cubs. And the 2008 pair was pretty special.

Black bear cubs

A mixed pair, and on one magical morning we had them playing right in front of us in soft morning light, with only a small, respectful crowd of onlookers soaking it all in. As it turned out, this was Rosie’s last set of cubs. The black cub disappeared in subsequent weeks (possibly killed by an adult male), and eventually the brown cub and Rosie herself disappeared for good. She was 18 years old by then, so she likely passed from natural causes.

 

#7: Winter, 2012-2013

This nearly three week visit from late December to mid-January featured a nice combination of “firsts” (always worth some bonus points!), and rare or unique sightings. It also culminated with one of my all-time favorite tour moments… pretty cool when you can save the best for last.

For a winter trip, there was great variety. Everything from bighorn sheep to Golden Eagles to American Dippers provided some nice photo ops. Coyotes were abundant, and I even had a good close fox encounter in Silver Gate. Also in Silver Gate, I got my very first Northern Pygmy-owl, when a neighbor invited me over to find it after it had killed a Pine Grosbeak. Sure enough, it was hanging out on the edge of his property near the road when I first arrived.

Northern Pygmy-owl

Moose encounters were numerous, and sprinkled throughout the trip. This is right around the time I had just begun to notice moose coming back to Yellowstone in greater numbers (the previous spring, someone had seen eight bulls hanging out together in the park’s northeast corner). I saw several bulls between Round Prairie and Pebble Creek, all the way up to Barronette. One large bull in particular offered up some nice photo ops, including this one while I was leading a private tour.

Bull moose

One of the major highlights of this visit involved a weasel. I was driving up one of the icy park roads when, in the distance, there was a flash of white against a boulder. If it hadn’t been for that contrast in tones, I never would have seen it, but as I slowed the car I spied an ermine down in the snow beneath the road. I scrambled out of the car at my first opportunity… and nearly botched the shoot. There was no time for a tripod, so I was shooting a big lens hand-held. And it happened to be cold. I was worried about camera shake, so I cranked the shutter speed really high… too high, really, as it cost me depth of field shooting wide open. A weasel is a small subject, but at close range you at least need enough depth of field to get the animal’s face sharp. Many of my shots just missed, getting a nose or ears in focus, but not the eyes, mainly because I lacked the necessary depth of field. Fortunately, a few shots did turn out.

Long-tailed Weasel

It was the best weasel encounter I had ever enjoyed in the park until my winter 2020 trip. But it wasn’t the top sighting of the trip. That was reserved for the final day of a multi-day private tour I was leading for a client.

It had been an okay tour so far, filled mostly with the usual winter fare. My client wasn’t there for the weasel, but he did get that nice bull moose, and was also on hand for a rare session with Bohemian Waxwings. I mentioned, however, that I managed to save the best for last.

We were driving along the northern road and stumbled across a decent-sized group of vehicles occupying the large Phantom Lake pullout. People were milling about and scopes were out. That meant wolves were nearby. But this area is pretty confined, with hills rising above to the south and a rocky canyon wall to the north. So the wolves couldn’t have been far. We pulled over to investigate, and sure enough, a wolf face peeked over the rim of the canyon looking down at us.

I learned that the alphas of the Blacktail Pack, 778M and 693F, had been chased eastward by the 8 Mile Pack, and they ended up here. The wolf above us looked down and then disappeared. Apparently I was the only person who thought that maybe these wolves weren’t done with their trek. To the east of this bowl, the landscape opened up with a few rolling hills, so I thought we might get a view of the pair if they kept moving. I hustled my client back in the car and we left everyone else behind.

We crested the next hill… and the slopes were empty. No sign of the wolves. Oh well, it’s not the first time I had guessed wrong. I had to drive down to the next small canyon to turn around safely, and that’s when the wolf walked out on the road in front of us. They had gone eastward, but used the draw beneath the hills rather than the open slopes. I slowed to let the wolf cross, then we pulled over. The second wolf popped out right behind us. We waited for it to cross, and then watched as they traveled through the snow beneath the road.

Wolf 778M

They made it all the way through the bowl and then crossed back over the road to the other side before another car ever showed up. We had the best part of the show all to ourselves.

Wolf 693F

The wolves slowly went up the hill, and even put on a nice howling session as the lead wolf watcher allowed folks to pause their vehicles in the road below and watch. It remains one of my favorite tour moments to this day (“gotta love it when a plan comes together!”), and helped vault this trip into the Top Ten.

View the Yellowstone Winter 2012-13 gallery in the photo archive.

 

#6: Spring, 2015

This was an epic trip… at the very least in terms of length. It’s the longest stretch of time I’ve ever spent in Yellowstone, a total of six weeks in one go thanks mainly to three consecutive week-long tours I led in June. It’s hard not to rank a month-and-a-half-long spring trip high, but this one did deliver. Sure, the extended time helped, but the variety of sightings made it a true success.

In addition to my three long tours, I led a private three day outing for a visiting photographer whose main focus was wolves. That’s a tall task, especially in such a short amount of time, but somehow we managed to have not one, but two good wolf days with decent photo ops. These were provided by the Lamar Canyon Pack, which was active in the valley on a couple of mornings, and during the second day came within 80 yards or so at one point (we were under ranger supervision).

Lamar Canyon Pack Wolves

Perhaps the amazing part is that these weren’t even close to the last wolf moments of the trip. I had family come in for a couple days, so I played tour guide for them… alpha female 926F of the Lamar Canyons passed within close range of us. And then during all three of my tours that followed we had close wolf sightings. Really a remarkable string of luck given that we weren’t just concentrating on wolves outside of the first private tour.

Not surprisingly, birds put on a pretty good show. I found my first Northern Pygmy-owls inside the park, including two on my very first day. All three were found after I heard them calling. It pays to know your bird calls. It was a banner year for Great Horned Owls. We saw three different nests.

Great Horned Owlets

I made it out to McCullough Peaks and didn’t get stuck in the mud. It resulted in my best wild horse shoot to date, as we found a huge herd that put on a show. Roadside fox and coyote dens also provided nice photo ops.

Bears were probably the stars of spring, however. There were a few nice grizzly moments, but a swimming grizz probably took the cake.

Grizzly Bear Spray

It was, however, a black bear family that once again provided the banner moment(s) on this visit. Though the Rosies have often put on a nice show with their cubs, it was a different sow this time (quite possibly related to Rosie… her territory wasn’t that far away) that offered so many special encounters.

Black bear family

I was fortunate to see them multiple times, throughout the course of the trip.

Cinnamon black bear cubs

Black Bear Family

Cinnamon black bear cubs

Cubs of the year (i.e., first year cubs) are so much more interesting than yearlings, thanks to their wild antics and the fact that they aren’t starting to graze like adult bears. At times they’re seemingly indestructible as they tackle and wrestle, jump and fall… they can provide so many moments that are just plain bonkers. It was a privilege to share these intimate encounters with such energetic youngsters. The bear family provided not only the photo highlights of this trip, but of my entire year.

View two galleries from the Spring 2015 trip: Wildlife & Scenery and Bears.

 

Check out More of the Yellowstone 50!

Trips #50 – 36

Trips #35 – 26

Trips #25 – 16

Trips #5-1

 

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