Here we are. My five best trips to Yellowstone National Park, at least according to my current mood and how I feel about what makes for a successful trip. If you want to know exactly what my thought process was when ranking my first fifty visits to the park, check out the first post in this series. If you missed the preceding 45 trips, you can read the other four articles here: Trips #50 – 36, #35 – 26, #25 – 16, #15 – 6.
Those of you who have read through the entire list are probably assuming all that’s left are spring trips. Tons of great wildlife at that time of year, after all, which is why so many spring journeys landed in the top half of the rankings. But in fact, three seasons are represented in the Top Five (sorry, Summer… too hot). Let’s get started and see what made these adventures so great!
Trip #5: Fall, 2012
As always, variety is key. This was my favorite fall trip thanks to some less common wildlife sightings, but there was also a nice collection of scenery and landscape photo ops mixed in (which one should expect in the late September/early October time frame). Professionally, this was my first time leading tours in the park. For friends, but it was sort of a test run before I officially got started during the upcoming winter season.
Mustelids featured prominently during this visit. I saw my only autumn badger on this trip, and we even found an otter at Trout Lake (they’re not as common there this late in the year). But their smaller, faster cousins provided the real highlights. I got a tip about looking for weasels in the Beartooth Wilderness, near where the pikas hang out. We found the pikas… they were everywhere, in the middle of some incredibly photogenic boulder fields.
It was shocking how great the environment was for photographing them. Boulders in shades of pink, brown, and gold. Lichens in green and black. This spot was way better than anything I’ve found in the park. It’s still the best pika shoot I’ve ever enjoyed.
But of course, they weren’t the main reason we were there. We were following an unlikely weasel lead. And wouldn’t you know it…
It was brief, but this was my best weasel photo op to date. Remarkably, two days later we had another weasel just below the road at the Lamar River for a little while!
Other memorable encounters included a Great Gray Owl that my friend spotted near Upper Barronette (still the only time I’ve seen one there), a nice grizzly bear while we were shooting a sunrise at Oxbow Bend in the Tetons, and two black wolves at separate sightings within a few miles of Canyon Junction.
I mentioned the nice autumn scenery. Landscapes were crucial in ranking this trip this high. In some cases, the autumn colors augmented an “animalscape” shot, as bison and pronghorn both posed in front of the golden cottonwood trees in the Lamar Valley at different times.
The moose in the Grand Tetons provided some nice moments amidst the cottonwoods and aspens down there as well. Back in Yellowstone, I made my first climb up the hill above Grand Prismatic Spring to get a great view of that colorful feature (the following summer, during Trip #11, I chartered a plane and flew overhead to get even better shots).
Perhaps the most satisfying moment for me as a photographer involved a different type of landscape photo opportunity. We were driving along the northern road early one evening and had a thunder and lightning storm pass overhead. By the time we arrived in the Lamar on our way back to Silver Gate, the storm was skirting the southern edge of the valley. Lightning continued to flash along the horizon. I had never photographed lightning before. This was as good a time as any to try.
I sort of had to guess at the best way to go about it. These days you can purchase a sensor that will fire the trigger any time a lightning flash is detected. In my case, it was dark enough that I figured if I just set the camera to fire long exposures continuously, I might catch any flashes during an exposure. That actually worked, and one of my very first images in the sequence ended up being the winning shot, since the storm continued south rapidly after that.
It remains a personal favorite to this day because of the rare opportunity and the iconic location (complete with some nice golden cottonwoods). I’m still waiting for another opportunity to photograph a storm like this. Update: I blew my best opportunity to recreate this moment during my most recent spring visit, but my dad nailed it!)
Here’s a video featuring footage from fall trips in 2011 and 2012:
#4: Spring, 2013
Maybe COVID-19 will be the reason I finally find time to process the photos from this trip. As I mentioned when discussing my 2014 spring trip (#10), a couple of these collections have sat on my computer for years without ever getting my full attention. I’ve picked and chosen some of the better moments to share on social media now and then, but there are still at least a few thousand images from this one that need to be sorted, keyworded, and processed.
There were some pretty dynamic wildlife encounters on this trip, including two Pantheon moments I was fortunate to share while guiding. This was the first year I led spring photo tours (a rousing success), but I also played tour guide for family in addition to having some time to myself. Where to begin…
During a short private outing with a couple of clients, we had a fox cross the road right in front of the vehicle and descend to the rocks below. We found a safe place to park and went back to take a look. There it was, curled up comfortably for nap time.
A spring tradition for me is to hike to Trout and Buck Lakes to see if there’s any early otter activity. It doesn’t always happen, but this time I was able to find an otter on consecutive days. There were a few nice grizzly moments, a couple of fox dens in Silver Gate, nice beaver photo ops at the Confluence, and one close wolf encounter when wolf 889F came down the hill above the Slough Creek Road (where we’d been watching a grizzly bear family), nipped a napping bison in the butt, and crossed in front of us.
There were some firsts on this trip. My first cottontail rabbit (in case you haven’t noticed by now, I get excited by new sightings, even if they’re generally common animals), my first Three-toed Woodpecker… and my first Long-eared Owl in Yellowstone.
This species is a pretty uncommon sight in the park. To date, I’ve only seen three of them, and this was the only good photo op. I love owls anyway, so extra bonus points in the rankings for this one!
The other major owl sighting involved the much larger Great Gray Owl. This was the year of the only Great Gray nest I’ve ever seen. I referenced revisiting the site later that summer (again, Trip #11), but during the spring trip we were there for the build-up. During a few visits, we were afforded views of both adult owls. I brought clients back to visit twice. The first time, we were incredibly fortunate to see the male bring food into the female before flying off.
It’s one of my favorite tour encounters… an incredibly intimate moment that we were able to view without disturbing them. Some of my clients were keen on seeing owls, so this was a pretty nice surprise for them. A couple hours later, one of them spotted a bonus Great Gray up on the Beartooth Pass! We also returned to the nest one last time later in the week, and one of my clients was able to capture a picture of one of the (~2 day old) chicks peeking out of the nest.
The other Hall of Fame moment involved two different species. That spring, the Yellowstone Picnic Area fox family had—for the first time that I could remember—dug their spring den out in full view of the road. They attracted a big audience, as people lined up for a couple weeks to watch them raise their kits. I happened to be hosting my mother for a few days, and we drove down there so I could show her the den. As we pulled up, something weird was going on. A badger was approaching the den site, and the vixen was coming out to meet it.
A long and vicious battle ensued, one of the most memorable wildlife moments I’ve ever had in Yellowstone.
The kits did escape (though the story did not end until a couple days later… it wasn’t a happy one for the foxes). Perhaps the most underrated aspect of the whole story is that a herd of bighorn sheep had been grazing nearby when the fight broke out, and they came over to follow and watch the action.
Some day I’ll get the photos up in the archive. For now, enjoy the video I made from this trip (it includes footage from my July visit as well):
#3: January, 2020
This one’s still very fresh in my mind, but I don’t think it suffers from recency bias. It was definitely the best winter trip I’ve ever taken, and I knew immediately after it was over that it had secured a place somewhere in my Top 5 all time.
A winter trip following my “current” typical park trip schedule (one week to myself, one week on tour) can’t hope to compete with the epic spring trips in terms of wildlife variety or even total volume, so sightings have to be pretty unique and special for the visit to make such an impression. Those of you who followed my trip reports from January know what’s coming…
I already wrote recently about how good the trip was for black and white imagery, so I won’t rehash that. I enjoyed the different monochrome shots of wildlife that I was able to produce, but Norris Geyser Basin and a few other spots offered up some black and white landscape options too.
On the wildlife front, the trip was special for many reasons, including my first-ever winter badger. But common subjects like bison represented themselves well.
I enjoyed my best otter encounter in a few years when a pair hung out near the road in the Lamar Valley for an hour, and we managed to squeeze in another otter sighting during my tour. There were some good fox, eagle, moose, and elk encounters to round things out. A mousing coyote entertained us in the interior for a few moments, and we also enjoyed some nice frozen mornings on the Madison River.
One of the highlights of the tour was my first double weasel encounter. We had two long-tailed weasels in their white winter coats (one without the black tip of its tail… a true white weasel!) scampering around the hills. It had been three years since my last weasel photo op, and I’d forgotten just how difficult they are to photograph. It was a challenging, but immensely rewarding encounter, certainly my best to date with this species.
But as most of you know, this trip was mainly about the wolves. Wow, what a wolf trip! There were at least four good wolf encounters, mostly with the massive Wapiti Lake Pack, and I was really pleased that my clients got to partake in one of them before the tour ended.
It all culminated with perhaps my closest wolf encounter ever when this one popped out of the woods in front of us.
Let’s face it, the wolves alone would have put this trip in the Top Ten. For a short(ish) trip it’s an experience I’m unlikely to ever repeat. And I did record a little bit of wolf footage during some of the longer encounters:
#2: Spring, 2012
Between December 31, 2011 (Trip #18), and December 31, 2012 (#7), I had a pretty darn good 367 day (leap year!) stretch in Yellowstone. I’ve cited the springs of 2007 – 2009 as being top notch, but for a one year run it’s hard to beat this one when you also factor in the fall trip at #5.
The spring trip in 2012 was one of those that had a short break in between. It began in mid-May, lasted a couple weeks, then I drove home and returned a week later with a client for another week. I’ve always considered it one long visit with a pause in the middle. It was my longest visit to the park to date, and both parts of the spring adventure were really, really good (plus I missed something pretty great in between!).
Let’s start with “firsts” and “bests,” since I like to mention those. This trip featured my first jackrabbits, first Horned Lark, first clear (though not great) pine marten shot, my first good shots of an osprey catching a fish, and my best Yellow-headed Blackbird shoot. When I was back in the park with my client in June, we stopped at LeHardy Rapids during a snowstorm, and were surprised by two male Harlequin Ducks. Not only are they typically gone by this time of year (Harlequins mostly come through in mid-May), but we had two of the very handsome males together on the same rock, and conditions were perfect for some silky blurred water shots. Once the snow cleared, of course. And it did.
Shooting motion blurs with these ducks isn’t easy. One needs to slow the camera’s shutter speed down to 1/15th of a second or slower… and the birds are constantly fidgeting, which is why they don’t come out very sharp in most of these types of shots. Also, at LeHardy much of the shooting is done from a boardwalk that shakes every time someone takes a step. I set up on solid ground off the boardwalk to try my luck (the same spot where Jenn landed her epic pelican shot a few years earlier during Trip #13). Why were conditions perfect? After the snow abated, it was overcast, which allowed us to drop shutter speeds down (if it’s bright and sunny there you have no chance), and because it was later in spring the snow melt in the Yellowstone River was at a higher volume. The river was really gushing, which made for some great textures. I’d been trying for these types of shots for years… you’re lucky if you take a hundred of them and one comes out fairly well. On this visit I nailed two, and based on the way everything came together, I don’t think I’ll ever improve on them.
Incidentally, this wasn’t the only nice thing about this shoot. The conditions were so good that we could go from shooting 1/10th of a second motion blurs to 1/4000th sharp flight shots against those light rapids. It was the best of both worlds.
Other interesting sightings during this trip included three separate bird species trying to occupy the same nest hole in an aspen over the course of a few weeks. Initially, Mountain Bluebirds started packing a hole with nesting materials. Then the Williamson’s Sapsuckers moved in and spit out all the padding that had just been laid.
Then some Northern Flickers barged in and started widening the hole. But they didn’t get far. On a windy day, the tree fell over. So much for that.
If you’re wondering about bears, yeah, they were pretty good. There were a couple of nice encounters with young black bear cubs, and one or two brief grizzly moments. But bears were pretty far down the list on this adventure. Badgers on the other hand… well, I only counted thirteen of them!
There were several close encounters, including some great viewing of an active sett on the Blacktail Plateau. I recall that during the encounter above I got a bit worn out hand-holding my big lens, so I vowed to get my tripod the next time (there had been time to set it up). This actually cost me, because the next day I ran into a pine marten and missed a great photo op while—badger encounter fresh in my mind—I was setting up my tripod. So remember, badger = tripod, marten = take whatever you have and go!
Speaking of mustelids, during my hiatus in the middle of this adventure a long-tailed weasel appeared at the Soda Butte Creek Picnic Area and put on a show for several days. At one point it was even invading ground squirrel dens and stealing their babies right in front of all the photographers. I got to hear the play-by-play from everyone online while I was home, restlessly counting down the rest of the week before my return. It got so crazy the rangers actually shut the area down… because of a weasel jam!
By the time I got back in the park things had quieted down there, and there hadn’t been any recent sightings. But I still insisted that we visit the site on and off. Remember, to this point I hadn’t had any truly close weasel photos (the subsequent fall and winter would make up for this hole in my portfolio). On the final day, I came back one more time and waited. In a rainstorm, no less. And it paid off. The little predator showed up!
At one point it actually ran over my feet as it explored all over, around, and under the boardwalk. The stakeout paid off.
Before we get to the highlight of the trip, there was one other moment I was pretty proud of. Driving back to Silver Gate late one afternoon, I spied two moose on an island in the creek. The sun was setting on the mountains high above… it was a pretty dramatic landscape. After I (barely) found a safe place to pull off the road, I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to do anything with the scene given the wide range of tones and moving subjects, but I dusted off my neutral density filters and did my best. To this day I’m amazed I was able to produce something decent.
Wolves are a common theme in the Top Ten. It shouldn’t be surprising that there was another epic wolf encounter that helped bump this trip in the standings.
It all started with a badger walkabout (yes, I was greedy for more badgers, apparently). I left Jenn napping in the car at a pullout in Little America while I roamed the hills looking for fresh badger holes. This is something that has worked for my friends. It’s still never worked for me. But it’s fun to search and nice to take a break from driving around so much.
I didn’t find anything of note, and walked back down the hill to the parking lot. During my absence, some friends had shown up and were chatting by their cars. I joined them in conversation, which was abruptly interrupted when I spied a black wolf trotting down the very hill I had just descended. Everyone scrambled for their gear.
The reason it came down, and was mostly oblivious to our presence, was a large herd of bison cows and calves on the other side of the road. Later I learned that this was likely a former member of the Mollies Pack, which is known for its prowess hunting bison. So the herd was full of seemingly-obtainable snacks.
The black wolf chose to circle around our cars. Jenn was still napping in the passenger seat of our vehicle, and I debated whether to let her rest or if I should alert her. I got her attention just in time for her to see the wolf walk right past her window.
Then a gray wolf showed up. Together they crossed the road and evaluated the bison. They paused for a brief moment of socialization (the black showing a submissive posture in one of the better behavioral wolf shots I’ve ever captured)…
…and then decided to turn their attention elsewhere, crossing the road and heading back up the hill.
We did spy a third wolf, which I had seen a bit earlier that day in the distance. It was a collared silver-colored wolf, apparently 838M, also known as Big Blaze. This trio was known as “838’s Group.” I had seen Big Blaze with the Blacktail Pack the previous winter (the other wolf encounter on the aforementioned Winter 2011-12 trip).
Wolves still have this mythical presence, and close sightings in Yellowstone remain elusive (even more so now than a decade ago, I’ve found), which is why I think they play such a memorable role when I recount past park adventures. So it should be no surprise that a wolf played a major role in the final trip in these rankings….
#1: May, 2007
Long-time followers of my adventures won’t be surprised by this. I may have hinted at the greatness of this trip a few years back when I wrote about my Best Day Ever in the park. There was enough happening on that one day to probably get this trip into my Top Ten. I’ll recap what happened that day, along with some of the other memorable encounters.
First, it’s important to note that this outing did hold some significance in terms of shaping my approach to future park visits. It was my first-ever May trip, and guaranteed that every year for the next dozen years I knew where I’d be in the second half of May. Once I got a taste of the wonders of late spring I never went back to anything later for my “main” park visit each year. Fall trips don’t always happen, and even winter trips aren’t an annual occurrence. The one guarantee is that I’ll be in the park in May… barring a global pandemic, I guess.
As I mentioned in my Summer 2006 synopsis (Trip #21), I got a sense that I needed to start visiting Yellowstone before summer if I wanted to have better baby animal (particularly bear cub) viewing opportunities. Ironically, the May of 2007 was not a great bear cub trip… I saved that for May, 2008 (#8). But I did have more bear sightings than ever before, and they were noticeably better in many cases. Plus, there were other baby animals that kept me entertained.
The so-called Best Day Ever was my first full day in the park, May 19th. Imagine that… the best wildlife day you’ve ever experienced is the first time you ever explored in a particular season. It’s a wonder that I even bothered to come back at all after that, given how high the bar had been set. Fortunately, I haven’t held every subsequent trip to that standard, otherwise I’d be having a lot less fun!
Since I wrote a more detailed play-by-play about this day already, I’ll quickly run through the highlights. The day kicked off with an early morning arrival in the Lamar Valley. A big mob of wolf watchers was paying attention to a black wolf out in the valley, but I caught a snippet of conversation mentioning another gray wolf somewhere to the east. The black was too far for pictures, so I walked down the road a ways to investigate the prospects of the other wolf. What followed remains my favorite Yellowstone moment. In my trip report that evening, I wrote:
“I walked past a gentleman standing by his car, and he asked if I had seen the gray wolf. I told him I heard it was up the road somewhere, but I hadn’t seen it.
‘It’s right there,’ he said.”
The wolf—he was the alpha male of the Slough Creek Pack—then howled, which alerted all of the park visitors to his presence.
But I was just getting started. After that, I had a nice black bear, and then I was attacked by a grouse. Yes, the Attack Grouse incident I’ve referenced over the years occurred this same day. It was a Dusky Grouse that had been hanging out near Calcite Springs. He would challenge vehicles in the road. When I drove up he stopped in front of my car. I didn’t want to squish him, so I stepped out to make sure he had cleared off, only to feel a pecking on the back of my leg. Sneak attack from behind! I did chase it off, but I know he went after others. An acquaintance got a nice picture of a ranger fending the grouse off with a shovel on that trip.
Grouse sightings weren’t done, however. Soon after that, as I was driving up near Elk Creek, I saw my very first displaying grouse. I couldn’t ask for a better setting.
Four-and-a-half hours into the day, and I’d had some very good sightings… and yet, some of the best was still to come. I was back in the Lamar Valley when I saw a badger. After many, many trips, this was my first!
Okay, so what else could go right? In the early afternoon, I saw action at a roadside coyote den, but it was the second coyote den that was the real wonder. Many photographers remember this site. One could sit on the boardwalk at the self-guiding trail, wait and watch. The colorful lichen on the wall above was the perfect backdrop. I’ve never seen a better den site since then.
There was also an active Flicker nest by Tower that day, mainly notable for the fact that a couple days later, it had been torn apart and the occupants had disappeared. Based on the claw marks, I suspected a young bear (in the years since, I’ve seen many black bears climbing trees to access nests).
Yeah, so that was Day One. The rest of the trip couldn’t live up to it, of course, but it was still really good the rest of the way. At Trout Lake I had two unique sightings, including my first decent snake photo op (a wandering garter snake, a species I’ve seen there several times since).
Also, I actually did see an otter there, the earliest I’d ever seen one at Trout Lake. There was no fishing going on, but the otter did display some fairly unique behavior. It climbed onto a grassy log near shore (regulars will know this log, it’s still there), and proceeded to start tearing grass off in its teeth.
I found it odd that a carnivorous otter would be consuming grass… except that it wasn’t eating it. It was laying it down on the log and making a mattress!
Later that day I had a couple more bear sightings, including a somewhat shy but gorgeous young cinnamon bear (during this encounter I photographed it investigating a barking dog in a vehicle, and people though it was an aggressive/fed bear when they saw the photos). I still remember it peeking timidly around this tree.
The days to come offered up more good bear encounters, pelicans, nesting Sandhill Cranes, and my first view of the Mammoth Great Horned Owls. We even fit in a quick trip to the Tetons, where I experienced my first sunrise shoot at Mormon Row.
I also saw my first Calliope Hummingbirds in the Tetons on that trip. On our way back up into Yellowstone, we drove up the east side toward Canyon, and I glanced into a roadside meadow to see a small group of photographers… and my first Great Gray Owl.
All that other stuff and my first Great Gray Owl? No wonder this trip is Number One! You can throw in my best grizzly encounters to that point, and my closest Mountain Bluebird for good measure, and it’s a well-rounded, epic trip.
Really, was there any ever doubt this would be the top pick?
Well, if you made it this far and actually read through the entire list, congratulations! You should have a sense of what I like so much about Yellowstone by now.
As you probably noticed, many of the photo galleries from these trips are missing and haven’t yet been uploaded. As long as I can’t travel and have more time at home, that will hopefully mean tackling a lot of the pre-2014 content and adding it to the archive soon. But of course there are a lot of non-Yellowstone adventures demanding similar attention, so we’ll see how quickly this goes.
In the meantime, if you can’t find certain images in the photo archive, you will be able to find some of the older stuff available as prints in my Fine Art America/Pixels.com store. If you still can’t find the images you’re seeking, just drop me a line.
Thank you for following my adventures!
The Full Yellowstone 50
50. Early September, 2010
49. October, 2017
48. Late March – Early April, 2007
47. September, 1997
46. October, 2011
45. November, 2005
44. April, 2017
43. Summer, 2001
42. Late September – Early October, 2010
41. January, 2014
40. April, 2006
39. Summer 2002
38. December, 2014
37. January, 2008
36. Summer, 1988
35. September, 2007
34. February, 2011
33. Late June – Early July, 2003
32. September, 2018
31. Late June – Early July, 2004
30. July, 2007
29. Summer, 2000
28. Late September – Early October, 2015
27. August, 2016
26. Late June – Early July, 2005
25. Late May – Early June, 2017
24. Mid-May – Early June 2016
23. May, 2010
22. Late December – Early January, 2010-11
21. Late June – Early July, 2006
20. Late September – Early October, 2014
19. January – February, 2018
18. Late December – Early January, 2011-12
17. September, 2008
16. September, 2016
15. Late May – Early June, 2018
14. Late May – Early June, 2019
13. May, 2009
12. February, 2016
11. July, 2013
10. Mid-May – Mid-June, 2014
9. May, 2011
8. May, 2008
7. Late December – Mid January, 2012-13
6. May – June, 2015
Trips #5 – 1:
5. Late September – Early October, 2012
4. Mid-May – Early June, 2013
3. January, 2020
2. Mid-May – Mid-June, 2012
1. May, 2007