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Yellowstone Spring 2023 Trip Report, Days 0 – 2

May 30, 2023

I nearly missed being in Yellowstone in May for the third time in four years! This is my favorite time of year in the park, and I was intending to arrive last Friday. But unforeseen circumstances pushed back my departure to Tuesday. After completely missing this trip last year (including an additional June visit that coincided with the flooding), and only arriving in June in 2020 due to the park’s COVID re-opening delays, it would’ve been tough missing May yet again.

It’s still tough, actually. I only have three days to myself before I start my tour. The problem this year? Injury! I suffered a sports-related mishap (official diagnosis: aging) about ten days ago, and have been hobbling around on crutches and/or a cane ever since. In fact, Jenn suggested that when I pick up my tour clients on Saturday, I should greet them like this:

I’m happy to say that I can finally get around without the cane, but I’m definitely hobbled. It’s going to be an interesting week ahead.

I left Seattle at around five o’clock in the morning. Considering I haven’t made this drive in a couple years (I flew for my winter trips), I wasn’t sure how I’d deal with the day-long sojourn. But it went fairly well. Didn’t even need to stop and nap. I was helped by the fact that I downloaded some podcasts for the drive over. I never listen to podcasts, probably because I’m usually not in the car very much, and I can’t pay enough attention if they are playing while I work at home. But a Yellowstone road trip offered the perfect chance to catch up on a few nature-photography-oriented episodes from Matthew Maran’s podcast (the episodes with Marcus Westberg and Charlie Hamilton James were both excellent), and the Wild & Exposed podcast (on which I was a guest last year). The drive felt much faster than the actual 13-13.5 hours it really took.

Yellowstone was rainy when I arrived, and it wasn’t until I reached the eastern Lamar Valley that conditions dried up and patches of blue sky and puffy white clouds were visible. Along the way, I saw pelicans, my first Little Red Dog (the hoofed type), another little red dog (a fox this time), some large predator (far out in the valley as I drove past) chasing off Sandhill Cranes, and finally a bull moose near the creek in Silver Gate. Pronghorn have moved back into the Lamar and Little America now that the snow has receded, and mule deer have returned to occupy the northeast corner, also clear of snowpack.

As I peered out the window throughout the drive, I kept imagining all the places I wanted to tromp off to explore… until I remembered I won’t really be tromping anywhere for the time being.

It was interesting seeing some of the post-flood changes to the landscape (most of which were hidden under snow this winter when I was here last). Soda Butte Creek especially has some diversions I wasn’t expecting. It’s nice to see that the Soda Butte Creek Picnic Area is open now (it was a dumping ground for washed-up deadfall last year), though Pebble Creek remains closed. There’s also much more construction and more stoppages along the northern road than I expected, as the park service scrambles to not only continue with its post-flood repairs, but also catch up on other delayed projects. The commute through the northeast is going to be interesting while I’m here…


May 31, 2023

I should have slept in, but instead chose to make the most of my precious pre-tour time, and awoke at 4:30. The first morning is always a bit of a mess, so it took me a full hour to get everything set up and into the car. My casual pace may have caused me to miss first light, but I wasn’t sweating it.

Coming in from the northeast, I slowed for a photographer returning to his car. Presumably one of the usual foxes had been on its morning commute.

In the Lamar Valley, a smallish grizzly bear was grazing near the road.

Grizzly Bear

This was probably the crane-chaser I saw the evening before. Sure enough, several Sandhills were a bit further west on the opposite side of the road.

Man, the northern road is simply a mess. We have not only deadfall, silt and new floodplains, but piles of dirt, construction vehicles, traffic cones, gouged-out terrain, multiple metered lights, portable offices for the crews, and new temporary roads for all of the vehicles are strewn all over the place. As are the extra tourists. Last year the north looked like it succumbed to a natural disaster. This year it looks like it’s fallen victim to a six-year-old who doesn’t clean up his toys (not that I would know anything about that).

After the grizzly, the morning was mostly filled with bird sightings. A magpie, starlings, and an American Kestrel occupied an aspen in Little America. Ravens almost created a magical moment in the foggy canyon below Calcite Springs…

Common Raven

Above the canyon rim, a Western Tanager flitted about, just a tick too far for good photos.

Western Tanager

Violet-green Swallows also danced and dipped above the precipice.

Though I could have stayed in the northeast to look for bears and other critters, I was quite eager to drive the Tower Road and up over Dunraven Pass. It’s hard to believe it’s been a full four years since I drove this road!

It was my first time seeing it post-construction. The Tower Fall lot is now over twice as big, and probably still fills to the brim on busy summer days. Early on a spring morning, however, the expanse sits empty. The clicks of toenails tapping on pavement and soft murmurs echo as little white-furred dogs lead their just-as-white-haired owners in circles during a bathroom stop.

The drive over Dunraven Pass made me a bit wistful. I thought about all of the great wildlife sightings from long ago on these hills. The Agate Pack roamed the Antelope Creek drainage fifteen years ago. Grizzly bears (and their cubs) would often come near the road at the top of the pass. I’d spot bighorn sheep, marmots, and pikas during hikes to the summit of Mt. Washburn.

Things seem different now. Washburn was a summer endeavor, so it’s been several years since I’ve seen the top. I’ve had maybe one fleeting grizz sighting close to the road going over the pass in the past decade. And I can’t recall seeing a wolf anywhere near there in years. Dunraven is mostly just a shortcut these days. It used to be a destination.

I descended to Canyon and Hayden Valley. A heron hunted in the stillness of Alum Creek.

Great Blue Heron

To the south, a swarm of swallows buzzed over the Yellowstone River, while scaups and teals circled in a nearby pond. The drive along the north rim of Yellowstone Lake was quiet. Grizzlies are a popular attraction in these parts, but they often don’t arrive until later in the spring. I had a couple more traditional spring haunts to check out. At Gull Point Drive, a pair of Clark’s Grebes floated far out in the lake, but a larger, closer silhouette drew my attention.

It was a Common Loon, a species I see infrequently around here. And strangely enough, as I sat in the car it actually came to shore. Though the light was harsh and difficult, this is probably the closest photo opportunity I’ve ever had with this normally-shy bird.

Common Loon

On the other side of the road, a muskrat foraged on the edge of the pond. More scaups swam and chased each other in the distance.

It was time to head back north, and I entertained ideas of visiting the pair of Harlequin Ducks I’d seen at LeHardy Rapids on the way down. But I preferred overcast conditions, and it was a bit too bright, so I decided to wait. A perfect excuse to catch up on some sleep.

I napped hard, but an hour later the sun was still casting its glare over the river and trees, so I moved on. Parking myself in Hayden Valley, I had lunch, but most of my views of the surrounding landscape were obscured by another of the expected rain storms coming through these parts.

In the past I’ve noted how I normally drive in silence. But on the way back north I had to finally turn on some music to distract me from the claustrophobic traffic ahead of and behind me. The roads are feeling a tad summer-like, and every time I pull over to let folks by they’re quickly replaced by new vehicles in less than a minute.

Up and over Dunraven again. I just missed a black bear with cubs above Tower. Soon, I was caught waiting in the first of a couple of lengthy construction queues. Finally making it through, I made my first venture down the Slough Creek Road, which was littered with countless vehicles. I squeezed past these and made it down to the end of the road to follow up on some additional leads. Here, I finally had a chance to chat with someone I recognized, a past tour client. The rest of the afternoon was littered with additional greetings and meet-ups with familiar faces and old friends.

I drove back to Silver Gate at this point, making the required ice cream pilgrimage to the Stop the Car Trading Post (and also checking on our inventory there… our Silver Gate hats are going fast, but we need to restock our shirts and more of my wolf photos!!).

With Moose Tracks in my belly, I headed to Cooke City to check on one more lead: a fox den.

Red fox kit

This, I suppose, is the natural result of the winter feedings that were occurring here with the local foxes. A den with eight growing, active kits situated near the road is far from ideal, especially when the family has grown accustomed to handouts. There’s a very good chance things will not end well for a good portion of this family.

It was still early, so when I returned home, I took some time to fully explore our property. It was the first time I’ve been able to properly assess the post-flood state of affairs. Despite the loss of some trees, and a great deal of silt and detritus scattered through the woods, the creek seems to be moseying along on its usual path.

Plenty of moose sign around, but the only critters I saw during my walk were a pair of Spotted Sandpipers leapfrogging up the creek.

As evening descended, more thunderstorms rolled through, followed quickly by flashes of late sunshine. I suspect we’re going to be in for some inconsistent weather throughout most of the rest of my stay.


June 1, 2023

Rather than catch up on sleep, I set the alarm even earlier, hoping to get out to the western side of the park first thing in the morning to scout more areas prior to my tour. Why “scout” when I already know the park pretty well, and knowing wildlife can be somewhat unpredictable anyway? For one thing, I might discover even more construction zones. Or some areas that are unexpectedly closed, like the Upper Terrace Drive this morning (normally a sneaky favorite stop on some of my spring mornings).

I did see a chunky black bear above the Mammoth Terraces, but I was already late getting to Swan Lake Flat. Golden Gate was indeed golden, bathed in warm morning light. A monstrous bison ponderously climbed the road… sadly for me, in the shade.

A few elk were wandering across the flats, and I quickly moved on. My next goal was to check on some potential grizzly bear spots along the west side. Instead I found… fog. Lots of fog. There were some bison, and scattered elk in the mist, but no bears.

Bison in fog

Next I opted to cut over to Hayden Valley, arriving slightly earlier than Wednesday morning, but still pretty late. The fog had lifted, and I stopped for some steamy bison above the road.

American bison

Wolves were active at scoping distance (purportedly), but I didn’t find anything much closer to photograph. Rather than continue south to the Lake again, I flipped around and went up over Dunraven Pass. Along the way, I ran into one of my guests from my recent Patagonia tour (which was incredible), and had a chance to catch up.

Trucking down the hill, I approached the same area where I had just missed a bear family the previous day. They were out this time: a sow with two yearlings. I found a parking spot in a nearby pullout, and a ranger was present to keep an eye on things, but the bears were below the road. I knew it wouldn’t produce any productive photo opportunities, so I decided to drive past and find the next pullout, in case the family kept moving downhill.

I stayed with my car, figuring I was in the perfect spot to photograph the bears safely should they approach.

Black bear and car

Eventually I was joined by others in the pullout, but they weren’t nearly as patient, wandering up the road toward the bears. With the amount of attention they were getting (and all of the obstructions that had materialized in front of my lens), I figured it was a lost cause. Soon, the bears crossed the road and disappeared up over the hill. My own adventure continued in the opposite direction.

I anticipated settling in at the badger den I had visited the day before to finally try for some photos. But the sunlight was extremely harsh. Despite the presence of badgers, I merely snapped a couple photos as proof of their existence. More interesting was the report from a friend (and past tour client… they’re everywhere!) that there was a reliable Calliope Hummingbird spot just a couple hundred yards away.

The Calliope, the smallest hummingbird in the U.S., is something I’ve only seen a couple times in all my years visiting the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. The last time I photographed one was in 2007! So I was excited to try for it. This was also a good test for my leg, and even though the walk really wasn’t long at all, I was happy to avoid any painful tweaks or stumbles. And yes, the hummingbird did show up…

Calliope Hummingbird

Conditions for badger photography still weren’t great, so I opted for a milkshake break back in Silver Gate. After getting the hook-up at the Stop the Car Trading Post (thanks to another friend and yes, past client, for treating me!), I kept going up the road to follow up on some leads. I was looking for twin moose calves. And I found twin moose calves, but they were yearlings, rather than the newborns I’d hoped for.

I struck out on the mooselets, and the fox kits in Cooke were quiet when I passed back through. So I returned to the park, ostensibly to try for badgers again, but frankly, I was open to anything. When I arrived back at the den, the mother was slumped outside the hole, but eventually she disappeared inside, and I figured the show was over. So I started driving out to see what else I could find on the way home… and promptly had my biggest miss of the trip.

Driving down the dusty Slough Creek road, I spied a raven just off the gravel. It was pecking at something on the ground. I couldn’t see what, just that its bill was quite dusty. It was working hard for something. Unfortunately, I couldn’t stop in time, with traffic piling up behind me, so I had to drive on and find a safe place to turn around. The cars directly behind me hadn’t noticed the bird, but when I returned to the spot, another vehicle had stopped. So I once again had to drive on just to turn around and claim another angle.

Therefore, my view was blocked as the raven flung a Uinta ground squirrel about and finally put it out of its misery. They’d been battling the whole time!

The raven looked awfully proud of itself, and tucked into its meal with gusto. Soon the squirrel was in two pieces, and the raven walked off with the first course.

Raven with squirrel

I rued my missed opportunity, but took this as a positive sign that we might be in for some interesting and unexpected moments on this week’s tour. I also figured that was it for bloodshed. I was wrong.

Continuing down the road, I had to pull over to make a phone call. While sitting and trying to pull up a phone number, I glanced in the rear view mirror… and saw a coyote perfectly outlined in the sagebrush behind me. It was alert.

Over the course of the next fifteen minutes, that coyote caught three different ground squirrels. It was an impressive display. In a couple cases it had to sprint from some ways away to chase down and tackle its quarry.

Coyote with squirrel

Not a great afternoon for the ground squirrels at Slough Creek! I wished them the best when a Red-tailed Hawk appeared in the skies above soon thereafter.

Okay, it was finally time to head for home. But soon I’d be waylaid by more than just a metered traffic light. In the western Lamar Valley, a herd of pronghorns ambled into the flats near the river. I thought they might actually try to cross, so I wandered out for a better view. Ultimately, they gave the river a few long looks but didn’t make the attempt. I did get a bonus Yellow Warbler sighting out of my trek, however, and stopped on the way back for some late afternoon Brewer’s Blackbirds and a Chipping Sparrow, perched high atop the sage and claiming territory. It must be noted that the blackbird really doesn’t try very hard… it puffs up slightly and emits a short, understated peep. Hard to believe that impresses the ladies.

I had to stop again in the eastern half of the valley. A small crowd had formed on the side of the road, and I saw some familiar dark mounds. Freshly-dug earth stands out pretty easily and usually indicates badger activity. So I finally landed a few decent badger photos today.

American Badger

This was a nice way to wrap up a very busy couple of hours. As I turned the corner past the Confluence and then Soda Butte, I began to lose the last bits of daylight behind the hills and mountains. Driving through Round Prairie, I glanced out into the flats. Some 200 yards away, way out by the creek, I spied a small dark shape. Almost invariably, my attention is caught by a log or clump of vegetation. But I always have to be sure, so I stopped and pulled out the binoculars. This clump moved.

Lo and behold, it was a beaver! I haven’t seen a beaver in Yellowstone since… 2014? It’s been ages. Though the creek was a bit of a ways out, I thought I might be able to get there and shoot from the opposite bank without disturbing it. So I made the slow walk out, at one point sacrificing a dry shoe in order to cross a stream. But I did make it, and managed to get a few shots as the beaver waded slowly upriver along the far shore.

American Beaver

Eventually, it came out on my side, but it was very challenging to get clear views with the dense vegetation.

American Beaver

Nonetheless, I was pretty pumped to end the day with another (like the Calliope Hummingbird) species I hadn’t seen in years.


  1. Reny June 2, 2023 Reply

    I’m glad that you, despite your old age injuiry 😉 , you were able to get to the park.
    I laughed out loud about your ice cream pilgrimage remark.

    Those poor little squirrels sure made up for great pictures and I love the badger shot, the bear next to the car and especially the hummingbird.

    As always it’s very entertaining to read your reports and I can’t wait for the next one.

    Have fun !

  2. David Schultz June 2, 2023 Reply

    My favorite are the Hummingbird, Loon & the Raven along with the Tanger. A good 3 days in the Park but sounds like the NE road is going to be rather interesting this year. I am looking forward to reading more of your Park adventures & what they bring.

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