It has long been a desire of mine to visit Yellowstone during the winter. For anyone who has known me since late in my Navy career to the present, this desire may seem a little strange. I don’t like the cold. I am no longer fond of driving in snowy conditions. My hands and feet just do not tolerate the cold even a little bit. This last item loomed large as we prepared for this winter adventure. I needed nimble fingers to be able to make camera adjustments and make images. If my fingers were numb or aching from the cold I would be miserable and the adventure would not be pleasant for anyone around me.
Therefore, the trip actually starts with the preparation for what we could encounter from Mother Nature. Timing would also be an important consideration as we would not be able to just hang around waiting for the correct weather conditions to match our photographic desires. We also needed to book a trip into the interior which we felt would be essential to capture the true spirit of Yellowstone in the winter. We had to book our trip months in advance to ensure we would get seats.
Finally, we needed to decide how long we wanted to stay. This meant we needed to be aware of the unknown elements that could affect our visit. Things such as the ever-changing weather and road conditions and our hosts desire to have us gone at some point among others.
For those with short attention spans, I will sum up by saying the trip was a great success. We brought home hundreds of images that to some extent are still in the processing queue nearly a year later. Refill your coffee cup or wine glass and sit back as I try to entertain you with a lot of images and maybe not so many words.
Growing up there were few options for cold weather clothing. That is certainly not the case today. The options can be mind-boggling. We spent several hours looking here and there and online for the exact gear we could need to stay dry and warm. We even invested in snowboots and gaiters to keep the snow out of our boots. I bought what will likely end up being a lifetime supply of hand a foot warmers. The hand warmers really came in handy, and are far more efficient than I thought. I suspect all told we purchased nearly $1000 of cold weather gear.
Then, there was the car. I knew from my winters in Wyoming growing up that you can be driving along on perfectly clear roads one hour and in the next find yourself on ice or packed snow with no town for miles. Therefore, we bought cable tire chains for the car. We put together some survival snack packs just in case we found ourselves stranded somewhere. They would also come in handy while in the park with no food service available beyond Mammoth Hot Springs or Old Faithful. Our plan did not include going to Old Faithful. We also made sure the car was otherwise ready for cold and stormy weather. After more than one night of wringing hands over one detail or another, we finally felt prepared for this adventure. Now, would the car hold everything we intended to take?
We had been watching the weather along our proposed route to Gardiner, Montana, as well as the weather in Yellowstone. We wanted snow on the ground. However, we did not want to have it snow continuously while we were there. We also did not want it to be dangerously cold.
We would be spending most of our time in the park between Mammoth and the Northeast Entrance as that is the only road open to private vehicle traffic during the winter months. Fortunately, we have friends who spend a great deal of time in the park year round and they kept us informed of the weather conditions in the Lamar Valley. It looked to be absolutely brutal. Temperatures in the minus twenties and a lot of snow and wind. We left home more than a little concerned as to how this was going to work out.
If the then current conditions in Yellowstone were not enough to worry about, we were also tracking a storm system coming out of the Pacific Northwest and heading southeast. It looked as though our paths would intersect near Casper, Wyoming.
The Drive From Central Texas to Yellowstone
As it worked out, we had a completely uneventful drive all the way to Glenrock, Wyoming. We stopped in Glenrock for gas and a well-needed bathroom break. During our stop, the snow began to fall. As we continued toward Casper it only got worse. It snowed and blew on us all the way to our scheduled stop in Casper. By the time we got to the hotel, there was measurable snow on the ground. The clerk who checked us in said it had been spitting snow since he arrived at work and within the last hour it just opened up.
We spent the next few hours watching the falling snow. The snow fell more or less horizontally while accumulating inches per hour on the already very cold ground. We sort of felt our way to dinner just a mile or so from the hotel and on our return to the hotel, we could not define one parking space from another. Throughout the night we would steal looks out the window down to the parking lot where we frequently saw hotel staff trying to keep the walkways clear of snow, but not doing a great job of staying ahead of that which continued to fall. By morning there was at least a foot of snow on the car. The road conditions between the hotel and the Interstate were bad.
Fortunately, the big green overhead signs were easy to see and follow. We found ourselves heading to an on-ramp that had not been used by anyone possibly since late the previous evening, including a plow. I literally used the reflector posts to determine where the road was. Once on the highway, the surface improved considerably, but the traffic was a bit frightening.
Northbound Interstate 25 intersects with Casper from the east. Our hotel was a little more than 3 miles east of the downtown area. In that 3 miles, the direction changes from due east to northeast to east again before finally turning to the north as you leave the city limits. This portion of the road was passable, but the majority of the motorists must have been locals who knew where all the curves were because in my opinion they were all driving too fast for all the blowing snow and winding about we were doing. We survived Casper without a scratch.
Soon after we got away from Casper we began seeing highway information signs indicating that if you didn’t need to be traveling, then don’t. About the same time, Connie and my brother, John, started a text chat. John was watching the weather and road conditions live. He kept Connie informed as to what we could expect as we progressed. At one point John asked Connie if I had done any serious snow driving since high school. Connie sort of chuckled, but it was a nervous chuckle. Then she read me the question. Well, it had not been since high school. I had been forced to drive in poor conditions once in a while since high school, but nothing like what we were experiencing on this day.
Our next scheduled stop was in Billings, Montana. We had put Billings in the plan for a couple of reasons. The drive from Casper to Billings and Billings to Gardiner are relatively easy drives. Had we been forced to either stretch the day that was to be the Casper stop and therefore the following day as well, we could have still arrived in Gardiner as scheduled.
Billings was a frozen mess. It was cold, mid-teens. The streets needed plowing. There were building height mounds of snow in most parking lots. Our hotel shared a parking lot with a so-so Mexican restaurant. That was fine with us. We walked between the two.
The drive the next day from Billings to Gardiner was so uneventful that we didn’t stop in Gardiner, but went straight into the park to do a little research. Eventually, we returned to Gardiner and the home of our summertime supervisor, Ranger Allan Bush and his wonderful wife, Barbara. The Bushs were perfect hosts for our stay. Their son, Mark, was at home awaiting his next Park Ranger assignment. The three of them made our stay very comfortable.
The plan was to spend the first two days exploring the road and near the road between Mammoth Hot Springs and the Northeast Entrance concentrating on the goings on in the Lamar Valley. On day three we had a reservation with Xanterra, the park’s hotel and restaurant concessionaire to take one of their over-snow vehicles from Mammoth to Canyon Village and the immediate area around the village via Norris Junction and back. It is a full day trip that was also full of fun. Day 4 would likely be another day to the Lamar Valley. Day 5 would find us saying our tearful goodbyes and heading back to Texas with stops in Sheridan to visit my brother and his family, Cheyenne to visit friends, and Greeley, Colorado to visit my sister, Mary Ann and her family.
What follows are a sampling of the many photographs I made during those four days in Yellowstone. This was my first foray into the world of winter, snowy photography. There was to be a great deal of learning going on as we proceeded. Some of the images I have chosen to share via this post are technically inferior. I share them as a caution to others who want to do snowy photography and because they happen to be the only images I have to complete the story.
The photographs will tell the rest of the story.
Day one, Feb 21, 2018 – Lamar Valley
Day two, Feb 22, 2018 – Lamar Valley
The skies were a little more friendly on our second day in Lamar Valley. The broken clouds and partially blue skies provided more color in the photos that follow.
It is important to note that when I returned from my little side trip I found Connie more or less covered with snow and not smiling. She had fallen into a drift which had formed behind a mound of plowed snow. While at the bottom of what must have seemed an endless hole, she yelled for me to rescue her. Of course, the snow muffled her yells to the point I never heard a peep. By my return she had rescued herself, but that did not make her happy. I think I am still paying for that departure from teamwork.
Day 3, Feb 23, 2018 – Our Over Snow Trip to the Interior
When I first tried to make reservations for a trip to the interior there were no seats available anytime within a week or two of our target visit dates. I put us on a waiting list and was surprised a few days later to get the notification that there were four seats available for February 23. What luck.
I came home with nearly 350 images from that one day. I have no idea how many I deleted while still in the camera. My gut feel is I probably fired nearly 500 times that day. Here are a few of my favorites.
The original plan was to stop at Canyon Village and eat our box lunches in the comfort of the Visitor Center. However, our driver, who was no rookie, had been watching the skies all morning and he knew we needed to get to Artist’s Point as early in the afternoon as possible because the light was great. Since no one can predict what will come along cloud wise, it is always wise to make haste to get to the photo spots while the light is right. We were encouraged to eat as we traveled. That was a bit of a struggle as the bus was crowded and Connie and I were juggling cameras, packs, and our lunches. There was no overhead storage and the limited floor space was wet from our many trips in and out of the bus.
For this daytrip, I opted to not take my 150-600 mm lens due to its size and the fact the I didn’t feel I had room for a tripod in the bus. Instead, I used my 80 – 400 mm lens on my DX format camera thereby mimicking a longer telephoto lens. This was probably one of the smarter decision I made all week. However, I did discover during post-production that the sensor on my D90 had some dust which left small marks in the sky of several images.
The next several images come from various stops along the Yellowstone River below the Lower Falls.
We had spent a good bit of time along the North and South Rim Drives of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. However, since we had made the decision to eat on the road, we were still ahead of schedule. With that in mind, our driver decided to take us down into Hayden Valley. For the previous several days, the road into and through Hayden Valley had been closed due to blizzard conditions and blowing snow. We would be among the first vehicles to return to the valley and the pristine snow conditions.
We were still ahead of schedule and the weather was holding wonderfully. Our driver decided we had time to move north of Canyon Village to the point on the road just below Dunraven Pass where the over-snow road ends. Off we went.
Day 4, Feb 24, 2018 – Our Last Drive to Lamar Valley
On our last day to be in the park we were to have a bit of a shortened day because we had a dinner date and would have to clean up prior. The day started out a little clearer than the other days in Lamar Valley, but rather quickly became overcast again. I chose not to take as many photos as I had been, but rather to just enjoy the beauty of the landscape and the wildlife we encountered.
This was a trip well worth the time and effort that went into it. Before we were even out of Gardiner heading home, we were talking about our next winter trip to Yellowstone National Park which will include an over-snow trip to Old Faithful. For now, please enjoy these images.
My next post will likely include some local bird images and who knows what else. As I am fond of saying, stay tuned.