Yellowstone in Winter

Yellowstone is not only our country’s first national park, it’s also one of my favorites. Wildlife, waterfalls, geysers, hot springs and endless landscapes, the variety makes it a photographer’s playground. And winter makes most of that even more beautiful. I’ve just returned from leading my second workshop there, so let me share some tips and favorite pictures.

To answer your first question, yes, it’s cold. How cold? That depends. Both times we’ve been there, in the second week of January, the temperatures ranged from highs in the thirties to lows near zero. Even when it’s very cold, though, you rarely spend much time outside. That’s because most of your travel in the park is by car or snow coach.

Lin, at right, and the group outside our snow coach during a stop to photograph a herd of bison. They keep those huge tires at low PSI, 4-8 lbs, to help with traction and flotation. Shot with a Nikon D850, Natural Auto white balance, ISO 200, 1/500 at f/6.3 in multi-segment metering, +1.0 EV, Nikkor VR Zoom 24-120mm f/4G IF-ED lens at 24mm, focus mode of AF-C and Picture Control set to Standard. Photo copyright Reed Hoffmann.

The northern entrance to the park, at Gardiner, Montana, is kept open year-round. That means we fly into Bozeman, then drive from there to Mammoth Hot Springs. The lodge is winterized, so it and the dining room are open throughout the winter. We spend a couple of nights there and during the day drive the Lamar Valley looking for wildlife (that road is also kept open). We always see bison and bighorn sheep, and sometimes moose as well. There’s also at least one wolf pack in that area, but it’s rare to see them. The Travertine Terraces are near the lodge, and well worth a couple of hours. However, Mammoth and the Lamar Valley are the only areas of the park open to passenger traffic in winter. To go anywhere else, you need snowmobiles or snow coaches. That’s how we get down to Old Faithful.

There’s one spot in the Lamar Valley that you’ll often find bighorn sheep, and they were kind enough to grace us with their presence twice. Shot with a Nikon D7500, Sunny white balance, ISO 250, 1/1000 at f/5.6 in multi-segment metering, 0.0 EV, Nikkor VR Zoom 200-500mm f/5.6 lens at 500mm, focus mode of AF-C and Picture Control set to Neutral. Photo copyright Reed Hoffmann.

Sometimes it’s the lack of anything else that makes the picture. This is in the Lamar Valley, where we were looking for wildlife but happy to make some nice landscape photos as well. Shot with a Nikon D850, Sunny white balance, ISO 64, 1/640 at f/8 in multi-segment metering, 0.0 EV, Nikkor VR Zoom 24-120mm f/4G IF-ED lens at 58mm, focus mode of AF-C and Picture Control set to Standard. Photo copyright Reed Hoffmann.

Among my favorite places in the park is the Travertine Terraces at Mammoth Hot Springs. the starkness contrasts well against the color of the terraces. Shot with a Nikon D850, Sunny white balance, ISO 160, 1/500 at f/6.3 in multi-segment metering, +0.7 EV, Nikkor VR Zoom 24-120mm f/4G IF-ED lens at 95mm, focus mode of AF-C and Picture Control set to Standard. Photo copyright Reed Hoffmann.

And sometimes it’s the little things that make the picture. This was at the Travertine Terraces at Mammoth Hot Springs. Shot with a Nikon D850, Sunny white balance, ISO 160, 1/200 at f/6.3 in multi-segment metering, 0.0 EV, Nikkor VR Zoom 24-120mm f/4G IF-ED lens at 120mm, focus mode of AF-C and Picture Control set to Vivid. Photo copyright Reed Hoffmann.

The park runs a shuttle service from Mammoth to the Old Faithful area every day, by snow coach. The old fleet of tracked vehicles has mostly been replaced by large vans with huge tires (42 or 48-inch). That means smoother, quieter and more fuel-efficient transportation. In mornings the shuttles run south from Mammoth to Old Faithful, then return north that afternoon. It’s more than just a shuttle service, though. The drivers are also guides, with lots of fascinating information about the park and wildlife, and they’re allowed to stop if you see anything interesting to take pictures of.

Once in the Old Faithful area, there are two options for where to stay. The Snow Lodge is newer, with guest rooms, a nice lobby, bar and restaurant. There are also some winterized cabins, about a hundred yards away. Regardless of where you stay, the entire Upper Geyser Basin is just a short walk away, with boardwalks throughout. Those can get icy from the snow and steam, so you’ll need to have some type of added traction (like cleats) to wear on your boots.

Old Faithful is, of course, a big attraction. One of my favorite areas, though, is behind it, Geyser Hill. That’s an area of thermal pools with nice color and shape, and you also get a great overview of the entire basin from up there. You can see Castle Geyser, one of the most iconic, and if any of the other large geysers, like Grand, erupt, you’ll have a nice view of them as well.

This is on Geyser Hill, Old Faithful would be just outside the frame to the left. I had to wait until the sun was almost entirely obscured by the clouds to get the exposure right, and used the Vivid Picture Control to get more contrast out of the flat light. Shot with a Nikon D850, Natural Auto white balance, ISO 160, 1/200 at f/9 in multi-segment metering, -0.3 EV, Nikkor AF Zoom 18-35mm f/3.5-4.5G lens at 34mm, focus mode of AF-C and Picture Control set to Vivid. Photo copyright Reed Hoffmann.

Also on Geyser Hill, two of us were headed back to the lodge when this coyote came out of the woods and walked towards us. It gave us a few minutes of good photo ops before heading away. Shot with a Nikon D7500, Sunny white balance, ISO 1000, 1/640 at f/5.6 in multi-segment metering, +0.7 EV, Nikkor VR Zoom 200-500mm f/5.6 lens at 500mm, focus mode of AF-C and Picture Control set to Standard. Photo copyright Reed Hoffmann.

It’s always nice at the end of a long day there to come inside, warm up and have a nice meal. But if it’s a clear night, you really should bundle up again and head out again. It’s worth it. On this trip we had a clear sky that first evening at Old Faithful, full of stars with the Milky Way shining brightly. I made a few long-exposure pictures around some of the thermal pools, but my favorite photo came after I heard Old Faithful erupting, and moved up there for a different angle.

Old Faithful steams away under the Milky Way. I love doing night photography, and spent about two hours out in the 10-degree weather that evening. Shot with a Nikon D850, 3850K white balance, ISO 2000, 65 at f/2 in multi-segment metering, 0.0 EV, Nikkor AF 20mm f/1.8G lens at 20mm, focus mode of AF-C and Picture Control set to Standard. Photo copyright Reed Hoffmann.

You can also book private tours, getting a snow coach and driver/guide all to yourself. I strongly recommend that if you’re spending more than a day in the Upper Geyser Basin. That gives you the freedom to design your own itinerary, go to the spots you want and stay as long as you want (within reason). There are a few places you can stop where there are heated bathrooms, and at one of those our guide heard that one of the wolf packs might be near a road. They’d made a kill the night before, and the bison carcass was only about 40-yards off the road. We immediately headed there, but no wolves were around. We decided to come back at the end of the day, and that paid off. We saw fourteen members of the Wapiti wolf pack, and a few even came relatively close to us until a group of snowmobilers scared them off. It was the highlight of the week.

This is a bison that one of the wolf packs took down the night before. When we got there the next morning, the wolves were gone, but birds were taking advantage of the feast. Waiting for them to fly made the better picture, which made it both a moment and a better graphic image. Shot with a Nikon D7500, Sunny white balance, ISO 1000, 1/1600 at f/6.3 in multi-segment metering, +0.7 EV, Nikkor VR Zoom 200-500mm f/5.6 lens at 500mm, focus mode of AF-C and Picture Control set to Standard. Photo copyright Reed Hoffmann.

This was on our private tour, in the Hayden Valley. The guide was great, opening the side door of the van as we slowly drove past so we could photograph the herd. Shot with a Nikon D850, Sunny white balance, ISO 250, 1/800 at f/6.3 in multi-segment metering, +1.3 EV, Nikkor VR Zoom 24-120mm f/4G IF-ED lens at 24mm, focus mode of AF-C and Picture Control set to Vivid. Photo copyright Reed Hoffmann.

Our guide was the only one in the van to see this fox with its head just above the berm of snow. The biggest challenge here was making sure the AF sensor was on the fox, and not the snow. Shot with a Nikon D7500, Sunny white balance, ISO 400, 1/1600 at f/5.6 in multi-segment metering, +0.7 EV, Nikkor VR Zoom 200-500mm f/5.6 lens at 500mm, focus mode of AF-C and Picture Control set to Standard. Photo copyright Reed Hoffmann.

We returned to the bison carcass late in the day, and saw fourteen members of the wolf pack on the other side of the river. A group of them approached a bison there, who eventually charged and drove them away. Shot with a Nikon D7500, Sunny white balance, ISO 2000, 1/800 at f/5.6 in multi-segment metering, +0.3 EV, Nikkor VR Zoom 200-500mm f/5.6 lens at 500mm, focus mode of AF-C and Picture Control set to Standard. Photo copyright Reed Hoffmann.

After being chased by the bison, some of the wolves crossed the river and approached the carcass. We were parked about 40-yards away, close enough to get some nice photos despite the snow. Shot with a Nikon D7500, Sunny white balance, ISO 2000, 1/400 at f/5.6 in multi-segment metering, +0.3 EV, Nikkor VR Zoom 200-500mm f/5.6 lens at 500mm, focus mode of AF-C and Picture Control set to Standard. Photo copyright Reed Hoffmann.

If you’ve never been to Yellowstone, it should be near the top of your “must-see” list, along with Yosemite. And if you can make it in winter, even better. It’s more work to get there, and you’ll have to contend with the weather, but believe me, it’s well worth it.

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On our final morning we were gifted withs some nice sunlight, a great parting gift after a great week. Shot with a Nikon D850, Natural Auto white balance, ISO 64, 1/320 at f/13 in multi-segment metering, -0.7 EV, Nikkor AF Zoom 18-35mm f/3.5-4.5G lens at 20mm, focus mode of AF-C and Picture Control set to Vivid. Photo copyright Reed Hoffmann.