Yellowstone in Winter (part 1)

This is part 1 of the Yellowstone in Winter post written by Randy Dykstra – you can check his website, Instagram and Facebook page (if this article doesn’t make you go there in the winter, I don’t know what will):

Everyone knows of Yellowstone National Park and its geysers. Millions of people visit in the summer months. But it was a whole new experience to stay in “yurts” in the middle of the park, in the middle of winter. This was also a time for me to really put my new Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR lens to task on my Nikon D850.

Winter made this just an amazing adventure, loaded with all sorts of weather; snow storms, winds, bright warm days, and a mixture of all the above. Key this year was finding a place where I could actually stay inside the park and not have to travel 40 miles each morning to reach the central areas of the park. That meant I was able to be at key locations right at sunrise.

The park was loaded with bison and I saw well over a thousand of them, over the 5 days of photography. Also quite abundant were coyotes and eagles as I saw multiples of each every day of the trip. Staying out of sight were the wolves and elk, at least in the middle section of the park. Although, there were some signs of activity that occurred at night.

The trip started with the drive from the Bozeman airport to the west gate. This highway leaves Belgrade, Montana and heads south through Gallatin National forest, before entering Yellowstone National park for approximately 20 miles, ending at the small community of West Yellowstone. This is a busy thoroughfare but it transverses through the beautiful countryside with many miles hugging the Gallatin River. Keeping an eye out here provided some wonderful animal sightings and photo opportunities.

West Yellowstone is a small community just outside the west entrance to the national park. There are a variety of hotels and restaurants, and small shops, most all catering to tourists coming to visit Yellowstone. One of the attractions available is the Grizzly discovery center, an animal rescue facility located on the outskirts of the town. This facility is home to a number of grizzly bears, wolves and various raptors that have been hurt or orphaned and can no longer live in the wild. There are several large areas that house these animals and allows visitors to view them and see them up close. This provided a very nice afternoon activity prior to heading to the camp the following morning.

Mother nature decided to visit and left 4-6 inches of snow overnight and it was still snowing the next morning. A snow coach comes and picked me up from my hotel. and its a very short drive to the park entrance, where the adventure really kicked up in high gear. The first day encompassed a trip to Old faithful lodge and geyser area with stops along the way, and then a trip to our final destination some 40 miles away. The first animal sighting was bison in the distance just off a part of the Madison River. Bison became the theme of this trip as this small herd was just the beginning. This stop was also my first opportunity to see how bison use their heads to swish away the snow and get down to the plants below.

Yellowstone doesn’t lack for amazing landscape features. Yellowstone is well known and full of volcanic features, such as geysers, hot springs, and mud pots and they lined the road, In addition, the Madison river was still flowing and there are areas of roaring waterfalls, all the while the snow kept falling. My southern trip extended to the iconic Old Faithful geyser.

Old Faithful on a gray day

Bison were dotted along our route enduring the snow and searching for food. You can see why they need that warm fur coat of theirs.

Day one ends with arrival at Yurt camp and learning about all the nuances of backcountry “Glamping”. This was amazing, as there were individual “tents” each heated with propane heaters, and then two main yurts which housed a kitchen and main gathering and dining area. The food was exceptional and there was plenty of it. This place was amazing with the only possible exception being the outside latrine.

Being a photographer, the next morning started while it was still dark and everyone in my group was provided with a wonderful breakfast of Oatmeal, fruit, bacon, eggs, toast, cereal, coffee, and juices. The day’s procedure is explained and then we are allowed to make our own lunches from a variety of breads, meats, cheeses, fruit, snacks, trail mix… more than you can imagine. Then it’s loading up the cameras into the snow coaches and we were off before the sun has risen. Our first stop is Otter Creek bridge named appropriately as we are looking for otters and within a minute or so the binoculars had a pair in sight, several hundred yards off. This is the first real test of my 500PF as the light was low due to an overcast sky and the otters 300-400 yards away. I was ecstatic at the lightness and sharpness of this lens (more later on).

We jumped back into the snow coach and head upstream hoping to get in front of the otters. it turns out the otters were swimming upstream and we managed to stay with them for almost 3 miles. They would swim under the water, and then get up on the snow and ice. They would harass the swans and ducks, then disappear only to re-emerge a minute later father upstream.

This continued on for about 45 minutes, us watching sometimes following on foot, but mostly getting back into the snow coach and driving a 1/4 mile or so and setting up waiting for the otters to catch up. Then at one point one otter comes to the surface with some type of meat, turns out part of a trout. Looks like they will try to eat it there on the ice, but no, the otters turn around and head downstream, and we quickly lose sight of them.

With our otter friends done with their playing and off to eat a hearty meal, we continue on and our attention turns to the landscape. The upper and lower falls of the Yellowstone River are nearby and the weather is improving and so we take full advantage.

Now the day turns to get to Hayden Valley. It’s a few miles and lots of forests to travel, fortunately, we do see some new wildlife. A bald eagle is perched in a tree and numerous trumpeter swans glide along the riverside.

Arriving in the Hayden Valley, we encountered more bison, several different herds of 20-30 or more and one with more than a hundred members. They were spread out all along the valley, with maybe a dozen different herds total in the valley.

The weather was constantly changing. Patches of blue sky and sun followed by clouds and snow. The wind was whipping around maybe 20 mph, and I kept getting this feeling… Boy, I’m glad I’m not a bison and in this cold for months.

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