Trip Report: Yellowstone, Grand Teton 2020

Sunset at the Oxbow Bend, Grand Teton National Park

Beginning in 2010 Heather and I made a trip to Yellowstone every other year for a while. After 2014 we spent a few years taking summer trips to other places so it’s been a while since we visited the Yellowstone Ecosystem. When we started talking about a vacation this year our thoughts turned back to Yellowstone.

In the past our route and routine has been pretty much the same. Day 1: Drive from Denver to Cody, WY. Day 2: Breakfast at the Irma Hotel followed by a couple of hours wandering through the Buffalo Bill Center of the West which is one of my favorite if not my favorite museum ever followed by a drive to our next evening destination. Sometimes Cooke City, MT, sometimes Gardiner, MT. This year it was a little different in that we stayed 2 nights in Cody and spent a day looking for wild horses to photograph. So without further delay, here’s the trip report.

September 5, 6: As usual, we drove from Denver to Cody, WY. Leaving town around 8:00AM we took it pretty easy and made it to Casper for lunch time then made the turn to head west toward Cody. We passed Hell’s Half Acre but it was midday and the wrong time to photograph anything so we cruised on past, arriving in Cody around 4:00PM. We checked into our hotel then decided to head out to the McCullough Peaks Herd Management Area to do some location scouting. We were able to photograph some of the wild horses in this area last time but that was a while back and I wanted to try and figure out the best strategy for finding the herd. We located the water hole and made a mental note of it’s location for the next day then drove on searching for the horses. About 2 miles north of the water hole we found them. Or rather Heather found them. We drove to a spot to photograph them from about 1/4 mile away then headed back to town for some dinner.

Next morning we were up and headed to the HMA early. Tough day. We couldn’t find the herd. Driving the backroads, hoping I didn’t damage my Pathfinder, we spent about 3 hours looking with no success. Just about the time we thought our search was in vain, we came around a curve and saw 2 bachelor stallions walking along just off the road. We bailed out of the car and spent some time photographing them as they passed. We turned around to get in the car and get ahead of them and got a shock. Here came this pinto stallion running down the hill after the two bachelors. We photographed him then jumped in the car and raced (well, 10 mph instead of 5mph on the rugged trail) back to the waterhole in time to see them drinking before moving off. Success! We didn’t find the herd but decided to head back to town for lunch then hit up the museum.

Searching through images from the McCullough Peaks FB page I discovered this is a stallion named Washakie by photographers. I think he might have previously been the dominant stallion of the herd but was eventually vanquished by a stronger stallion.
Social distancing at the water hole

September 7: The previous day we decided to forego the museum in favor of a nap. Watched a little TV then headed to the Irma for their famous Prime Rib dinner….only to find out they were out of Prime Rib. Settled for lesser fare then got a good night’s sleep. Monday was a travel day so we slept in a little bit, got packed up, and headed for our visit to the Museum. If you haven’t visited the Buffalo Bill Center of the West in Cody you are missing out. It is one of the most interesting, comprehensive, and extensive museums I have ever visited.

After our time at the museum we headed north on the Chief Joseph Scenic Highway towards Cooke City. Our objective was to drive through the Lamar Valley to scout for wolves and bears on our way to Gardiner. It turned out to be the only bad weather of our trip. No rain or snow where we were but the fog on the Chief Joe was so thick near the top that I could barely tell if I were on my side of the yellow line in the road. We learned that later that night it snowed about 6 inches in some areas of Yellowstone. We spent some time in the Lamar looking for critters then headed for Gardiner.

September 8: Up early next morning to be in the Lamar at sunrise scouting for wolves. We did see some but as usual they were so far off that even with my longest lens (600mm on a crop sensor camera making it 900mm equivalent) they were just dots in the distance. They stood out well against the snow from the previous night in the Lamar but still, too far away. Mybad….I had a nice 60-120X spotting scope but gave it to my son last year before he went elk hunting. Note to self: Next trip spend some bucks on a good scope.

We spent the morning cruising the Lamar Valley looking for folks with spotting scopes out. We checked out the usual spots….Slough Creek road was packed with wolf watchers and the wolves were near where we had spotted them in previous years but again, dots in the distance. We took a vote and decided to head down to the Hayden Valley. It was a longer drive due to the road between Tower Junction and Canyon Junction being closed for the entire year. That meant we had to drive back to Mammoth then down to Norris before heading east to the Canyon Junction. And that’s when things got really good.

If you’ve never been to Yellowstone they have things called “bear jams.” If you see a ton of cars pulled off the road and people walking into the woods it’s a pretty good bet they saw something good, most likely a bear or a big bull moose or elk. About halfway to Canyon from Norris we came across just such a jam. Like any good tourist would do we pulled off the road and asked someone what they were looking at. “Grizzly…just through the trees” was the reply. Heather and I grabbed our cameras and headed into the woods and after going about 20 yards off the road through some trees we came to a small clearing in the middle of which was a big beautiful grizzly sow.

Okay, confession time….the rule in Yellowstone and Grand Teton is to stay 100 yards away from apex predators, bears and wolves, and 25 yards away from other critters. In this case I, along with maybe 60 or 70 other people, were about 50 feet away from this bear. We stood there photographing her for maybe 15 minutes and not once did she raise her head from her search for good roots and stuff. When we drove back this way later in the day the Rangers had arrived and shooed everyone away. They were not allowing cars to stop so I suspect the bear was still there. Whatever the case, it was one of the events that made my trip.

Earlier, before we got to Norris, we had come across some snow scenes and since I’m always on the lookout for Christmas Card images we stopped to photograph a couple scenes. We had been seeing cars all day with a lot of snow on them and this was the area of the heaviest snowfall.

We had no luck in the Hayden Valley except for the always present bison jams so in the afternoon we headed back to the Lamar to see what was afoot. Again, no luck with wolves or bears but we did manage to see a pair of Ospreys on the nest that has been in the same location since I was there in 2007.

We finished the afternoon driving past Blacktail Ponds to Mammoth then on to Gardiner for supper. The night before we weren’t able to get into the Wonderland Grill as it was closed but this evening we got in for supper and the Elk Chili was marvelous! Last time we were in the Park we stayed at a VRBO property outside Gardiner called Cub’s Cache. I searched for it again but didn’t find it. Long story, the owner of Cub’s Cache was married to a guy named Brad Orstead who is a wildlife photographer and film maker of some repute. That year we ran into him while photographing a grizzly at Slough Creek and he introduced himself as our landlord. I follow him on FB and discovered that he and his wife now own the Wonderland Grill and Lodge in Gardiner. Highly recommended if you’re going to Yellowstone’s Northern tier.

September 9: Another travel day. In previous years we spent a night in West Yellowstone and if we had planned to stay on till the following Sunday would have done that but this year decided to head south to Jackson and Grand Teton National Park. We did detour to West Yellowstone for a hearty breakfast before continuing south. We got checked into the hotel in Jackson then headed into the park to search out some fuzzy woodland creatures. We hit the usual places…Oxbow Bend, Moose/Wilson road, Jackson Lake Dam, Willow Flats, Pilgrim Creek. About an hour before sunset we spoke with a bunch of folks parked at the Willow Flats overlook who told us that Grizzly #399 and her cubs were up the road from Moran Junction and had been all day so we headed off in that direction. About a mile east of Moran Junction we came across a turnout full of cars and a bunch of people standing on a berm next to the road. There were also 4 NPS vehicles with Rangers standing alongside the road keeping vehicles from stopping. We found a place to park in the turnout and climbed the berm to get a view of what everyone was looking at. We were informed that #399 and her 4 cubs of the year were eating berries on a hillside across the road. I was excited…this was one of the things I’d come for. First a little history…

When I made my first serious photo trip to Yellowstone in 2007 I was able to photograph the first grizzly I had seen in the wild close enough to get good images. I found out through conversation with locals that this bear was #399 and she had 3 yearling cubs with her. With a little online research I found out that #399 was quite famous and the most photographed bear in the world. I found out later that one of the cubs with her that year was to be designated as #610, the only one of the 3 cubs to survive to adult status and now building a reputation of her own but that’s another story.

#399 is now 24 years old which is really old for a grizzly in the Yellowstone Ecosystem. That she came out of the den this spring with 4 cubs is extraordinary. I really wanted to photograph them….and now was my chance. So there we are, standing on a berm with 20 other photographers waiting….and waiting….then it happened. First 1 then 2, then the other 2 of the cubs were visible on the hillside and the shutters started whirring.

Then the Queen made her appearance. 13 years after our first encounter I was within photo distance of #399. She plopped down near 3 of the cubs and started stripping berries off the bushes. This is what I came to Grand Teton for. After about 15 minutes she started up the hill with the cubs in hot pursuit. I wasn’t able to get all 5 of them in the same frame but I did get some images of the Queen of the Tetons. She looks a bit thin but that’s not unusual for an old bear. I just hope she can put on enough weight to make it through the winter.

We ended the day by taking a last cruise up and down that road looking for #610 who was reported to be in the same area with 2 or 3 yearling cubs of her own. We did manage to catch a glimpse of her and the cubs as they went over the top of the hill, too far away for photography. She might be the focus of our search next time.

September 10: We were up before the sun, heading into the park to look for more bears and stuff. First stop was the Oxbow Bend. Nothing. We continued the cruise through the park, went north to Colter Bay where we hit the restrooms and walked through the gift shop before heading back south to the Jackson Lake Dam and Willow Flats area. Just some folks looking at a few of the very limited number of elk we saw this trip. It’s been so hot that the elk are probably all still up high in the meadows. After a largely unproductive morning we decided to head down to the Gros Ventre River where there had been reports of some big bull moose. We’ve seen moose along the Gros Ventre every time we go there so it seemed like a good bet. We stopped in one of the turnouts to fix sandwiches for lunch then went a little further up the road. About 1/2 mile before we got to the campground we came across a lot of cars parked off the road and several people walking towards the river. When I saw a woman turn and wave for her husband to hurry up I knew there was something good there. We grabbed cameras and headed to join the crowd. Upon our arrival at the group we were told there were 2 moose laying down in the shade. I zoomed out to 600mm and could see an ear twitch. We waited and after about 5 minutes they stood up and started grazing. Lighting conditions were far from optimal but I captured some images anyway.

We were able to spend about 30 minutes with these guys before they went back into the shade to rest. It was a good afternoon. We spent the rest of the day cruising the park looking for #399 or #610 or anything for that matter but had no success. It was a good day though and we went back to Jackson with smiles.

September 11: The only really unproductive day of our trip. We put nearly 300 miles on the Pathfinder cruising around trying to find critters. There was one bear jam caused by #399 near the Jackson Lake Dam but we got there about 5 minutes after she and the cubs crossed the road and went into the willows. We went up the road to where we thought they might come out but our time was in vain. I found out later we missed them again by about 5 minutes. Story of my life. This was a day where we didn’t see any wildlife at all. Even the bison were missing from the Elk Ranch Flats overlook where they had been every day we were there. I guess it’s time to go home.

September 12: We slept in a little bit then packed up and headed out, passing through Moran Junction on the way to Dubois. All in all it was a successful trip. We got some nice images of the wild horses near Cody. We got really close to a beautiful grizzly, we saw wolves (still dots in the distance), we photographed #399 and her quad cubs, and spent an afternoon with some bull moose. Our objectives were met for the most part. Still no images of wolves so I guess we need to go back again.

8 Days, 2600 miles driven, some good meals, and quite a few ham sandwiches. Will #399 make it through the winter? Will her quads survive? Will I see her again in a couple of years? All good questions but we will not answer them for a while.