Four Gems of Yellowstone

Second of two parts

There is no place like Yellowstone. I noted this in my earlier post about the joys of wildlife photography in Yellowstone National Park. But with 2.2 million acres within its boundaries, Yellowstone can be intimidating. Here are four of my favorite places in the park, with some thoughts about what you can expect to see at each.

Little America to Barronette Peak (Lamar Valley)

If you have a park map, find Roosevelt Junction near Tower, and trace the road northeast toward Lamar Valley. Once you turn north at this junction and cross the Yellowstone river bridge, an area known as Little America begins. The rocky valley is bordered by Specimen Ridge on one side (south) and the Lamar River on the other. The bridge over the Lamar River is currently being rebuilt, but access via the old bridge is still available. Where the Slough Creek road goes off to the north, Little America ends and Lamar Canyon begins, and after a couple of miles you drive into the broad expanse of the Lamar Valley. This approximately 20-mile stretch of road — crossing Little America and going through Lamar Canyon, through Lamar Valley, and ending at about Barronette Peak — is a wildlife mecca.

Red fox mousing in Little America

Gray wolves and grizzlies cross the rocky valley frequently on hunts, coyotes and red foxes stalk the meadows bordering the tree line, while badgers reduce the squirrel population to feed their young in spring. Bison and pronghorn antelope drift through Little America and the Lamar Valley, birthing their young in the spring and carrying on mating rituals later in the summer. Elk live in the forested slopes above the valley throughout much of the year, but are much more visible in the winter.

Little America is a narrower valley and close encounters are much more likely, while Lamar Valley is much broader; while you see wildlife at great distances, photographing them in Lamar Valley is much more difficult until the valley narrows northeast of Soda Butte.

Blacktail Plateau Drive to Dunraven Pass

About 12 miles east of Mammoth Hot Springs, a dirt road identified by a sign as the Blacktail Plateau Drive goes off to the south. (There is a gate as well.) From that point going to the east — past Floating Island Lake, the Petrified Tree, Tower and up Mount Washburn to Dunraven Pass — is a section of the park known for its black and grizzly bears. In the spring, this particular area from Floating Island Lake to just south a couple of miles of Tower has the greatest density of black bears anywhere in YNP.

From June 2–9 of this year, I led two four-day, back-to-back safaris in Yellowstone, and every single day we photographed black bears along this stretch of road. The time of day didn’t matter, nor did the weather. Black bear sows with cubs, as well as mating season bear couples, were easy to find. Because this road winds through narrow little valleys, bears are found close to the road and almost always managed by seasonal rangers whose only job is to control bear jams and out-of-control tourist parking on the road.

Strutting male blue grouse on Dunraven Pass

Between Tower and Dunraven Pass, the habitat changes, the elevation climbs, and you are more likely to encounter grizzly bears than blacks. The bears are hunting the newborn elk calves in the spring, as well as digging up the bulbs of many spring flowers. In the autumn, both grizzlies and blacks seek out the whitebark pinecones for their nutritious nuts. A year after the notorious fires of 1988, this area exploded with wildflowers and cones (which open due to heat from forest fires) and I photographed some of the largest mule deer bucks I’ve ever seen in Yellowstone.

Canyon to Fishing Bridge (Hayden Valley)

Like Lamar Valley, wildlife can be seen here at great distances. Grizzly bears and a local wolf pack hunt the valley regularly. But unlike Lamar Valley, the Yellowstone River divides Hayden Valley and is never far from the road. The river is both a source of water and food, and a transportation route, and seems to be a magnet for all valley wildlife. Mousing coyotes, ducks and geese, bald eagles and osprey, as well as energetic river otters, aren’t hard to find.

Great gray owl in snowstorm in Hayden Valley

The road basically follows the twisting Yellowstone River to its headwaters at Yellowstone Lake, and the development of Fishing Bridge. Fishing Bridge crosses the Yellowstone River, and the park highway heads around the northern shores of Yellowstone Lake toward the East Entrance.  The area around Fishing Bridge and Lake Hotel is a hotspot for grizzly bears and moose.

Sometimes in the spring and fall, rising mist from the Yellowstone River fills Hayden Valley with a blanket of ghostly fog, where animals appear like apparitions as the fog slowly thins and burns off. While it’s a bit of a drive from Gardiner, Hayden Valley is worth a 4 a.m. wake-up alarm to be on location at sunrise.

Swan Flats to Norris

I’m not ranking these four general locations, just listing them. But I’ve had more success with photographing grizzly bears in Swan Flats over the years than in any other single location. Located just 4 miles south of Mammoth Hot Springs, the Swan Flats Valley runs for several miles on either side of Swan Lake. The rolling sagebrush hills support a wide variety of wildlife, but for the past several years one grizzly sow and her cubs have called this valley home for months at a time in the spring.

The road continues south past Indian Creek, Roaring Mountain, and North and South Twin Lakes before ending at the junction at Norris. Again, the road goes through narrow valleys surrounded by dense pine forests that make the area around the road a transportation highway for wildlife. While I’ve shot moose, elk, wolves and coyotes in this area, it is known for its grizzlies most of all.

Quad sow and cubs in 2010 on Swan Flats

In the spring of 2010, a grizzly sow with four cubs began to frequent Swan Flats. She dug bulbs and grubs, ate grass, hunted elk calves and taught her cubs how to be grizzlies. She was an excellent Yellowstone mother, teaching her cubs how to safely cross the highway, and to my knowledge, never threatening the tourists on the road. In June 2010, on another safari, my group had three amazing encounters with the Quad Sow, as she had become known. The images from those encounters are some of the best I’ve ever taken. In June 2011, she had lost two cubs (a 50 percent mortality rate among cubs is normal), but the two survivors were with the Quad Sow when she returned to Swan Flats. Again, we had amazing encounters with her just after sunrise, as she hunted the sagebrush flats for elk calves.

A few weeks ago, we had seen her from a distance on Swan Flats, but the last day proved to be the lucky encounter. On that Saturday, we traveled the short distance from Gardiner to Swan Flats, arriving just before sunrise. A storm from the night before was still dissipating, and mist covered parts of Swan Flats. A couple of hundred yards away from the road, the Quad Sow and two cubs were visible rooting through the sagebrush. Suddenly a cloud covered the valley and the bears disappeared. It was unnerving to know they were out there somewhere, but out of sight.

Coyote mousing in Swan Flats

Then we began to see them, dark shapes moving closer to the road. The recent arrival of one of Yellowstone’s better rangers kept the photographers close to their vehicles. Maybe due to the fog, or how quiet the photographers were, or that no cars came by right then, the bears moved closer to us than I had ever seen before.  In the little parking area I was in, there were about eight vehicles. A sign posted a warning of bears in the area. One of the cubs approached the sign and apparently took offense to it. It stood up and ripped the flier off the post, chewed it, the broke the post and stripped the duct tape from it.

Grizzly cub ripping down Dangerous Bear flyer in Swan Flats (June 2012)

I was still shooting from my tripod about a foot outside my vehicle door when the bear walked up to a white sedan and stood up, placing both front paws on the hood and playing with the hood ornament. The guy inside the vehicle was pale, and I was hoping the car was a rental. The ranger, on the other side of my vehicle but out of sight of the mischievous cub, asked me what the cub was doing.

“He is on the hood of the white sedan,” I called out.

With his whistle blowing the tall ranger walked straight at the bears who ran off into the cloud and out of sight. What a rush. The cool-headed ranger had mace, but choose the whistle instead.  We congregated around the white sedan to look at the muddy bear tracks on the car hood and to share a laugh over the unique situation. IPhones were brought out to get images of the hood to send home to friends. That incident became known as the “grizzlies in the mist” encounter.

One Response to “Four Gems of Yellowstone”

  1. We got to Yellowstone on June 9th to celebrate our 38th wedding anniverary! We did not see any bears and my wife was so frustrated! Wish I had read your article and had know of your "safari".

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