Yellowstone: From the Side of the Road

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My experience with cameras started when I was about 10 years old, a square brown plastic film camera with a mediocre lens. About 40 years ago I graduated to a rangefinder then moved to an SLR. I then stopped fighting technology and accepted autofocus with automatic exposure. Now I’ve graduated fully to digital. My photography interest is wildlife and nature, and I semi-patiently waited for vacations and business trips to practice my craft. Over the years I slowly acquired top-level equipment and I had big plans for when I reached retirement.

Fast forward 9 years . . . I’m finally retired but all those plans have run into a big hitch: they never included arthritis. So, left with two choices, sit in a chair and look at everybody else’s images or, as I chose, borrowing a phrase from a Clint Eastwood movie, “adapt and overcome.” I want to share some results of these efforts and I hope they inspire you to get out and make more photographs too.

I’ve discovered that no matter what your outdoor photography interest, you don’t need to hike a mountain or camp out in back country to find great locations. There are unlimited opportunities for photography, a great many not more than 50 feet off the side of a road. How to start? Here are some of the methods, places and tools that can be used by anybody with mobility limitations.

The National Parks offer a great training ground to practice roadside photography. One of the best and easiest places to find almost unlimited roadside photo-ops is Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks in Wyoming and Montana. Wildlife, geysers, mountains and more all coexist in these two parks. The parks are open spring, summer and fall and some parts are open in the winter. For citizens or permanent residents of the United States who are age 62 or older the best news is the $10 Golden Age Passport. It’s a lifetime entrance pass to national parks, monuments, historic sites, recreation areas and national wildlife refuges that charge an entrance fee. For all you youngsters, there is the National Park Pass for $50, valid for one year from the date of purchase.

bob schwabik, yellowstone park, photo technique Planning The Trip
Yellowstone is in the mountains, driving the park roads you can cross the continental divide several times at altitudes near 8,000 ft. Take it slow and check with your physician before you go to see if you need to take any special precautions.

The summer season in Yellowstone can be a trial, primarily due to the volume of visitors. Wildlife observation is more difficult and “bear or buffalo jams” can mimic urban gridlock. You can be sure bear are around when the road and shoulders of the road are full of stopped vehicles. On occasion the road can even be blocked by wildlife, as North American Bison own the road whenever they decide to travel on it.

Use the park websites to determine facilities and road opening or closing dates. Maps are a requirement. National Geographic and AAA have detailed maps of Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks, and most bookstores sell maps of the parks. Since you’re bringing a laptop to process your dig- ital images, a mapping tool for that laptop could be in order. I use “Microsoft Streets and Trips” both for long range planning and to look at the next day of travel. It also has data on restaurants and hotels nationwide, and a GPS capability can be added.

bob schwabik, yellowstone park, photo technique

Detailed maps are available for free from the U.S. National Park Service. (See Resources for web links)

Equipment
For most wildlife photography a long lens is a necessity, especially since you are not getting off the road. I typically use a Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS USM, taking advantage of the 1.6x sensor multiplier of the Canon EOS 7D Digital body. For general scenery I use an EF 24-105mm f/4L IS USM or an EF 17-35 Zoom 1:2.8 L USM on an EOS-1D Mark IV body. On occasion, the buffalo can be close enough that the wide angle would work!

Circular polarizers, neutral density filters (for clouds, waterfalls and lakes) and split density filters are suggested. Have at least two batteries and multiple storage media for each camera body, as I’ve filled several cards in one day with each camera. A laptop and external drive(s) will be necessary to transfer and back up your daily crop of images. Remember to charge batteries every night.

Locations
You can spend days travelling the roads of Yellowstone and not see it all. In a short visit, the park has several key regions. The SW quadrant has the bulk of geysers and hot springs, and from my experience, most wildlife opportunities are found along the Lamar Valley road. The best section runs about 29 miles, from the NE entrance to the first intersection near Roosevelt Lodge. For the brave at heart, this road is open year-round to connect Cooke City and Gardiner, MT.

Buffalo can be seen along the road with occasional opportunities for mountain goat, pronghorn antelope, coyotes, wolves and grizzly bear. Travelling east provides the best opportunity to photograph from the driver’s side window and there are fre- quent pull-offs along the road. The rustic town of Cooke City has food, fuel and lodging and just outside the North entrance to Yellowstone the town of Gardiner has ample services including fuel, hotels and restaurants. Just remember you are in semi-rural Montana. There are lodging facilities in the park, and if you stay at Yellowstone Lodge, you might hear the wolves howling at night. That music I will never, never forget.

Another outstanding location is the upper and lower falls of the Yellowstone River, about 19 miles south of the intersection by Roosevelt Lodge near Canyon Junction. There is handicap parking available with just a short walk to the best views. The falls, which are simply spectacular, can only be photographed from overlooks along the rims of the canyon.

bob schwabik, yellowstone park, landscape photography

Jenny Lake on a clear day

Best times to go
The shoulder seasons (before Memorial Day and after Labor Day) are my preferred time to make photographs in these parks. While some park services are starting to close for the winter, the roads are relatively empty. Spring, just after the roads open is another prime time to photograph there. The new season’s young wildlife is out, wildflowers are in bloom, and the rivers and waterfalls are running high. On certain days cloud-filled skies reflect on still lakes. The mountains will probably still have a covering of snow. You may experience snow squalls and at times the weather in the spring can only be called ‘interesting.’

Fall on the other hand brings vivid color in the bright yellow Aspen groves near Grand Teton NP at Oxbow Bend on the Snake River. The wildlife is preparing for winter and their shedding coats are starting to fill in. The town of West Yellowstone has ample motels and restaurants, as well as a small center to acquaint people with wolves and grizzly bear.

As you leave Yellowstone and head south toward Grand Teton NP, stop at Oxbow Bend on the Snake River. In the fall, the yellow Aspen reflecting in the river will provide an opportunity for you to capture artful images, just tread carefully as the site might be infested with photographers.

bob schwabik, yellowstone park, landscape photography

Mountains, clouds and fall colors, south of Yellowstone on US 191

In Grand Teton NP you’ll see views of the youngest mountains in North America including one of a geological fault line running through the center of the Teton Range. As you drive south on Teton Park Road you will pass Jackson Lake, and the Signal Mountain Lodge. The Lodge has a restaurant, and bear have occasionally been seen in their parking lot. Further down the road you’ll see craggy peaks as the mountains rise abruptly to almost a mile above the valley floor with no foothills to obstruct your view. There are numerous pull-offs available along the road to set up your tripod for mountain images. Elk, moose, and bear are frequently seen along this road.

There is a special place I like along Jenny Lake Road, a one-way side road running south. The pull-off at Jenny Lake is a must-visit location as the snowcapped mountains reflect off the lake−if you’re really lucky a clearing storm will provide outstanding images for mind or camera. A good tripod is a necessity for this location as is a wider- angle lens.

South of Grand Teton NP is the town of Jackson. Jackson offers the largest selection of services in the area, and is a major winter ski destination.

I’ve been to these parks many times over the few years. I usually ended up driving up and down the roads like a madman not wanting to miss any photo opportunities. I always look forward to the next trip. If you are a chair-bound photographer or anyone else thinking of no longer making photographs because of mobility issues think again, make an effort to get out there, because there is far too much to see and far too many opportunities for photography right from the side of the road.

Resources: Map Program: microsoft.com/streets/en-us/; NPS Find a park near you: nps.gov/findapark/index.htm; Yellowstone: nps.gov/yell/index.htm; Teton: nps.gov/grte/index.htm; NPS Maps: nps.gov/hfc/index.htm