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Published: October 9th 2012
As the pilot started to approach Jackson airport, he made an announcement to look out of right side windows to view the beautiful Tetons. All I could see were silhouette images of the Tetons. They were all covered in thick smoke that had enveloped the whole region for many weeks. Smoke was still billowing out of a few forest fires that were raging near Jackson.
The smoke was evident the next day as I drove north towards the Yellowstone national park. Visibility inside the park was only a few hundred yards. The burning smell was everywhere. It seems that forest fires are a common occurrence in the park and surrounding area. All I could hope for was some rain to settle the particulate matter down and clear the landscape.
Apart from the smoke, the landscape was dotted with pine trees. There were some aspens that had turned golden announcing the arrival of fall in the park.
Fall is a beautiful time to be in Yellowstone and Grand Tetons. It lasts from middle of september to end of October. The park closes for a month in November. During the fall, the Elks are in the rut and bugling too.
The bears come to lower elevations where there is more vegetation and prey. Bears have to fatten up before the onset of a harsh yellowstone winter which is their hibernating period. The bisons are past their rut period so are a bit mellow! Squirrels are collecting pine nuts and stashing them for winter. There is usually fog in the mornings and mist hangs low over rivers and creeks adding to the beauty of the landscape. Temperatures were on the cooler side in the morning and late evening but usually reached 70F by mid afternoon.
Yellowstone is famous for its geysers and other geothermal features. The Yellowstone caldera, that is considered one of the largest supervolcano on the planet, fuels all these geothermal features. These include mud volcanoes, bubbling water, mud pots and vents emitting steam or even toxic gases like hydrogen sulfide. Many of these geothermal features are colorful due to the activities of thermophiles, micro-organisms that thrive in hot temperatures.
My first geothermal stop was at West Thumb geyser basin. It is a relatively smaller geyser basin that is at the west edge of Yellowstone lake. If you are entering Yellowstone from south entrance, this can be
your first stop. Later, I ran into a herd of bisons that had some calves too. If you try to get a bit closer to the calf, the mother bison will not be happy about it and let you know. It's better to come to Yellowstone with long super telephoto lenses so that you can maintain a safe distance from the wildlife. My arsenal included a rental 300m f/4 canon lens with a 1.4x extender giving me a equivalent focal length of 420mm but I hardly used that combination. I was content with shooting mostly with a 17-55mm f2.8 canon lens that I had rented and my 70-200mm f4. Anyway, wildlife sightings are just a matter of chance and your luck. Bisons can be seen almost everyday. There seem to be some resident elks in the Mammoth Hot Springs area. Bear sightings are also likely specially during fall. If you see cars parked on the roadside and people have their long lenses, binoculars and scopes out, there is some wildlife action going on. On one such occasion I saw a barred owl. On another there was a bear with a kill but I could not see it. Perhaps it had
moved away by the time I parked my car and took a 100 yards walk back to where the people were.
My first day in the park was spent seeing West Thumb geyser basin, driving alongside Yellowstone lake, taking some shots of bisons, passing through the beautiful Hayden valley and finally ending up at Grand Canyon of Yellowstone. Grand Canyon of Yellowstone is jaw-droppingly beautiful and it looks real pretty after sunset.
I had booked a night at One Horse motel in West Yellowstone. Sun had already set and it was getting dark. Driving in the park at night is not advisable because of possibility of wildlife on the road. The bisons, being black in color, can be trouble.
The next day, I was out around sunrise. Saw a few female elk along the road side. Mist was rising from a creek and some photographers were looking for a perfect shot. Later in the day, I explored midway geyser basin. This geyser basin has the largest hot spring in the US, the Grand Prismatic Spring. This spring has to be seen from above to appreciate its beauty. But that implies you have to fly above it. The
best you can do is to take a hike up a hill and see it from a 25 deg angle rather than 90! The trail up the hill is unmarked but you can follow the boot marks of people. The view from above is OK on a sunny day. However, there is a boardwalk on the spring that allows you to see its colors up close. There are various cool patterns created by hot water and thermophiles.
Afterwards, I saw a couple of more geothermal areas, one called Biscuit basin and other Black Sand basin. Both are part of what is called Upper Geyser basin.
Just nearby is the most famous geyser of the park, the Old Faithful. It is the most predictable tall geyser in the park. The prediction times are posted all over the surrounding facilities and in the visitor center. The sky was getting cloudy and rain was forecast.
Then there was time for the Old Faithful to erupt. It did within the prediction time of +/- 10 minutes. A crowd gathered around it before eruption and within a minute the show was over.
Later in the day it rained. I drove towards Grand Canyon
of Yellowstone again. The park is large and hence reaching a certain destination takes time, considering the 45mph max speed limit. At the Inspiration Point parking lot, I saw a black bear just 20 yards away. It was busy fattening up. Because of low light, there was no opportunity to have a good snap.
I spent the next 3 nights in a small town north of the park called Gardiner. Stayed at Riverside Cottages. Next morning, I spent some time looking at Mammoth hot springs area. The main attraction of Mammoth used to be Minerva Terrace. However, the water has stopped flowing on this terrace since late 90s and hence the terraces were dry and looked uninteresting.
I continued on to other geothermal areas like the Norris Basin. This has the tallest geyser in the world, the Steamboat geyser. However, its full 300 ft tall eruptions are a rare occurrence. The last one happened in 2005!
This day too, it rained in the afternoon. There was a thunder and lightning show as I drove back to Gardiner.
Next day, my 4th day in the park, I spent most of my time driving. First through Lamar Valley
that is famous among wildlife enthusiasts. You can see people congregated along roadside here, viewing some distant wildlife from their scopes and lenses. I stopped at one such stop. Took out my binocular and started scanning the horizon. Then I looked at other people and tried to see what they were looking at. I could not locate anything that looked like a bear or a pack of wolves. These people had to be locals who come here often looking for wildlife.
I ran into another bunch of cars parked along the roadside. Cameras were out. There was a barred owl sitting at a distant branch. I tried my 300mm + 1.4x combo but could not get a decent shot. You need a tripod for distant wildlife shots. Otherwise, even with the advanced image stabilization features of today's lenses, images may not come out sharp.
I drove the scenic Chief Joseph highway and made a fuel stop at the town of Cody. Later I was driving the scenic Beartooth Highway. With all the stops at scenic vistas, the drive took most of the afternoon and evening. By the time I was back in Lamar valley, it was beginning to
Norris geyser area
get dark. I was to reach my hotel almost an hour after sunset. Along the way, I almost ran over a huge male elk who was standing still on the right lane but luckily pointing to my right. I had the high beam on but since I was going a bit downhill and taking a turn, I saw him only at about 10 yards distance and swerved towards left lane. He seemed taller than my car. He budged but only when I was passing him!
My 5th day in the park began as a foggy morning. The fog was thick in some places. A lone bison walked in the fog filled road. He didn't seem to care much about vehicles on the road. I arrived at Yellowstone canyon area but that too was enveloped in fog. So it was time to revisit some geothermal features where the sun had broken through the fog. After clicking a few more shots at mud pots and colorful hot springs, I returned back to Canyon area around evening. At Grand View point, I heard somebody shouting ..BEAR BEAR. I walked back to the parking lot. There was a black bear in the parking
lot! It was roaming around and did not seem interested in cars and people. People were clicking pics and taking videos disregarding any safety considerations. The bear was walking towards my car. I got in. He was barely a few feet away when he walked past my rental car. I got out as he passed by me. Now there were a bunch of people following the bear barely 15 yards behind him! Not advisable but tourists can't control their desires to get their money shots. An old couple who was oblivious of bear walking towards them had to be told to step aside from the trail!
I stayed at West Yellowstone overnight. Next morning, I decided to take a look at Old Faithful geyser area one more time. It was time to leave Yellowstone and head south towards Grand Tetons.
The smoke around the Tetons seemed to have cleared a lot. I drove the Tetan Park road that is a 42 mile scenic drive giving a closer look at the Tetans.
After overnighting in Jackson, I started early in the day next morning for some sunrise photography. However, there was a cloud cover over the Tetans. Sun took
about an hour to break through the clouds on the east horizon. I tried some reflection shots over the Snake river but the cloud cover over the Tetans did not make for good shots. Later in the day, I did my only long hike of the week long vacation. It is the Cascade Canyon trail that is about 7 miles round trip. After about an hour I reached Hidden Falls area. There were a few people assembled there relaxing. Suddenly somebody shouted BEAR. A brown colored bear approached the area and was barely 10 ft away from one hiker. She managed to get out of the way. One guy shouted if somebody had bear spray. Nobody had it and luckily it was not needed. The bear was just hiking his own trail and passed us by. Interestingly, nobody who saw the bear was interested in continuing the hike further to the Inspiration Point! People who saw the bear eventually returned back from the Hidden Falls. I also chickened out! As I was returning, I saw lot of traffic going towards Hidden Falls. Ignorance can be bliss! But as long as you are in a big group, bears will keep their
distance. A few people were also armed with bear spray.
The magic of the Yellowstone fall continues through October. The number of visitors starts dwindling after labor day weekend in early september. However there were still a lot of tourists during last week of september, enjoying the colorful sights of geothermal areas, getting enveloped in the steam coming out of vents, taking pictures of a herd of bisons, waiting for the geysers to erupt and even occasionally running into a bear. As fall progresses, the temperature will begins to go down and by December the snow will begin to accumulate in the caldera. As winter begins, bears will go into hibernation, bisons will start their journey towards warmer hot springs, many elk will move south of the park towards National Elk Refuge near Jackson and the grey wolves will come into their own.
And the Yellowstone's cycle of seasons continues.
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