The Map



It might be hard to tell from the map below, but Yellowstone is huge. You definitely won’t be walking around the park.  I stayed at the Old Faithful Lodge and Cabins and mapped out quite a few spots around there (in the lower left).  I also wanted to visit the Canyon area and Hayden Valley. If you scroll around on the map, you’ll see some locations further north that I didn’t make it to on this trip (e.g., Lamar Valley).






















Click on the camera icons to see a photo, a location name, and coordinates for the closest parking area. I also show park entrances, visitor centers, the hotel(s) where I stayed, hiking trails, and airports.


Visitor Statistics



Access to Yelowstone is difficult in the winter. Prime time is June through September.  I chose to visit in September when the traffic is at about half of the peak time in July. There were plenty of crowded parking lots in the mid-afternoon but I found plenty of lonely places at sunrise and sunset.  It only takes a short walk down a path before the number of people drops off considerably.
























This graph shows the average number of visitors each month. Hover over the line to see values for each month. NOTE: Even though the X-axis reads “2000,” these are monthly averages of NPS visitor data from 1979-2013. The “2000” should be ignored.


The Climate

























This graph shows average temperature and precipitation by month. Hover over the line to see values for each month. You can select different variables and parks in the panel on the left.  NOTE: Even though the X-axis reads “2000,” these are monthly averages of NOAA weather data dating as far back as the early 1900’s. The “2000” should be ignored.


Logistics



Lodging



While in Yellowstone, I stayed at the Old Faithful Lodge and Cabins.  I stayed in a rustic cabin that had two full beds and a desk, but no bathroom. The bathroom and showers were a short walk away.  The rustic cabins are $50 cheaper than the cabins that have their own bathroom so I thought it was a fair trade to have to walk to the bathroom. There were a couple days with heavy rain where it would have been nice not to have to get my rain gear on to go to the bathroom, but I dealt with it.  Despite all that, the cabins are heated and have electricity so I was able to take time at night and process my photos.  The Old Faithful area has a weak cell signal so I was able to post some photos online. So they really met all of the requirements that I had.


I picked these cabins because they were central to most of what I wanted to do, but Yellowstone is a huge park.  If I were planning this again, I would probably spend 2 days at the Old Faithful Cabins and then get something near the Canyon area or near Mammoth for a couple nights.


Food



For this trip, I flew into the Jackson Hole Airport. Before leaving Jackson, WY, I stopped and picked up groceries. These groceries sustained me through most of my trip though I did get one dinner at the restaurant at the Old Faithful Lodge and breakfast at a coffee shop in the Canyon area.


My Experience



This trip was divided between four days in Yellowstone and two in the Tetons (more on the Tetons coming soon). Overall, the trip was a success. I got many of the photos I wanted to get and several that I couldn’t have dreamed of.  Still, Yellowstone isn’t my favorite of the National Parks I’ve visited so far. Which one is? I’ll let you know eventually, but first here are some details about my trip.


Day 1



It is not cheap to fly to Yellowstone. I looked at several nearby airports before settling on Jackson Hole.  There may be closer airports, but I wanted to finish my trip in the Tetons so it seemed a natural launching point.  I rented a car at Jackson Hole Airport and drove into town to do some grocery shopping.  Once I’d purchased all I thought I would need, I drove past the amazing scenery of the Teton mountain range.  It was a 2 hour drive from Jackson to the Old Faithful Lodge and Cabins and I got to scout some of the places I wanted to take photos when I returned. I got to the Old Faithful area in the late afternoon and checked into my cabin. I managed to time it perfectly to catch an eruption of the geyser.  After witnessing this must-see, though somewhat boring spectacle, I headed north toward the Midway Geyser Basin and walked the wooden walkways around the Excelsior Geyser and the Grand Prismatic Pool. By that time it was raining, so I didn’t get many great closeups of the colorful pools. I mostly saw, smelled, and tasted the sulphorous steam coming off of them.  As I had planned, I hiked a quarter-mile to a point that overlooked the Midway Basin and waited for sunset. I never saw the sunset through the rain, but I did manage to get some decent photos during breaks in the rain (see The One Shot section below).  I headed back toward my cabin and stopped at the historic Old Faithful Inn and snapped some photos of it’s log-cabin interior.  After that, I packed it in for the night.


Day 2



On the second morning, I got up well before dawn and started walking along the paths of the Old Faithful Geyser Basin guided by a headlamp and handheld flashlight. I was heading toward the Morning Glory Pool and got side-tracked several times because it was difficult to navigate in the darkness.  I got to the Pool fairly early and waited for sufficient light for photos.  Again, it was too cloudy and I didn’t get the sunrise I had hoped for.  I took some photos there, but wasn’t particularly happy with them so I started walking back toward my cabin.  Along the way, I snapped photos of the thermal features.  I hopped in my car and headed back to the Midway Geyser Basin. I wanted another, top-down view of the Grand Prismatic Pool, this time from the other side of the Basin.  It took me awhile to find out which of the paths up the steep hill was the one I was looking for, but eventually I scrambled up high enough to see above the decaying trees and even found a clearing.  It was still pretty foggy/cloudy but I stuck around long enough to find breaks in it and get the pictures I wanted.  I hiked back down and back to my car.  I drove north to the Norris Geyser Basin. I was surprised to see the parking lot packed with cars.  I drove circles for about 15 minutes along with about 10 other cars but was never lucky enough to catch someone leaving, so I left and drove back south.  I drove the Firehole Canyon and Firehole Lake Drives and walked the boardwalks at Biscuit Basin before getting back to my cabin. I ate a late lunch before heading out again. I wanted to spend sunset at the Great Fountain Geyser because I’d seen amazing shots of reflections and it had wide-open view of the west where the clouds had finally broken. I arrived early so I drove Firehole Lake Drive a second time and stopped at the Fountain Paintpots before heading back to the Geyser.  I spent about 1 1/2 hours at the Great Fountain Geyser leading up to sunset. Most of that time I spent talking to an Australian couple who were there for the same thing.  There was what seemed like a long period of beautiful light that evening and I took dozens of photos.  I then went back to my cabin to sleep. I had a long drive planned for the next morning.


Day 3



My third day in Yellowstone was some of the most densely packed, amazing photography opportunities I’ve ever had.  I started the morning by making the 1 1/2 hour drive from Old Faithful to the Yellowstone Canyon area.  I drove to Lookout Point and hiked a half mile trail down to an overlook that had a straight-on view of Yellowstone Falls all in darkness.  Again, I hung out for about 45 minutes waiting for enough light to start getting photos.  By 10 minutes prior to sunrise, I reailzed I didn’t like that view much so I started hiking back up.  The trip up was much harder on my lungs and legs than the trip down, but I managed to make it up prior to sunrise.  I took a few shots from the overlook before heading to the Grand View Overlook which faces east, into the sunrise.  I drove to Inspiration Point, but found the overlook closed for construction so headed to the Canyon Visitor Center for some breakfast and coffee.  After filling up, I drove to Artist’s Point on the Canyon’s south rim.  That’s where I got my favorite photos of the Canyon and the Falls.  I tried out all of the lenses I had on me (an 11-16, an 18-200, and a 70-300mm). I also tried different filters, different compositions.  There were a few people there, but it wasn’t until I was walking back to my car, at this point about an hour after sunrise, before the first busses started to arrive.  Before leaving the Canyon, I went to the trail that leads down to the brink of the Lower Yellowstone Falls.  That was a tough area to photograph from, but it was an amazing view. From the Canyon, I drove south through Hayden Valley trying to spot any wildlife that may still be out and about.  I saw a heard of buffalo and a single, female elk. 


I drove back to my cabin at Old Faithful and only then realized that I had forgotten to bring the cord that connects my camera to my computer so I had to make the long drive to Radio Shack in West Yellowstone, ID. The trip wasn’t all bad. I saw quite a few elk along the road leading out of the park and spotted where I may want to spend my sunset; along the Fountain Flat Drive taking wildlife photos.  After I got the cable, went back to my cabin, and spent a couple hours leafing through my photos I headed out to Fountain Flat.  I drove to the parking lot at the end of the road and started walking. I walked about half a mile along a well-groomed bike path before turning right onto a small footpath; the Sentinel Meadows Trail.  I hiked it back to a large, open field with interspersed buffalo. I took my time and tried to practice my wildlife photography skills. Eventually, I hiked back to my car and started to head back to the cabin. It was still a bit before sunset, but I hadn’t seen any foreground worth including in a sunset shot.  As I was driving back I saw some spectacular cloud formations.  I stopped and took some photos.  As I kept driving further south, the sky exploded in color.  After having driven that road many times over the previous couple days, I knew exactly where I wanted to be to catch this once-in-a-lifetime sunset; along the Firehole River.  I quickly drove to the bridge, grabbed my camera and started taking photos.  The sky turned from gold to pink and finally to purple before disappearing into darkness.  I was the first person to choose that spot, but by the time sunset ended, there were about 10 people there taking photos.


Day 4



Day 4 turned out to be a somewhat disappointing day. Once again, I woke up early. This time I drove to Hayden Valley, hoping to catch some more early rising wildlife.  As I sat in my car in the darkness, I saw significant lightning moving in from the west. By the time sunrise came, it was starting to rain and the lightning had gotten close enough that I didn’t feel comfortable standing on top of a hill on a wide open plain holding a tripod.  So I drove back to my cabin.  It rained heavily most of the day. I spent the time processing my photos and watching movies.  It wasn’t until late afternoon that the rain finally stopped.  I had decided that morning that I was interested in seeing some waterfalls and had researched several that were close by.  First, I went to Biscuit Basin and hiked the short, 1-mile trail back to Mystic Falls. It was amazing. I got my fill of photos there and then moved back to the Midway Geyser Basin and hiked the longer, 3+ mile trail to Fairly FallsFairy Falls may be impressive in the spring when it’s fed by melting snow, but it was only a trickle and I felt somewhat cheated for the effort I’d put in to get there.  On my walk back to my car, it started to rain again.  I spent the rest of the evening back in my cabin.


Day 5



Day 5 wasn’t much of a Yellowstone day. I left well before sunrise to make the 1 1/2 hour drive back south toward Grand Teton National Park. By sunrise, I was sitting at a rainy, foggy Oxbow Bend. More on that another time.



What I Would Do Differently



I left Yellowstone happy and felt four days was sufficient to accomplish what I had set out to do. I stuck pretty closely to the main Park Loop Road area of the park though.  When I go back, and I definitely will, I am going to check out areas like Lamar Valley and Mammoth.  I will also rent a much longer focal lenth lens and make a better go of the wildlife photography.  I also want to visit the park in Winter, but may procrastinate on doing that to avoid the extreme cold.


The One Shot





I got the photo I was most interested in taking on this trip.  This photo was taken on Day 1 on the overlook above the Midway Geyser Basin.  I had planned to get a sunset shot here; the sun would have set roughly in the middle of this photo.  It was not to be, however. I wanted this photo because I felt it was relatively unique. I’ve seen hundreds, maybe thousands of photos looking down on the Grand Prismatic from the opposite side of the Basin, but fewer from this angle.  It doesn’t have quite as nice a view of the Grand Prismatic’s color, but it definitely gives you a sense of Yellowstone; the enormity and beauty of the thermal features.  I felt this was best done in a panorama because the foreground (a road and the river) and the sky were not of particular interest. So, using my tripod, I snapped a series of bracketed images and stitched them together into this HDR panorama.


Other Resources



  1. Yellowstone National Park on NPS.gov - You can get information straight from the people who know best.

  2. My Yellowstone National Park Gallery on Flickr - A collection of my photos from this trip on Flickr.

  3. Buy A Print - I hope the information above helps you get your own great photos, but in the meantime, you’re welcome to purchase one of mine.

  4. My Yellowstone\Grand Tetons Pinterest Board - My collection of other people’s photography from this park.

  5. My Other National Park Galleries on Flickr - A collection of all my National Park Galleries.  I’m planning on building this collection as I visit new parks, so check back.


Useful Tools



  1. The Photographer’s Ephemeris – TPE allows you to drop a pin on a Google map and see not only the sunrise/sunset and moonrise/moonset times but also the direction the sun and moon will rise and set. 


If you have any questions or comments about this article, let me know using my CONTACT FORM.