A Photographer Visits the Tetons
I spent 10 days photographing wildlife in Grand Teton National Park this Spring. Here are a few of my thoughts about this beautiful place. The park is justifiably famous for its namesake mountains which are some of the most beautiful in the lower 48. They have been photographed by Ansel Adams and millions of other photographers since him. But there’s more to the park than mountains, there’s the Snake River that runs through it North to South at the base of the mountains and there are multiple lakes large and small. Some well-known like Jackson Lake and Jenny Lake and lesser known lakes like aptly named Two Ocean Lake named for draining into the Atlantic as well as the Pacific oceans. The Teton’s are well known for their landscape photography locations like Schwabacher’s Landing, the Snake River Overlook and the Mormon Barns, it’s becoming increasingly well known for its wildlife photo ops. So, today I’ll talk about both as well as how to get there, where to stay and best times of year to be there.
First, let’s talk a little about logistics. Like many national parks, GTNP is in a remote location. There are no nearby interstate highways fortunately. The area is crowded enough as it is. Secondly, Jackson, the nearest town of any size is small with slightly less than 10,000 full-time residents. That means that places to stay are limited, expensive and booked up early. It also means that Jackson has become very touristy in the last few years with crowded streets, very limited parking and hordes of people. The good part is that there are lots of galleries, a variety of good restaurants and a variety of accommodations. But plan on spending big bucks for both food and accommodations especially during the dreaded tourist season when most rooms start at $150 per night for nothing fancy. We were here in early May and Jackson was already crowded with few places to park. So, my wife and I prefer to avoid the high prices and crowds by camping. Unfortunately, this option is also limited. There are campgrounds in and around Jackson at the south end of the park and park campgrounds in the north end of the park, but nothing much in between. Either way, you’re in for some driving. GTNP is best thought of as a linear park running north and south about 45 miles with the Tetons to the west and the Gros Ventre mountains to the east bisected by Highway 191. Fortunately for us photographers, most tourists never get off Highway 191. And while there are some great photo ops just off Highway 191, there are many more on the backroads.
The two best known locations on Highway 191 are the Snake River overlook made famous by Ansel Adams and Oxbow Bend with the Snake River in the foreground and Mt. Moran in the distance. Most landscape photos are best taken in the morning as the height of the Tetons precludes most sunset photos. Oxbow Bend being the exception with beautiful sunrises and sunsets. Just get there early for both and expect to be shoulder to shoulder with other photographers with cameras large and small. But most tourists are ready for supper rather than sunsets and sleeping or eating breakfast while you’re out photographing sunrise. So, it’s generally a bit less crowded than you might think especially in the shoulder seasons of Spring and Fall. Pay attention to the weather reports as spectacular sunsets depend on clouds to break up deadly clear blue skies and reflect the glorious sunset light. Great sunrise photos require a sunrise, so no clouds in the east and a few puffy clouds in the west for maximum effect. Parking and good photo spots are limited at Oxbow so get there at least an hour before sunset and a half hour before sunrise. Stick around after sunset for the Alpen glow or if skies are clear then some night photography. You’ll probably have the place to yourself after dark.
Don’t expect to get the Ansel Adams photo at the Snake River overlook as the evergreens have grown to a height that prevents that. Nevertheless, at sunrise and shortly after, it’s a beautiful shot of snow-covered mountains and a beautiful s-bend in the Snake river. If you’re there at sunrise, it will be a high dynamic range shot as the mountains will be brightly lit while the river will still be in shadow. HDR or a graduated neutral density filter, either a physical one or a software one, will be your friend here. Later in the morning, the location will be more evenly lit, but less dramatically so. Therefore, early morning is best here as in most Tetons landscape locations.
The Mormon barns AKA Moulton barns are a short drive east on Antelope Flats road. They make great foreground elements with the snow-covered Tetons as your background at sunrise. When conditions are right, the wood on these 100+ year old Barns glows at sunrise as do the rugged Tetons. Good spots at both barns are limited, so scout them out during the day and set your alarm to be there 30-60 minutes before sunrise. Dress warm, even in summer, mornings can be quite chilly.
One final stop for landscapes just off Highway 191 is Schwabacher’s Landing. It’s not marked as such on Highway 191 and you’ll be arriving in the dark, so scout it out in daylight if you’ve never been there before. The entrance is on the west side of the road between Teton View Pullout and Glacier View Pullout. The first part of the road is paved but quickly turns to potholed gravel. It’s not a place to take a vehicle with very low clearance. After reaching the parking lot, you will have a hike of about 1/3 of a mile to the pond-like area with the best reflections. Bring a flashlight. There are a lot of trip hazards on the path. Expect to be shoulder-to-shoulder with other photographers while you’re waiting for sunrise as again the prime spots are limited as is the parking. The goal here is framing the Tetons and there reflection in the pond directly in front of you. Ideally, the water will be completely still resulting in a mirror-like reflection and the Tetons will be snow-covered. You’ll have about a half-hour to get the shot before the light gets hard and harsh.
Once you have the bucket list shots, explore the Inner Park Road for equally beautiful shots with fewer people. Turn west at Moose junction if you’re coming from Jackson or west at Jackson Lake Junction if you’re coming from the North. Explore the various pull-outs for stunning close-ups of the Tetons in morning light with little competition for parking or prime spots. Don’t just do the tourist shot from the parking lot. Look for foreground elements and leading lines to fill your frame. While you’re on this back road, take the time to explore Jenny Lake. Take the north entrance and stop at the only large pull-out on your right for beautiful views of the lake and the Teton peaks across it. And if there’s no wind a beautiful reflection. Also take the time to explore the pull-outs at Jackson Lake on the southeast side near the Jackson Lake Junction and on the south side just past the dam. You won’t be disappointed.
If you’re a wildlife photographer in the Tetons, you face a different set of challenges particularly if you’re looking for bears like Blondie or 399. They’ve become famous resulting in huge bear jams along Highway 191. So, unless you’re the one that starts the jam, your job is dealing with the crowds and the rangers who are trying to control the crowds and keep everyone safe including the bears. Bear jams occur even when the bears are so far from the highway that they will be dots in the frame even with a 600mm lens and a crop sensor camera. So, know the capabilities of your camera and lens combination and don’t waste time fighting the crowds for a dot in the frame. Be patient and come back frequently. Do some research to see where these “road bears” as the locals call them generally hang out. Drive the highways and the back roads adjacent to the highway if the rangers haven’t closed them. It’s partly luck and partly windshield time exploring the highways and byways.
Besides bears, there are elk to photograph, moose to photograph, bison to photograph…well you get the picture. The National Elk Refuge is just off Highway 191 a mile or so north of Jackson. Unless you arrive in winter or early Spring, they will already have migrated north in the direction of Yellowstone. So, look for them on the sagebrush flats in the central and more northern parts of the park before you get to Jackson Lake. Moose like willow shoots and can be found anywhere in the park that supports willows like rivers, ponds and wetlands. Strangely enough, they are commonly found around the town of Moose west of Moose Junction. As you drive west from Moose Junction, you’ll come to a bridge over the Snake River. Moose hang out in the willows below the bridge and along Moose-Wilson road which starts just past the Visitor’s Center parking lot. It’s a narrow winding road that runs through some ideal moose habitat with wetlands and willows. There are very few pull-outs, so you’re faced with shooting from the road while not obstructing traffic. Be aware that moose while looking slow moving and ungainly can move quite fast in your direction if they’re so inclined. So, take care and keep a respectful distance. The moose are most likely to be in the first 3-4 miles of the road, so turn around when you come to the road junction. Other critters are catch as catch can. My best advice is to drive the backroads, stay alert and keep a camera and telephoto lens handy with settings for the light dialed in.
Let’s talk briefly about logistics and resources. Bozeman is the nearest large airport, but it’s a 3-4-hour drive away. There is an airport at Jackson, but fares to there are likely to be high and flights infrequent. Plus, you still need a car. Thus, most people drive to and into the Tetons often in conjunction with a visit to its neighbor to the north Yellowstone. As is true for any of the popular parks, you need to book ahead. Frequently six months ahead. You can hit the highlights of Grand Teton National Park in a day or two, but if you want to really experience the park you need 5-7 days to photograph in best light all the spots I’ve mentioned and have time to explore the backroads for wildlife. If you are short on time, consider hiring a guide. I can recommend two: Steve Mattheis and Mike Jackson. Both locals who spend a lot of time in the park and are great photographers. As far as gear goes, a 24-70mm lens works well for landscapes and a 200-400 mm or 200-500 zoom works best for wildlife. Bring a tripod for landscapes, but tripods are hard to use in the middle of a bear jam. Finally, when to go. My personal preference is Spring. May is a good choice. Arrive earlier and roads will still be closed by snow. Arrive later, and you face the thundering herds of tourists with school-age children. However, many others have discovered the advantages of the shoulder season including tour bus operators. So, don’t expect lots of peace and quiet even then. Bring clothing for temperatures in the thirties from sunrise to mid-morning. Dress in layers. Bring rain gear to stay warm and dry. A great resource for all things Tetons photography related is Mike Jackson’s website http://BestoftheTetons.com Also check out Steve Mattheis website at http://www.sgm.photography/