Wildlife Photography in the Lamar Valley
Photographing the Lamar Valley The Lamar Valley is every wildlife photographer’s dream location. While small in size relative to the 3,472 square miles of Yellowstone National Park itself, it is large in the number of major species of wildlife that are readily photographable at reasonable expense. There are the common species like bison, pronghorn and coyotes, but there are black bears, brown bears, wolves, foxes, badgers and moose too. This blog post will cover when to go, how to get there, where to stay, equipment needed, and photographic knowledge and technique required.
My favorite time of the year in Yellowstone is Spring, mid-May to mid-June in this part of the world. Bison have their babies around this time followed shortly by elk and pronghorn babies. Bears have their cubs during hibernation but are out and about in early to mid-May. Wolf cubs begin to be seen at this time too. Lots to see and photograph at this time of year. The roads are not as crowded at this time of year either. Other times for a visit include the bison rut in August and the elk rut in October and November. And of course, winter when the landscape is transformed by snow and the wildlife is closer to the road. This time though, I’m going to concentrate on Spring.
How to get there. Because of the remote location in NW Wyoming, the high cost of air fares and the need to rent a car, many people choose to drive. You see license plates from the east coast and even Florida. If you have more money than time, then flying into Bozeman is a reasonable option. It’s served by a couple of large airlines and is the only regional airport within reasonable distance from the park. About 45 minutes to be exact. Disadvantages of flying are the cost and the inconvenient flight schedules into Bozeman. Where to stay? Three locations provide relatively good accessibility: Mammoth in the park and Gardiner and Cooke City at the North and Northeast entrances to the park. The Mammoth Hotel is historic in many senses of the word. The architecture both internally and externally is beautiful especially following a recent touchup to the exterior. There’s a grand entrance in the old style, but the rooms are small, spartan and expensive. And the bathrooms are down the hall or shared with your next-door neighbor.
Also, in Mammoth is the Mammoth Campground just down the hill from the hotel. It’s a typical park service campground with dry camping, only a few camp sites have water hookups, and there is no dump station in or near the campground. Camping is allowed for up to thirty days in the off season and two weeks in the high season. There are no reservations. It’s strictly first come, first served. And, even in May, there’s a line of people wanting to get in early in the morning. Importantly, it’s open 365 days a year. There are smaller campsites at Slough Creek and Tower Falls for tents and smaller RV’s which tend to open in mid to late May.
In the small town of Gardiner, Montana, population 700+, and just across the state line there are many hotels, mostly local with a few chains like Best Western and two RV parks. Rocky Mountain RV Park is in Gardiner itself, just north of the Yellowstone River up a fairly steep hill. It has full hook-ups and small rental cabins, is well maintained and quiet. Yellowstone RV Park is five minutes north of Gardiner, a steep downhill drive and right on the Yellowstone River itself. Again, it’s very well maintained, clean and quiet. Both need to be reserved in advance because of high demand and a limited number of sites. Reserving six months ahead is not a bad idea for both hotels and campgrounds. Cooke City’s prime advantage is its close proximity to the Lamar Valley. You’re literally 10 minutes away from the Northeast entrance. The advantages pretty much stop there. There are no commercial campgrounds of any size in or near town and the Forest Service campgrounds open late because of the elevation and snow. One Super 8 hotel and a couple of local ones are on the highway through town. Many rental cabins are scattered around. There are few places to eat or get supplies. It’s mostly location, location, location.
If you’re driving, it probably goes without saying but fill up your vehicle before entering the park as the only gas stations in the north end of the park are in Mammoth and at Tower Junction and both are expensive. And remember, even in Mammoth, it’s a thirty to forty-minute drive to the Lamar Valley on curvy, hilly roads with wildlife crossing or standing in the road while you drive in the dark. Speaking of driving in the dark, that’s the best time to be there. The wildlife is the most active then and closest to if not on the road.
Particularly wolves and bears are best seen early. Though you may see either later in the day, your chances at other times are fewer. And your chances of getting a good shot grow less as the day progresses. Why? People. People who get in your way, people who jam the parking lots and road sides and people who disturb or scare the wildlife. People who don’t like getting up before sunrise. Did I mention tour buses? Mostly vans in fact with only the occasional bus passing through. Mostly because there’s no real parking for them I suspect.
Where are the animals? The first answer you’re likely to get if you ask a ranger is wildlife is where you find it, and while that is certainly true, it’s not very helpful. But wildlife in general are creatures of habit and there are well known locations for a few species. Bison are everywhere in the meadows of Yellowstone, but especially so in the Lamar Valley. They are easily approachable but remember that more people are killed by bison than bears in Yellowstone. Though they appear slow moving and dull, they can move at tremendous speed if needed. Treat them with care especially during the rut. Elk are easily found in Lamar as well as around the buildings in Mammoth. Elk lose their antlers every year and start growing new ones covered in velvet in the Spring. So, don’t expect to see bull elk with a magnificent eight-point rack in the Spring. Pronghorn are fairly common in the Lamar Valley, in the meadows between Roosevelt Arch and the ranger check station a mile or so down the road, and near the old Yellowstone Highway that starts just before you enter the Roosevelt Arch in Gardiner. Black bears with cubs are frequently seen near Tower Junction and in the hills just west of Tower Junction in early Spring. Expect to find bear jams and rangers and very limited parking in this area too. So, get there early. There are reliably black bears with cubs on both sides of the highway above Tower Junction and before the Calcite Springs pull out and you’ll probably want to photograph both. But my preference is for the bear family on the west side of the highway as the ground is more open and the bears closer to the highway. On the east side of the highway, the bears are in thicker stands of timber with many fallen logs making it difficult to get a clean shot and requiring a very long lens for tight shots. The cleanest shot is up the hill toward the Calcite Springs pullout. In either case, you’ll need to get there early or you won’t find a parking place or a spot to put your tripod. It’s difficult to provide a precise time because it varies from day to day, but try around 8:00 am, pick a spot and be patient.
Another spot worth checking out for black bears is the short road up to the petrified tree which is well marked and just before arriving at Tower Junction. There is limited parking at both ends of the road. The road is narrow and winding. Definitely not recommended for large motor homes.
One other point, while black bears are typically black, there are also cinnamon colored and brown black bears here and elsewhere in the valley. So, a brown bear does not mean a grizzly unless it has the characteristic hump between its neck and shoulders.
Wolf packs have spread throughout the park, but a reliable place to find one is above Slough Creek Road. Look for groups of folks with spotting scopes pointed up the mountainside. Most of them are happy to share their spotting scopes and wolf knowledge if asked politely. If you’re very lucky, you may stumble across a wolf kill, usually an elk, somewhere along the highway in the Lamar Valley or elsewhere in Yellowstone. Otherwise, a good pair of binoculars or a spotting scope are needed.
Moose tend to hang out in the northeast corner of the Lamar Valley between Pebble Creek pullout and the Warm Creek pullout. They love willows for food and willows love water, so look along Soda Butte Creek at the various pullouts. Keep in mind that while looking slow and ungainly, moose can move quite fast if aggravated, so keep a safe distance. Again, moose have no antlers in Spring, but you may see the beginnings of one protruding from the head of a bull moose.
Red Foxes are seen near the Yellowstone Picnic Area and just east of there. I’ve seen them at various times of day and so can’t provide a specific time. They’re usually travelling quickly so considerable luck is involved in seeing and photographing them. It’s somewhat easier to find them in winter when they are actively hunting during the day and their color contrasts with the snow. Both they and coyotes hunt in the snow by listening for prey under the snow and then leaping into the air and landing face first in the snow to capture mice and voles.
In the same area as the foxes, a small herd of Bighorn Sheep ewes may be seen crossing the road. They are slower moving than the foxes and frequently stop traffic. They are amazingly tolerant of people, but as with any wildlife, it’s best to keep your distance.
Just a few words about grizzly bears, they are usually already in the high country even in May in the Lamar Valley. The best location for seeing them without a spotting scope is Dunraven Pass which is up the mountainside from Tower Junction. Even there, seeing one is happenstance. The hiking trail from the parking lot to the top of Mt. Washburn is known to have frequent bear sightings and bear spray is recommended. I don’t have any personal experience with this, so I can’t say much more.
Finally, there are Bald Eagles, Golden Eagles and best of all in my opinion, an Osprey nest in the Lamar Valley. Uniquely, you can look down into the Osprey nest for great photo ops of the parents coming and going to the nest. Later in the Spring there may be babies if all goes well. It is located at the top of the hill after crossing the Lamar River bridge just below the second pull out.
These are general recommendations, but things change from day to day and year to year. So, do your homework. Subscribe to Yellowstone Reports for $20 per year. It has daily articles by locals who spend much of the year in the park. Well worth the price. Spend another $20 to buy their map so you know where they’re talking about. Talk to other photographers while you’re waiting for that badger to pop its head up. Some of them will even give you reliable information between war stories. The onsite, crowd control, bear jam rangers can be a good source if you’re polite and thoughtful and thank them for keeping you and the wildlife safe and still letting you get your shot. Most of them do all that with little thanks.
So, what about gear? Long lenses do help. Having two bodies, one with a 500-600 mm lens on a tripod and one with a hand holdable medium telephoto lens in the 200-400 mm or 200-500 mm range helps. The latter is your lap lens. Always handy for those unexpected moments when a wolf, bear or coyote crosses the road right in front of you. Or an eagle flies overhead with a snake in its mouth. Do you need all that? It depends. For brown bears and wolves usually. At least it increases your chances of getting that bucket list shot. Do you have to own it? No, renting is a viable option if this is a once in a while or once in a lifetime occasion. Renting isn’t cheap either, but a lot cheaper than buying. Buying used is also a good option. Long lenses don’t change hands very often as they are a lifetime investment for most people. KEH.com is a reliable source for used equipment. Forums can be a good source like Nikonians and Fred Miranda. And there’s always Amazon, B&H and Adorama. Or just realize that you might have to crop quite a bit if you’re shooting with a 70-200 or 70-300 mm lens. This is more readily achievable with the newer generations of high megapixel cameras.
What else to bring? Binoculars help. A spotting scope if you have one. Clothing to layer as temperatures may be in the 60’s one day and the 80’s the next. Rain gear is handy as Spring showers and downpours happen. Sun screen is important because of the altitude and hours spent outdoors. Bring a broad brimmed hat for the same reason. Your medications. There is a small pharmacy in Gardiner that is very friendly and helpful, but they may need to order your medication and it can take a day or two to arrive. Bring food, snacks and water to keep you going through the day. There is a medium sized grocery store in Gardiner with reasonable prices for its size and location, but things are always cheaper in larger cities and from big chains. Gas. Buy it before you enter the park. It’s much cheaper outside the park of course.
I hope all this helps. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you have questions. Check out my Yellowstone photos elsewhere on this website. Don’t forget to subscribe to my newsletter and explore my podcasts also on this site.