Winter Wildlife In Grand Teton

For photographing wildlife in winter, it’s hard to beat the abundance of opportunity and majestic surroundings in Jackson Hole

If you like winter, majestic mountains and photographing wildlife, there are few places that combine all three like Grand Teton National Park. Not many places can rival the stately Teton Range as a backdrop for winter landscapes and a valley that supports a plethora of big-game animals that make it an ideal place to photograph winter wildlife.

The Hangover. This old-timer bull bison looked like he had a rough night and an even a tougher morning, busting his way through crusty snow. A heavy snow year can be very hard on the animals that don’t seek lower ground in the winter. Canon EOS 5D Mark III, Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM, handheld. Exposure: 1/1000 sec., ƒ/4, ISO 200.

Winter is a time when most of the species come down to the valley floor to avoid the bulk of an average 450 inches of snow that fall in the mountains each year, making those animals more visible and some more accessible than at other times of the year. And although Jackson Hole has a robust winter tourist season, most of the visitors are focused at the ski area, leaving Grand Teton National Park to its quietest time of the year.

Located in Northwest Wyoming, just south of Yellowstone National Park, Grand Teton National Park is the only national park in the country with an airport inside its border, making it accessible for travel in all months of the year.

The park is nestled within the valley of Jackson Hole. A “hole” was a term used by fur trappers to refer to a valley completely surrounded by mountains. This valley was utilized by trapper Davy Jackson in the 1820s and ‘30s and became known as Davy Jackson’s Hole among his peers. The name has since been shortened to Jackson’s Hole and then Jackson Hole, and the town of Jackson lies within the valley.

Winter is definitely the long season in the mountains of Northwest Wyoming. The elevation of the Jackson Hole Valley averages about 6,500 feet above sea level, with the tallest peak, the Grand Teton, rising to 13,770 feet. Snow can come at almost any time of year here—I have witnessed snow as late as July and as early as August. It is very normal at this elevation to have snowstorms through mid-June and for snow to start up again by mid-September. It is the typical local joke for someone to ask, “How was your summer?” And your reply should be, “I was away that weekend and missed it.”

Mid-November is when the snow really starts to stick on the valley floor and winter begins in earnest, and by late March you can start to see signs that spring will show up eventually.

Recommended Locations For Winter Wildlife Photography In Grand Teton

On The Move. The National Elk Refuge in the valley of Jackson Hole, Wyoming, is home to one of the largest wintering elk herds in North America. Beginning in late November or early December, the elk come down from the surrounding high country when the snow starts to fly. By mid-January, there may be between 7,000 to 10,000 elk on the refuge. Canon EOS 5D Mark III, Canon EF 600mm f/4L IS II USM, with beanbag mounted on car window for stability. Exposure: 1/2500 sec., ƒ/8, ISO 500.

National Elk Refuge. By the beginning of December, the valley is usually locked into winter mode, and so is its wildlife. The Jackson Hole elk herd, one of the largest in the North America, starts to show up on the National Elk Refuge in large numbers from then until mid-January. As the snow drives animals out of southern Yellowstone, the Tetons and the surrounding high country, anywhere from 7,000 to 10,000 elk will spend the winter on the refuge. Located just outside the town of Jackson, the refuge offers sleigh rides through the herd from mid-December to mid-March. Elk have grown accustomed to the sleighs over the years. Although a person on foot would spook the herd, the sleighs can take you right into their midst with little effect on elk behavior.

Aside from elk, the refuge is also an excellent place to see or photograph bighorn sheep, trumpeter swans, mule deer, coyotes, pronghorn in some years, the occasional bald eagle or bison, wolves possibly (although shy and elusive, they are around) and, once in a decade or so, mountain lions. There is a road on the backside of the refuge that is the only place accessible by car or foot. This is where you will find the 80 or more bighorn sheep that are often posing at close range.

Winter also brings the largest concentration of trumpeter swans to the refuge, as other area lakes start to freeze over. Flat Creek, which winds its way through the refuge, is thermally fed and freezes over only on nights that go well below zero. Up to 100 swans can congregate along the creek; many can be right near the viewing platform along the main highway heading north of town.

Winter White. A bull moose pauses between mouthfuls of bitterbrush on a snowy day In Grand Teton National Park. Early winter is an excellent time to photograph bulls before they lose their antlers for the season in late December or early January. Canon EOS 5D Mark III, Canon EF 600mm f/4L IS II USM, Gitzo tripod with Arca-Swiss ballhead. Exposure: 1/400 sec., ƒ/4.5, ISO 800.

Gros Ventre. Moose are one of the main attractions for any wildlife photographer coming to the Tetons. It is an excellent place to photograph moose year-round, but they are most easily spotted in winter when the leaves are off the trees and it is cold enough so that they don’t have to head for shade as soon as the sun comes up.

After the fall rutting season winds down in November, moose can be found in small groups out in the sagebrush flats of Grand Teton National Park along the Gros Ventre River just north of the Elk Refuge. They often feed on bitterbush at this time of year, which they find out in the sage, leaving them very visible when they are standing up. If they choose to take a nap, they very easily disappear into the sage just by lying down. It is not uncommon for me to see 15 to 20 or more moose in a morning or afternoon in the month of December in this area of the park, depending on snow depths. Bull moose often hang around in small bachelor groups at this time and can occasionally be seen sparring with each other if the mood strikes them.

Early winter is the best time to photograph bull moose, with antlers, in the snow. Bull moose lose their antlers each year between late December and mid-January, the largest bulls typically dropping first, with new antler growth starting again in April.

river otters Winter wildlife Grand Teton

Otter Be Havin’ Fun. A family of river otters enjoys a little snow bath at the Oxbow Bend of the Snake River. Otters seem to have more fun than any other animal that I have watched, and winter is the best time to find them, as there is less open water for them to traverse. Canon EOS 7D Mark II, Canon EF 600mm f/4L IS II USM, Gitzo tripod with Arca-Swiss ballhead. Exposure: 1/1600 sec., ƒ/8, ISO 200.

Oxbow Bend. The Oxbow Bend of the Snake River in the northern portion of Grand Teton National Park can be another good wildlife area in the winter. Although the majority of the big ungulates have headed south toward lower elevations, it is still possible to find the occasional moose in this area of the park as there are ample willows for food and cover. This wide spot in the river can also be a place to find beavers, coyotes, red foxes, bald eagles, trumpeter swans and river otters.

Due to its slow-moving water, the Oxbow is one of the few places along the river that freezes over most of the winter. A few holes in the ice here and there are excellent places for river otters to fish or trumpeter swans to feed. Coyotes are attracted to the swans as a possible food source and also follow the otters in hopes of stealing an occasional fish.

By no means are river otters plentiful or predictable or easy to find. But if you are fortunate to see them, they are a treat to watch. They are one of my favorite animals to photograph and observe, as they always look like they are having the most fun of any animal I see in the wild. Watch for tracks around the holes in the ice, as well as magpies or ravens sitting nearby, as signs that otters may be in the vicinity.

Winter wildlife Grand Teton bison herd

Where The Buffalo Roam. A portion of the Jackson Hole bison herd migrates through the southern end of the Tetons in mid-January. The herd numbers from 600 to 800 animals, most of which eventually find their way to the National Elk Refuge by mid-winter. Canon EOS 5D Mark III, Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM, Gitzo tripod with Arca-Swiss ballhead. Exposure: 1/1000 sec., ƒ/11, ISO 500.

Elk Ranch Flats. Elk Ranch Flats is a large open meadow just south of the town of Moran that once contained the largest cattle ranch in Jackson Hole. Although cattle still make a brief appearance there for two months each summer, it has largely become the home of the Jackson Hole bison herd. The herd currently hovers between 600 and 800 individuals who can often be found in this area for most of the summer and fall, into December or early January, depending on the severity of the winter. They are a free-roaming herd, and most will eventually make it down to the Elk Refuge for the bulk of the winter. However, it seems there are always a few old bulls that hang around this area or just to the south toward the Cunningham Cabin for the entire winter.

A Long Winter’s Nap. A red fox enjoys a little sunbathing on a cold but sunny winter day. The foxes’ warm coats are at their finest in winter, making it an ideal time to photograph them. Canon EOS 5D Mark III, Canon 600mm f4 lens, Canon EF 600mm f/4L IS II USM, Gitzo tripod with Arca-Swiss ballhead. Exposure: 1/800 sec., ƒ/8, ISO 200.

Moose-Wilson Road. The Moose-Wilson Road is a narrow, windy road that runs along the base of the Tetons between the town of Moose and the town of Wilson. The middle portion of the road is closed to vehicles in the winter, but the north end is open for about a 3-mile stretch and can be an interesting area for wildlife spotting. Animals I have seen along the road in winter include moose, red foxes, river otters, beavers, ducks, geese and porcupines. It is a short ride and often worth a look if you are in the vicinity.

Other Wildlife & Locations. If you are up for a little drive, there is an excellent place to see mountain goats south of the town of Jackson. There is a small population of these wooly, white beasts in the Snake River Canyon almost all the way to the town of Alpine. It is about a 45-minute drive south of Jackson, staying to the right at Hoback Junction, to see these hardy creatures as they balance along the cliffs above the roadway at the southern end of the canyon.

Wolves are another local animal I am often asked about. This is a tough one, as they are shy and their whereabouts are unpredictable. It is hard to see them, let alone photograph them. After they came off the endangered species list in 2014 and have been subjected to hunting pressure outside the park, they have become warier and harder to be close to. There are about five to six packs that roam the Tetons, ranging from about 40 to 60 individuals, and I do see them occasionally.

There are two packs that use the National Elk Refuge for hunting during the winter, the Pinnacle Peak Pack and the Lower Gros Ventre Pack. These are the most likely animals to be found. However, it is usually right at first light and through binoculars or a spotting scope. If you do manage to get a photograph of one, consider yourself extremely fortunate. I often hear them more than I see them, but listening to wolves howl in the distance is always a welcome and uplifting experience.

Eye Of The Storm. A great gray owl poses for a moment during a late-winter snowstorm. These largest of all North American owl species are year-round residents in Jackson Hole but are shy and not always easy to find. Canon EOS 7D Mark II, Canon EF 600mm f/4L IS II USM, Gitzo tripod with Arca-Swiss ballhead. Exposure: 1/125 sec., ƒ/14, ISO 800.

Tips For Safety & Comfort

Come prepared—it does get cold in Wyoming in the winter. The coldest I have seen it in the Tetons since moving here more than 35 years ago is 56 degrees below zero Fahrenheit. Though that was 25 years ago, the climate has warmed, and I rarely see temps below 30 below anymore, for most of the winter temperatures could range from 25 below zero at night to 20 or 40 above during the day.

Any temperature below zero is very cold, and you must come with lots of layered clothing, a heavy jacket, warm boots, a hat and neck gaiter, and gloves that you can photograph in without taking them off to work your camera controls. Use chemical hand and toe warmers help keep your feet and fingers warm while standing around in the cold all day. Extra batteries for your camera—keeping warm ones in a pocket close to your body—and some type of snow jacket for your camera and lens are also recommended.

If you are photographing early in the winter, purchase a can of bear spray, as all of Grand Teton National Park is grizzly country and bears can still be roaming in search of food right up until the snow starts to get deep in late December. There is also late elk hunt in a portion of Grand Teton National Park in late October, November and early December, so if you are in that southern end of the park, a brightly colored jacket or hunter orange hat is a good idea.

All Dressed Up And Snow Place To Go. A long-tailed weasel, captured here in his summer coat, pauses while hunting for voles under the first snow of the season. Once the snow begins to fly, it takes him about eight days to go from summer brown to his white winter, when he will then go by the name ermine. Canon EOS 7D Mark II, Canon EF 600mm f/4L IS II USM, Gitzo tripod with Arca-Swiss ballhead. Exposure: 1/800 sec., ƒ/5, ISO 100.

Above all, be warm and prepared for any kind of weather from a blizzard to a below-zero morning, and it will help keep you happy while you enjoy the solitude, splendor and wildlife of the winter season in Grand Teton National Park.


See more of Henry Holdsworth’s work at wildbynaturegallery.com.