Yellowstone in winter is a remote yet luxurious photo destination with some of the world’s most spectacular and predictable geysers only a few minutes’ stroll from a fine restaurant and comfortable accommodations at the Old Faithful Snow Lodge. The magical combination of frigid air and towering columns of boiling hot water produces billowing clouds of steam that soar high into the blue sky.
On cold nights, steam from the hot springs and geyser vents coats nearby trees with sparkling ice crystals, creating a winter wonderland unlike anything found outside of Yellowstone. Bison roam freely, often within easy camera range. Their frosted, shaggy fur makes them look like a relic from a Pleistocene Ice Age. The only access to this photographer’s paradise is via chartered snowcoach or snowmobile. The summer crowds are gone.
Congress created Yellowstone National Park in 1872 to protect the region’s astonishing collection of geysers, bubbling hot springs, calm, colorful thermal pools and splashing mud pots. Some 500 active geysers—about half of the world’s total— are found in Yellowstone, the nation’s first national park, which today spans 2.2 million acres. These thermal features are abundant because Yellowstone sits atop a gigantic volcanic crater that covers nearly half the park. This caldera, as it’s called, was created by a massive eruption some 640,000 years ago that spewed more than 240 cubic miles of ash and lava. That’s enough volcanic debris to cover Alaska, California and Texas more than a foot deep. The most recent eruption of lava occurred some 70,000 years ago. Fortunately, there’s no need to worry about getting buried in molten rock during your shoot. Scientists at the Yellowstone Volcano Observatory, who continually monitor seismic activity in the region, have found no evidence that another eruption is imminent.
Old Faithful is just one of a number of spectacular geysers in the Upper Geyser Basin along the Firehole River. All are within easy walking distance of the Snow Lodge. Riverside Geyser, the farthest, is about one and a half miles from the lodge. The Upper Geyser Basin also contains the only geysers for which predictions of eruption times are available in the winter. To get predictions for those five geysers, download the National Park Service’s Geyser app (available for iOS and Android). If you want to shoot geysers and not waste your entire vacation waiting for them to erupt, this app is essential.
A geyser is basically a deep hot spring with a narrow constriction in the throat of the spring somewhere near the surface. Super-heated water, whose temperature exceeds the surface boiling point, flows into the depths of the spring. The tremendous pressure created by the large volume of cooler water above temporarily prevents the super-heated water from boiling. Eventually, the pressure from the super-heated water becomes too great. Steam bubbles percolating toward the surface lift some of the cooler water above. This relieves the pressure enough that the super-heated water flashes to steam, forcing the water above to erupt in a fountain soaring as high as 200 feet into the frosty air.
All of this complicated plumbing is only partially understood, which means that none of the big geysers in Upper Geyser Basin can be predicted with perfect accuracy. The prediction window, the interval of time during which the geyser is likely to erupt, ranges from plus or minus 10 minutes for Old Faithful, the most predictable big geyser, to plus or minus 90 minutes for Grand Geyser, the tallest predictable geyser in the world. Photographing geysers requires patience. Fortunately, eruptions usually last several minutes, so you can set up, relax on a nearby bench, then start shooting when the eruption begins.
Weather & Preparation
That wait can be chilly in winter. In January, the coldest month, the average high is 29° F and the average low is 10° F, according to the National Park Service. This apparently benign range masks the extremes: the record low, for example, is -66° F. During my visit in February 2016, the lowest temperature was -4° F. No pair of gloves will keep your hands warm at sub-zero temperatures and provide the dexterity needed to push all those little buttons. Solution? Bring a pencil and push those buttons with the eraser end. It’s easy, even with heavy gloves.
On average, Yellowstone gets about 150 inches of snow per year (about half of the snowfall at a typical Colorado ski resort). Visitors must remain on the boardwalks that lead through the thermal areas. Heat from the warm ground softens the snow covering the boardwalks. Regular foot traffic then packs that moist snow into ice. The trails can be extremely slippery. Bring trekking poles, and consider bringing a pair of Kahtoola MICROspikes or Yaktrax ICEtrekkers for your boots. Snowshoes and skis are only necessary if you plan to explore beyond the Upper Geyser Basin. They can be rented at the Bear Den Ski Shop inside the Old Faithful Snow Lodge.
Your camera may have less trouble functioning in the cold than you do. My Canon EOS 5D Mark III has performed flawlessly in temperatures as low as -29° F so long as it had power. Bring several batteries, and keep batteries not currently in use in an inside pocket. When one battery weakens, swap it for a warm one. The used battery will probably regain some strength when it rewarms.
Photographing in Yellowstone in winter does present some unique challenges. Even in the winter, geyser water is very warm. The viewpoints for some of the biggest geysers, such as Grand, are close enough that you can easily get drenched by the spray, particularly if the wind shifts at the wrong moment and blows the falling droplets toward you. Bring a cotton handkerchief to dry your camera body and an old-fashioned paper lens tissue to dry the surface of your lens. Microfiber cleaning cloths are great for removing smudges, but they are made of polyester, so they don’t absorb water. I use a UV filter on every lens because I’d rather scrub a $50 filter than a $1,500 lens. Many geysers and thermal pools constantly produce clouds of steam. Check your lens frequently for condensation.
I hand-held some shots of the geysers because the plume of water varied rapidly in height and because the cloud of steam moved with each change in wind direction. I needed the ability to change position and reframe the shot quickly. I used a tripod for shots of the geysers at sunrise and sunset and for shots where I found an interesting, close-in foreground that I wanted to frame precisely. I also used a tripod for focus-stacked close-ups of icicles and frosted trees.
My trip was timed to coincide with full moon. After some experimentation, I decided that the best exposure for an erupting geyser lit by the full moon was about 10 seconds, f/2.8, ISO 1250. Any longer, and the soaring water and steam was rendered as an amorphous blob of featureless white. Eruptions can last several minutes or longer, but the peak height of some eruptions, such as Old Faithful’s, is only 10 seconds or so. By using a 10-second exposure, I could capture the geyser at its height and not include periods when the plume was smaller. Using an exposure shorter than 10 seconds would have forced me to push the ISO higher, which would have created more noise and reduced the dynamic range of the image.
Whenever possible, position yourself so that the eruption is silhouetted against blue sky. The erupting water and steam is always white. In photographs, it can be hard to distinguish steam from a cloudy sky. Sunlight is especially important when you’re photographing Riverside Geyser, which shoots out over the Firehole River. In mid to late afternoon, before the sun dips below the trees to the west, strong sunlight on the cascading water droplets forms a beautiful rainbow. If possible, position yourself so that the angle made by your shadow and your line-of-sight to the geyser is about 40 degrees. If you’re too far right or left of that point, you won’t see the rainbow.
For some geysers, notably Grand and Daisy, you’ll want your wide-angle lens, particularly if you can include wind-sculpted snow or a small pool in the foreground. For others, including Old Faithful and Castle, you may well be reaching for a short telephoto.
You should certainly bring your longest lens to shoot the bison that roam freely throughout Upper Geyser Basin. Bison look like placid, slow-moving creatures, but a bison can toss you into the air with a single thrust of its massive horns. Every year, tourists are gored by bison. Imagine getting hit by a 2,000-pound bull charging at 35 mph (much faster than you can run), and you’ll understand why you should, for your own safety, maintain the legally required 25-yard distance.
Transport & Lodging
The charm of a Yellowstone shoot in winter is enhanced by its Shangri-la character. All roads leading to the Old Faithful Snow Lodge close in early November. Once the snowpack is deep enough, usually in mid-December, the roads reopen to snowcoaches and snowmobiles. If you own a snowmobile that meets the park’s strict “best available technology” standards for noise and emissions, you can apply for a permit to drive your own snowmobile into Yellowstone. For most visitors, the better option is to reserve a seat on a snowcoach. You can take a snowcoach from Flagg Ranch, near the park’s south entrance, from West Yellowstone, near the park’s west entrance, and from Mammoth Hot Springs, near the park’s north entrance. Flagg Ranch is inside Grand Teton National Park. The closest town is Jackson. If you have extra time, you can stay in Jackson and photograph the Tetons for a few days before catching your snowcoach. Expect to pay around $240 roundtrip for snowcoach service from any of the origin points. A complete list of snowcoach and snowmobile tour operators in Yellowstone is available on the National Park Service’s website. Most tour operators focus primarily on one-day tours. Call or email the reservation desk to arrange for shuttle service if you plan to stay overnight at the lodge.
The best basecamp for your Yellowstone winter adventure is the Old Faithful Snow Lodge, the only hotel inside the park that will be open during the 2016-2017 and 2017-2018 winter seasons. (The only other lodging inside the park that is normally open during the winter, the Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel, will be closed for renovations during those two winters.) As the name implies, Old Faithful Snow Lodge is only a stone’s throw from Old Faithful, the park’s most predictable and beloved geyser.
The winter season is short. Old Faithful Snow Lodge is open from Dec. 16, 2016, to Feb. 26, 2017. Old Faithful Snow Lodge offers both rooms and cabins that fill quickly, so book as far in advance as possible. Cabins have no cooking facilities, and using your own backpacking stove inside a cabin is strictly forbidden. I brought in munchies for breakfast and lunch and ate dinner at the inexpensive Geyser Grill inside the lodge because it stayed open late enough that I could shoot sunset somewhere in Upper Geyser Basin and still grab a sandwich or burger before closing time. For a more upscale dining experience, make reservations (required) at the lodge’s Obsidian Dining Room.
I spent five days photographing in Upper Geyser Basin and didn’t come close to exhausting all the possibilities. If you want to explore beyond that area, you can book an all-day snowcoach tour that will take you from Old Faithful Snow Lodge to Yellowstone Falls and the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. Or you can snowshoe or ski four and a half miles one-way from the lodge to Lone Star Geyser, which erupts every three hours or so. Another option is to catch a shuttle to the Fairy Falls trailhead. After skiing a couple of miles up the Fairy Falls Trails to see the falls, you ski back to the lodge (11 miles total). Everywhere you look, Yellowstone in winter offers truly unique photo opportunities.