Ahh, the Tetons!
After a long, 16-month hiatus from road trip journalism, I’m inspired to start writing a relatively short log entry immediately after returning from a fall foliage exploration of Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks in northwestern Wyoming.
I originally intended to include Montana’s Glacier National Park, which is my usual fall destination, but several circumstances changed my mind: One, the park service already closed Going-to-the-Sun Road for repairs, making travel from West to East Glacier that much more inconvenient; two, it’s a long way (two days) to drive from Boise to Glacier, which I’ve done enough times to know its physical and psychological weight, and I’ve already done several trips this year, separate trips to southern Arizona, the Alvord Desert in eastern Oregon, the Sawtooth mountains of Idaho, and the Escalante region in Utah, not to mention a two-week road trip in Portugal and Spain only twelve months ago; and three, I recently adopted two cats, so I’ve imposed a ten-day limit to my road trips.
East Glacier is my favorite for the variety of visible wildlife, the fall colors, the fewer people, and the dramatic landscapes. Yellowstone is more of a sentimental destination because of the fun I had there with my friends back in the 80s, when it was far less crowded, but the landscapes are tamer and less exciting. For years, though, I’ve wanted to spend more time in the Tetons for its stunning scenery and abundant wildlife. I decided that adding Glacier to this trip was biting off more than I really wanted to chew, especially since I have several Glacier visits and photo posts already under my belt, and I was short on Teton photos, this website’s header photo notwithstanding. That decision also allowed me the luxury of leaving a couple of days later than originally planned.
I’d been monitoring a website dedicated to predicting the leaf season’s progression geographically, and it showed the last week of September and the first week of October as near peak season in the higher elevations and latitude of the northern Rockies. The plan was to work my way from north to south, following the direction of leaf progress.
So, since Glacier was no longer on the table, on Wednesday, 9/25/2019, I headed directly to West Yellowstone, hoping that the high campground vacancy rate I’d also seen online would continue. The park wasn’t accepting reservations for any campsite this late in the season, which is what I prefer, since it also means fewer tourists.
I arrived at the West Entrance in late afternoon and was dismayed to see “FULL” or “CLOSED” on the campground list at the park entrance, for all except the Lewis Lake campground, which is 1.5 hours south, almost to the South Entrance. I had little choice but to try my luck in finding a campsite (“first come, first served,” said the ranger) despite the foreboding list, or maybe even a “stealth” campsite hidden from view somewhere. At any rate, I knew I’d be driving substantially at dusk this evening. Good thing I’d recently bought a robust grill guard for my truck, as I’d been “hit by deer” on two road trips so far, both times at dusk, incurring substantial damage.
Well, sometimes wildlife at sunset is a good thing. After only a few minutes of entering Yellowstone I was lucky enough to see my first wildlife of the day, appearing smack in the rich, waning sunlight, so I pulled over and jumped out with tripod and lens, ran up the embankment, and took my first shot of the trip (a campsite could wait!):
Two or three other photographers were shooting the same target. The elk herd of about a half-dozen cows and this bull was quite far away, requiring the longest lens I have, which, especially at an ISO of 800, doesn’t yield the truest color rendition or razor sharpness; but the good light was saturating the colors and the pose was perfect, allowing the dark background to accent his antlers, which are well in focus. I like the blue of the stream and the green of the tree in contrast to the golden grass and animal. Chalk it up to an auspicious beginning, I thought.
I continued down the road, past Old Faithful and Grant Village, and I don’t remember seeing any more wildlife that day. I pulled into the Lewis Lake Campground at dark, saw the “FULL” sign and desperately drove into it anyway, just to make sure. As I rounded a turn, a woman was waving at me. Their truck had Texas plates. I opened the window and she told me she’d seen me enter the campground and wanted to tell me they were vacating their campsite and leaving the park unexpectedly, and I could have their site for free, since they’d already paid for the night. I couldn’t believe my luck.
The camping at this site was uneventful, and in the morning I broke camp for the drive north. My original intention in Yellowstone was to camp at one of the northernmost campgrounds called Slough Creek and Pebble Creek, neither of which I’d tried before. Both are off the wildlife-rich Northeast Entrance Road, where I’d seen wolves, bison, and antelope galore in the past. But since my late arrival had diverted me so far south, I decided to try the Tower Falls campground first. All three were still listed as open, but I figured Tower Falls, almost a two-hour drive over the pass, was as far north as I could expect to go before the campgrounds filled up.
The drive north was very scenic along the lake shores and through the mountains, over Dunraven Pass, and I saw more elk along the way, but no other wildlife (one always hopes to see a grizzly). When I arrived at Tower Falls campground in early afternoon the campsites were already filling up. I grabbed the sunniest one, which was still available, and relaxed with my New Yorker magazine stash from 2018, until it was time to hike and take photos nearer to sunset.
The weather soon turned cloudy for the rest of the day, and it rained that night, but the forecast on the National Weather Service radio station was even worse: It was due to snow for the next few days, which threatened to cut me off from the roads south, and strain my “house” batteries for lack of solar power to charge them. I can change the AA batteries in my lantern for reading, but I run my fridge and heater ignition with my camper’s dual deep-cycle batteries, so several days of no sun is no fun without plugging into external power, and none of the open Yellowstone campgrounds offered electric power.
I decided I didn’t want to spend my time in Yellowstone as a stranded camper in the snow with no scenery to shoot, no matter how warm my down sleeping bag is, or how many New Yorkers I had in reserve, so I bugged out the next morning as the snow clouds gathered. I headed south once more, intending to reach the nearest RV park, which is Flagg Ranch at the southern border of Yellowstone NP. On the two-hour drive I was constantly struck by how beautiful the landscape of Yellowstone is, even without the wildlife sightings I was hoping for, or the jagged peaks like those of the Sawtooths or the Tetons. I thought of our president salivating at the prospect of developing this prime real estate to enrich his family and business associates, even if it means the extinction of species. (“Hey, it’s nothing personal, it’s just business.”)
Flagg Ranch had many vacancies, but campsites with electric hookups were more than $60, which I thought was too steep, and the high elevation also meant I’d likely be bogged down in snow for days (I have no tire chains). So, I drove another hour south, all the way through Grand Teton National Park to Gros Ventre Campground, arriving at about 2:30 PM. A dry campsite with no hookup was available for only $15 per night with my “Senior Interagency” pass, but at a much lower elevation and with fair weather forecast until the night, so I didn’t need an electric hookup, which would have doubled the price. No electric hookups were available, anyway, since the waiting line for them starts at 8 AM. I was lucky to get any site so late on a Friday, and the sun peeked out from the clouds for the rest of the day, which made my marine batteries happy.
As pretty as the campground was, with an adjacent stream said to be visited sometimes by a local moose, it didn’t have any view of the Tetons. I took a drive up Shadow Mountain Road to a favorite series of free National Forest Service campsites with a view of the Teton Range. I didn’t want to be caught in snow at this higher elevation the next morning, but it was a nice perch for the afternoon to sip some wine with a view while my batteries soaked up the solar power with no trees obstructing the rays.
Back at the campsite, it was snowing wet and heavy when I woke up the next morning, Saturday. The daylight was charging my batteries a little even then, but it wasn’t sustainable. The forecast called for snow and rain for the next few days, through Monday and maybe even Tuesday, so I resolved to find an electric hookup and hunker down until the storm passed, preferably with better views of the Tetons, or at least quicker access to the best views at sunrise, which, for the Tetons to the west, was the only good time of day to shoot them. The snow had an upside, though, in that it would give me dramatic photos of the Tetons, assuming I could see them at all.
I drove back up north to Colter Bay Campground and rented a space with full hookup for a pricey $60 per night, since they didn’t have have electric-only sites. This campground catered to the “big boys” of the RV world, you know, the buses and “fifth wheel” trailers that need 50-amp connections and sewer and water lines, with pianos in their living rooms. But my space was near a heated restroom and had steady SiriusXM satellite reception, so I was good for days with just 15 amps to fully charge the batteries within a couple of hours. And it so happened that this Saturday night was the last dinner of the season for the restaurant, which had French onion soup! I couldn’t resist.
The ranger station here gave guided wildlife tours of the nearby Herron and Swan lakes with a 3-mile round-trip hike on late Sunday afternoons, but the previous Sunday was the last tour of the season. I resolved to hike the trail myself the next day, rain or shine, in hopes of seeing some wildlife.
Sunday was rainy all day, but by 5 PM it was barely drizzling, so I suited up with my rain shell and rain sleeve for my wildlife camera and longest lens and set out for what I could find, with no expectation of landscapes to shoot in this weather. Less than 15 minutes into the hike I came upon a dramatic scene of storm clouds and snow on glaciated peaks and an intrepid fisherman standing in the middle of it all, with some yellow-leafed trees visible to remind you of the season. My long lens was useless, but my other camera with 24-120mm lens in my waist belt holster was just the ticket:
I hiked the 3-mile loop around Swan Lake and Heron Lake and saw ducks and geese but no swans nor herons, since it was too late in the season. On the way back, about two hours into the hike, when I stopped again to see the same fisherman in the bay, a bald eagle flew over my head, but it was too fast for me. I also saw a beaver giving the fisherman a wide berth as it swam near him, but it was too far away for my lens.
I hung up my cameras at camp until dawn the next morning, Monday. It was freezing, so I filled my half-mittens with Hot Hands packets and set out to my preferred perch at the edge of Heron Lake in hopes of getting sunrise light on the Tetons. As I approached the lake it was still a little dark, and I could hear owls hooting from the direction of the lake, which I always take as a good sign, for no other reason than I love owls. The clouds were still obscuring much of the Tetons, but in a good way, and I did manage to capture some peaks in sunlight just after sunrise:
I experienced another thrill as I sat on my rock perch, waiting for the sunlight to appear on the peaks: I looked across the lake and noticed the unmistakable movements of otters on the far embankment. A family of three were coming out for breakfast, looking like giant, hyperactive black caterpillars as they romped in the distance. My lens wasn’t long enough to capture them well, but I saw them clearly for about a minute before they dove into the lake and disappeared. I felt blessed.
Back at the campground my neighbor from Indiana with a Ford F150 pickup towing a huge trailer gave me news that the snowstorm in the northern Rockies had dumped over three feet of snow on St. Mary Campground in Glacier National Park. The snow had fallen all weekend, when I originally had planned to be in that exact campground. Boy, did I dodge that bullet.
Later that morning I drove to the campground at Signal Mountain Lodge, about 9.4 miles south, and pulled over when I saw tourists jamming the road and long lenses on tripods pointed across Willow Flats toward the Tetons. Rangers with rooftop lights flashing were directing traffic. I pulled out my tripod and long lens and shot my only bull moose of this road trip. He was dozing and would not move, and getting closer to him, even if that were an option with the rangers being present, wouldn’t have improved the image much, so I left him be. At least I captured his antlers.
I confirmed that there were campsites available at Signal Mountain Lodge with electric hookup for only $38, and the restaurant was open for the whole week, and they had wi-fi at the coffee shop (Latte! Latte!). As I scoped out the campsites I saw a pair of coyotes skulking off into the woods from one campsite, which added to the character of the place. But I’d already paid for Monday night at Colter Bay, so I ate elk chili for lunch at Jackson Lake Lodge on the way back and spent another rainy, expensive night at Colter Bay. On Tuesday morning I moved to Signal Mountain Campground, which catered to a wider variety of campers. Wish I’d moved the day before. But one thing I noticed about the gas prices in the Tetons, it was about the same, maybe a little cheaper, than the prices in Boise, and way cheaper than in Yellowstone, where I always feel gouged.
Anyway, I decided not to try the Heron Lake hike again until Thursday morning, when clear weather was predicted. I spent a relaxing Tuesday and Wednesday with my satellite radio and New Yorker magazines at Signal Mountain Campground while the weather fluctuated between partly cloudy to rainy or snowy. I took advantage of the restaurant for dinner both nights. I crossed my fingers that I’d get lucky with cloud-free Tetons at sunrise on Thursday. I had plans for a film shot of the lake lilies in the foreground and the first light on the Tetons in the background, if I can achieve the right balance of light.
I usually listen to music while I’m reading in my camper. For the last few days, though, after listening to NPR, BBC, MSNBC and CNN during meals in my camper, I wasn’t sleeping well. I was having bad dreams about the future of our country. So, at 4:45 AM on Thursday, October 3rd, I awoke hoping my psychic malaise would be alleviated by clear weather at Heron Lake. I scarfed down some carbs and a hard-boiled egg and drove the 15 minutes from my Signal Mountain camp to the Colter Bay parking lot and started my hike at 5:45 AM. I could see stars in the night sky, which was encouraging.
One hour later I arrived at my favorite rock perch and set up my tripod with one of its legs in the lake. My Mamiya medium-format film camera with wide-angle lens was hanging from my neck at the ready, set to f22, with normal lens and second film cartridge within arm’s reach. My Nikon full-frame digital camera with 24-120mm lens, also set to f22, was fixed on the tripod head. A cable shutter release was inserted in each camera, and I held the button in eager anticipation of the sunlight hitting the snow on the peaks and turning them pink.
I suddenly heard some movement about 30 feet to my right and turned my head to see a heart-stopping sight: The otter family was on my side of the lake! All three dove into the water, one by one, and swam toward me, to about 15 feet away, curious to see what I was. They were so close that I could hear them take breaths when they breached the water’s surface to look at me. I watched their little heads dive in and pop up through the water lilies as they got a little closer, checking me out. I knew the light on them was too low, the lens too short, and their movements too quick for me to capture them on camera, so all I could do was sit dead-still and watch and hear them as they approached, treaded water, and finally swam away underwater after about 30 seconds. I never did see where they retreated to, but what a thrill!
I was also excited about the cloudless sky. About 10 or 15 minutes after the otter event the first light of the sun hit the Tetons and I started shooting, adjusting exposure compensation up or down for each shot on both cameras. As of this writing I’m preparing the higher-resolution film versions to post on my other website for sale, but the digital versions here are not bad. In my first-light shot you can see the green and even the frost on a few of the lilies:
I took a few more shots in the area as the sun got higher:
On this off-season hike I was the only person on this trail on all three days, which probably helped enable the otter sightings. On the way back I noticed fresh elk tracks in the mud at the edge of the lake. Just for fun I snapped a disorienting image of the lilies near the lake shore with the reflection of the evergreens in the foreground. I didn’t dawdle, since I wanted to shoot the Tetons from Oxbow Turnout, near the dam at Jackson Lake, so I hiked out as fast as I could and drove the 7.5 miles to the turnout before the sun got too high. I think I made it in time:
I hung out at Signal Mountain Lodge until 5:30 PM, when I drove the 9 miles to Jenny Lake Lodge, where I had made reservations weeks in advance for my birthday dinner. As I ate my dinner I privately acknowledged that Mother Nature had blessed me with ample luck on this road trip, and especially on this day; even the “bad” weather had its place in adding to the images.
I had paid the $16 for a dry campsite that night at Signal Mountain Campground, but I wanted to scout out a perch for shooting the Tetons at sunrise from the summit of Signal Mountain itself. So, after dinner I drove up the mountain to the parking lot and walked the short trail to the lookout, and I was satisfied that it would afford me some decent shots come sunrise. Since there was no traffic and I was the only one in the parking lot I didn’t see any point to returning to the campground. I camped right there in the parking lot and had an easy time of it at dawn. I got these sunrise shots from my Signal Mountain perch:
Since the light was still good when I was packed and ready to leave the park, I detoured north again to the Oxbow Turnout and captured a lone pelican for my last shot of the road trip, another lucky break:
Well, now that winter is coming and I’ll be hunkering down in Boise I really need to tackle the stack of unread New Yorker weeklies dated from May 20 to October 7, 2019, and listen to more music and less news.
Yeah, good luck with that, right?