Yellowstone National Park progressively sheds its wintery exterior for a vibrant spring makeover during the month of May. This is possibly the best month to visit Yellowstone. In the span of four weeks, the park experiences dramatic changes in its tableau: the weather, wildlife activity, rivers, and landscape undergo a series of transformations as they emerge into the summer season.
In this article:
Photography opportunities in May
Guided photo excursions
Planning your visit
Role of photography in the creation of Yellowstone
Helpful tips for photographers
Gallery of images created during May
Designated by Congress and signed into existence by President Grant on March 1, 1872, as the nation's first national park, Yellowstone is a landscape of superlatives. Its very geology is unmatched. Much of the park sits atop the calderasurface of one of the world's largest, activevolcanoes.
(Click on images for a larger view)
Below its delicate crust is a subterranean turmoil of heat, scalding liquids mixed with gases and high pressures that produce spectacular events on the surface that draw millions of people from all over the globe: erupting geysers (most famous being Old Faithful), boiling pools and steam vents with little steam-enhanced streams bleeding off their surface water, and multicolored spurting mud pots. The caldera is surrounded by more stable landscape, bordered by ragged, snowcapped mountains; lush, lowland valleys; woodlands; and rivers full from the early mountain snowmelt that grow into raging, over-their-banks torrents in the span of weeks.
(More of Yellowstone National Park's history is included in the final paragraphs.)
Exceptional Photo Opportunities in May
May is a transition month; neighboring mountains and hillsides lose much of their snow except in some deep valleys and on higher elevation peaks. Previously snow-covered valleys begin to respond to the warming and abundant snowmelt moisture, replacing their dormant brown grasses with succulent green sprouts favored by animals emerging from a challenging winter. At first the changes are subtle, more easily measurable over the course of a week. As the month progresses, so do the changes and at an accelerating rate.
The influence of the rapid-changing seasonal moods on the landscape and animals is compressed into a span of about a month, adding evolving drama that will be missing in just a few weeks. In the first week you might awaken to several inches or a foot of new snow or experience sleet and fairly cold mornings. A herd of bison may be draped in fresh snow one day and lying in warm pastures the next. The relatively warm ground moisture is condensed by the cool air above into blankets of fog and mist several feet above the ground, adding a mystical appearance to landscapes. By mid-month, rain is more common, much of the ground dries out, late mornings are pleasant, and it just keeps getting better.
Photographers will be glad the days of film are past. You could easily amass a small fortune in film and processing costs trying to satisfy your quest for capturing all of those “aha” moments. There is so much of everything! Don’t like the view in front of you? Turn around. Too many people photographing a herd of bison? Go down the road a piece and you’ll likely find an even larger herd. Looking to create landscapes that will impress? The potential combination of compositions is staggering: the expansive snow-capped mountains for backgrounds, undulating green foothills, steaming streams to raging rivers, green valleys with early spring flowers, and a variety of wildlife that is often up close and almost too personal. Photographers have spent years in the park and keep coming back to discover new possibilities.
Lamar Valley is referred to as the Serengeti of North America. There is an abundance and variety of animals found in the valley located in the north-eastern portion of the park: pronghorn, moose, black and grizzly bear, gray wolf, the almost ubiquitous bison, and several species of smaller critters. While I was never there at the right time, a grizzly sow and her two cubs frequented the area for a week, offering many opportunities to photograph their interactions, including mama bear hustling her two cubs up a tree.
Along the greening hillsides and in the lower valleys, black bears, grizzlies, elk, and bison who survived the frigid winter come to graze on the grasses and earlyplants. Yes, bears graze on grasses, especially in the spring.
May is when newborn bison, bear cubs, and other youngsters start appearing and can easily be spotted from the roads. The babies are old enough by this time to be a little independent and are at their cutest age.
Bison calves can frequently be seen running in nonsensical patterns, doing cat-like, four-point springs into the air as if they had eaten loco weed. Moose and coyotes are also present, but in lesser numbers. (Bison are often mistakenly called buffalo, but buffalo are found in Asia and Africa, such as the familiar Cape buffalo.)
Guided Photo Excursions
There are two guided photographic excursions each morning led by very knowledgeable drivers/guides who are also accomplished photographers. They have been providing these tours for years. Doug Hilborn, the original guide, started the program in 1998. He knows the precise 15-minute window of opportunity for photographing a rainbow at Yellowstone River's Lower Falls. Similarly, Betty Prange can take you to a reflective stream fed by several hot springs that only exhibits its unique luster during a short period in the morning. Any other time of the day you might not even notice the stream beside the road. Of course, they have up-to-date information on bear locations, know where to find the best light, and provide guidance that even professionals value.
The photo tours usually travel in Yellowstone’s old-fashioned historic yellow buses. Not only are they photogenic in their own right, but they provide great shooting platforms. The canvas top folds back to provide a high, stable shooting platform when standing inside. All the windows roll down, offering a second, unrestricted shooting platform.
An interesting history is how eight White Motor Company buses were originally purchased in 1936, later sold, then reacquired in 2001. They were completely refurbished: the old, tired engines were replaced; the bus bodies were lifted off their chassis, then set on to new ones with current braking and suspension – while retaining the original charm of the buses’ exteriors and interiors. They were put back into service in 2007 and are now the most popular form of travel in the park.
The tours are for every level of photographic expertise. Meeting early in the morning before sunrise, groups are limited to ten people and are generally a mix of professionals, serious amateurs, and those with point-and-shoot cameras, as well as their companions along for the ride. The guides provide technical assistance to those who ask, and they provide invaluable tips.
Betty’s tour came across a coyote hunting in the low grasses. Everyone piled out and started taking pictures. She pointed out that when the coyote cocks his head, he's listening for some little critter that is going to be his lunch. She told those who had cameras with high-speed motor drive shutters to make the appropriate settings on their cameras. Then, when they see the coyote tense up, they should start shooting. "Leave your finger on the shutter." Sure enough, the coyote cocked his head, tensed, then sprang up in the air, coming down nose first, tail high, pouncing on the luckless lunch-to-be. One of the photographers was rewarded with a spectacular photo that she surely would have missed if it were not for the advice and forewarning of her guide.
Planning Your Visit
At the beginning of the month, the park road between the north and west entrances provides a 55-mile, two-hour stretch of open road. There is also a 47 mile north road between the Mammoth Hot Springs entrance and Tower Junction, which it becomes highway 212 as it continues east to the Northeast Entrance. By the end of the month, park lodging and roads are mostly operational with only a few side roads and many of the trails still covered by snow. Current conditions.
There are other advantages to visiting Yellowstone this early in the year season. In addition to rapidly unfolding changes in the park, there are far fewer visitors competing for the pull-offs where you can safely get out of your vehicle. Traffic, which increases significantly during the traditional vacation period, is relatively sparse and slowly builds to a still tolerable volume by the end of the month. There is less competition for lodging, and rangers and park staff have more time to answer your questions.
The minor challenges are the limited number of open lodging and campgrounds at the beginning of the month – some are still buried under feet of snow. However, as the month progresses they become progressively more available. Initially, not all roads are open, but there is so much to see from those that are, you won’t feel short changed. By the third week, all roads may be open, as well as the lodging and camping facilities. The status of the road openings and lodging availability is online to assist with your planning.
If you just want to get a flavor for parts of Yellowstone, allow at least five days for your visit. I feel sorry for those whom I’ve met and lamented that they only allowed two days. If you’re serious about your photography, plan to stay at least two weeks. You’ll be happy you did.
Role of Photography in Yellowstone's Origin
Congress was quick to protect Yellowstone as the country’s first national park due in large measure to the photographic images created by William Henry Jackson when part of Dr. Ferdinand Hayden's 1871 team that surveyed the area. No words could have adequately described the waterfalls, geysers, mud pots, valleys, rivers, mountain ranges, and wildlife to the east coast legislators. It was Jackson’s black-and-white photographs and Thomas Moran’s paintings that showed just how important it was to protect this special and unique region. At the Mammoth Visitor Center, there is a room devoted to Jackson’s and Moran’s works.
Helpful Tips for Photographers
Park rangers are very good sources of information. One of their key responsibilities is to protect both visitors and wildlife by preventing them from getting too close to each other. Consequently, they can often provide current information where you might view that bear and her two cub – from a safe distance, of course.
If you allow two weeks to explore Yellowstone, consider staying in the northern region, Mammoth Hot Springs, for one week. The following week shift your base camp to Madison in the western portion of the park. Doing so will expose you to two different sections of the park, each with a slightly different balance of geological effects and wildlife concentrations. It will also save you a lot of driving time to and from the other area. If you arrive early in the month and Madison is still under snow, your only choice might be Mammoth since it is open all year. There is a campground for RVs and tents, and the nearby town of Gardiner provides traditional lodging and RV sites. The north road (highway 212) is also open year round.
By the second week of May, if not the first, you should be able to get into the western part of the park where you can acquire lodging in nearby West Yellowstone, Montana, or camp in the Madison campground. You'll have to make your final determination based on reviewing the National Park Service website, which they keep up to date.
On your first day, try to resist stopping for every photo op and use the day to explore the area. It will require the better part of a day for each of the two regions. Take a printed map and mark it up based on your photo interests and the morning and late afternoon light angles. This time investment will pay dividends as you plan your strategy for the balance of your visit.
The cold mornings often create low-lying mist from the interaction of the warmer moist air on the ground and the cooler air above. (see gallery photos)
There are no city lights, making it possible to see the night sky as the Native Americans and early settlers did. When there is a new moon, it is extremely dark. Yellowstone’s altitude and clear atmosphere provide a sky view jam packed with stars and constellations impossible to see near cities.
The lack of light also presents a safety issue when driving back to your lodging after shooting during the waning light. You have to completely rely on your headlamps. To be safe, you must drive slower -- in some stretches ten miles per hour is required. If a bison decides to cross your path, you won’t see him until he is just about at the shoulder of the road, and he might be running! More importantly, when going around a bend, of which there are many, it can be a bit unnerving to find one of those four-legged “tanks” standing in the middle of your lane. So take it slowly; ten miles an hour might be too fast. Plan on taking as much as twice the time to get back to your lodging as it did to get to where you were photographing.
If sunset is stated to be at 8:30 p.m., figure that you may lose usable light an hour earlier, when the sun descends below the mountain crests.
This time of year, elk and moose have velvet-covered racks, which are not fully developed.
You will find there are many people helping you locate wildlife. Every time you see a massing of cars on the side of the road, you’ll know there is something of interest.
Your equipment should include a sturdy tripod and a polarizing filter. If you are not sure why and when to use a polarizing filter, there are many tutorials on the Internet. A cable or electronic shutter release is also nice to have. Optionally, set your camera for a two-second delay after you press the shutter release. This will eliminate any influence you may impart to the camera – even though it’s on a tripod.
Most lenses come with a lens shade, yet I seldom see them used. If the sun is anywhere forward of your lens, even a few degrees from the side or above, it will have the effect of washing out color saturation. The more forward of the lens, the worse it gets, until reaching the point of total washout and the photo is spoiled by very obvious lens flare.
A lens with a focal length of 250mm or longer will be very useful for the long shots, whereas a 35-105mm lens will cover most of the close scenes.
When near geysers and other geological producers of steam, be aware that the water vapor is not a healthy environment for your camera. Some of the steam vents also have corrosive chemicals. Protect your equipment.
Interesting Park Statistics
Yellowstone is the world's first national park.
The 45th meridian, halfway between the North Pole and the Equator, passes through the northern portion of Yellowstone.
The altitude in Yellowstone varies between 5,282 and 11,358 feet, not counting ascents up the surrounding mountains.
Yellowstone consists of 2,219,789 acres (larger than Rhode Island and Delaware combined).
There are 7 species of ungulates (bison, moose, elk, pronghorn), 2 species of bear, and 67 other mammals, including the gray wolf, 322 species of birds, and 16 species of fish.
There are over 1,100 species of native plants, more than 200 species of exotic plants, and over 400 species of thermophiles that can withstand and even thrive at extremely high temperatures.
The park is home to one of the world's largest and active calderas with over 10,000 thermal features and more than 300 geysers. It also has one of the world's largest petrified forests and over 290 waterfalls, with the 308-foot Lower Falls of the Yellowstone River as its showpiece.
Yellowstone Lake is the largest (132 square miles) high-altitude (7,732 feet) lake in North America.
There are nine visitor centers.
Campers, including RVers, will find 12 campgrounds with over 2,000 campsites.
All Yellowstone images were created during May.
Images of Old Faithful and Yellow Bus courtesy of Yellowstone National Park
My thanks to Doug Hilborn and Betty Prange for sharing their insight.
(c) All images copyright Larry Padgett unless noted otherwise.