The Road Less Traveled

January 13, 2022  •  Leave a Comment

Great ExpectationsGreat ExpectationsThe minutes just before the sun clears the opposite horizon: lovely anticipation. (Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming) If you've visited any national parks within the last year or so, you know how crowded many of them have become. More and more park units are experimenting with timed and ticketed entry in an effort to manage the traffic. Arches in Utah is one of the latest to do so; they'll be implementing a pilot entry system beginning in April (and which will run through early October).

Want to avoid all that? Go over the winter.

Not only will you encounter significantly less people, but you'll see wonderful things - sights that summer visitors will never experience. It's a great opportunity to make photographs! Ghost Trees IGhost Trees IIce crystals created by steam from thermal features cover nearby vegetation. Combined with snowfall, the result is a stand of "ghost trees" at Midway Geyser Basin. (Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming) There are a few caveats when it comes to exploring national parks in the winter, especially those located in harsh and/or snowy climates. (All but one of the Top Ten on the most-visited list are no strangers to these types of conditions.) Most important, expect road closures. Some might be storm-specific and temporary while others are season-long. Check ahead but anticipate reduced accessibility. Even Yellowstone, which essentially closes to vehicle traffic for the winter, still keeps one route open - and there are other options to get inside.

Roads that are passable may be in rough shape. Slow down, take it easy and by all means carry a winter emergency kit in your vehicle just in case. 

Next, be prepared for extreme temperatures. It can get exceptionally cold; make sure you're dressed for it. That means layers. Good boots. A lined hat. Chemical hand and foot warmers. (Note: I still haven't come up with a winning solution as far as hand protection for photographers is concerned. I've tried battery operated heated gloves and insulated ski gloves, each of which had shortcomings and were ultimately abandoned. An experiment with glove liners was a complete waste of time. Lately I'm using trigger mittens which are warmer than gloves while providing some dexterity. Not enough, though. I still have to pull them off from time to time to manipulate the camera. To compensate, I double up on chemical warmers in each mitten.)

At any rate, do not shy away from going out when the mercury plummets. Along with the icy cold you often get beautiful conditions like hoar frost or fog created by temperature inversions. The colder the better! I've worked outside for hours in double-digit below zero temperatures and I'm cold-sensitive. It's manageable if you're wearing the proper clothing. Geometry in NatureGeometry in NatureThe canyon glows with the first light of the day. Snow accentuates the diagonal lines of the walls which, along with the vertical lines of the many hoodoos in the Silent City beyond, creates a geometric vignette. (Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah)

Copious amounts of snow can make walking - not to mention hiking - a challenge. Ice can be a problem, too. There's nothing worse than being limited only to areas that are cleared or paths that have been compressed by previous foot traffic because you're unprepared. Microspikes and snowshoes make getting around much easier. Mine live in the back of my vehicle this time of year so I don't have to think about it. They're always there.

Aside from the welcome elbow room, there are two more good reasons to work the parks during the winter months. The low angle of the sun creates softer light for extended periods of time. And thanks to short days, sunrise and sunset sessions occur at much more reasonable hours than during the summer. What's not to like about that?

As for your gear, be sure to carry extra batteries and keep them as warm as possible. I store mine in an interior insulated vest pocket close to my body.

Watch out for ice burn from exposed metal surfaces (like a ballhead clamp). As mentioned earlier, even on the coldest days there are moments when my trigger mittens have to come off; if you operate similarly, be careful what you touch with your bare hands. 

Finally, remember to protect your camera and lens from condensation when coming in from the cold. An easy way to do this is to place them inside an airtight plastic bag while you're still outside; keep your equipment there until it has warmed up to air temperature. 

Dress accordingly, bring the right tools and know how the conditions may affect your gear - then prepare to step into a winter wonderland. I don't think you'll be disappointed.

Now You See It...Now You See It...Cold temperatures and early morning rain create rolling waves of fog which alternate between transparent, translucent and opaque - occasionally exposing a wonderfully moody scene at Balanced Rock. (Arches National Park, Utah)

Pictured parks, in order from top to bottom:

Snow-covered Teton Range on a frigid morning just before sunrise, captured from Antelope Flats at Grand Teton National Park

Ghost trees in Yellowstone National Park 

Snow accentuates the geometry of the amphitheater at Bryce Canyon National Park

On-and-off precipitation and cold temperatures combined to create heavy fog which rolled in and out of the Windows Section of Arches National Park 


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