Before You Go
LETTER FROM HEAVENBeautiful lighting reaches expansively across the valley
The following pointers refer specifically to Grand Teton National Park and the surrounding area but can also be applied more broadly to the Intermountain region.
Just because the calendar says it's June (or July or August) doesn't mean it won't get cold, or that it isn't going to snow. It can snow - and has - in all 12 months. Even when you don't have to contend with freezing precipitation, overnights can be quite chilly; this is a semi-arid, high-altitude climate. In late spring, late summer and early autumn, 50-degree temperature swings from dawn to mid-day are not uncommon. Bring layers.
Some of the outerwear I toss in my vehicle when heading over to the park in late spring and summer might seem strange but can come in handy at the edges of the day. Ski jacket. Insulated gloves. Lined knit hat.
Weather conditions can also change quickly. During the summer months pop-up afternoon thunderstorms often develop rapidly. Be aware. There's signal in some parts of the park; I'm able to receive National Weather Service advisories on my phone at least some of the time. If you're a photographer you probably have multiple weather apps. Enable alerts and keep your eyes on the skies, especially if you're heading out on a long hike.
2. This is Bear Country
Always carry bear spray and know how to use it. You can't fly with it, so if you're traveling to this area by air you'll need to pick some up upon arrival. It's widely available and you can rent a can if you prefer.
I also have bear bells attached to my camera bag though I remain skeptical about their effectiveness (they are often jokingly referred to as "dinner bells"). If you can hike with a buddy, so much the better; you'll make more noise. That's not always possible, though. I'm often alone and am therefore choosey about which trails I'll hike solo.
Bears are especially active in the spring (coming out of hibernation and mamas with cubs in tow) and autumn (foraging aggressively for food in advance of hibernation). Grizzlies love huckleberries. If the trail leads you into the midst of a stand of ripe huckleberries, be extra vigilant. Or turn around.
The north end of Grand Teton National Park is prime habitat for grizzlies. This doesn't mean you can't - or shouldn't - work there. It's my favorite part of the park. Just be aware of your surroundings. Speaking of the north end, I've been wanting to make an image from above the Oxbow during "green season" for a while, but wasn't comfortable poking around high up on that hillside by myself at daybreak during springtime. Opportunity knocked a few weeks ago when a relative was in town; I drafted him to keep an eye out while I was working. (The image posted above came from that shoot.)
Finally, store food properly. Wild animals who become habituated to human food sources often end up euthanized. Don't make a bear pay the ultimate price for your mistake.
3. Slow Down
The overnight speed limit on the main highway is 45mph. It's lower on the inner loop road. Still, you'll routinely see vehicles racing by like bats out of hell across the ink-black landscape at 0-dark-30. Some of these people are no doubt on their way to make pictures. (Let's be honest: in a national park at that hour it's probably not 'some' but 'many.')
This is infuriating. Since I've lived here more than one grizzly cub has been killed by a hit-and-run driver. Moose, too. Give yourself enough time to get wherever it is you want to shoot without endangering wildlife. And yourself.
4. Speaking of Dark
When it's a new moon or if it's heavily overcast, the wee hours are very dark inside GTNP. Know where you're going. Scout ahead of time. Identify landmarks you'll be able to find in low illumination. When driving, it can be difficult to see signs, side roads and/or pull-offs and it doesn't take much to miss a turn. Have a headlamp or flashlight for hiking.
5. Avoiding Crowds
Even during the busy summer months and/or foliage season, it's possible to get away from the crowds. Rule number one is easy and obvious: shoot early and late. Most non-photographers don't enter the park until well after the sun comes up and they'll bail out before the dinner bell rings. Still, some of the "hot spots" at the magic hours can be very busy (Oxbow Bend, Schwabacher, the barns). Know ahead of time where you want to position yourself, and plan on arriving earlier than you otherwise would. If you'd normally show up for a sunrise shoot an hour before the first rays of light are scheduled to make their appearance, 90 minutes - or maybe more - is better.
Second, stay away from the inner loop (Teton Park Road) during the day.
Third, get away from where you parked your vehicle. People typically don't venture far from their cars, let alone the lot. Walk away. The bonus is you may be surprised at the compositions you'll find.
Fourth, check out adjacent areas to the park like the Red Hills and Bridger-Teton National Forest. Beautiful. Lots of opportunities to make photographs.
And fifth, if you see a road, take it. Visitors tend to stay on the main highway and inner loop. There are many other options for exploration within the park boundaries.
In Local News
There's been a Herculean effort underway in Yellowstone to get the park open again following the devastating flooding. The southern loop re-opened yesterday morning via the west, south and east entrances. People were excited; lines began forming outside West Yellowstone's gates at daybreak. There were so many vehicles (backed up into town) they ended up opening an hour earlier than originally planned.
To control traffic, entry is limited and based on license plate numbers. Plates ending with an odd number can go on odd numbered days, and vice versa. If you've got a vanity plate that contains numbers, the last number will determine your designated entry. If your vanity plate contains no numbers, you'll enter on odd dates.
Surprisingly - no, wait - that's not strong enough of a word choice. Astonishingly, the park service announced on Monday they anticipate re-opening the northern loop in two weeks or less. That means you'll be able to get to Mammoth, Dunraven Pass, Tower, and Norris. Add that to the southern loop and about 80% of the park will be back in business by roughly the Fourth of July.
If that's not enough to blow your mind, they're also hoping to be able to provide temporary access between Gardiner and the park and restore access to Cooke City and Silver Gate yet this summer. Beartooth Highway may even re-open during the 2022 season.
[As far as the license plate entry system is concerned, one hopes this is, indeed, temporary. It makes sense in the near-term since it allows for rapid implementation, but alternate-day access is impractical on a permanent basis. Unless you've got a campsite or other lodging reservations inside the park - and good luck with that for this season - it's going to make photography difficult. We'll see what happens. One step at a time.]
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