Midway Geyser Basin
My Experience
Number of Visits 1
Length of Stay 4 Days
My Favorite Spots Grand Prismatic
Yellowstone Canyon
Great Fountain Geyser
Old Faithful
Mystic Falls
Expenditures Hotel: Not Recorded
Flight: Not Recorded
Rental Car: Not Recorded
Food: Not Recorded
Miles Hiked ~10
# of Photos Taken Not Recorded

The Trip Overall


One of my earliest memories is of traveling through Yellowstone with my mom when I was eight. I vaguely remember Yellowstone Falls, Old Faithful, and an elk along the side of the road.  At the time, I didn’t appreciate anything that took me away from my G.I. Joes. Aside from Yellowstone’s iconic status, I was determined to visit the park and give it the attention and respect it deserves. I wanted to try my hand at wildlife photography, but also capture the landscape wonders of the park; the geysers and thermal features, the canyon, and the waterfalls. And I did just that.

I spent a little over four days in the park in September of 2013 as part of a longer trip to the Tetons and Yellowstone. There was a mix of rain and sun throughout the trip, but that churn led to one of the most spectacular sunsets I have ever had the opportunity to witness and the luck to photograph. Yellowstone is definitely in my Top 5 parks. The sheer size of it made it impossible to see everything in one trip so I’ll definitely be heading back.

The Map


It might be hard to tell from the map below, but Yellowstone is huge. You definitely won’t be walking around the park.  I stayed at the Old Faithful Lodge and Cabins and mapped out quite a few spots around there (in the lower left).  I also wanted to visit the Canyon area and Hayden Valley. If you scroll around on the map, you’ll see some locations further north that I didn’t make it to on this trip (e.g., Lamar Valley).

Click on the camera icons to see a photo, a location name, and coordinates for the closest parking area. I also show park entrances, visitor centers, the hotel(s) where I stayed, hiking trails, and airports.

Visitor Statistics


Access to Yelowstone is difficult in the winter. Prime time is June through September.  I chose to visit in September when the traffic is at about half of the peak time in July. There were plenty of crowded parking lots in the mid-afternoon but I found plenty of lonely places at sunrise and sunset.  It only takes a short walk down a path before the number of people drops off considerably.

This graph shows the average number of visitors each month. Hover over the line to see values for each month. NOTE: Even though the X-axis reads “2000,” these are monthly averages of NPS visitor data from 1979-2013. The “2000” should be ignored.

The Climate


This graph shows average temperature and precipitation by month. Hover over the line to see values for each month. You can select different variables and parks in the panel on the left. NOTE: Even though the X-axis reads “2000,” these are monthly averages of NOAA weather data dating as far back as the early 1900’s. The “2000” should be ignored.

Logistics


NPS Survey Findings(1)
% Visiting for First Time 55%
% Staying More than 24 Hours 52%
Average Length of Stay 2.8 Days
Top 5 Sites Visited Old Faithful (90%)
Mammoth Hot Springs (69%)
Canyon Village (66%)
Lake Village (53%)
West Thumb (49%)
Average Expenditures ~$416 per person
(1) Visitor Survey Project Report Yellowstone National Park 2011

Lodging

While in Yellowstone, I stayed at the Old Faithful Lodge and Cabins.  I stayed in a rustic cabin that had two full beds and a desk, but no bathroom. The bathroom and showers were a short walk away.  The rustic cabins are $50 cheaper than the cabins that have their own bathroom so I thought it was a fair trade to have to walk to the bathroom. There were a couple days with heavy rain where it would have been nice

I picked these cabins because they were central to most of what I wanted to do, but Yellowstone is a huge park.  If I were planning this again, I would probably spend 2 days at the Old Faithful Cabins and then get something near the Canyon area or near Mammoth for a couple nights.

Food

Old Faithful Lodges & Cabins

For this trip, I flew into the Jackson Hole Airport. Before leaving Jackson, WY, I stopped and picked up groceries. These groceries sustained me through most of my trip though I did get one dinner at the restaurant at the Old Faithful Lodge and breakfast at a coffee shop in the Canyon area.

My Experience


This trip was divided between four days in Yellowstone and two in the Tetons. Overall, the trip was a success. I got many of the photos I wanted to get and several that I couldn’t have dreamed of.  Still, Yellowstone isn’t my favorite of the National Parks I’ve visited so far. Which one is? I’ll let you know eventually, but first here are some details about my trip.

Day 1

Old Faithful Inn

It is not cheap to fly to Yellowstone. I looked at several nearby airports before settling on Jackson Hole.  There may be closer airports, but I wanted to finish my trip in the Tetons so it seemed a natural launching point.  I rented a car at Jackson Hole Airport and drove into town to do some grocery shopping.  Once I’d purchased all I thought I would need, I drove past the amazing scenery of the Teton mountain range.  It was a 2 hour drive from Jackson to the Old Faithful Lodge and Cabins and I got to scout some of the places I wanted to take photos when I returned. I got to the Old Faithful area in the late afternoon and checked into my cabin. I managed to time it perfectly to catch an eruption of the geyser.  After witnessing this must-see, though somewhat boring spectacle, I headed north toward the Midway Geyser Basin and walked the wooden walkways around the Excelsior Geyser and the Grand Prismatic Pool. By that time it was raining, so I didn’t get many great closeups of the colorful pools. I mostly saw, smelled, and tasted the sulphorous steam coming off of them.  As I had planned, I hiked a quarter-mile to a point that overlooked the Midway Basin and waited for sunset. I never saw the sunset through the rain, but I did manage to get some decent photos during breaks in the rain (see The One Shot section below).  I headed back toward my cabin and stopped at the historic Old Faithful Inn and snapped some photos of it’s log-cabin interior.  After that, I packed it in for the night.

Day 2

Old Faithful Geyser Basin Boardwalk

On the second morning, I got up well before dawn and started walking along the paths of the Old Faithful Geyser Basin guided by a headlamp and handheld flashlight. I was heading toward the Morning Glory Pool and got side-tracked several times because it was difficult to navigate in the darkness.  I got to the Pool fairly early and waited for sufficient light for photos.  Again, it was too cloudy and I didn’t get the sunrise I had hoped for.  I took some photos there, but wasn’t particularly happy with them so I started walking back toward my cabin.  Along the way, I snapped photos of the thermal features. 

I hopped in my car and headed back to the Midway Geyser Basin. I wanted another, top-down view of the Grand Prismatic Pool, this time from the other side of the Basin.  It took me awhile to find out which of the paths up the steep hill was the one I was looking for, but eventually I scrambled up high enough to see above the decaying trees and even found a clearing.  It was still pretty foggy/cloudy but I stuck around long enough to find breaks in it and get the pictures I wanted.  I hiked back down and back to my car. 

I drove north to the Norris Geyser Basin. I was surprised to see the parking lot packed with cars.  I drove circles for about 15 minutes along with about 10 other cars but was never lucky enough to catch someone leaving, so I left and drove back south.  I drove the Firehole Canyon and Firehole Lake Drives and walked the boardwalks at Biscuit Basin before getting back to my cabin. I ate a late lunch before heading out again.

I wanted to spend sunset at the Great Fountain Geyser because I’d seen amazing shots of reflections and it had wide-open view of the west where the clouds had finally broken. I arrived early so I drove Firehole Lake Drive a second time and stopped at the Fountain Paintpots before heading back to the Geyser.  I spent about 1 1/2 hours at the Great Fountain Geyser leading up to sunset. Most of that time I spent talking to an Australian couple who were there for the same thing.  There was what seemed like a long period of beautiful light that evening and I took dozens of photos.  I then went back to my cabin to sleep. I had a long drive planned for the next morning.

Great Fountain Geyser

Day 3

Yellowstone Falls

My third day in Yellowstone was some of the most densely packed, amazing photography opportunities I’ve ever had.  I started the morning by making the 1 1/2 hour drive from Old Faithful to the Yellowstone Canyon area.  I drove to Lookout Point and hiked a half mile trail down to an overlook that had a straight-on view of Yellowstone Falls all in darkness.  Again, I hung out for about 45 minutes waiting for enough light to start getting photos.  By 10 minutes prior to sunrise, I reailzed I didn’t like that view much so I started hiking back up.  The trip up was much harder on my lungs and legs than the trip down, but I managed to make it up prior to sunrise.  I took a few shots from the overlook before heading to the Grand View Overlook which faces east, into the sunrise. 

I drove to Inspiration Point, but found the overlook closed for construction so headed to the Canyon Visitor Center for some breakfast and coffee.  After filling up, I drove to Artist’s Point on the Canyon’s south rim.  That’s where I got my favorite photos of the Canyon and the Falls.  I tried out all of the lenses I had on me (an 11-16, an 18-200, and a 70-300mm). I also tried different filters, different compositions.  There were a few people there, but it wasn’t until I was walking back to my car, at this point about an hour after sunrise, before the first busses started to arrive. 

Before leaving the Canyon, I went to the trail that leads down to the brink of the Lower Yellowstone Falls.  That was a tough area to photograph from, but it was an amazing view. From the Canyon, I drove south through Hayden Valley trying to spot any wildlife that may still be out and about.  I saw a heard of buffalo and a single, female elk. 

Firehole River

I drove back to my cabin at Old Faithful and only then realized that I had forgotten to bring the cord that connects my camera to my computer so I had to make the long drive to Radio Shack in West Yellowstone, ID. The trip wasn’t all bad. I saw quite a few elk along the road leading out of the park and spotted where I may want to spend my sunset; along the Fountain Flat Drive taking wildlife photos. 

After I got the cable, I went back to my cabin, and spent a couple hours leafing through my photos before heading out to Fountain Flat.  I drove to the parking lot at the end of the road and started walking. I walked about half a mile along a well-groomed bike path before turning right onto a small footpath; the Sentinel Meadows Trail.  I hiked it back to a large, open field with interspersed buffalo. I took my time and tried to practice my wildlife photography skills.

Eventually, I hiked back to my car and started to head back to the cabin. It was still a bit before sunset, but I hadn’t seen any foreground worth including in a sunset shot.  As I was driving back I saw some spectacular cloud formations.  I stopped and took some photos.  As I kept driving further south, the sky exploded in color.  After having driven that road many times over the previous couple days, I knew exactly where I wanted to be to catch this once-in-a-lifetime sunset; along the Firehole River.  I quickly drove to the bridge, grabbed my camera and started taking photos.  The sky turned from gold to pink and finally to purple before disappearing into darkness.  I was the first person to choose that spot, but by the time sunset ended, there were about 10 people there taking photos. That will go down as one of my favorite life experiences

Day 4

Mystic Falls

Day 4 turned out to be a somewhat disappointing day. Once again, I woke up early. This time I drove to Hayden Valley, hoping to catch some more early rising wildlife.  As I sat in my car in the darkness, I saw significant lightning moving in from the west. By the time sunrise came, it was starting to rain and the lightning had gotten close enough that I didn’t feel comfortable standing on top of a hill on a wide open plain holding a tripod.  So I drove back to my cabin.  It rained heavily most of the day. I spent the time processing my photos and watching movies.  It wasn’t until late afternoon that the rain finally stopped.  I had decided that morning that I was interested in seeing some waterfalls and had researched several that were close by.  First, I went to Biscuit Basin and hiked the short, 1-mile trail back to Mystic Falls. It was amazing. I got my fill of photos there and then moved back to the Midway Geyser Basin and hiked the longer, 3+ mile trail to Fairly Falls.  Fairy Falls may be impressive in the spring when it’s fed by melting snow, but it was only a trickle and I felt somewhat cheated for the effort I’d put in to get there.  On my walk back to my car, it started to rain again.  I spent the rest of the evening back in my cabin.

Day 5

Day 5 wasn’t much of a Yellowstone day. I left well before sunrise to make the 1 1/2 hour drive back south toward Grand Teton National Park. By sunrise, I was sitting at a rainy, foggy Oxbow Bend. More on that another time.

What I Would Do Differently

I left Yellowstone happy and felt four days was sufficient to accomplish what I had set out to do. I stuck pretty closely to the main Park Loop Road area of the park though.  When I go back, and I definitely will, I am going to check out areas like Lamar Valley and Mammoth.  I will also rent a much longer focal length lens and make a better go of the wildlife photography.  I also want to visit the park in Winter, but may procrastinate on doing that to avoid the extreme cold.

The One Shot


Midway Geyser Basin

I got the photo I was most interested in taking on this trip.  This photo was taken on Day 1 on the overlook above the Midway Geyser Basin.  I had planned to get a sunset shot here; the sun would have set roughly in the middle of this photo.  It was not to be, however. I wanted this photo because I felt it was relatively unique. I’ve seen hundreds, maybe thousands of photos looking down on the Grand Prismatic from the opposite side of the Basin, but fewer from this angle.  It doesn’t have quite as nice a view of the Grand Prismatic’s color, but it definitely gives you a sense of Yellowstone; the enormity and beauty of the thermal features.  I felt this was best done in a panorama because the foreground (a road and the river) and the sky were not of particular interest. So, using my tripod, I snapped a series of bracketed images and stitched them together into this HDR panorama.

Other Resources


Useful Tools

  • The Photographer’s Ephemeris – TPE allows you to drop a pin on a Google map and see not only the sunrise/sunset and moonrise/moonset times but also the direction the sun and moon will rise and set. 

If you have any questions or comments about this article, let me know using my Contact page.

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