A mother fox and two kits near Yellowstone Picnic AreaRockchuck stare down in the morning light.Ermine looking at camera near Slough Creek.

Paths less beaten

Where to avoid crowds and find wildlife in YNP
"Both fox and badger can be found from the Yellowstone Bridge at Tower Junction across Little America to the east. In early summer, all of these species are birthing their young and are very busy feeding and protecting them, which often presents excellent photo opportunities."—Photographer Mike Coil

One of the constants about Yellowstone National Park is the surge of traffic as Memorial Day approaches. The last few days has fit the profile with ever-increasing traffic in the park. The tour buses have appeared, and the motorhomes are everywhere. There are still a few closed roads in YNP, notably Dunraven Pass, which is expected to open on May 25. The construction zone between Norris and Mammoth has long wait times up to 30 minutes, which can result in substantial bumper to bumper traffic both directions.

     One strategy for avoiding some of the traffic is to prowl the dirt roads in the park. These include the back road from Mammoth to Gardiner; the Blacktail Deer Road; the road to the Hell Roaring Trailhead; and the Slough Creek Road. The back road from Mammoth to Gardiner starts at a gate directly behind the old Courthouse building at the south end of the Mammoth Commons. This road is one way and ends at the North Gate, which then allows a quick return to the start via the main road for a second or third lap as the light permits. (This road is best driven in the morning light.) 

     Blacktail Deer Road starts just past the Blacktail Ponds on the right and is best in the late afternoon light. The road to the Hell Roaring Trailhead is mostly in the trees and can be good all day long with dappled light. The Slough Creek Road is best in the early morning, especially if you intend to glass for wolves on the east facing hillsides across from Slough Creek.

     While many photographers visit Yellowstone to concentrate on the larger species like bear, elk, bison, deer, coyotes and wolves, the smaller animals also can be photogenic and can result in beautiful photographs. Ermine are rare but beautiful. The terrain at the end of the Slough Creek Road is a good place to look for ermine, but it takes patience and quick action as they do not tend to stand still for very long.  

     The rock guard wall from Calcite Springs to Tower Creek is often busy with marmots. Both fox and badger can be found from the Yellowstone Bridge at Tower Junction across Little America to the east. In early summer, all of these species are birthing their young and are very busy feeding and protecting them, which often presents excellent photo opportunities. There is no cuteness quite like the offspring of the year frolicking with their litter mates or parents. The photographers at the “bear jams” for smaller species are significantly fewer and the rangers are not as zealous about the distance rules with respect to the smaller species.    

     Photo tip of the week: If you shoot only with your phone, there are several things you can do to improve the quality of your photos. Phone shooters often ask me why their photos are blurry and wonder if the quality of their photos would improve with an upgrade from their phone camera. The answer is “not necessarily.” 

     When using a DSLR, photographers steady the camera by pressing it to their eyebrow, nose and cheek—a tripod of sorts. Phone shooters tend to hold the camera out away from their body with two hands, which is not as steady and hence the blurred photos. Adding a selfie stick to your phone and holding the selfie stick with both hands will improve the quality of your photos. If possible, brace your phone with sand bags on the edge of the car window or hood. A monopod is also a good choice for reducing camera shake. 

     Finally, make sure the vibration reduction feature in your phone menu is turned on and keep updating your phone periodically as the camera quality improves with every generation. Good shooting and I hope you get that shot of a lifetime.

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