Day 1: Jackson, Wyoming
Our Yellowstone wildlife tour begins in the classic Western town of Jackson, which sits at the edge of Grand Teton National Park in the shadow of the mountain range’s jagged spires. This evening, meet your Expedition Leader and fellow travelers at an informal welcome dinner and orientation.
Day 2: Grand Teton National Park / National Elk Refuge
We begin our winter photography safari in the broad valley of Jackson Hole aboard Nat Hab’s specialty North American Safari Trucks, rising early to catch the alpenglow of sunrise on the Teton spires. Taking advantage of double-wide pop-top roof hatches that offer a 360-degree view, we look for bald and golden eagles, bighorn sheep, coyote, bison, mule deer, moose and elk. We have complete flexibility to pursue the best locations for wildlife shots and iconic images of the jagged peaks rising straight up from the valley floor. This afternoon, board a horse-drawn sleigh for a ride across the National Elk Refuge. Gliding over the snow, it’s the perfect opportunity to capture close-up photos of the massive herd that winters in Jackson Hole, with thousands of animals roaming the range.
Day 3: Grand Teton National Park / National Museum of Wildlife Art
Our day begins with another morning of nature photography in Grand Teton National Park. We've built spontaneity into our itinerary, so we can make and adjust plans based on lighting, weather and recent wildlife sightings in the area. We may also have a chance to visit spots made famous by Ansel Adams when he visited Jackson and the Tetons in 1942, capturing iconic black and white images of the range and region. Return to Jackson for lunch at the National Museum of Wildlife Art, followed by a docent-led tour. The museum holds more than 5,000 pieces by 550 different artists. The American collection from the 19th and 20th centuries is particularly strong, recording European exploration of the American West. Many of these works predate photography, making them vital representations of the frontier era in U.S. history.
Day 4: Jackson / West Yellowstone
Depart Jackson this morning, snaking our way over Teton Pass and into Idaho. We head north along the less-traveled back side of the Tetons, admiring views of the peaks from the valley floor as we look for wildlife including elk, bighorn sheep and moose. Following the Henry’s Fork of the Snake River, traverse traditional ranching and farming country in rural eastern Idaho before once more crossing into Wyoming to reach our accommodations for the next three nights in West Yellowstone, the main gateway to the park’s west side. This afternoon, visit the Grizzly & Wolf Discovery Center, a nonprofit focused on education and conservation of the region’s two big predators. Animals on view in the center’s outdoor enclosures were orphaned, injured or otherwise unable to survive on their own in the wild, offering visitors a chance for close viewing.
Day 5: Yellowstone Snowcoach Photo Tour—Old Faithful & Geyser Basins
The bulk of Yellowstone’s vast interior is closed to vehicles in winter other than the park’s specialty over-the-snow vehicles. We charter one of these snowcoaches to convey us into this frosty wonderland, departing this morning for an all-day discovery of America’s first national park. Along the Madison River, a lower-elevation corridor with abundant winter wildlife, we find excellent opportunities for photos of bison, elk and winter birdlife. Because park access is limited to snowcoaches, crowds are non-existent. We’ll get to photograph Old Faithful in virtual solitude, as the park’s most famous geyser erupts in a crystalline veil of spray in the frosty air. The broader basin surrounding the Firehole River holds the highest density of geothermal features in the world, with opportunities to photograph more geysers, hot springs, mud pots and fumaroles during our visit. Because of the warmth provided by the steam vents and bubbling mud, wildlife congregates in this area during the winter—we'll hope to encounter trumpeter swans, bald eagles and elk, and we’re sure to see bison herds along the Madison River, their shaggy coats caked with frost and ice.
Day 6: Yellowstone Snowcoach Photo Tour—Grand Canyon & Yellowstone Falls
Board our private snowcoach for another full day of landscape and wildlife photography in the park. Our itinerary includes the park’s most dramatic vista, the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River, where Lower Yellowstone Falls plummets off a sheer cliff into the head of this thousand-foot-deep gorge—though it will likely be frozen when we visit. We'll make a couple different stops to get varied angles on the falls, then visit another of Yellowstone's famous geyser basins, vivid and dynamic examples of geothermal energy on display. From bubbling mud pots to eruptions of boiling water rocketing skyward, these were among the unique features that captivated early explorers like John Colter and Jim Bridger and prompted conservationists like Teddy Roosevelt to encourage protection of Yellowstone's natural assets. Another highlight is little-visited Hayden Valley, whose rolling hills are home to herds of bison and the Wapiti wolf pack that established a presence here several years ago. With luck, we'll see them in action as we transit the valley.
Day 7: Snowcoach to Mammoth Hot Springs / Lamar Valley
Back aboard the snowcoach, head northward to Yellowstone’s famous Norris Geyser Basin, the oldest, hottest and most dynamic of the park’s thermal areas, flowing with acidic waters that create unique color patterns. Steamboat Geyser, which erupts to 300-400 feet, is the world’s tallest, though its timetable for eruptions is highly erratic. Continue to Mammoth Hot Springs, where thermal water spills over white travertine terraces that have been described as a “cave turned inside out.” Heat-loving organisms called thermophiles add varied colors to the mineral-laden formations. We often see many elk in the Mammoth area.
As dusk descends, a late-afternoon drive through the Lamar Valley in Yellowstone’s far northeast corner offers our first chance to search for wolves. While they are famously elusive, this region of the park is the best place in the world to see and photograph these charismatic predators in their natural habitat, and we’ll invest plenty of time and patience toward that end. Although pack movements are unpredictable, and the impact of past human interactions tends to make wolves shy in the presence of humans, our Expedition Leader is an experienced tracker, teaching us about wolf behavior and how to look for them through spotting scopes. We are also in close contact with scientists who conduct research on wolves in the region, and they will help us locate them based on recent sightings. Conclude the day in Cooke City on the park’s northern edge, where we spend three nights.
Day 8: Scenic Helicopter Flight / Wolf & Wildlife Photo Quest
This morning we take a private helicopter tour over the park for exciting aerial shots of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, Yellowstone Falls, Grand Prismatic Springs, Norris Geyser Basin and Mammoth Hot Springs, with possible wildlife sightings from the air as well. Weather permitting, we'll fly for about an hour, getting perspectives on the park that very few visitors are privy to. In the afternoon, we head deep into the Northern Range in search of wildlife, including the famous wolf packs of the Lamar Valley. Reintroduced to the park in 1995 amid much controversy, the gray wolf was returned to this native ecosystem after a 70-year absence following a policy of government-sanctioned eradication. Since then, they have flourished, supported by bountiful prey including a multitude of elk. Yet controversy continues to surround their presence, and we learn in detail from our guides about the current condition for wolves within the greater Yellowstone area. As the wolves have restored more balance to the natural ecosystem, elk numbers have dropped, and we may not be as likely to see as many wolves as visitors did several years ago. If we are especially lucky, though, we might see a pack test an elk herd for a weak or sick animal, or spot lone individuals foraging on their own. Our onboard spotting scopes enhance our observation of wolf activities from a distance without disturbing their natural behavior, and we often have a chance to get photos via digiscoping.
Day 9: Lamar Valley / Dan Hartman Photography Presentation
We rise before dawn to be in the Lamar Valley by sunrise, in search of wolf packs that hunt early and late in the day. As the sun's rays illumine the snowy meadows, we watch intently, learning to track the wolves with the assistance of our guides and the local scientists they are in constant communication with. The broad glacial valley offers wide-open vistas of a pristine landscape, and if wolves are present, they are likely to stand out against the snowy backdrop. Many of our Expedition Leaders have worked for years with on-site researchers who track these wolves daily, and together they provide us every opportunity to find these intriguing animals in their natural surroundings. But even if the wolves remain elusive, the winter landscape is magical, and we’re sure to have plenty of other native wildlife to photograph.
A highlight today is a visit with local naturalist and renowned Yellowstone wildlife photographer Dan Hartman, whose wolf images are widely acclaimed. He'll offer insightful observations about wolf behavior gleaned from countless hours in their presence, as well as tips for pursuing photos of wolves and other wildlife. We’ll also visit the Hartman Gallery in Silver Gate, where Dan will share a slide presentation. In the waning light of mid-afternoon, we head back across the Lamar Valley for more wolf tracking, knowing our chances to see them are best at dawn and dusk. Other wildlife is abundant, and we're sure to come away with some exhilarating images.
Day 10: Lamar Valley Wildlife Photography / Bozeman
Greeting the sunrise, we make one more early morning foray into the Lamar Valley in pursuit of wolves, stopping for whatever wildlife photography opportunities grace our route. While wolves are almost always viewed at a distance, we frequently see other wildlife at close range. Then it's time to leave Yellowstone’s frozen silence, traveling north along the Yellowstone River and on to Bozeman. Look for wintering bighorn sheep in Gardiner River Canyon as we enter the aptly named Paradise Valley, flanked on either side by the Absaroka and Gallatin ranges. Look for rough-legged hawks, eagles, mule deer and pronghorn antelope as we go, with chances, always, to stop for enticing wildlife and scenery shots. The ragged mountain heights provide a dramatic backdrop for classic photos of western ranching life. Once we reach Livingston, we turn west to Bozeman where we'll enjoy a farewell dinner and spend a final night.
Day 11: Bozeman / Depart
If your flight schedule permits, you may enjoy exploring Bozeman on your own today. This historic Old West/New West town, with a rich mining and trapping heritage, boasts 40 individual properties on the National Register of Historic Places. Today it hosts a booming tech and tourism economy. It is home to Montana State University and offers a wide range of cultural and outdoor activities. Our hotel is located in a prime spot downtown, steps from shops, galleries, cafes and lively pubs.
Natural Habitat Adventures is an authorized permittee of Grand Teton and Yellowstone national parks.