Having waxed lyrical about the Bison that are undoubtedly the icons of Yellowstone it wouldn’t be right to simply leave my recollections of the trip at them alone; there’s so much more in terms of both wildlife and landscape and a sheer sense of awe that the Park creates.
The Park “enjoys” 3.5 million visitors a year – an amazing number that peaks in August with Old Faithful attracting some 25,000 visitors each day to see it’s regular spoutings. I simply can’t comprehend what that must be like as an experience, but as I prodded around in the snow surrounding it I found some of the benches that must be jam-packed every hour at that time of the year. The winter months see only 150,000 of those visitors so when I watched this iconic geyser erupt there was only ever me, a dozen or so individuals dotted around and the occasional Bison wandering past too – much more my thing!
When it came to photographing the less regularly erupting Castle Geyser in the middle of the night, perhaps unsurprisingly we were the only people there at all!
The power of the geothermal activity in the Park, much of which is in fact inside the caldera of effectively a giant volcano, has a profound impact on the landscape and the life that exists around it. Trees are literally dissolved through their root systems (the locals affectionately call them bobby sox trees), are killed by the acidic solutions in the thermal waters, and the vibrant colours of the calcium carbonate deposited on the surface in the dramatic terraces that can be found at Mammoth Hot Springs in particular are a sight to behold.
The wildlife in the park is not obvious in the still of a sunny winters day or the constant blizzards that alternate through this toughest of seasons, but it’s there to be found and nowhere more so than the dramatic Hayden and Lamar Valleys. Besides the Bison the species that eek out a winter here are surprising in their variety – Bighorn Sheep clamber acrobatically around the steeper slopes where the snow struggles to settle in search of shoots, American Dipper find the odd ice hole in the otherwise frozen rivers to search for fry, Elk follow the Bisons trail in their own large herds and the wiley Coyote looks to pick up the scraps from those that don’t manage to survive the harsh conditions.
Winter is always a photographically fantastic season, especially in a place where snow is a given: here it’s piled high all around and with the almost constant wind that whistles through the valleys it’s always blowing and drifting too. Add into the mix some inspiring settings, some thought-provoking experiences experiencing the natural world coping with the conditions as it always has (even swathes of Loldgepole Pine, burned to a crisp in past summer forest fires can be seen regenerating themselves) and beauty in amongst the harshness too, perhaps personified by the winter visiting Tundra Swans who seemed as at home as any in this harsh but beautiful place.