Winter Yellowstone Photo Safari Tips

Winter Yellowstone Photo Safari Tips

December 18, 2020

Winter in Yellowstone National Park’s Northern Range is famous for its world-class scenery and wildlife -- drawing professional and beginning photographers from across the planet. Frosty air and wide-open, mountainous landscapes provide the perfect backdrops for images. Limited crowding allows visitors the ability to witness wildlife and steamy hydrothermal features in silence. Wolf packs traverse windswept slopes in search of prey; bald eagles hunt fish from leafless trees; the Mammoth Terraces gurgle and hiss; and coyotes tip their ears and pounce after rodents scurrying beneath the snowpack.

Photo Courtsey of Yellowstone National Park 

Whether you are an experienced photographer, have a new camera you are learning to operate, or are planning to simply take pictures with your smartphone there are plenty of opportunities for every type of photographer visiting northern Yellowstone. To maximize your portfolio we suggest you consider some of these insider tips offered by an area expert. MacNeil Lyons, owner and lead guide of Yellowstone Insight, operates personalized photography and wildlife tours out of Gardiner, Montana, the park’s North Entrance. He offers these hints for a successful and pleasurable winter photography safari:

  • Get out early. Have your camera body with a variable lens attached and handy - ready to shoot. Find that sweet spot first thing in the morning in case an amazing wildlife scene unfolds just off the roadside in early light. Be sure to carry an extra car charger and/or batteries in case you need to recharge your camera.
  • Follow the light. Keep your eyes and imagination open for amazing photo opportunities by watching the sun. For example, in the morning hours, wait for the sunlight to crest the eastern tree line and cast light on the bison bedded on the western side of the road. Your image of the frosted bison will be enhanced when there is “catch light” in its eyes.
  • Keep things bright.Try to keep the snow in your image white and not looking “dirty” by setting your camera to a brighter exposure. You can do this by keeping your f-stop to a smaller number, slowing your shutter speed, or selecting a higher ISO. Try not to overexpose your image. You can always lighten the image later during processing.
  • Correct white balance.When shooting in the snow, the appropriate white balance can be tricky. You might have hints of blue or other tones. Most of the time, shooting in Auto White Balance can work. If you have time, though, try switching to Live View and flip through the white balance options until you find the right “white.” 
  • Lessen the stress. Enjoy your winter Yellowstone experience as it unfolds. Don’t put too much pressure on yourself to check off all your “Top 10” shot list. Be in the moment and look for opportunities that help convey a story. And, most importantly, maintain proper distance and do not put added stress on the wild animals you are photographing. Remember, your added human pressure might be the tipping point of your subject’s winter survival.

Photo Courtsey of Anthony Pavkovich

The residents and businesses community in Gardiner welcome visitors to our sleepy winter community with open arms. Given safety challenges and changes to travel and recreation resulting from coronavirus visitors are asked to familiarize themselves with the following items prior to traveling to our location:

Photo Courtsey of Yellowstone National Park 

Plan Ahead

While most roads in Yellowstone are now closed to automobile travel for winter the road from Gardiner to the park’s Northeast Entrance is open year-round. Check local road conditions upon arriving to learn whether ice or snow could limit travel. Updated road conditions in Yellowstone Park can be found here. Be sure to pack plenty of layers as temperatures in winter can be variable.

Food and beverage services are limited between Gardiner and Cooke City so we recommend you pack a cooler with lunch, water, and snacks from the Gardiner Market if you’re headed into the park. Many restaurants in Gardiner are now open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. You can also find gasoline, beverages, and snacks at the Gardiner Sinclair Dino Mart north of town on U.S. Highway 89 South or at the Town Station Conoco in Gardiner.

Camping availability and RV parking in and around Gardiner during winter can be extremely limited and are mostly operated on a first-come first-served basis. We recommend you look into  local lodging opportunities instead to stay warm and support our economy and locally-owned businesses.

Public restrooms with flush toilets and running water can be found at the Gardiner Chamber of Commerce downtown and at the base of the Mammoth Terraces at the Liberty Cap parking lot. Otherwise, outhouses equipped with hand sanitizer are periodically available between Gardiner and Cooke City.

Photo Courtsey of Yellowstone National Park 

Keep Space and Respect Local Guidelines

While winter sees fewer visitors than many other times of year be prepared to share boardwalks and local businesses with other people. Please remember to maintain at least six feet of space between you and others both indoors and outdoors and wear a mask when this isn’t possible. All local businesses currently require proper mask usage by those five and older and social distancing. For updated information on Montana regulations and protocol regarding coronavirus please click here. We thank you in advance for helping keep our community healthy and safe while exploring and enjoying your visit.

Photo Courtsey of Yellowstone National Park 

Protect the Outdoors

Remember to always stay on boardwalks and established trails while adventuring in hydrothermal basins. The ground throughout the Mammoth Terraces can be dangerous and deceiving. Only a fragile layer of travertine may be covering superheated water underneath. Likewise, never touch water in the terraces as it could burn your skin. Please hold onto your hats – and masks! – when it’s windy so they don’t blow off you and onto the basin. By packing out your trash and protecting these fragile hydrothermal features you can help ensure they are intact for the enjoyment of future visitors.

While walking and photographing around Mammoth, Gardiner, or any other location inside or near the park, you’ll want to maintain a safe distance from wildlife. Yellowstone requires visitors to stay at least 25 yards, or the length of a school bus, from all wildlife and increases that distance to 100 yards from bears and wolves. We recommend you bring an appropriate camera lens for long-range photography and binoculars to safely view wildlife from a distance. If you don’t have your own binoculars you can purchase them at Yellowstone Gifts and Sweets or Yellowstone Forever in downtown Gardiner.

Photo Courtsey of Yellowstone National Park 

Explore Locally

Despite a challenging year the Gardiner business community is open and ready to serve you! Pay for lodging in town and feel good knowing you’re contributing to our local economy. Support our local restaurants. And please be sure to spend time exploring shops and services downtown and participate in local activities to help us keep our community thriving and vibrant!


Chelsea DeWeese writes from her hometown of Gardiner, Montana, the North Entrance to Yellowstone National Park.

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