“Life leaps like a geyser for those who drill through the rock of inertia.”
   Alexis Carrel

My wife and I make at least two trips each year to photograph in Yellowstone National Park. In recent years we've been camping in the park rather than staying in Gardiner, our usual point of entry on the park's northern border. Tent camping, and most of the fiddling that goes with it, is fun; more importantly for me, it can provide easier access than the nearest hotels, which are often many miles away from the places I want to photograph early or late in the day. We sometimes decide on locations for photography and then choose the nearest campground from which to base ourselves for a couple of days. More often we'll pick a camping site, later looking for good photo locations in the same area.

Once is Enough

Steam on the boardwalk of Yellowstone's Upper Terraces

Steam from Yellowstone's Upper Terraces envelopes my wife, on the boardwalk about 35 feet (11m) away.

I haven't kept track, but I estimate over the years we've visited Yellowstone 30 to 35 times. The first time one goes to the park, it seems necessary to do the usual tourist things, to visit the hot spots (who could resist making that pun?). But once one has seen Old Faithful, boiling mud pots, vents of sulfurous steam, and some of the other iconic locations, with few exceptions there's little reason to see them again. Especially during the summer months, these “attractions” are busy, noisy, jammed with cars and people, and generally unpleasant, in my opinion, to visit. Others feel differently, of course, perhaps looking forward to sitting in a line of cars waiting for a space to open in the giant parking lot near Old Faithful Lodge. Most any time between mid-May and mid-September, they should be quite happy.

Because I'm crowd-averse, and because I've not found the park's geothermal features very attractive, we've spent little time around them. Yellowstone is two million acres, much of it quite wonderful to see; incredible landscapes, abundant wildlife, beautiful light (sometimes). For years I've chosen to spend my time walking through and photographing the park's less steamy vistas. I've been happy to leave to others Old Faithful, the upper and lower terraces of Mammoth Hot Springs, Norris Geyser Basin, Mud Volcano and Sulphur Caldron along the Yellowstone River, and many other geysers, hot springs, and fumaroles.

The geyser basins feature burned and blasted landscapes, flows of toxic water, unpleasant odors, and boardwalks. Hundreds of yards of boardwalks are necessary because it's unsafe to walk on the travertine (calcium carbonate) that makes up much of the surface. While the boardwalks provide access, their presence can make it challenging to create nice compositions when one finds an interesting or attractive thermal feature.

A Change of Heart?

Sunrise and steam, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming, U.S.

Sunrise lights the steam from Mammoth Hot Springs's upper terraces on a cold June morning in Yellowstone.

“Attractive thermal features” do exist, of course. Some of the mineral springs and pools are beautiful. The travertine around the more recently-formed pools is a brilliant white, with intricate layers and textures, especially in the low-angle light of early morning or late evening. Sunrise- or sunset-lit clouds reflect brilliantly in the calmer springs and pools, and the steam rising off hot springs and fumaroles sometimes picks up the golden sunlight, especially on cold mornings.

As we've spent increasing amounts of time each year in the park, I've begun to pay more attention to these things, and to feel a bit more attraction to some of these areas. I've also begun looking at photographs made around the geysers and springs; some of this is lovely work, forcing me to admit I've been missing opportunities for some good photographs. Crowds and vehicle traffic are generally light prior to sunrise; it's more comfortable driving to these areas very early (although one must constantly be on the look-out for animal traffic), and then setting up the photo gear and waiting for the light.

During our trip to Yellowstone at the end of May and into June, 2013, windy and rainy weather greeted us, the mornings quite cold, often just a little above freezing. New snow accumulated at the park's higher altitudes. Rather than camp, we stayed in a cottage in Gardiner, putting us less than ten miles (16 km) from the terraces above Mammoth Hot Springs. Early on our first morning in the park we drove up to the Upper Terrace Drive. The cloudy sky and light breeze inspired little confidence I'd get the photo I had in mind, but conditions can change quickly. Hope springs eternal. With ours the only car in the parking area closest to the main terrace, it seemed we had the place to ourselves. We'd done some scouting the previous afternoon; I'd chosen my shooting location, so we walked the boardwalk to that spot. I set up my gear, composed my first photo, and then waited for the sun to rise above the distant ridge across the Gardner River. As the pre-dawn sky brightened we could see the cloud cover breaking up. I started shooting a little before 6:00. Soon after, with the sun just below the horizon, the sky lit nicely and the steam plume from the boiling water spilling over the terraces picked up the golden color. As the sun climbed and the beautiful light faded, we moved on, spending the rest of the day enjoying the park.

Boiling pool and travertine, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming, U.S.

A recently-formed boiling pool in the main terrace above Yellowstone's Mammoth Hot Springs.

Hot springs and their associated pools dry up. New springs and pools form. There is a fairly new spring in the main terrace area. We returned in the evening, hoping for good light on the new pool. Clouds had formed late in the afternoon, giving a hazy glow to the sun. By evening, the light was quite soft and cool in tone. I'd chosen a location on the boardwalk high above the new spring. I set up my gear, and waited until the shadows were long and dark, enhancing the texture in the travertine around the spring. The pool itself was a very pale cyan in the soft light.

I had great fun photographing on Mammoth's upper terrace in Yellowstone's beautiful spring light, and brought home several keeper pictures. At the times of day I wanted to be there, almost no one else was, resulting in a quiet, calm, beauty I had not expected. Lesson learned: I will spend more time investigating the photographic potential of Yellowstone's geothermal areas, looking for texture, color, great light, and steam.

June, 2013

The usual disclaimer:I'm sorry about the big © in the middle of the pictures. I hate doing this, and dislike the mess it makes of the images. But I constantly find my pictures all over the Web, often using my bandwidth to display them. There's very little that can be done to stop this violation of my copyright, but I've found when I insert the watermark, the images are virtually never stolen. Therefore I continue to do this.