By Jerry Ginsberg
The Bucket List
In these days of COVID-19 my bucket list is getting bigger, but my bucket is not. At the risk of being less than completely clear, allow me to explain. As time goes by, always far too quickly, I learn about more and more places on our little globe that I would like to visit, photograph and enjoy.
My list is now measurably longer than it was a year ago. Working against my ability – and that of all of us – to cross names off that list is the virtually worldwide lockdown as nations everywhere take a multitude of steps in an effort to minimize the spread of this scourge. Countries including as Argentina, Chile, Jordan and Switzerland are sitting on my yellowing list now rigidly frozen in gridlock.
While my US passport and I might be able to gain entry into some countries, a simple online search clearly states that they require an immediate fourteen day quarantine. Not a realistic option for a three- or four-week photo trip.
Back in the USA
Turning my attention to some of our spectacular natural areas in the big, beautiful USA, I am reminded that I have already pretty thoroughly explored all of our 63 national parks, most of them several times. With the widespread lockdowns forced by Covid many of the parks have been obliged to restrict entry. At this writing, most all seem to be back to normal (One exception noted below.).
Glacier & Waterton Lakes National Parks
Among the places I would really like to enjoy again are Glacier National Park in Montana together with its contiguous sister park, Waterton Lakes, just across the border in Alberta, Canada. Together they comprise the Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park.
Glacier National Park is presently open and absent a disastrous resurgence of the virus, is likely (fingers crossed) to remain open for the coming summer season.
Ah, but there is a large fly in this particular ointment. The main area of this wonderful “Crown of the Continent” is pierced by just a single strand of asphalt, the famed Going to the Sun Road, a true engineering and scenic marvel that traverses the width of this park from east to west.
The lands of the Blackfeet reservation abut Glacier’s eastern border. The tribe has sovereignty over these lands. In an effort to combat the spread of the virus, the Blackfeet Tribal Council gained the agreement of the Department of the Interior to close access to its territory to virtually all outsiders (aka tourists) for almost all of 2020. This effectively sealed off the eastern end of Going to the Sun Road and access to Route 89, the prime north-south road on the eastern side of the park. Without the ability to use Route 89, we cannot get to the terrific and important Many Glacier and Two Medicine areas of Glacier or Waterton Lakes Park across the border. This leaves us with only the ability to go back and forth along the Going to the Sun Road and of course, the trails accessible from that road.
To compound the difficulty, when the Canadian border will again be open to non-Canadian citizens is still unknowable.
In light of this, a photo trip to Glacier National Park becomes really restricted and substantially less attractive.
So where to go? Among the plethora of other great photo destinations from which to choose are the two stunning national parks in northwestern Wyoming, Yellowstone and Grand Teton. Don’t think for a minute that this is merely a consolation prize for which I might reluctantly settle. These are terrific locations that offer endless world-class photo opportunities.
Even though I have been there perhaps ten times, I cannot get enough of these impossibly beautiful places. Both Yellowstone, the world’s very first national park, and Grand Teton, a unique treasure in its own right, possess enough breathtaking natural treasures to keep any photographer busy for weeks.
My preferred time to be in northern Wyoming is late September. It is then that the creatures are in peak condition, the rut is in full swing and the ‘quaking’ aspens wear their brilliant autumn colors.
Having already spent a fair amount of time in the area, if I do go there this year, I will be concentrating primarily on some of the locations that I have already photographed; those where I believe I can do better. If I am able to do that, it would really improve the overall quality of my Yellowstone and Grand Teton portfolios.
First among these is a shot of Grand Fountain Geyser erupting right at sunset. Since this particular geyser erupts only infrequently, that is not an easy thing to achieve. I was fortunate to have stumbled into such a happy coincidence the very first time that I visited this geyser. That led me to assume that it was an easy matter. Over the twenty-six years since, I have not again seen Great Fountain go off in that perfect light even once, although not for lack of trying at least a half dozen times.
Besides its fantastic collection of remarkable geysers, Yellowstone is replete with spectacular waterfalls. Perhaps chief among these are the views of Lower Yellowstone Falls as it continues to carve its way into the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River. In my opinion the very best views of this classic cataract are from the platform dubbed Artist Point, at the bottoms of the stairs of Uncle Tom’s Trail and the switchback Brink of the Falls trail.
Among the apex quadrupeds making their homes in Yellowstone are brown bears, bison, elk, pronghorn and the famous and very successful wolves. Alas, wolf sightings during months of mild weather can be very rare.
In glorious Grand Teton my very favorite photo spots are:
- Schwabacher Landing for the iconic Teton skyline reflecting in a calm pool of the Snake River
- Mormon Lane with the Moulten and other barns in the foreground with the Cathedral Group behind
- Graceful Oxbow Bend as the Snake River flows languidly past distinctive Mt. Moran.
My goal at Oxbow, sure to be crowded with a forest of tripod legs at sunrise, is to try for the peak fall color of the many aspen trees lining the river’s edge as they reflect in still water in perfect light. Hey, is that too much to ask?
Oh, and with a steaming hot mug of fresh, strong coffee in my hand.
Since from within the park the Teton Range faces east, all of the scenes listed above and most others will be at sunrise and early morning.
Some of the wild creatures here are moose, elk, bison, pronghorn, coyotes, black bears and eagles.
Walking & Hiking
You may have noticed that all of the above spots are right next to parking areas. Walking less than a hundred feet from your vehicle doesn’t do much for your hiking fun. We can still find a few good spots in which to stretch our legs.
In the Tetons explore the easy strolls to String and Leigh Lakes and up to Hidden Falls and Inspiration Point. For something a lot more aerobic, consider passing Inspiration Point and heading on up to Cascade Canyon.
Yellowstone offers effortless walks in the park like the paved loop around Old Faithful Geyser Basin and the very popular boardwalks of Midway Geyser Basin and the terraces at Mammoth. For some serious hiking, I recommend diving into sprawling Yellowstone’s three thousand square miles of often rugged back country. It’s filled with mountains, waterfalls and apex quadrupeds including brown bears, wolves and herds of bison.
This is one of the easiest photo trips in North America for logistics. For starters, the Jackson, Wyoming, airport is actually inside Grand Teton National Park, the only such combination anywhere. Other air hubs such as Salt Lake City and Missoula, MT require a bit of a drive.
Renting any vehicle of your choice will be just fine; four wheel drive and high clearance are not required here. My preference is to have something with a hatch or lift door in the rear. That always makes it seem much easier to move gear in and out.
The short distance between the two parks is bridged by the John D. Rockefeller Memorial Parkway. Along that road you will find the Flagg Ranch with accommodations and a strategically located gas station.
Lodging options here are plentiful. Rates have escalated sharply in just the past few years. There are many choices scattered throughout the Yellowstone area. After having stayed just a stone’s throw from Old Faithful many times, my current favorite is the Canyon area for the sake of geographic diversity. Other popular choices include the Mammoth and Lake hotels. Just outside the park boundary the towns of West Yellowstone and Gardiner, Montana, both offer a variety of motels across a range of rates.
When visiting the Tetons, options within the park include the upscale Jackson and Jenny Lake Lodges, the signal Mountain Lodge and the far more modest Colter Bay cabins, my preference for comfort and utility on a budget. There are many motels down in Jackson, but the time-consuming distance from town to the park makes them less than ideal.
Food choices in the parks can be hearty, but are a bit short of haute cuisine. The better the hotel, the better the food. One of my favorites is the lunch buffet in the historic and wonderful Old Faithful Inn, a prime example of classic turn of the twentieth century ‘parkitecture.’ This works out well for us, since the light at that time of day is far from what we need.
Jerry Ginsberg is an award-winning and widely-published photographer whose landscape and travel images have graced the pages and covers of hundreds of books, magazines and travel catalogs. He is the only person to have photographed each and every one of America’s 63 National Parks with medium format cameras and has appeared on ABC TV discussing our national parks.
His works have been exhibited from coast to coast and have received numerous awards in competition. Jerry’s photographic archive spans virtually all of both North and South America.