Ribbon Lake and Point Sublime

Eroded Canyon Walls

Elevation Change for Ribbon Lake and Point Sublime

Elevation change for Ribbon Lake and Point Sublime
Elevation profile and route courtesy of the HAZ Tracks App

Distance: 6 miles (round trip)
Difficulty: Moderate
Best time of year: Spring, Summer, Fall

Artist Point in the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River has some of the best views of the canyon, or even anywhere in the park itself. For those wanting a bit more with an extra detour to a remote lake, Ribbon Lake and Point Sublime make for great destinations!

The trail begins at the back side of Artist Point and begins to wind its way around a large curve in the canyon. Inspiration Point overlooking the north rim soon comes into view as you begin to wrap around it from the south rim. Along the way, there are many different views of the canyon, each of them just as mesmerizing, if not more so, than the previous.

At nearly .75 miles, the trail will fork, allowing you the opportunity to head back to Ribbon Lake. The trail to Ribbon Lake heads through a thick forest dotted with an occasional meadow. On its way to catch another junction to Ribbon Lake, the trail will pass over a small bridge followed by Lily Pad Lake, a quiet lake covered with lily pads. The trail continues south to the next junction.

Lily Pad Lake

At the junction, head left to reach Ribbon Lake. The trail continues through the dense forest, gradually increasing in elevation here and there. After about a mile, the trail will begin to drop noticeably in elevation. At the bottom of the hill, the trail joins meets another junction and just through the trees is Ribbon Lake, a more majestic lake than expected surrounded by lush meadows. Poke around for a bit and enjoy the peace and quiet. When you’re ready to head back, make sure you catch the right trail! You’ll know because you should start climbing back up that hill within just a few hundred yards.

Ribbon Lake

Heading back out and passing Lily Pad Lake on your way back out, you return to the original junction at the canyon. Left will bring you back to the parking lot, whereas right will bring you to Point Sublime. Naturally along the way, there are also many more views of the canyon. Point Sublime itself is about another .75 miles from the junction, then a 1.5 mile return trip back to the parking area, so if time is an issue take that into account, otherwise, proceed!

The actual view from Point Sublime isn’t quite as dramatic as the views along the way or as the name implies. Of course that doesn’t mean it’s not worth visiting. It’s still a great view and makes for an excellent spot to relax and enjoy a break. To head back whenever you’re ready, just follow the canyon trail back to the parking lot.

To see more images from Ribbon Lake and the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, check out my Yellowstone National Park Gallery here.

Getting there: From Canyon Village, head to the main highway at the 4-way stop sign and take a left. Head south for 2.25 miles and make a left at the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone South Rim Drive. Cross over the Yellowstone River immediately after the turn and proceed to the end of the road, which dead ends at a parking area at Artist Point.

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Midway Geyser Basin

Turquoise Pool and Stars

Elevation Profile for the Midway Geyser Basin

Elevation change for the Midway Geyser Basin
Elevation profile and route below courtesy of the HAZ Tracks App

Distance: .75 mile (round trip)
Difficulty: Easy
Best time of year: Summer

The Midway Geyser Basin is definitely one of the crown jewels of roadside attractions in Yellowstone National Park (and its parking lot attests to that). It features two of the most spectacular features in the park: the Excelsior Geyser Crater and Grand Prismatic Spring, the latter being the third largest hot spring in the world and the largest in Yellowstone. Unfortunately, due to the heat from both of these features, this walk is really only worth doing on warmer days in the summer. Though open year-round, there’s simply too much steam on cooler days to really see what makes this stop so special. Also, if you’re wearing a hat, hold on to it. Winds along the boardwalk can be gusty and you’ll see evidence of others who weren’t expecting the gusts to sweep the hats off their heads. Since you’re required to stay on the boardwalk, consider it lost if it flies off.

Excelsior Geyser Crater

From the parking area, head along the Firehole River to the bridge where you’ll get excellent views of the runoff from the scalding Excelsior Geyser Crater. It’s created its own small waterfalls pouring down the sinter cliffs into the river. From here, the boardwalk heads up the small hill and brings you back to the runoff of the geyser crater. Orange and yellow thermophiles line the water on the way to the thermal feature until the water is too hot from its source for them to survive. The Excelsior Geyser Crater is a massive, brilliant blue pool whose water is roughly 200 degrees Fahrenheit. This was previously one of the largest geysers in the park. In the late 1800s, eruptions shot out up to 300 feet high, and just as wide. Because the eruptions were so large and violent, it ultimately blew itself apart, releasing the pressure that caused such dramatic displays. Now, you’ll only occasionally see a few burps from the middle of the pool. Even so, it still discharges approximately 4,000 to 4,500 gallons of water every minute into the Firehole River.

The boardwalk splits at this point. Heading right will take you first past Turquoise Pool and then Opal Pool. Opal Pool tends to drain late in the summer season, and while both are very picturesque, they pale in comparison to Grand Prismatic Spring waiting at the top of the boardwalk. At roughly 300 feet in diameter, Grand Prismatic Spring is the third largest hot spring in the world. Its water is about 160 degrees Fahrenheit and it’s surrounded by orange and yellow thermophiles on a much larger scale than any other spring, emitting a fantastic display of color spanning much of the spectrum.

Midway Geyser Basin Abstract

The thermophile bacterial mats extend under the boardwalk, so please do not disturb them. They are living organisms and it’s not worth killing them to write a temporary message that has no meaning for anyone but you. Also, don’t put your hand in the water along any boardwalk. Whether or not the water will burn your hand is irrelevant. It’s just plain disrespectful and completely unwelcome.

After passing by an abstract photographers paradise along the edge of Grand Prismatic Spring, the boardwalk winds back around to head back toward Excelsior Geyser Crater and rejoin the path where you came up.

To see more images from the Midway Geyser Basin, check out my Yellowstone National Park Gallery here.

Getting there: From Old Faithful, head back onto the main highway and proceed north toward Madison. Just shy of six miles later, you’ll see the Midway Geyser Basin on your left. Park in the parking area and proceed to the bridge crossing the Firehole River.

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Appreciating the Night Sky

Stars over Cathedral Valley

I’m amazed how some “night photographers” just don’t really care about night itself.

While exploring and hiking Capitol Reef National Park recently, I found myself escaping the sun by resting in the shade near the Visitor Center on a rather warm fall day. In reading a bit more about the geology of the park, I became really excited about the Cathedral Valley part of the park, an area I wasn’t expecting to explore this time around. It’s in a very remote desert landscape accessible only by miles and miles of obscure dirt roads, not exactly a place you end up at by accident. So, you would think visitors there would make the most of their visit to the area.

Intrigued, I made the impulsive decision to head out and check it out. I checked my gas tank. I had well over half of a tank. Was that enough to safely make it there and back? I didn’t know for sure, but why not try anyway? Why be on a road trip without the spirit of adventure? (“Adventure is out there!”)

With one of my favorite times of day being the transition from day to night, I intentionally opted to skip the dime-a-dozen shot of sunset on two prominent features in Cathedral Valley: the Temple of the Sun and the Temple of the Moon. Instead, I happily spent extra time exploring the unique geology on the way out there and arrived in time to capture the soft ambient light of the end of the day reflecting off the sandstone fins.

I pulled up to the Temple of the Moon just as sunset was ending and noticed another car there. On the other side of the large, eroded fin, I saw two other photographers wrapping up their shoot of sunset on the monolithic spire.

As I started capturing the soft light with Earth’s shadow rising in the east, I thought it odd that they simply went back to their car. I didn’t think much of it, but as time went on and the light continued to fade, they just stayed in their car, oblivious to the changing environment. Meanwhile, I was outside, in the fresh air, witnessing rapturous light in an extremely remote area of southern Utah. I began to hear owls hooting and other crepuscular animals creating all sorts of sounds. The air cooled off to a remarkably comfortable temperature. It wasn’t just the light making the transition from day to night, nature itself was involved in the whole process.

Earth's Shadow over Cathedral Valley

Then a door opened and was slammed shut. One of them retrieved an item from the back, slammed that door shut, then got back in the car, slamming a door a third time. It was quiet after that. Nothing made a sound and I never heard any of the natural sounds again that night. They must have fled elsewhere. If animals are bothered that much in such a remote location, where can they still be undisturbed?

After that, I concluded that they were just waiting for more stars to come out to start some night photography. I couldn’t help but think that they had completely missed the point of being there, especially if they were planning on night photography. Of course it still wasn’t quite dark enough yet for true night photography, but why wait? Why sit in the confines of your car, shut off from the natural world during such a unique time of day? Why come to a recently designated Dark Sky Park just to shut yourself away and completely miss the point of night itself? Watching the night sky overcome daylight gives you a better appreciation of the night sky. The experience lends itself to better night sky photography by giving you more context and respect for the subject.

Maybe they thought that since night photography is the latest trend, they should stick around after sunset since they were already there and get something at night so they’ll have a better chance of selling a photo. So, they simply sat there, waiting for that slow and mundane daylight to leave so they could hurry up and get on with their night shooting.

Of course, I don’t really know what possessed them to ignore the magical and surreal darkening of the day, one constellation after another answering to the Milky Way’s roll call before making its grand appearance. I do know one thing for sure about them though: they didn’t appreciate the night sky nearly as much as I did that night. They were there to fulfill an obligation, if only to themselves, while I was there to witness the most underappreciated time of day reveal an awe-inspiring natural treasure, dozens of miles away from disruptive artificial light. For me, photos of that experience were just icing on the cake. It’s being there that really puts the night sky into perspective. Otherwise you might just see the stars as a different backdrop than a daylight sky for a photo.

Once I left after getting a few good night shots, they finally got out of their car. How do I know? I stopped to do a few more shots at Temple of the Sun on my way out and saw that they had humongous flashlights to light both the Temple of the Moon and the Temple of the Sun, each separated by about a half-mile. Lighting both requires much more than just a headlamp or simple flashlight, and they were doing just that. Though I also used a light in one or two shots, it was a dim red light on my headlamp, thereby preserving my night vision. Since the rods in your eyes need at least 30 minutes to truly adjust to darkness, I’d bet that they saw a much less brilliant night sky than I did, even though they were just a half-mile away. They were simply using the night sky as alternative backdrop to daylight and not really getting a sense of night itself. Of course I’m not against light painting, I’m just against photographing something you don’t fully respect (like bears). I can only hope that there are others immersing themselves into night photography that actually understand why the night sky is important and don’t just see it as something to exploit.

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Moose Falls

Moose Falls

Elevation Profile - Moose Falls

Elevation change for Moose Falls
Elevation profile and route below courtesy of the HAZ Tracks App

Distance (one-way): .1 mile
Difficulty: Easy
Best time of year: Year-round

Moose Falls is the kind of hike that is so short and sweet that there’s really no point in not doing it. With the entire hike (if you could even call it that) adding up to less than a quarter of a mile, it’s the perfect stop along your way to or from Grand Teton National Park. So whether you’ve already experienced a great diversity in Yellowstone’s waterfalls, or you’re itching for your first taste, this is a must-do partly because of its beauty and partly because of its easy access.

Moose Falls is a 30 foot waterfall pouring over a cliff along Crawfish Creek on its way toward the Lewis River. The trail to the falls is easy to follow and has very little elevation gain on its way to the brink of the falls. A small rocky staircase will lead those interested down to the base of the falls.

As indicated, Moose Falls is worth the trip any time of the year. Those making the trip on a snowmobile tour or snowcoach tour in winter are typically offered the opportunity to make the short walk to the falls.

To see more images of Moose Falls, check out my Yellowstone National Park Gallery here.

Getting there: From Flagg Ranch near the border of the South Entrance, drive up Highway 89/191 just over three miles where you’ll cross over a bridge which names Crawfish Creek below. The parking area is just after the bridge on the right (or on the other side of the road if you’re coming from the north).

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Fountain Paint Pots

Fountain and Clepsydra Geysers

Elevation Profile for Fountain Paint Pots

Elevation change for Fountain Paint Pots
Elevation profile and route below courtesy of the HAZ Tracks App

Distance: .65 mile (round trip)
Difficulty: Easy
Best time of year: Year-round

Fountain Paint Pots has the unique distinction of being one of the only easily accessible walks in Yellowstone that has great examples of all four types of thermal features. These are hot springs, geysers, mud pots, and fumaroles. With the entire walk adding up to less than three-fourths of a mile, it’s another walk that shouldn’t be passed up.

From the parking area, begin walking on the boardwalk as it takes you out toward the main features. Along the way you’ll pass by dead lodgepole pine trees that succumbed to the expansion of the geyser basin, killing the trees from the roots up.

The boardwalk splits where thermophiles from Silex Spring begin to get much more colorful. As a result, most people follow the boardwalk straight ahead to check out the spring. Silex Spring is a brilliant display of a hot spring, with bright blue water and bold orange thermophiles surrounding its edges.

The trail continues ascending a small knoll to a feature from where the path’s namesake originates. A large mud pot, bubbling with gooey mud, is encircled by the boardwalk. A mud pot is essentially the same thing as a hot spring, but the key difference is that this water is much more acidic, causing the ground to be eaten away around it. Combined with some iron in the ground, it creates a colorful palette of reds, pinks, and whites.

On the other end, the trail forks off again leading to Red Spouter and Leather Pool. Red Spouter is a great example of a fumarole (aka, steam vent). Prior to 1959, the ground where it’s now found was completely undisturbed. Then the massive 7.4 Hebgen Lake Earthquake struck creating Red Spouter (among many other features in the park), and it’s been growing ever since. If it hasn’t rained recently, the vent will be screaming so loud with erupting steam that you’ll have to yell to the person next to you so that they can hear you.

The boardwalk rises back up to the top of the knoll, and below the path in front of you lies multiple geysers. Clepsydra Geyser is nearly always erupting on the other end of the boardwalk, so that’s the one that most people will notice shooting a few dozen feet into the air. Nearby are also Jet and Twig Geysers, much smaller compared to Clepsydra. Also in the area though is Fountain Geyser, the largest geyser along the Fountain Paint Pots walk. Fountain Geyser can reach heights up to 80 feet or so and roughly 40 feet wide, making it a unique spectacle among active geysers. It only erupts on average twice a day, but that can vary. Count yourself lucky if you get to see this one going off!

The trail continues back to the split in the boardwalk, passing Celestine Pool as it brings you back toward the parking area.

To see more images from Fountain Paint Pots, check out my Yellowstone National Park Gallery here.

Getting there: From the Madison Junction, follow the highway south for just over eight miles where the parking area for Fountain Paint Pots will be on your right.

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Randy’s Fun with Camera and Friends

In my last two posts I have focused on what we might call “negative motivations” – those motivations that keep us from doing our best. Sorry if I came across as cynical.  So let’s look at the more positive motivations this time and focus on what types of experiences we encounter, or create, that help us to want to get out there and do more photography. After all in the second blog “the dozen” made it pretty clear that practice is likely to be the most important variable in helping us improve our photographic skills and our photographs.  Let me start with an experience I had last week that really got me excited about photography.

This summer I had three college fraternity brothers from back-in-the-day (more than 45 years ago) stop by our home. Two of them were part of “the dozen” (amateur photographers who had answered my 12 photography questions earlier this summer) and both were interested in stopping by to do some photography. Tom and Larry live in South Carolina and they decided to take a road-trip across the country (yea, a 6000 mile road trip) to take photographs and visit friends. I asked them if they would be interested in me arranging a one-day workshop with a professional photographer in the area. They were gung-ho about the idea and I set-up a full day workshop with Henry Holdsworth (WildbyNatureGallery.com) to visit Yellowstone in early October. It would be my first guided workshop.

It was fun to have two old friends visit, to get reacquainted, and tell stories from our days together in college. The next day we got up early to take some shots of sunrise and look for wildlife in Grand Teton National Park. It was overcast so we didn’t get any great shots and we didn’t see much wildlife until later in the afternoon. Nothing great behind the lens but we had many enjoyable discussions and a great exposure to a beautiful national park. Late in the afternoon we met my wife at a Jackson restaurant for dinner and got back home in Victor early to get ready to meet Henry at his gallery at 6:15 am. It may not sound like this could be a great positive motivator, but it set the stage. I was having fun with friends that were interested in photography and we were all anticipating a great learning experience the next day.

None of us had any problems getting up a 4:30 am and we arrived at the Wild by Nature Gallery early. It had rained over night and there was a dense fog in Jackson Hole. But I wasn’t worried or disappointed; I was pumped to get out there and take some shots. I had told Henry that Tom and Larry were excited about wildlife photography so we started looking for wildlife in the fog as soon as we entered the park – the visibility was terrible. Soon we came across a bull elk with a small harem of about five elk cows. Henry stopped the car and immediately said, “Set your ISO at about 3200 and let’s see what shots we can get.” The sun hadn’t risen quite yet and the fog was thick but leaving the ISO setting to Henry allowed me to feel confident and I started shooting. I didn’t get a great photograph but considering the conditions I was pleased. Henry had made a very difficult task (exposure setting in very low light) a realistic goal for me by helping with the ISO setting.

3 Morning Elk (1 of 1)

After the elk wandered off into the fog Henry said, “Let’s get out of the fog. Let’s drive to the top of Signal Mountain.” I never would of thought of that but I will from now on ! We drove up Signal Mountain Road in the fog until we came to a turnout and then WOW, Mount Moran was sitting on a blanket of fog. We all jumped out of the van and Henry said, “Get setup on your tripod, this may not last too long. Watch out for the dead tree on the left.” The next twenty minutes were amazing. The view of Mount Moran changed every minute and the four of us kept shooting with suggestions from Henry. It was so helpful that he wasn’t telling us what to do, but rather offered suggestions. He would look in our viewfinder, give us feedback, and invite us to look in his viewfinder. I felt in control and supported. I got what I consider to be very good photos – but I didn’t “watch out for the dead tree.” When I got home and looked at the photos in Lightroom I noticed what I consider to be a real nice bonus I didn’t see in my viewfinder – the car driving on the road below Mount Moran. It helps tell the story and I think it adds to the photo. I hope to get the “dead tree” removed when I learn more about Lightroom. Henry helped minimize the overwhelming decision-making but I’m still not quite ready for quick photos when the light is changing so quickly.

Mount Moran in the Fog (1 of 1)

As the fog moved in to cover Mount Moran we jumped back in the van and drove to the top – and another WOW ! The valley below us to the east was a blanket of fog that was changing – it seemed by the second – with the sun slightly above the Gros Ventre Mountains. The view was constantly changing but it wasn’t evaporating so we had plenty of time to LEARN. We talked about exposure, composition, the edges, and I learned important key elements to look for in my photos. We stayed at the top of Signal Mountain for over an hour, looked at each other’s viewfinders (including Henry’s), discussed what was happening and what each of us was seeing. I felt supported and confident that I was learning and improving as a photographer. Henry encouraged the three of us to make comments on the details of each person’s composition in their viewfinder and gave us specific details about what he though was strong or weak.  And I felt really really motivated. Why ?

Fog from Signal Mountain (1 of 1)

As I said in my last post, each of us is different in our motivation – both the positive motivations that get us pumped-up and the “negative motivations” that undermine the behaviors that help us to improve. So what I took from the morning with Henry, Tom, and Larry may not be true for all of you, but I suspect it is true for many of us. To save some space, let me put the positive motivations in a list:

Let’s Have Fun – This is pretty much a no-brainer but it can be something to include in your motivational plan. Taking photographs should NOT be stressful and disappointing; if you are frustrated and disheartened today, are you going to want to do this again tomorrow? Tom and Larry and I had a great time because we were with old friends that enjoyed being with one another doing something we valued. We weren’t “partying” but our conversation and interaction was woven into photography.

Learning is Enjoyable – Some of you may have had bad experiences in school, which unfortunately might lead you to believe learning isn’t enjoyable. But learning doesn’t stop when school ends. Most of what we learn in life happens after we leave school. There are a number of key elements in the process of learning that are likely to increase our motivation. Sorry but I’m going to get a little academic L and compare our experience to Ed Deci’s theory of Intrinsic Motivation. Intrinsic Motivation doesn’t require any “reward” because what motivates us is an enjoyment of what we are doing. Deci says that there are three things that help encourage intrinsic motivation:

  1. Optimal Challenge – Whenever the goals for which we are striving are challenging, and also within our grasp, we are likely to increase our positive motivation. When Henry gave me the ISO for the elk photo in the low light situation he was making the task within my grasp. Be careful about comparing your work to the work of others, that competition actually undermine your motivation. Choose realistic goals that are a challenge but not outlandish. When you have both short-term and long-term goals you can control the optimal challenge.
  2. Choice – Whenever we are put in situations where we are given choice and feel in control we are more likely to have a positive motivation. When WE decide what our goals are we are more likely to achieve them. Henry guided us at the Mount Moran turnout and at the top of Signal Mountain but he never told us what to do. He gave us choices and support for the tough stuff. And he “let me fail.” He told us to “Watch out for the dead tree” but let me learn my own lesson. I’ll check with him about how to get rid of that dead tree with Lightroom J.
  3. Informational Feedback as opposed to Evaluative Feedback – This is critical. When I see comments on FB they are almost always Evaluative Feedback: they say something like “Beautiful” but seldom explain what is beautiful about the photo. Informational feedback is a statement of what is good, or not-so-good, about the photograph: “I like the leading lines in the composition” or “I think the composition would be improved if you cleaned up the edges.” I believe that Henry is a very good teacher for many reasons but a very important reason is that he gave me specific feedback about what he thought was effective in my composition and what detracted from my composition. He setup an environment in which Tom and Larry and I critiqued one another’s photographs using specific details NOT something like “Wow, that is great” or “Boy, that stinks.”

By the way, it’s been raining here for a couple days and there was supposed to be rain today. But I got up at 5:00 am and drove to a very foggy Grand Teton National Park. I could have gotten discouraged but as soon as I saw the fog I thought, I can drive up Signal Mountain above the fog. It turned out pretty good. I would have liked some folks to talk with and share Informational Feedback but I can make it on my own.

Signal Mountain For 10-20 (1 of 1)


I imaging some of you highly motivated folks may be tired of talking about motivation, so let’s move on. The next post will focus on photographic gear. I asked “the dozen” what they believe is the most important photographic gear they have acquired that has improved their photography. Their answers were very diverse and interesting. I would like for you to think about the top two pieces of equipment (cameras, lenses, tripods, computers, software, even books) that had the most impact on your photography and send me your top-2 and why they have been important to your improvement. Come on, that isn’t that hard to do. Hit the reply button and send me your homework and any ideas you have to improve FirstanAmateur.com.

Beaver Ponds Loop

Beaver Ponds and Mountains

Elevation Change at Beaver Ponds Loop

Elevation change for the Beaver Ponds Loop
Elevation profile and route courtesy of the HAZ Tracks App

Distance: 5.75 miles (loop)
Difficulty: Moderate
Best time of year: Spring, Summer, Fall

The Beaver Ponds Loop is an excellent hike to get you away from the crowds at Mammoth Hot Springs, as well as provide you with fantastic views over the surrounding landscape. With plenty of open space, it’s also a great opportunity to potentially spot wildlife.

Tip: If you’re hiking in the evening, start the loop near Mammoth Hot Springs. If you’re hiking in the morning, start the loop from the back-side of the Mammoth Hotel. Heading in one direction or the other will be more conducive for the lighting at that particular time of day.

The main trailhead is located between the main restroom facilities and the Mammoth Hot Springs boardwalks. Begin your hike there as it follows Clematis Creek upward into a canyon. After .7 miles, the trail meets a junction which can take you farther into the backcountry toward Sepulcher Mountain, or along the Beaver Ponds Trail, the latter being our destination this time.

Take the fork to the right and follow the trail through rolling grassland hills spotted with evergreen trees. For a few brief moments, this part of the trail actually reminded me of many of the spots I saw on the stretch of the Arizona Trail that I was able to hike last spring.

View of Mammoth Hot Springs

Soon the trail opens up onto a large open hillside covered in high desert grasses. The views out toward Mount Everts and the Absaroka Mountains to the north are spectacular through this section. After enjoying the views, the trail winds back into an old forest and crosses a small creek.

Note: Along the way in this area I saw multiple pieces of litter. Under no circumstances are you ever to leave any pieces of trash behind. If you’re not prepared to carry everything out with you, then please do everyone else a favor and stay off the trail. This includes food trash, fruit peels, tissue paper, toilet paper, etc. Burying it also does not get rid of it. It’s only a matter of time before a predator comes to dig it up, endangering other hikers and subsequently leaving the trash sitting on the side of the trail. Leave no trace!

The trail continues to meander in and out of old forests and meadows until you finally come to the first beaver pond. Interestingly enough, you’ve also just crossed from Wyoming into Montana. The trail passes the pond, bringing you by another smaller one, and then to a couple of larger beaver ponds for which the trail is named. Given their size and significance, you can certainly see why such a great hike was created for them.

Bull Elk Near Water

As the trail winds around the ponds to the east, great views of the mountains to the west come into view. Also on the eastern side is where the actual beaver dams are. The trail crosses the creek just downstream from one of the dams over an old log bridge, then climbs up a small ridge where nice views open up on top.

The trail continues through the forest, and then for the last mile, brings you out onto a large plateau known as Elk Plaza. It’s a massive grasslands area that you skirted the top of earlier in the hike. Now lower down and closer to the edge of the plateau, amazing views open up out in the distance and below (though it’s nothing anyone with a fear of heights should be concerned with). The trail heads just above the old Gardiner-Mammoth Road as you near the end, and both begin working their way down the hill to the back of the Mammoth Hotel. From here, it’s a short .3 mile walk back to the other trailhead.

Getting there: From the Mammoth Hotel, either walk to Mammoth Hot Springs and look for the trail just before the boardwalk, or, walk behind the hotel to the north and access the other end of the loop where the Old Gardiner Road heads up the hill. If you’re parking your car, look for a spot near the Liberty Cap, or in the parking lot across the street from it. If that’s full, another option is near the Visitor Center a bit farther north.

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Great Horned and Great Gray Owls:

Elusive Silent Hunters of the Night and Twilight.

Great Gray Owl

Great Horned Owls and Great Gray Owls occasionally share the same terrain in the Jackson Hole valley. They are increasingly popular subjects in the Park. If seen close to the road, an “owl jam” can rival any “bear jam”.

The Catch

At least from my experience, Great Gray Owls are much more tolerant of humans than Great Horned Owls. They will occasionally land within feet of a stationary photographer. A couple of years ago, a Great Gray landed on the foot of a photographer while he was resting on the ground! I’ve experienced them flying within inches of my head on their way to their next hunting location.

Great Horned Owl

Great Horned Owl always seem to be more skittish. The one in the photo above let me work around the trees to find an open shot. It flew from tree to tree, hunting, but not in earnest. By the time I left, it was sleeping in a tree with no apparent concern for my presence or my eventual exit.


Great Gray Owl “C3″ might be the most photographed owl in Grand Teton National Park. During July, this owl and it’s mate hunt along the Moose-Wilson Road with a fair degree or regularity. I saw it last year, too. I’ve heard people suggest this is the male, seen more often hunting while the female is still with the chicks on or near the nest. C3 also has an antenna wire protruding from its back. I don’t believe its mate has either a tag or tracking device.

GGO with Vole

Most Great Gray Owls are night hunters — or at least late evening and early morning hunters. By late June and early July, the chicks require more food, forcing the pair to hunt more in the daylight hours. C3 and its mate sometimes hunt below the big overlook along the Moose-Wilson Road, and along the road for roughly a mile. If you look closely, you can see the antenna wire just above the back in the “v” of the wings.

Great Gray Owl Landing

When actively hunting, Great Gray Owls move from perch to perch if they don’t locate a vole or mouse near their current perch.

Great Gray Owl

Or…they can sit patiently on the same perch for half an hour!

Great Horned Owl on Branch

I have much less experience with Great Horned Owls. While they might hunt during daylight hours, I seldom see one fly to a prey animal. I’ve seen them fly to the ground at dusk on several occasions, but it would be difficult to have photographed.


Great Horned Owls, like the Great Gray Owls blend in will with their surroundings. Unless they are silhouetted against the sky, you can drive by one and never see it. You can also walk by one in the forest and not see it until it flies off from over your head.

Perched GGO

Great Grays can have wingspans up to roughly 60″ while Great Horned Owls can span up to about 55″.


The Great Horned Owls I’ve found in GTNP have always been deeper in the forest or trees than the hunting Great Gray Owls I’ve seen.

Wet GGO with Vole

Great Gray Owls hunt from relatively low perches, sometimes only a few feet off the ground, and other times not much more than around 12 feet off the ground. The few times I’ve actually seen a Great Horned Owl fly to the ground has been from much higher perches…like 25′ or so.

Diving Owl

Once locked in on a vole or mouse, a Great Gray flies directly to its prey.


Concentration is paramount, but this trait can be deadly. GGOs lack the skills to evaluate their flight path prior to dropping to their prey. If their path takes them across a roadway, they are in jeopardy of being hit by a passing vehicle.

Owl Eyes

I don’t have any sort of documentation to support it, but it seems C3 catches a mouse or vole on about one out of 7 attempts…better on some days.

Successful Hunter

Sometimes, an owl will devour a small rodent while still on the ground. Other times, they fly to a nearby perch to polish it off.

Great Gray with Catch

As the chicks grow, the adults catch a small rodent and fly back to the nesting area.

Feeding Time

As the young owls begin leaving the nest, the parents both hunt.

Young Great Gray Owl

Young Great Gray Owls are not great flyers initially. They hop from tree to tree, or soar to the ground if they miss a landing perch. While on the ground, they are vulnerable to predators, but are usually quick to find a diagonal trunk to reduce the danger. As fledglings see one of its parents returning with food, each chick vies for the attention of the adult.

Baby Owl Being Fed

Each chick gets their fair share. The adults pass off the food to the hungry baby.

Baby Owl and Mother Great Gray Owls

Once fed, the adult flies off to find food for the next chick.

Young Great Gray Owl

This fledgling Great Gray Owl was photographed in mid-July, one of three. It was one of C3’s chicks. I spent one day with the fledglings after they had moved from their nesting area. By the next day, the adults had moved them far from the area I found them.

Young Owl Stretching

This photos clearly shows the pointed tips on the tail feathers. Of the three fledglings, this one was most developed.


By early October, the young Great Gray Owls are capable of hunting on their own. The tail feathers on an adult are rounded, while the tips of the tail feathers on the new hunters are pointed as seen in the photo above.


There is an amazing transformation between the early fledgling days of July and the juvenile hunters of October. Their wing feathers are longer and the feathers around their heads are fully developed. By October, they appear to be close to the size of their nearby adults. Other than the pointed tail feathers, it would be difficult for me to tell them from adults.

Grat Gray Owl

I watched this young owl catch at least a couple of mice before flying deep into the groves of Spruce and Aspen trees.

Finding the Great Owls

Great Gray Owl Taking Off

The odds are very high that the first person to see an owl saw it because it was flying. Otherwise, they can be difficult to spot. Once the first person gets out and begins taking photos, the owl jam begins and dozens or many people get to view it. In that case, its all about being in the right place at the right time!


There are other times an owl can stick out like a sore thumb!  If the light is hitting their feathers, they can almost glow against a dark background. This one was hunting in a meadow.

Great Gray Owl in Aspens

It would be easy to drive right by this owl.

Great Gray In Pines

When not hunting, both species can tuck into dark and shady cover.

Great Horned Owl

The dilemma facing tourists and photographers hoping to find owls begins with a geographic reality. These raptors use the river bottoms for their hunting and nesting. In Jackson Hole, the Snake River meanders roughly 35 miles through the Jackson Hole valley. The river bottom can be a half mile to a mile wide. Additional terrain includes the Gros Ventre, Buffalo Fork, Spread Creek, Ditch Creek Pacific Creek, Pilgrim Creek, and the entire Jackson Lake shoreline. The area is huge, and much of it is inaccessible to most people.


Besides the huge area of potential terrain, they are relatively small difficult to see. By comparison, a dark 1000 pound bull moose is usually easy to spot against the sagebrush. Most people never see past about 50 feet into the forest as they drive by an area. Short of driving up on an “owl jam”, the odds are severely stacked against most people seeing either species.

Eyes on the Landing Perch

Even with the odds seemingly stacked against us, it helps to at least have a clue where people traditionally see them. You’ll need a keen eye and a whole lot of luck!

  • Moose-Wilson Road: Both species from the Moose visitor’s center to the south entrance near Teton Village.
  • Death Canyon Road to Whitegrass Ranch: Both species.
  • Schwabacher Landing: This is a good access point to the river bottom. Both species have been spotted there.
  • Gros Ventre River Bottom: This is a very good zone to look for Great Horned Owls.
  • Ditch Creek River Bottom: Also good for Great Horned Owls.
  • Fall Creek Road (South of Wilson): Both species are sighted there on a regular basis.
  • Pilgrim Creek Road: Both species possible.
  • Spring Creek Road: Both Species. From Highway 26 to the Golf and Tennis Club.
  • Mormon Row: I’ve seen a Great Horned owl sitting on the roof of the TA Moulton Barn on several occasions, and several years ago, a pair nested in the tree next to one of the old homesteads. They are night hunters, feeding on the numerous Uinta Ground Squirrels and Chipmonks found near the barns.

Great Horned owls nest much earlier than the Great Grays. There will likely be snow still on the ground. Some take over old Red-tailed Hawks nests while others create a nest in a trunk or cavity. A few years ago, a pair nested in a heart shaped cavity in the Gros Ventre campground, but they haven’t returned. Another nest was used along the Moose-Wilson road, but hasn’t been used in several years either. Great Horned Owls “hoot” during the night and twilight hours. If you are seriously interested in finding the right areas, go out after dark or before sunrise and listen for them. Campers in the Gros Ventre Campground are always reporting hearing them overnight.

Young GGO

Raptor researchers are very tight lipped about the birds they study. They never divulge the locations of nests. The Park Service will close a huge chunk of land around a nest, and unlike most official closures, they don’t post the location of the area on their closures and alerts pages. I heard a report suggesting the researchers knew about 23 successful nesting pairs in the JH region. By late fall, there could be a hundred Great Gray Owls hunting in the area. All of the fledglings I saw this year had already been banded by researchers.


Great Gray Owls hunt for a few days in one area, then move to another area for a few days. If you hear of one in an area, that’s you queue to check it out. They may or may not be there when you go there, but it definitely gives you a better chance.


All of the images on this page were taken in 2015. I have a lot more of course. You might think I find owls at my whim, but that would be entirely incorrect. Most of the Great Gray Owls were taken while the adults were hunting to feed their fledgling chicks. Once they moved the chicks out of the area, the adults have been scarce. I found the Great Horned owls on this page while hiking the river bottom looking for Great Gray owls. I stumbled upon one willing to let me take photos. I’ve found a couple of them on the Gros Ventre while hiking around looking for Moose. The last Great Gray owl I photographed in 2014 was in August. The next time I photographed one in the JH valley was in May of 2015. Similarly, I photographed a lot of owls in July, but never one in August and September, before seeing a few in October.

Perched and Watching

When I find an owl, I stay with it and return to it regularly until it moves on. The time with them is almost always fleeting.

Other Owl Species

If finding owls the size of a fully grown chicken is difficult, imagine trying find the ones about the size of a snowball! Pygmy Owls and Saw Whet Owls are occasionally spotted in the Jackson Hole valley. I photographed a Pygmy Owl in Karns Meadow (in town) a couple of years ago. I haven’t seen one since. I’ve seen a few photos of Saw Whet Owls from the area, but the only one I’ve ever seen was in Idaho. A few years ago, I heard a report of a pair of Barn Owls in the north barn of Mormon Row. I’ve looked for them, but have never seen them. They are more common in Idaho and Utah. A few years ago, an artist showed me photos of Burrowing Owls she took on the National Elk Refuge. Needless to say, I went out numerous times looking for them. I’ve heard of Long Eared Owls in the Yellowstone ecosystem, but I don’t recall hearing of one in the Tetons.

Photography Considerations

Great Gray Owl

For the most part, there are two types of Owl shots: Perched and flying (or in motion). When perched, Owls are amazingly still. Shutter speeds can be as slow as a half second in low light. With a good tripod and reasonable skills, low light shots can be amazing. Flight shots require a bit more skill and faster shutter speeds. Some people prefer to shoot hand-held and some of them get fantastic shots. I prefer to use a tripod, even at the expense of losing an occasional shot. A Great Gray can sit perched on a branch or log for 30 minutes, or for only a few minutes. They often perk up and focus on a spot just before they fly, but even then it can take minutes of concentration on their part — and there are lots of “false alarms”. With a tripod, I know I can effortlessly keep the equipment trained on the subject for long periods of time and be ready when the owl makes its move. Holding a heavy lens up to my eye for a long period is not my idea of having fun!

Diving Great Gray Owl

Shutter speeds for flight shots should probably range in the 1/1000th second to 1/1250th second to stop action. Depth of field and ISO can vary based on available light. Lately, I have been shooting in Auto ISO mode, locking down my shutter speed and aperture and living with the higher ISO results on my D4 and D810. If the goal is flight shots, I usually take the D4 which is capable of roughly 10 frame per second. The D810 has a slower frame rate, but make beautiful shots of the perched owls. I typically use either 9 points or Group Focus (on the D810) if I anticipate flight. I believe all of these images were captured with a Tamron 150-600mm lens.

Atop an old Lodgepole Pine

I often switch to single point focus when perched. Some people like “Back Button Focus” for this, but I’ve never fully adopted the technique.


This one probably benefited from a fast shutter speed and panning.

Focused on His Landing

Overcast days are good for Owls, but early morning light can create some dramatic effects.

Great Gray Over Prey

When on the ground, you know they are going to fly soon. Be ready!

Out of the Grass

The rabbit style legs are usually only visible like this right after take-off.

Great Gray Owl with Vole

Depth of field on a telephoto lens is not very large if the owl is fairly close. Sometimes the autofocus grabs the wings, causing the face to be out of focus. This time, it picked up the face and let the two wings blur. The wings from tip to tip on a full grown adult can be close to five feet!

Spit Second of Landing

Win some, lose some! As an owl passes through trees and branches, the autofocus will occasionally lock onto something other than the owl. Other times, it does a great job! Take-offs are usually easier than landings.


GGO Perched

Many visitors to GTNP especially hope to see bears and moose. Great Gray and Great Horned Owls seem to be very high on their lists, too. Possibly, information on this page will help you find one on your visit to the area. Remember, the odds are stacked against you, but if you are lucky and watchful, you might hit the jackpot!

Additional Resources: These two pages at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology can supply you with technical information about the two species which might be helpful.

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Harlequin Lake

Harlequin Lake Reflections

Elevation Change for Harlequin Lake

Elevation change for Harlequin Lake
Elevation profile and route courtesy of the HAZ Tracks App

Distance: .5 miles (one way)
Difficulty: Easy
Best time of year: Spring, Summer, Fall

Harlequin Lake is a short and sweet hike for anyone wanting to take a break around the Madison Junction area. The trail is only one mile round trip and with the exception of a couple of moderately steeper sections, is overall an easy hike to an extremely picturesque lake tucked away against the rim of the Yellowstone Caldera.

The trail gently climbs through a young forest burned in the ’88 Fires. You’ll notice that some trees are growing quicker than others as it wanders north through the densely packed trees. At a little over halfway, the trail makes a sharp turn to the west where it also levels out and gradually brings you down to Harlequin Lake.

The lake is tucked away against the edge of a large cliff and though not terribly large, is big enough to consume a 180 degree view. Enjoy your time here, and head out the same way you can when you’re ready to leave.

To see more images from Harlequin Lake, check out my Yellowstone National Park Gallery here.

Getting there: From West Yellowstone, enter the park and take the main highway east for 12 miles and look for a large parking area at the top of a knoll on the right side of the street. There will be a sign also marking the trailhead which begins on the other (north) side of the road.

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Upper Geyser Basin and Biscuit Basin

Castle Geyser

Elevation Profile for the Upper Geyser Basin

Elevation change for the Upper Geyser Basin
Elevation profile and route below courtesy of the HAZ Tracks App

Distance: Varies – up to 11 miles or less than 1 mile
Difficulty: Easy
Best time of year: Year-round

When people think of Yellowstone, they think of Old Faithful. The two go hand-in-hand and it’s impossible to think of one without the other. What most people don’t realize, however, is that there’s much more to see in the vicinity than just Old Faithful.

Old Faithful is part of the Upper Geyser Basin, a massive complex of thermal features that stretches all the way out to Biscuit Basin a couple of miles away. There are some geysers that are even bigger than Old Faithful, and a number of colorful and amazing hot springs unlike anywhere else in the park. The geyser basin is also divided up into sections, so if you don’t have much time, you can make a short walk around some of the interesting features, whereas if you have more time, you can experience the entire area and see all kinds of unique sights.

Note: When hiking in this area in spring, fall, or winter, it is common to see bison. Always give them the right of way. They are much bigger, faster, and stronger than you, and you will not win in a fight with them. Consider getting within 25 yards of them a challenge.

To begin your hike, start from Old Faithful and begin walking along a walkway toward some of the steam. There’s no right or wrong direction to follow, just head toward what looks interesting, but always stick to the boardwalks and walkways. For the sake of simplicity, I’m going to describe the walk that I did, including any options to make it a shorter or longer journey.

Upper Geyser Basin

Begin hiking from the Old Faithful Visitor Center to the west between Old Faithful Geyser and the Old Faithful Inn. As the path winds down toward the parking area, another path will lead off to the right. Follow that to be brought past Chinese Spring and the Firehole River where the path will continue around Old Faithful, merging with another trail where you can fork off to the left. This will bring you across the Firehole River and to a loop circling a large concentration of hot springs and geysers.

If you’re short on time, this is an excellent loop to make with the highlights being the Lion Geyser Group and Beehive Geyser, the latter reaching heights of roughly 200 feet! Check with the Visitor Center for predictions. Eruptions are typically only once a day, but sometimes difficult to predict. A short spur trail off of the loop will lead to Solitary Geyser, well worth the detour. Every 5-7 minutes, it will make a quick burst of an eruption reaching about 4-5 feet high and often much wider.

Another spur trail will continue farther into the Upper Geyser Basin. This will bring you past more colorful springs and another spectacle of the Upper Geyser Basin, Grand Geyser. It can also reach up to 200 feet, but like Beehive Geyser, can have a larger window for its eruption, typically adding up to about two hours on either side of the predicted time. The path will continue past Chromatic and Beauty Pools before crossing back over the Firehole River, and past Giant Geyser before joining the larger, main path extending from Old Faithful. A small detour beyond will take you by Riverside Geyser, and just beyond that is the famous Morning Glory Pool.

Couple at Morning Glory Pool

Morning Glory Pool was named after the bright blue-violet flower, but unfortunately, the hot spring has none of those colors anymore. Early visitors threw a large amount of rocks, coins, and pretty much anything else they could find into the pool. Over time, this has lowered the heat in the pool, allowing the thermophiles along the edges to gradually creep more toward the center. The above photo is from 2015. Compare that with this photo from 1966 on Wikipedia. It’s a tragically unfortunate change that will have lasting effects in the park for years to come. This is exactly why it’s now illegal to throw anything at all into any spring or thermal feature.

Many people turn around at Morning Glory Pool and begin to head back to Old Faithful. If you have more time on your hands, it’s a nice walk to continue on to Biscuit Basin past Artemisia Spring, among several others.

Elevation Profile for Biscuit Basin and Mystic Falls

Elevation change for Biscuit Basin and Mystic Falls
Elevation profile and route below courtesy of the HAZ Tracks App

Biscuit Basin

After following the trail through a lodgepole pine forest and past some large hot springs and geysers, the main road becomes visible beyond Artemisia Spring. The spring has actually grown in recent years so much so that the trail was just recently rerouted to avoid some of the runoff. The trail still leads straight to the road, where right on the other side is the parking area for Biscuit Basin.

Biscuit Basin gets its name not from the bison pies that are frequently seen there, but from biscuit-like geyserite formations that used to line Sapphire Pool. A large earthquake in 1959 caused the pool to erupt, destroying the unique formations. As with any of the geyser basins, it’s certainly worth the visit and even has an extra trail for those itching to see more of Yellowstone’s waterfalls.

Jewel Geyser Erupting

A couple of the main spectacles are Sapphire Pool and Jewel Geyser, though there are several other geysers and hot springs that capture individuals’ attention. Jewel Geyser erupts fairly frequently, reaching heights of up to 30 feet. Most people will see it erupt at some point along the walk around the half-mile or so boardwalk.

At the back of the Biscuit Basin boardwalk is a trail that leads into some of Yellowstone’s backcountry. One of the trails leads to Mystic Falls, only a one mile hike out from the boardwalk, and a pretty easy hike at that too. The trail leaves the boardwalk where a sign informs people about the trail. If you weren’t carrying bear spray, turn around. Bear spray is always recommended for any hike in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. Beyond the sign, the trail begins winding through the young lodgepole pine forest, burned from the 1988 Fires. A short distance into the trail will bring you to a fork, branching off to Summit Lake much deeper in the Yellowstone backcountry and beyond. To reach Mystic Falls, continue straight. Soon the trail joins the Little Firehole River, which ultimately brings you to Mystic Falls, a spectacular waterfall pouring 70 feet over a large cliff that is decorated with thermal features surrounding the falls. This creates a rather “mystic” look as the mist from the falls interacts with the steam from the thermal features.

Mystic Falls

Spend as much time as you’d like, then either head back the same way you came, or take the overlook loop which will add an extra mile and a great overlook to your return trip.

Returning Through the Upper Geyser Basin

Before reaching the boardwalk back at the Biscuit Basin, another trail past the Summit Lake Trail will spur off to the right. This is a separate loop trail that will bring you back to the Upper Geyser Basin via Daisy Geyser and a couple of other thermal features. The other option is to head back the same way you came. Both will bring you past Grotto Geyser and Castle Geyser, two of the more uniquely shaped geysers in the Upper Geyser Basin.

To see more images from the Upper Geyser Basin, check out my Yellowstone National Park Gallery here.

Getting there: From the Old Faithful Visitor Center, start walking.

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