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Sunrise Soldiers

Teton Sunrises: It Takes Two to Tango

A quick overview of events necessary for a good sunrise in the Tetons.

With the Teton Range running north and south along the west side of the valley, sunrise photography is normally far superior and dependable than sunsets. Don’t get me wrong, can still get beautiful sunsets, but they are less common and often more tricky to photograph. Even if you are in the valley only to enjoy the events without a camera in tow, it can be awe inspiring. Sunrises are king here!

Normally, I enter Grand Teton National Park from the south on Highway 89/191. My first glimpse of the mountains happens as I drive up the hill from the National Fish Hatchery. Regardless of the weather reports, I never really know what to expect when I clear the hill.

Ideally, I hope to at least see the mountains, but have some clouds on the back side of them. A few low clouds, usually remnant fog, sometimes hover above the valley floor, but I am mostly hoping for the more defined clouds above and behind the Grand. It also helps if the clouds are evenly dispersed across the entire range, vs a big clump of them at one end and not the other. It’s okay to be picky! I live here, so I get lots of chances. Visiting tourists might have much lower odds of hitting it right.

When I am hoping for a sunrise shot, I get up early and am out before the light is hitting the mountains. Actually, I like being out a LOT earlier than first light in hopes of capturing the beautiful alpenglow light show. Alpenglow normally happens about 30 minutes before the first hints of light begin to show at the top of the Grand. The alpenglow phase lasts only a few minutes, followed by a period of murky gray light. Then, magically the top of the Grand begins to glow with a beautiful hue of reddish orange. It drops slowly, like a curtain, down the face of the mountain and gradually changes from the reddish/orange color to amber and finally the normal white light.

Well, that’s the way it is supposed to work! You get beautiful clouds lit by the warm, morning light. Ah, but it takes two to tango! Even when the scene unfolds perfectly in the west, you also need the eastern partner to cooperate. Ideally, we get a thin layer of clouds in the east. When the sun starts rising, the rays pass through the layer of haze and clouds. They multiply the warm light and extend the sunrise event. When the horizon is perfectly clear in the east as the sun rises, the gold light quickly changes to amber and white, but we can live with it.

On days when the east is socked in with thick clouds, chances of getting great sunrise images over the Tetons goes way down. A creative photographer might still get some shots, but nothing like the days when the horizon is cooperating in the east.

There are hybrid days, too! Sometimes we get broken clouds in the east. The rising sun peaks through the openings with warm bands of light and can create even more spectacular shots than on “normal” days. It is all a matter of timing and quite a bit of luck. The bands of light can hit rows of trees, barns, peaks, or ridges—creating drama you can only dream about. Typically, those are the images featured in magazines. You have to earn them, or maybe just be lucky to be in town that day.

Some days, the clouds and light in the east are THE SHOW! Turn around and shoot it! When the Tetons are shrouded in clouds, it’s definitely worth looking east for a new foreground subject. I like to find water to put in the bottom of a sunrise when possible. The Gros Ventre river and Flat Creek in town can work, especially when the light is good over Sleeping Indian mountain in the east. The Buffalo River is also good for easterly facing sunrises.

Sunsets work in a similar manner. The mechanics are a bit different, of course. In many places in the country, the best light of a sunset happens in the last 15 minutes and a little past the actual sunset. But, here in the shadows of the Tetons, the sun goes down much sooner. The light is still quite bright and hot. For the spectacular sunsets, we still need clouds, but not too many. More importantly, we DON’T need banks of thick clouds anywhere between the Tetons and the setting sun on the Idaho side.  Again, it takes two to tango! A thick wall of clouds in Idaho will kill our sunset. A thin layer of clouds on the Idaho side can amplify the sunset light and our sky can go fiery red. In the winter, the sun passes far to the south, and light the south faces of the mountains. Most tourists visit Jackson Hole in the summer and never get to see the winter sunsets. They can also be spectacular.

It helps to already have a few locations scouted out before the sunrise period. Normally, the best photography happens during the mornings and evenings. The period in between is good for checking on new spots or angles. If you are only in the valley for a couple of days, the Mormon Row barns are a popular place for a good morning shoot. Snake River Overlook and Oxbow Bend are also great morning spots and are all easy to access. Schwabacher Landing is closed to vehicle and bike traffic this year, but you can still walk in.

Photographing or witnessing a splendid sunrise or sunset is so unpredictable. There are many factors that must all come together at just the right time. There are days when I am driving north and I am sure it just won’t happen—then a few clouds open up and it might one of the best sunrise shooting experiences in months. Other days, I drive north from town and see exactly what I am hoping to photograph, then get excited, only to have a cloud fill in from the east and ruin the morning event. Lots of things can spoil the sunrise. Fog can roll in and obscure everything, so I just have to adapt by moving to another spot or waiting it out. One morning, I had a good sunrise, complete with the setting moon over the Grand. I made it to Teton Overlook, only to find it full of tents and army equipment and soldiers. I slowed down, because that was the exact spot I needed to shoot from, but the guard waved me on. I told her I was just wanting to get a few shots, but that wasn’t going to happen. As it turned out, Dick Cheney was in town for Christmas at a time not long after 9-11 and while he was still vice-president. The army was there to protect him and the country, of course.

Often, while driving out to get to a sunrise location, I will spot a few moose or bison. It will likely still be very dark, so I photograph the sunrise first, then go back to the animal. They are usually fairly close to where I saw them originally. Depending on where the animal was, I might abandon the current “semi-planned” landscape and go to the moose first, hoping for a good sunrise with the moose or bison in the scene. It’s a gamble either way. Besides the normal “two to tango” issue, you throw in the unpredictability of a wild animal.


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Comments (6)

  1. Thanks for the tip about this article on your 11/15/2016 post. I had never read this post before so I appreciate the direction from “There should have been a Moon.”

  2. Randy, there are lots and lots and lots of old posts now! You can get to a bunch of them by clicking on the box at the top of the navigation bar called “Index of Old Posts”. Best regards, Mike Jackson

  3. This is a good article for “lazy Randy” to read to get him motivated to get out there now that this dreary winter seems to be folding up it’s tent. This is a great article to read … again and again and again.

  4. Hi Mike! We just got back from the Tetons (kayaking and biking) and can’t wait to go back again! I see it was a banner year for wildflowers. We had opportunities, but I think it would have been better a week earlier. Love seeing your new photos and all the info on your site. Keep living the dream!

  5. Kevin, Thanks for the note. Some of the Balsom Root plants are past prime now, replaced by Mule’s Ear (similar yellow flowers), and One Flowers. Purple Lupine are good now in many areas and we are seeing new patches of Penstemon and early Indian Paintbrush. The point here is the fact the wildflower season unravels slowly throughout the summer.

  6. And again and again. I’ve read this post at least 3 or 4 times and enjoy it every time. By the way, the place to see great sunSETs is over on my side of the mountains. We have at least a couple of good sunsets every week. Your friend, Lazy Randy.

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