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bands of clouds

Revisiting an Old Friend: The Old Patriarch Tree

bands of clouds

Bands of Clouds at the Patriarch Tree

Some subjects deserve more than one chance.

Back in 2005, I was determined to get a good photograph of the iconic Old Patriarch Tree in Grand Teton National Park. At one time, the Teton Park Road (sometimes called the Inner Park Road) used to pass right by the tree, but the road was changed a few years back. The road now sweeps farther to the west and closer to String Lake. Sagebrush now grows where the old road bed once was, but you can still see it if you know where to look. The tree is roughly 3/4 mile from the current paved road, with no marked trail, and through mature fields of sagebrush.

The tree is a “Limber Pine”—one of many that sprinkle the sage flats. The Old Patriarch has a few unique features that set it apart from the rest in the area. First, the Grand Teton “Cathedral Group” acts as a beautiful backdrop, with Teewinot just in front of the Grand. Second, it is isolated from most clutter, yet it has a cluster of spruce trees to help balance and fill the frame. Lastly, one side of the old tree split off the trunk exposing the beautiful textures and colors that light up as the sun rises in the East. Sagebrush and a sloping ridge add their part to complete the composition.

Winter Patriarch

Winter Patriarch

The Teton Park Road closes from Taggart Lake trailhead parking lot to Signal Mountain Lodge at midnight on October 31st. After the seasonal closure, you can still walk or ride a bike, but it is close to nine miles in either direction from the closure gates. The road opens again on May 1st. So, in 2005, I went to the spot and walked out four days in a row, only to get mediocre images. It happens. One day, I probably had no clouds, or another day I probably had too many clouds and couldn’t see the Grand. On the last day of the month, and the last chance of th year, I drove out early again. It was terribly foggy that morning. I sat in the truck for a while trying to decide whether to walk out. I finally decided I was there, and you “never know”. I gathered all the gear and hiked out.

It stayed cloudy for a while, then the wind picked up from the south. Within minutes, the fog had been pushed to the north, exposing the bands of cloud in the sky and clear mountains. Needless to say, I was clicking away. The one I liked had the tree and clouds, but also remnants of the fog behind the tree’s base. The fifth day was the charm!

Old Patriarch Tree

Old Patriarch tree at first light: June 14, 2013

In the eight years since that shot, I’ve been back over and over, but I have yet to equal the experience. I took a cowboy out with a couple of horses and those sequences are also some of my favorites. I’ve hiked in with snow shoes, hiked in with pitch black darkness, and walked out at night the same way. I’ve been there with moon sets and sun rises. I like a lot of them, and other people like a lot of the other ones. It doesn’t take much of a prodding by anyone to get me to go back out there with them. Sometimes, I walk out just for the exercise. I could tell someone I can find the tree in the dark, but after a few trips, I’ve done exactly that.


Old Patriarch Tree and Moon

Moon Over the Old Patriarch

The point here is I feel fine about going back to the same subject over and over—even if I have an image I like a lot from the spot. In Grand Teton National Park, you could easily say the same thing about the Mormon Row barns, Schwabacher Landing, Snake River Overlook, or Oxbow Bend. Seasons change. Clouds and light change constantly. People from other parts of the country might have four or five favorite old barns or covered bridges, or a special bend in the river. All of these spots, and many more, are like old friends I like to go visit a few times each year, or even  several times each season.

Milky Way

A month or so ago, I hiked out in the darkness and took shots of the Old Patriarch along with the overhead Milky Way. Of course, the Teton Cathedral Group was part of the scene. I took a few flashlights with me and lit part of the sagebrush and part of the tree during some 20 second exposures. It is probably the most unique shot I have ever seen with the Old Patriarch Tree.

Side View

Side View of the Old Patriarch Tree

Oh yes, just in case you are wondering why just about everyone seems to take the shot at essentially the same angle, the side view of the same tree is much less appealing. At one time, I am sure it was a well formed, majestic tree but after the northeast side split off, it becomes an “acquired taste”.






String Lake Area MapBy popular request, here’s a map of the Old Patriarch area. When we first moved to Jackson Hole, the old road connected from Jenny Lake to the Spaulding Bay road in essentially a straight line. The Teton Park Road now runs closer to the mountains, but you can still see the old road bed if you know where to look. When I walk out to the Old Patriarch, I park at the junction at the String Lake road. If you look to the southeast, you can see a scar in the distant mountains.  The scar is what is left of the big landslide that created Slide Lake. I take a bearing on that scar and start walking in that direction. The tree is located about 3/4 mile from the junction to the tree. You can get to the tree by any of the other routes indicated in light red. There are no marked trails. You’ll be going through several fields of mature sagebrush, so wear long pants and good boots. Click the thumbnail to view a larger version. If you are a person needing GPS coordinates, try

43.7833°N 110.6978°W

Try this interactive Map via The Photographer’s Ephemeris: Old Patriarch Tree.

Grizzly at Patriarch 2008I like to be there VERY EARLY for the alpenglow period, but after that I usually wait until the sun hits the tree. While not common, I have seen grizzly bears in the area, so you might want to carry bear spray.

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Comments (5)

  1. good post, my partner and i certainly enjoy this website, keep on it

  2. Hi Mason,
    Thanks for the comment! Please help me by passing the link around and Liking posts or Sharing posts on Facebook. I love that old tree! It’s just far enough off the road to make people “earn” the shots! MJ

  3. Carrie

    Beautiful! My husband and I were at Grand Teton with our boys this past September. We too walked out to Old Patriarch. It was one of our favorite places there! Your work is gorgeous!

  4. Visited the Patriarch Tree this past mid May. Mountains wore snow caps.
    Have been visiting the Tetons for years, but was unaware of the
    Patriarch Tree until I started following your awesome blog. Was exciting to
    locate the tree and spend some time photographing it. Thanks for the awesome posts!

  5. I’ve been visiting the Teton’s for years and was also unaware of the Patriarch Tree. Saw your beautiful images while in Jackson (?.) Learned of your blog and have been a follower ever since. We happily sashayed through the sagebrush to the Patriarch Tree on our last trip. Thank you for bringing photographers, non photographers and nature lovers together with your blog. Love the photographs, information and insights. Thank You!!

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