Fall Foliage season isn’t quite as easy to define as you might think. To be specific, the calendar says Fall begins on September 22nd this year, but that is a date that simply splits the seasons of a 365 day cycle. In the mountains, Fall can sneak up on you, and due to the many elevation changes, it doesn’t happen at the same time everywhere! As I write this post in the fourth week of August, the show is just beginning. The river bottoms are usually full of cottonwoods and willows. The meadows and mountainsides usually host the aspens. The lower shrubbery and berry bushes can follow entirely different schedules.
If you are just wanting the dates, foliage season is usually best during the last week in September and the first week in October. If someone pressed me to come up with one single date, I’d say October 3rd for the region around Oxbow Bend. But, it varies year to year and region to region throughout the Park.
Berry bushes along the Moose/Wilson road are turning quickly. Berries are thick there this year and leaves are turning red, orange and yellow. They are not going unnoticed by the black bears either. Moose have even been seen eating berries. Just about everywhere you look, you can see small patches of yellow in the aspens. For the past week or so, their once bright green hue started shifting towards pea green and their leaves are beginning to have a more dry, rustling sound. The river bottoms in the valley vary only slightly in elevation from one end to the other and along the Gros Ventre river. Generally speaking, the willows and cottonwoods usually begin at about the same time and peak at about the same time throughout. I have shots of cottonwoods in near peak form on the 22nd of September and also shots of them looking great into the middle of October.
The aspens are arguably the star of the show in the fall. Some areas start looking good around Labor Day, especially at higher elevations. Generally, that’s still early for the bulk of the aspen stands. And, it might be of interest to understand that many aspen stands are linked by the root systems. Some are independent organisms, but you will often see a large clump turning at the same time. Aspens can be found in almost all parts of Grand Teton National Park, but of course, that includes a lot of diversity in elevation. They will often be intermixed with the spruce trees, lodge pole pines, and other evergreens.
While not exactly part of the traditional Grand Teton National Park boundaries, mountain maple trees grow on the hillsides in the Snake River Canyon south of town and on into Idaho along the Palisades Reservoir. Color in the maples start showing up around 10 miles north of Alpine Junction. I normally make it a point to go down at least once a year. Mountain Maple leaves tend to stay on the trees longer than aspens, so it gives me a little more of a viewing window. Peak is usually during the last week of September.
Fires and Smoke: In the past few years, the Forest Service and the Park Service has been doing controlled burns in the fall. Last year, there was a huge, dangerous human caused fire just south of the town of Jackson. Most of the controlled burns were postponed to fight the natural and human caused fires. The Jackson Hole Chamber of Commerce requests the two agencies to put off the controlled burns until after peak foliage season, but their efforts don’t appear to do much good. This year, there are huge fires in Idaho. Smoke from those fires and other regional fires can still fill our valley if the wind blows our direction. There are a few fires burning in Yellowstone this year, so some of the smoke can be from fires in other regions. Right now, there are no large fires in the immediate Jackson Hole area.
Brown Years: Every once in a while, we get a brown year. Instead of turning bright yellow and orange, the leaves just turn brown and fall off. The last time it happened, I heard people from Colorado saying much of their region did the same thing. I can’t offer an explanation and I am not sure any knows for sure, nor do they seem to be able to predict when it will happen again. Even in those years, a few areas still turn yellow as normal.
Ideal Conditions: By late in the summer, most of the snow has melted off the tops of the Grand and Mt. Moran. There might be a few remnant patches, but most is gone. If I could place my order, I love to get a good snow storm just at the beginning of the foliage season. Mountain climbers probably hate it, but I love seeing the mountains coated with the white frosting to go against all of the color in the valley floor. Even if we do get a huge storm in the fall, most of it melts quickly on the valley floor until early into December. It never hurts to “ask” for ideal photographic conditions. Also, I have a blog post called “Anatomy of a Teton Sunrise” which covers much of the dynamics of getting good sunrise images. Click the link to read it!
Photography: If you are traveling here to simply view the foliage season, you won’t need much extra equipment. Just enjoy it! It will be somewhere between chilly to cold in the morning most of the season, so dress in layers. I usually take my photos with the aid of a tripod. I suggest everyone use one, but I know that isn’t going to happen. It is probably more of an issue for the very early morning periods or late evening sunsets when long shutter speeds make it harder to hold the camera still.
Besides the tripod, I’d also suggest digging out your circular polarizer (filter) and using it for the entire foliage season! These filters are great to darken the blue in the sky and water and making the yellows much more intense. Manufacturers make circular polarizers and linear polarizers. For landscapes, the circular polarizer is preferred. Polarizers usually work best when shooting perpendicular to the light of the sun. In most cases, the filter will have little effect when the light is coming from behind you. Polarizing filters usually have two layers. Spin the front layer to dial in the amount of polarizing effect you need or want. Locations:
Oxbow Bend: This is one of the “Big Four” locations in the park for viewing any time of the year, but especially so in the fall. Peak can start in the last week of September and last into the first full week in October. There is a long stand of aspens along the West corner of the “bend” with Mt. Moran protruding from the horizon in the background. Typically, the yellows start at the south end and then work gradually to the north, but some years, it just goes off all at the same time. On calm mornings, you can get mirror reflections. If you are lucky, you can get snow on the peaks, orange and yellows in the trees, a perfect reflection, a few ducks, loons or waterfowl, and some perfectly lit cloud formations. It usually happens once each season!
There will be a few photographers set up in “their” spot at 3:00 am and they will guard it as they would their most prized possessions. They will stay in the same spot until light hits the bank of trees, then leave. In the end, they have a few thousand of the same shot and end up with two or three that are much better than the rest. This tactic seems to work for them, and if they are happy, I shouldn’t make any comments at all. And, the tactic has many followers. There will be dozens and dozens of tripods overlapping each other at the main viewing location next to the parking lot.
I think there are two premier times. The first one happens long before first light, often called the “Alpenglow” period. The sky can be various hues of purple, blue and pink or magenta. The yellows and oranges of the aspens are not really a huge factor, but the rest of the scene can be stunning. The second time is when the sun just barely clears the mountains in the east and start lighting the stand of trees. Quite honestly, all of the time and shots in between are not usually going to be the “keepers” for the morning. People take a zillion photos during this time, and I do it, too. They just won’t have the impact until the light hits the trees. If you plan on shooting in this interim period, I’d advise using a graduated neutral density filter.
There are dozens of good shooting spots during a good sunrise at Oxbow Bend. I prefer to go early and get the Alpenglow shots from a couple of locations, then move quickly from spot to spot. Once the sky turns gray, I take a break, drink some hot chocolate and shoot the breeze with some friends. Since I’ve been there a lot of times over 26 years, I already know quite a few places I want to shoot from, but I’d suggest using this time to search for your own alternative locations and be ready to move quickly when the light hits. On a typical morning at Oxbow, I probably shoot from 20 or more spots. In several of them, I take the extra time to do a panoramic group that is later stitched together in Photoshop. I shoot from the edges of the parking areas, then drop down to the water’s edge and work that area. I wear a pair of Muck Boots so I can walk along the shore line without worrying about the mud. There are also a few shots worth taking from the hillside above the road, too. In some places, you can get shots that make it look like you were the only one there…no campers, cars, trucks or tourists! Finally, I end up at the spot where the early birds were earlier. Most of them will be gone, yet I can get great shots and have been able to sleep a lot longer. The aspen stands at the upper parking lot, just to the east of the main parking area, sometimes goes to peak at the same time as the lower area. In many years, they often peak a few days after the other zone. This stand of aspens often turn orange and even has hints of red.
Snake River Overlook: Another of the “Big Four”, SRO is good in the fall, but not quite as spectacular for foliage. There are a few aspens mixed in with the spruce and lodge pole pines near the viewing areas, but not too many. If the river bottom is blazing, it can still be worth the time and energy. I usually go there at other times of the year and save my foliage shooting window for other places.
Schwabacher Landing: This is the third of the “Big Four”. During the 2013 season, the Park Service has left the gate to the parking areas at Schwabacher locked. They blame it on the budget cuts. You can still walk in or go in on a horse, but vehicle and bike traffic is prohibited. Maybe they will open the area for the fall season? It takes about 20 minutes to walk down from the highway if you walk fast and don’t stop too often. Many people walk in every day, but I suspect it will be a big parking problem along the highway in the fall. I’ll adjust this post if the Park Service opens the area. Just like Oxbow Bend, a few photographers will stake out their spot long before sunrise and won’t move from it until after light hits the spruce trees and water. After that period, they’ll move out and others can get their shots in their prized spots. Ironically, the few “premium” spots at the beaver pond area have very few cottonwoods and aspens in the scene. There are many good locations at Schwabacher with better color for the cottonwoods in the fall, and many of those spots won’t have homesteaders on them. And just like Oxbow Bend, other than the very early Alpenglow period, most of the best shots happen when the light hits the river bottoms. Prior to that, the mountains will be lit brightly and the lower sections will still be very dark. Of all places in the park, this area may “need” neutral density filters if you are trying to catch the intermediate color in the first light clouds. Peak season for Schwabacher Landing is harder to pinpoint. The window is somewhere between September 22nd and October 10th. I have nice shots from there last year on September 25th. In 2008, there was yellow and green still in the cottonwoods on September 29th. By October 8th, some trees were bare and some were peak yellow.
Mormon Row Barns: The barns on Mormon Row are the last of the “Big Four” in Grand Teton National Park. Well, I call them the “Big Four”. I don’t know if they have the official designation. The barns are located a couple of miles east of the main highway along Antelope Flats road. If you are visiting the valley and missed the peak time at Oxbow Bend, you might still catch peak at the barns and homesteads along Mormon Row. The aspens near the peach house and the cottonwoods near the Thomas Moulton barn (the south barn) usually begin their seasonal change at the very end of September and can extend into the middle of October.
In the fall, expect big crowds at the barns. All of them! Early in the morning, there will be people lined up everywhere before first light. They’ll stay until the light hits the barns and finally move. Patience at this time of the year is a necessity, if not merely a virtue. Additional Locations: It’s hard to beat the “Big Four”. With the current exception of Schwabacher Landing, all of them are easy to get to during the fall. You can drive directly to the spots in about any vehicle, get shots or view the scene, and move on. Some of the other locations are also very nice, but they might require a little more effort or even some hiking. The list below will contain places with either aspens or cottonwoods that can add to a fall scene.
The Meadows at Arizona Creek: Arizona Creek feeds into Jackson Lake between Leeks Marina and the Lizard Creek campground on the northern end of the park. About two miles past the creek crossing on the main road is a small pullout on the NE side of the road. There is a meadow with golden grass surrounded on two sides with mature aspens. I like to photograph there at least once a year. It is a good place to shoot up into the blue sky from within a stand of yellow aspens, along with capturing the beautiful stands of trees. Triangle X Area: There are lots of aspens along the highway near Triangle X Ranch and Moosehead Ranch with views of the Teton range in the background. Cunningham Cabin is in the same area. It is possible to capture the aspens with the classic old buck rail fences and possibly a few of the trail horses from one of the dude ranches. Taggart Lake Trailhead: Several stands of aspens are well placed in front of the Tetons with an old cabin and buck rail fences. I wish the power lines were not behind the cabin and barns, but they are not too prominent.
Shadow Mountain: Shadow Mountain runs parallel with the highway on the eastern side of the valley floor. The mountain itself is outside the Park boundaries, but it still provides great views looking back West. I go there most often in the mornings. There are two forest service access points along the East Boundary Road. Check the maps for specifics. This is also a good area for Spring wildflowers. The road is a bit rough, but still passable in a passenger vehicle during the summer and fall.
Up the Gros Ventre: Take the Gros Ventre road out towards Slide Lake and beyond. There are lots of aspens stands along the way. Most of the drive will feel more like the red rock ranges of Utah and New Mexico than the Tetons. You won’t get that many looks back at the Tetons, but the variety is worth the trip in the fall.
Up the Buffalo River: This little drive is also outside the actual park. Go out the east side of the park at Moran Junction and take the Buffalo River Road a few miles to the east. There can be good sunrises there, looking at the sun and getting reflections in the river. Aspen stands line the road. You can continue on and come back out on the highway heading to Togwotee Pass. Shots here will be less of the grand vistas and more of stands of aspens and the smaller picture.
Laurence Rockefeller Preserve and Phelps Lake: If you happen to be in the Tetons on a rainy or foggy day when the mountains are not visible, consider spending some time at the preserve. On a good day, the hike up and back from Phelps Lake can be rewarding. On the overcast days, think “small” and work on the colorful leaves around the preserve. Lake Creek flows through the preserve, coming out of Phelps Lake. You might be able to find leaves captured in the water, or photograph moving water with a slow shutter speed. Black bears are common in the area with all of the berry bushes along the trails. The preserve is located a few miles south of the visitor’s center at Moose, along the Moose/Wilson road
Chapel of the Transfiguration: Located close to the visitor’s center at Moose, the chapel is great shooting in the fall. There are numerous mature aspen stands behind the church with the Grand just behind. You can also go inside the chapel and shoot through the large picture window.
Down the Canyon: The Snake River runs the entire length of the Jackson Hole valley, then on through the Snake River Canyon south of Jackson. It hits the Palisades Reservoir at Alpine Junction. After it passes through the Palisades dam, it is commonly called the South Fork (of the Snake) and continues on to the Columbia river and eventually into the Pacific Ocean. There are aspens stands along much of the drive to Alpine Junction, but in the fall, the mountain maple trees go ablaze. Many of the trees are located high on the hillsides as you drive down, but just past the Wolf Creek Campground, maple trees are right along the roadside. The colors found in these small maple trees resemble the colors of their cousins in New England. There are also nice drives along some of the smaller dirt roads shooting off the highway on the road heading towards Star Valley and Swan Valley, such as the McCoy Creek Road.
Besides the places I mentioned above, look for spots along Jenny Lake, String Lake, Leigh Lake, Jackson Lake, Cascade Canyon, and Signal Mountain. If this post helps you and you think any of your friends can benefit by it, please “Like” it and “Share” it with them. If you are interested in any of my photos of the region, check out my site at Teton Images.
Okay, I guess I better shut this post down. It is longer than I anticipated, but I wanted it to be filled with information that can help everyone.