Best of the Tetons

Sleigh Ride

The Dead of Winter:

The Cold Realities and Exciting Possibilities of Winter Photography in GTNP.

There are generally two entities at play. First: The weather. Snowfall, cold temperatures and short days are big players. Second: The National Park Service and Bridger-Teton National Forest. They establish closure rules and decide which roads are plowed. I guess you could suggest a third one might be the lack of demand or volume of tourists, but that would probably be a stretch.

Elk Running

This is my second Winter season writing posts for Best of the Tetons. There are numerous related posts specifically written about the season along with the associated Daily Updates pages. (Check the links at the bottom of the page).  The purpose of this Feature Post is to concentrate on the span of time from mid-December to early April.  That’s when most of the region is firmly in the grip of the winter snow pack and when many access roads are cut off.  It is also when large chunks of the area are closed to human activity for wildlife protection and habitat.

SRO December 2014

Snake River Overlook is open year round. It is one of the few winter locations where you can get a good foreground and a vista view. In years past, many people took photos over the beautiful old buck rail fences in front of Triangle X Ranch, but last year, the Park Service tore them down and replaced them with a rather ugly barbed wire fence. It’s just not the same!

Schwabacher Landing is a great area to use as an example for this post. It is one of the most popular areas of the park when it’s open. Countless thousands of photos are taken there every single day. After the first good snowfall, the Park Service locks the gate. Several areas, like Schwabacher Landing and Antelope Flats Road are gated as soon as weather conditions make it dangerous or if the road becomes impassable. Schwabacher can close as early as Thanksgiving or even before. The area is still open until December 15th, but you have to hike in from the highway. There isn’t much of a parking area at the top of the hill, so except for a few hardy souls, you might call it closed.

November 24, 2006

After December 15th, no activity is allowed in the river bottom (North of Moose) at all. While that might sound like a loss, I don’t really think of it that way. The pond and streams at Schwabacher Landing would have already frozen over, eliminating most reflections. It still might be photogenic, but not in the same way as summer and fall. Additionally, almost all wildlife will have left the area, moving south towards the Gros Ventre River or into the National Elk Refuge. Snow is simply too deep for them.

Peach House with Aspen Trees

The Moose-Wilson Road is still open from Moose to the Death Canyon road junction. I drive that three or four mile section several times each Winter. In much the same way, you learn quickly we are not missing that much by not having access to some of the other areas. The snow is deep and there are few animals. You can strap on your snow shoes and hike around in many areas, but scenic vistas are limited there. Great Gray Owls and Horned Owls “could” be there, but I never see them. Snow is too deep for them to hunt for active mice and voles. They move to areas of the valley where they can dive through the snow to the unsuspecting prey.

Sunrise Over Sleeping Indian 2

Three major arteries are severed during the “dead of Winter”. Actually, one of them closes from November 1st to May 1st. The Teton Park Road (Inner Park Loop Road) closes at the Taggart Lake trail head to Signal Mountain resort area. The Park Service closes the road to vehicle travel during those dates regardless of whether there is any snow on the road or issues of through travel. The other artery is Antelope Flats Road. It closes following the first big snow after hunting season. This year, the road was locked sometime in the week prior to Christmas.  The Moose-Wilson road also closes between November 1st and May 1st between the Death Canyon road junction and the South entrance station near Teton Village. A lot of smaller side roads are closed, but those three effectively create a series of one-way-up and one-way-back trips. Cross country skiing and show shoe travel is still permitted in all three areas.

Web Bull Moose Aspens Dec13

The weather is also a factor. During this period, there will almost always be a layer of snow on the ground. Jackson Hole can get 400″ of snowfall during a winter. It takes snow shoes or cross country skis to get around if you want to leave the roads. That’s plenty doable. But, it can be cold…brutally and dangerously cold! Wind can multiply the effect. Winter is often harder on equipment, especially batteries! This page has a few maps, closure areas, and some tips for winter photography: Winter in the Tetons: Tips for travel and photography.

Fly Fishing Snake River March 8

So, why come here in the Winter?

Hoar Frost

It could easily sound like there are just too many cards stacked against a visitor or photographer. Winter photography is not for everyone! It is usually harder. It’s colder. It’s often less predictable. But, the “dark clouds can have a silver lining”.  There are far fewer photographers out taking photos on any average winter day. When you find something good, there won’t be a lot of other people taking the same images. The landscape itself is entirely different than during the green days of summer, or even the golden days of fall. Days are short, so you don’t have to get up as early or stay out as late. Light is usually good for photography all of the daylight hours, a result of the sun being low in the sky. Sunrise and sunsets can last a little longer for the same reason. Some animals hibernate, but the remaining wintering wildlife is pressed into much smaller areas—and some of those areas are right next to the road. I live in town, so knowing the much of the wildlife is in the south end of the valley, I don’t have to drive as far as in the summer. That saves time and gasoline.


During the spring and summer, many of the large animals shed their winter coat. Moose, deer, foxes, sheep, elk, bison, and so forth can look terribly shaggy and unappealing for a whole month. During the winter months, the coats on the same animals are bright, long, and sometimes flowing.

Sleigh Ride

I can get “tunnel vision” at times and forget there many more attractions in the valley, like downhill skiing, snowboarding, cross-country skiing, shoe shoeing. snowmobiling, sled dog tours, sleigh rides, and…well the list goes on and on! I write this blog for all, so I try to include the other activities on the blog once in a while whether I am a participant or just a viewer. I titled this post “The Dead of Winter”, but Jackson Hole is far from dead in the Winter!

Otter Family

The “Tapestry of the Seasons”: As the preceding paragraph suggests, there’s a lot to see and do here. As the last of the leaves fall to the ground in the fall, the area begins its transition into winter. The landscape changes—sometimes overnight—and sometimes gradually. Wildlife opportunities often occur or unfold like chapters in a book. One heats up as other opportunities cool down. Some overlap. For example, I spend a lot of time photographing moose in the fall. I love it! But, in other areas of the park, elk are in their rut period and bears are just finished polishing off the last of the berries. An owl might make an appearance at any time and “steal” some time from moose and landscape photography. As the moose move out to the sage flats, bison move into the south end of the park. Deer and pronghorns begin their annual rut. By late November, bighorns move onto Miller Butte and Trumpeter Swans return to the valley in large numbers. By late December, moose move away from the roads and the bulls lose their antlers, but that’s okay. Swans and Bighorns fill the void. That’s about the same time to start watching for river otters, foxes, and owls again. And so it goes. By late January, the fur on most of the bighorns are beginning to bleach out, yet that’s about the same time some of the mountain goats show up in the Snake River canyon. Berry eating birds like Cedar Waxwings, Pine Grosbeaks, and Bohemian Waxwings often migrate through the valley during the winter months, filling in small voids, or offering a break from the other action. Before long, you look up and snow is melting and the animals begin moving around. A whole new season is ready to change the valley again. You might not recognize it initially, but each season has its own tapestry and it repeats itself with an amazing amount of predictability.

Winter Storm

Back to that “Cold Reality” thing: Okay. If you read that last paragraph, you might think its easy to get images here daily. Well, in some respects it might be. If you look over the Daily Updates pages, you can see I can usually bring home some shots for the blog. And, I should probably note I am usually only out for a little while each day. I like making the blog posts about as much as taking the photos, so if things are slow, I start thinking I should be back at the office wring a new Feature Post.

White Out

Some days are down right miserable in the winter. When the wind is howling and the temperatures are hovering at -10°F, it takes a special kind of dedication to open the door of the vehicle and endure those kinds of winter conditions. On some days, I have more of that kind of dedication in me than others. A little snow falling down is actually a plus. Too much can be a negative. Fairly often, the winter light is flat, gray, and dull. On most of those days, you can’t see the mountains, so there’s limited chances for the massive vista shots. If the light is good, or if there is an animal close, I can endure about anything for a while. I like taking photos of the old barns along Mormon Row. I have thousands of photos of each of them. Once the road is closed, it’s a 3/4 mile snow shoe hike from the parking area to the first barn. I can handle that. But for sunrise shots, that means leaving the vehicle roughly 45-60 minutes earlier, and when it’s -10° or lower, the hike with a tripod and gear is a long one. Throw in some wind and it can be dangerous. This is definitely a cold reality! The Chapel of the Transfiguration is open to visitors in the Winter, but you have to hike in from the main road. Issues there are much the same as hiking into the Mormon Row barns.

Some people make it look easy, but you have to look past that and understand they make it look easy by working at it long and hard. Mother Nature seems to pay off in a big way if you are willing to put in the time. You just never know when you’ll come around a bend and find a red fox standing only 25 yards off the road and will spend the next thirty minutes mousing for you. Winter photography is the season when you have the opportunity to get your most unique images, but you get them at the expense of some cold toes, fingers, ears, and a few days mixed in where nothing seems to want to pan out. There’s always “something” to photograph. It takes a certain discipline to be looking for unique “small shots”, even when you’d like to be getting the “big shots”. It’s amazing how often the latter will emerge while thinking small initially.

People reading my Daily Updates in December of 2014 will recognize the section below. I wrote it mainly for the wildlife viewers, knowing the landscapes pretty much stay in the same place.

Settled into Winter:

Most of the winter months offer similar opportunities for both wildlife and landscapes: Dec: 2014 | Nov: 2013  | Dec: 2013Jan: 2014 .

Suggested “Opportunities”: Right now, here are my top spots to check out. Some will be a bit of a gamble, but they might also pay off in a big way if you hit it right:

Previous Winter Related Posts:

Winter: (after the leaves fall until the snow melts)

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Comments (4)

  1. Mike, you are tougher than me. Your shots are gorgeous, but as I sit here in the Arizona desert, I can just imagine how cold it must have been to get them. Love the otters!

  2. Hi Mary,
    I used to winter fly fish a lot. That’s another layer of toughness! Not only is it cold, but you are often standing IN THE WATER with waders! But, I know what you mean. MJ

  3. Terry

    Mike, your photographs continue to amaze and inspire me every time I see them. May you continue to be blessed with your wonderful eye for nature and your totally unselfish means of sharing with all. Some day when we visit Jackson, Wyoming I hope we can meet. Have a good winter and outstanding 2015.

  4. Lowell Schechter

    Hi Mike
    I know that the people who live in that area are probably used to the cold weather but for what you do , to get these beautiful images it takes a lot of fortitude and a lot of hot coffee and mind over matter in that kind of weather

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