Best of the Tetons

A Winter Day in Yellowstone:

Hoping for Bobcats!

I can’t recall anyone ever saying they saw a Bobcat in Grand Teton National Park. Bobcats probably roam a few areas, but much of the Snake River corridor is closed to human entry during the winter months and they would be extremely difficult to spot in the summer. Over the past couple of years, a few Bobcats have been showing up along the Madison River in Yellowstone National Park. This year, I heard of another one or two Bobcats around the Roosevelt Junction area in Yellowstone. I’ve never seen a Bobcat, much less photographed one, so when a friend called asking if I wanted to share the expense on a custom tour to look for the Bobcats, I had to say yes.

Yellowstone Winter Tour Bus

Bob Seidel and Dave Mills put together the trip, then invited me. Carolyn ZX Bishop (a Best of the Tetons subscriber) and her husband, Bob, were also part of the trip. Our coach was similar to the 14 passenger coach, shown above, but it was considerably smaller. For some reason, I never took a photo of our coach. Ours “could” carry six passengers. We had five, but I believe three would have worked even better! Two riders had to climb into a cramped back seat, then out again when we found something.

Mt. Haines

The beauty of leaving from West Yellowstone is the very short drive to get to possible action! Riverside Drive is only a few miles in and Seven Mile Bridge is, well, seven miles from West. Madison Junction is only another seven miles from there. Reports of earlier sightings indicated we should look for the Bobcats between Riverside Drive and Mt. Haynes overlook.

Search Zone

All five of our riders had one mission: Find a Bobcat! Buffalo Bus Touring Company had numerous vehicles out on Thursday, all connected via radios. Several other tour companies had similar “Bobcat” tours running up and down the road looking for Bobcats. If they had ever appeared, the odds were good that someone would have seen them. The map above should give you an idea of the area we covered all day.

Bobcat Terrain

This photo might give a feel of what we were seeing along the Madison River. Bobcats can hide along the banks under logs and stumps, ready to ambush a Trumpeter Swan, Canada Goose, duck, squirrel, or showshoe hare. Needless to say, it would be easy to miss any of the three reported Bobcats unless they were out in the open. The last sightings I heard about were on Saturday, and that day people only saw one for a short period. My trip was on the following Thursday. I’ll likely hear of other people seeing them again, but there’s always a “luck of the draw” involved.

Bison

So… we didn’t see Bobcats, but we did have other wildlife opportunities. Several herds of Bison were hanging near the Madison River.

Trumpeter Swans

This year, dozens of Trumpeter Swans were using the open waters of the Madison. I was told that wasn’t too common. There were probably dozens of chances to capture images of Trumpeter Swans with the first glow of the morning sun, but of course we were cruising the roads looking for Bobcats. Call it “Bobcats on the brain!” That would prove to be a common theme.

Great Blue Heron

Along the river, we found quite a few birds, ducks and waterfowl, such as this Great Blue Heron. On many of other days, it would be easy to miss an opportunity like this. With so many eyes trained on the river and river banks, we probably spotted more animals than normal. Carolyn’s keen eyesight caught this elusive heron.

Coyote

Coyotes were the most common mammal we saw during the trip, though we were all watching for Ermine, River Otters, Foxes, and other critters.

Coyote in Snow

Coyotes aren’t hunted in Yellowstone, so they appear to be less shy than here in the Tetons. Actually, they aren’t hunted “in” GTNP, but must be leery if they move outside the boundaries.

Uphill Bison

We had some occasional morning snow which helped texture this Bison bull near Seven Mile Bridge.

Raccoon

There were a couple of reports of Raccoons along the Gibbon River near the falls. We didn’t see them, but later found this one near Riverside Drive. We also saw several Bald Eagles and at least one Golden Eagle. A Red Fox was mousing on the far side of the river, but farther away than I could shoot.

Want to take a Snow Coach Tour?

To enter Yellowstone through the West Gate, South Gate or East Gate in the Winter, you are required to go with either a licensed snowmobile tour group or on a guided snow coach (various sizes and kinds). With a normal park pass, tourists can enter the park on foot, snow shoes, or cross country skis. But, you can’t simply drive your vehicle! (except the NE corridor…see notes at the bottom of the page)

For out trip, Bob and Dave chose Yellowstone Vacations.  Click the link for more details, but of course, there are lots more companies if you do some searches.

Their posted 2016 rates for a custom trip are: $2875 – 30 Passenger, $1340 – 14 Passenger, $795 – 6 Passenger. (plus a couple of relatively small taxes and a tip for the driver). If you were to book one of their many “traditional” trips, the driver has a set schedule and destination—not particularly set up well for a photographer interested in staying to photograph anything. With the custom trips, the guide will stop anywhere and stay as long as the group wants to stay. If we had found a Bobcat, we would have stayed with it all day and possibly never have driven more than 10 miles. Our trip started at 7:00 am and ended just before dusk. My part of the five person trip was $265, plus tip.

I stayed overnight at the Branding Iron Inn for $69  for a Queen Bed. Click the link or call for additional rates.

The distance to West Yellowstone from Jackson is roughly 125 miles. As I mentioned earlier, the advantage of going in at West Yellowstone is you are “right there” at daybreak.

The Jackson Hole / South Entrance Option

Several companies offer snow coach trips into Yellowstone through the south entrance. I checked on the packages several years ago, but it never seemed to work out well financially and logistically….not that it can’t be done! It is roughly 60 miles from town to Flagg Ranch, so the day starts out early to get there in time. The tours leave from Flagg Ranch, but it is another 45 miles or so to Old Faithful Inn. That gets you there in the middle of the day in time for a viewing or maybe two of Old Faithful and a lunch, then back on the coach to head home. Some of the packages include overnight accommodations in either a primitive cabin ($110 +/-) or the Snow Lodge ($260 +/-). From there, you can book day coach tours to other areas of the park, or you can cross country ski or snow shoe around the Old Faithful area. As before, the best way to see what you want is to book a custom trip, meaning you pay for the entire coach or split it with other like minded photographers. At the end of the stay, you catch an afternoon departing coach back to your vehicle at Flagg Ranch.

The Jackson Hole / Gardiner / Cooke City Option

A third option to visit Yellowstone in the Winter is to drive to Gardiner, MT. From there, you are allowed to drive your own vehicle into the NE portion of the park. The road from Gardiner to Cooke City and Silver Gate is open all year. I did that one Winter…read on!

Gardiner Option

This map might help with a “visual” of the Gardiner option. In short, once you make it to Gardiner, you’re in great shape! But, from here to there means driving all the way to Bozeman, east to Livingston, and then back south to Gardiner. On my previous trip, I kept the mileage. I stayed overnight in the Super 8 Motel, then drove out the Lamar at least once each day and then back to Gardiner. By the time I made it back home, I had traveled 1280 miles—which happens to be the distance we drive when we visit Darla’s parents near Fargo, ND or my Mom in Oklahoma City! Of course, this is in slow and sometimes treacherous Winter driving conditions.

Hindsight is 20/20, right?

I still like the West Yellowstone option. The drive from Jackson to there is tolerable, especially if you like to stop once in a while to photograph eagles, hawks, barns, and grain elevators! Rooms are relatively cheap in West and there are plenty of restaurants to choose from. You leave early and are in the thick of the action almost immediately. With a custom tour, you can start out with a “battle plan” (target subject) and then abandon or modify the plan as needed. Since the tour companies are generally connected via their radios, you have a very good chance of finding the targets without really needing to do “all” of the searching.  I’d probably spend the extra money to reduce the number of people in the “six” passenger vehicle to only three (that is assuming the other two were willing to pay more, too). If I could afford it, I’d consider doing two days of touring. I would have loved to have seen the Bobcat, but looking back, out tunnel vision focus on them we probably caused us to pass over some other good opportunities.


One-on-One Photography Excursions: I should probably mention that I offer photography excursions here in Grand Teton National Park and the National Elk Refuge. It is a great way to see a lot of the park, find out where to look for wildlife, and hopefully improve your skills!

Like This Post? Share It

Comments (7)

  1. Lowell Schechter

    Mike, I would love to do Yellowstone in the winter and be on one of those snow coaches. On our trip to Yellowstone we stayed the first couple of days in West Yellowstone and then we drove to Jackson in the Tetons. I can see that it is such a different look in the winter and the snow on the bisons really brings out details on them. And obviously there is a lot to see and photograph. Lowell

  2. Mike, yes the adrenaline expectation ran high for the bobcats but it was a good day. I always enjoy observing the wildlife and being with friends! You got some good shots in varied light! Thanks for joining us.

  3. Mike,

    Yes, we got two long distance sightings of bobcats on our trip in January and it was something I had yet to see on one of our annual guided trips. What was funny was the reaction to all of the drivers when we spotted a raccoon. They acted as if we had spotted Elvis, it just shows how unusual it is to find one there, they said they were only aware of four coons in the entire park which I found amazing. Great work!

  4. Hi Tony,
    Through the fall and early winter, I’ve trapped and relocated 6 raccoons out of my back yard. I never see them in the daytime, but they come in to eat the bird food I put out for the songbirds. I’ve seen a family of them along the Snake River while fishing, and I saw several of them near the Snake River Bridge going into Wilson. One lady had a batch of them under her house. I’d have loved to visit her when the youngsters were just learning to climb on branches and logs. I didn’t know any of them were in Yellowstone. I asked our guide if they were indigenous? She thought they were. I had a pizza with Tom Mangelsen this afternoon. He got shots of the Bobcat the week before, but said it was generally slim pickin’s. It was still plenty fun.

  5. jeff c birmingham

    We have made it in to YS in the winter a hand full of time from both west YS and the south gate. West is by far the best if you r going in on a guided tour. We want to make the trip gardiner. But the drive to jackson is so long that is hard to make that trip when you only have so much time. But a guided snow coach you can book just for what you want to do would make it great if you could get a small group together to do it. I may try and do that this coming winter trip. We r lucky enough to have bobcat on our ranch here in south Texas i saw one this weekend. the hard part is being ready when they show up r u find one. But theres nothing like see one in the snow. Well better luck next time at least you got out and had a good time doing something that u don’t get to do every day. Thanks for the daily post it sure make my time away from there a lot easier.

  6. A couple of years ago I was going to hike in to the Subway in Zion, but due to a bum hip I had to turn around. As a substitute, I went to the Wildcat canyon trail and hiked part of it. While eating lunch, I saw a bobcat, which eventually allowed me to come within about 25-30 yards of it. I am glad my hip was acting up that day!

  7. Lowell, the Teton Photography Group is on a snow coach trip in Yellowstone right now and we are planning to have a number of them next winter.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *