The Southwest, and specifically southern Utah where I spent my first week or so, is amazing (the rock formations are awe-inspiring and gawk-worthy), and I love living in San Diego (how can you not like living in a beach town?). I think my heart lies in the mountains though. I’ve spent the last four full days here in Grand Teton National Park (in Wyoming), and I can’t get enough of it. I love the mountain lakes, streams, and rivers, and miss them when they are not around… I guess it must have something to do with growing up in the coastal mountains of northern California.
Grand Teton consists of the large, flat valley of Jackson Hole where the Snake River winds through wetland meadows and sagebrush flats, and the Teton Range which rises sharply and dramatically from the valley floor on the west side of the park. The valley floor with several lakes, including large Jackson Lake sits around 7000 feet or less while the peaks of the Teton Range rise into the 10,000 to 12,000 foot range, with Grand Teton reaching all the way to 13,770 feet.
With the sun setting behind such a large, close mountain range, I’ve found that most of the good landscape shooting tends to be in the morning. Photographers are serious about getting their shots too! On Friday, on the advice of someone who had done it the day before, I rose at 4 AM, put on my clothes, and drove about 45 minutes to the spot I wanted to shoot, down on Schwabacher Road. As I pulled into the parking lot, there was one car there already, and a van was pulling in behind me with about 15 people from a photographer’s workshop! So, I got there just in time to nab the spot I had picked out the previous day before I was crowded by the rest of the people :) Unfortunately, I’m not terribly excited by any of the photos I took at Schwabacher that morning. Not until my fourth evening here did I capture a shot of the Tetons that I’m happy with (which is ironic, since I think it is tougher to shoot in the evening):
Willow Flats, Jackson Lake, and Grand Teton, Grand Teton NP, WY
That 4 AM morning was a great one though (better than the 5 AM one the day before!). The car that was in the parking lot before me was a photographer (by hobby) named John and his brother Mike, who were fun, friendly guys. After shooting at Schwabacher, we all headed up to Mormon Row to shoot a couple of old circa-1890 barns. I thought I brought a lot of equipment with me (two camera bodies, 4 lenses, tripod, polarizing filters, two flashes, flash clamp, cleaning supplies, bags, and of course batteries, cards, etc) but let me tell you, plenty of other photographers brought a lot more! That morning, John lent me a level (and gave me his old one to keep!), a split-grad neutral density filter, a flash, a 100-400mm lens, and more! Plus, he gave me a good lesson on the Depth Of Field Preview button. It’s operation, I’m ashamed to say, perplexed me before, but now it all makes complete sense and I used it plenty yesterday :) Anyway, while we were shooting the second barn with the Tetons as the backdrop, we noticed the local bison herd getting closer and closer, till Mike and I decided to scram back behind the fence while John stood about 50 feet from the herd with one of the big bulls eyeing him as if to charge! Eventually John retreated too and we shot from behind the fence while the entire heard passed through the 50 yard space between us and the barn :)
Bison, Mormon Row, Grand Teton NP, WY
The wildlife here, all-around, is amazing. In the four and a half days I’ve been here I have seen bears, bison, elk, antelope, moose, mule deer, coyote, geese, ducks, marmots, chipmunks, toads, butterflies, and numerous other birds and small animals. Some, like the moose and most of the birds are pretty timid, while others, like the bison and some deer don’t seem to mind your presence much at all. Last night I had two mule deer wandering through my campsite, grazing on the local vegetation, not more than 30 feet from me, until they got territorial and chased each other away! This morning, it was two big bucks doing the same :) The generous amount of wildlife here is because Grand Teton, together with Yellowstone National Park and two large national forests, combine to make up the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (GYE), the largest protected and mostly-undeveloped wilderness in the contiguous United States. It is really just a small pocket showing us a bit of what the entire west used to be like when millions of bison and other animals roamed the plains a hundred years ago.
Mule Deer, Antelope Flats, Grand Teton NP, WY
When I left Arches in southern Utah nearly a week ago, I drove up to Eden Valley, Utah and stayed the night with my aunt and uncle’s friends’ who graciously put me up in their gorgeous new home that they just moved into. It was great to have some company for the evening, sleep in a real bed, and have a home-cooked meal for a change :) I had only been to Eden during the winter (I definitely plan on going back then) but the summer there is beautiful as well. The rolling hills and ski-resort mountains were all spring-green and the lake looked enticing. From there I drove up through the Cache National Forest, by Bear Lake (stunningly blue), and on up to Jackson and Grand Teton.
I spent the first few days roaming around the park in the mornings and evenings looking for wildlife and shooting landscapes, and swimming in Jackson Lake (cool, but refreshing) and exploring downtown Jackson during the day. The town of Jackson has a historic downtown area with a town square/park, lots of galleries, restaurants, and shops. Because of the scarcity of land here and the attractive qualities the area has, real estate has become very expensive. It is nice to visit though. I had some good food and beer at the Snake River Brewery, and met some folks from Minnesota that I almost went rock climbing with. I slept till noon instead though and then went white water rafting down the Snake River!
Yesterday, I went looking for wildlife just after sunrise and found this lone bison out in the sagebrush flats, far from the main road:
Bison, Grand Teton NP, WY
After that, I went on my first serious hike here in the Tetons, up into Cascade Canyon. To get to the canyon, I took the shuttle boat across Jenny Lake to the trailhead (you can walk around the lake, but I ended up hiking 17.4 miles total, so I’m glad I took the boat). The trail goes up a steep canyon, past Hidden Falls, and Inspiration Point, along Cascade Creek. After 4 1/2 miles the trail splits and I headed up toward Solitude Lake, at which point that canyon opens up considerably and there were beautiful fields of tiny yellow flowers (there are quite a few flowers blooming all over the park), and looking back down canyon gave you a view of Grand Teton peak. Eventually I made it to Solitude Lake, up at 9000 feet, and hung out with a group of soon-to-be school teachers from North Carolina who I hiked back down the trail with. The lake was a balmy 41.6 degrees (their group guide, Dave, had a thermometer with him), but I took the plunge anyway! Dave was the only other person brave/smart enough to get in the water (it was very cold, but I’m glad I went in).
On the way up the trail I had my telephoto lens on and was keeping my eye out for critters. I saw a couple moose, lots of marmots, and chipmunks, but no bear. It really pays to know your camera equipment well, because I missed a money shot of a chipmunk munching on a flower only because I didn’t get the proper focus quickly enough… instead of wasting time changing my focus point, I should have just pressed my shutter button halfway and manually overrode the focus with my left hand. Oh well, live and learn. Instead, I got this shot:
Chipmunk, Inspiration Point, Grand Teton NP, WY
This morning I packed up my campsite and am heading up to Yellowstone. I’m expecting to be there for about a week, but I don’t think there is any internet access in the park, so I’ll probably be out of touch for a bit.