Breaking Free for Better Wildlife Photography

Photography in National Parks for me can definitely be a love hate relationship. Wildlife in these areas are often extraordinarily habituated to humans, or more to the point, have little to no fear of us two legged predators. From a wildlife photographer’s perspective this is an absolute ideal situation. However, photographing wildlife in parks also comes with a dark side: loads of other people and photographers.

If you have spent any amount of time photographing inside of parks like Yellowstone, Grand Tetons, Great Smoky Mountains, Rocky Mountains, etc. . . than you know exactly what I mean here. Cruise along the loop road through Cades Cove in the GSMNP (the Smokies) and you will contend with sometimes hundreds or even thousands of other people for photographs of whitetail deer. Some of these folks are serious photographers but the lions share are tourists with point and shoot cameras who quickly and aptly take on the personification of what I like to call, a touron. Talk with any photographer who has paid their dues photographing in Cades Cove and they will have a long list of stories to tell you about this. Stories such as 5 hour long traffic jams to move 11 miles, mobs of people descending upon deer you are photographing. Diesel trucks galore jumping deer as they pull up next to them. People throwing rocks at deer and bears to make them look at them for a photograph. The list goes on. I know some professional photographers who refuse to shoot in the Cove for this reason.

Jump across the country to Grand Tetons National park and the situation is quite similar – only this time with serious photographers. Let a bull moose make a presence along the aptly named “Moose-Wilson” road and you can have 50 plus photographers jamming up the narrow little commuter road with their tripods. For many, this may be their first opportunity at a big bull moose and with zeal and aggressiveness that would make traders on the floor of the stock exchange stop to watch, they push and shove their way into position – other photographer’s big lenses be damned.

For me, this doesn’t work. I make my living off of photographing wildlife. I need natural behavior in great settings, and loads of time to spend working my subject in order to capture exactly what I want. Massive blobs of people are inhibiting. They change the behavior of the animals, they jockey for position, they create a situation that often keeps you confined to one spot with your tripod. No thanks. Places like the Tetons and the Cove are so popular because animals are extremely abundant. One can simply drive around looking for traffic jams if they want to photograph wildlife. Moose jams, bear jams, bison jams, deer jams. . . all of these phrases are official terms in the lexicon of both National Park and wildlife photographer jargon.

So what is a photographer to do? Find your own wildlife – something I reiterated over and over on my recent workshop in Jackson Hole and Grand Tetons National Park. You don’t need the crowds to help you find your subject and you probably don’t want the crowds when you do find what your looking for. Having an animal all to yourself to work on yours and its term is a completely different experience.

I just got home from a week long photo trip in Rocky Mountain National Park. This place reminds me quite a bit of the Smoky Mountains. Its beautiful. The photographic possibilities here, both landscape and wildlife, are truly endless. And so too, can the crowds be. Luckily, like the GSMNP, the wildlife here really is that abundant and so just like when I am in Cades Cove, I spent the vast majority of my time off the beaten path if you will, photographing elk and mule deer all by myself with not a single tourist, photographer, or ranger for that matter, to deal with.

Of course the key to finding wildlife on their own terms is all about knowing their behavior, habitat, food choices, etc. . . In other words, their ecology. I realize that I probably beat this concept to death but it really is THAT important.

For this journal posting, I decided I would put together a short how to in regards to how I locate wildlife in three of my favorite National Parks: Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Grand Tetons National Park, and Rocky Mountain National Park. These concepts of course can be applied elsewhere in other parks and with other species.

Rocky Mountain National Park

Bull elk in the rut make it pretty darn easy to find them without the crowds. That bugle of theirs that so characterizes this time of the year is all about announcing their presence. The bugle, and there are quite a few different types, is used primarily for announcing ones genetic and fighting superiority. This in turn both attracts mates, would be contenders, and me. So if you were in RMNP last week, you would have found me out and about well before sunrise driving slowly along in my Suburban with windows down – despite snow fall – with cup of coffee in hand and head leaning out the window listening. Once located, a short hike up into rocky slopped ponderosa pine forests that dominate the landscape surrounding the more popular meadows quickly produced all the elk I needed to fill my mornings and afternoons. Ponderosa pines in these forests are widely spaced allowing for plenty of light, easy walking, great backgrounds, and open meadows of their own.

The large meadows in this park, which are often themselves referred to as parks, do attract a large number of elk and therefore people as well. Aside from crowds, one specific obstacle that they present is the fact that they are closed from 5pm – 7am. Now the sun is not popping up over the mountains this time of year (Fall) until right around 7. So in the morning, as long as you wait, you are allowed to enter the meadows. In the evening however, 5pm is the witching hour and rangers will promptly drive around kicking you out. So what you have here are crowds AND regulations confining you to the roadside. Move away from the meadows and this all changes. You are allowed in the forests, down the hiking trails, along river bottoms (not smack dab in the middle of Moraine Park though) and other places that are not the elk meadows. Here, you will have access to even more elk than in the meadows themselves typically, and you will have them all to yourself.

Great Smoky Mountain National Park

Lets get one thing straight right off the bat here. When I’m talking about photographing whitetail deer in this park, really I am talking about photographing deer in one place – Cades Cove. Not familiar with this location? Its fantastic. Loads of big bucks, turkey, bear, coyote, owls, woodpeckers, etc. . . All said and done, most photographers are here for the whitetails first, and the bears second.

Driving around the 11 mile loop road can be an absolute circus during the height of the fall foliage and start of the whitetail rut. As I mentioned above, you can find yourself contending with hundreds of other people at a time, all driving slowly along a one way loop road. Its bumper to bumper out there at times and when big bucks are spotted, you will see trucks left abandoned in the middle of the road, all the doors open, and people scampering out to the field to look.

So how do you photograph deer and bear in the Cove without all these people? Simple. Just be prepared to get your boots muddy. First off you need to become familiar with Sparks and Hyatt Lane. These are the two dirt roads that run across the middle of Cades Cove. Consider finding a good place to park near the creek and get to walking. Hike the edge of the woods and keep your eyes open. You will quickly find that the deer along the sides of the road are usually just the tip of the ice burg.

Another great location is the Wet Bottoms. One time around the loop and you will figure out where this is pretty easily. Once again, park and walk in. Like the woods, creek, and meadows around Sparks and Hyatt, you usually don’t have to go far to find what you are looking for. I should probably mention that this is also a great place to find black bear as well so keep your wits about you. Also consider the road leading to Abrams Falls trail head. There is a large hill on your right hand side blocking any view through there and I have found that on numerous occasions, hiking in around the other side of the hill will has produced some great opportunities with big bucks – especially in late September when the big boys are still hanging out in bachelor groups.

Grand Tetons National Park

Lets just say that this place offers a whole lot of diversity when it comes to wildlife. Moose, mule deer, elk, pronghorn, bison, grizzly bears, black bears, wolves, coyotes, and the list goes on and on and on. This is why I moved here – the diversity of wildlife. Some species such as bison and pronghorn are quite easy to locate and will be hanging around in the open right through the middle of the day. Other species such as the bear and wolves are much for difficult and are exceedingly elusive. Really, an entire book could be written on where, when, and how to locate these guys.

For the purpose of this journal entry, I am going to keep in line with a similiar theme in terms of finding species – which have all thus far been Cervids, or of the deer family. Like the other parks, the Tetons are well known for their deer family members, including the largest on Earth, the moose (derived from the Algonquian name for the species, Mooswa. Meaning twig eater). As the moose is the mascot of the park, it also only makes since to narrow down the long list of possibilities here to this one as well.

Here is what you need to know about finding moose: they like riparian habitat. That’s it. Know that much and you are on your way to locating moose inside of the park. I realize that this statement is somewhat ambiguous and for folks on the East Coast, you might not even know what riparian habitat is. Basically its wetlands and river bottoms. Without going into far more detail than you could ever possibly want to know about the nutrient needs and digestive strategies of moose, let’s just say that  this area contains basically everything they need for survival until the snows get deep.

In Jackson Hole, for which Grand Tetons NP encompasses much of, the two main rivers that you want to consider are the Snake and Gros Ventre (pronounced grow-vant and derived from the French “big belly”). The Gros Ventre is quite possibly the best area in the park to photograph moose. This probably has more to do with the accessibility of the river bottom and the extensive narrow leafed cottonwood forest than anything else. The Snake harbors loads of moose but offers very little access without some serious hiking.

Other places exist as well of course, but when I want big bull moose in the rut, I walk the Gros Ventre river. You can drive around all you want looking for other photographers, but more often than not, working the cottonwood forest along this river will yield fantastic results. Other locations are great for moose as well such as Sawmill pond, the “moose” pond, and the beaver ponds on the Moose-Wilson road, but the Gros Ventre has always proven to be my favorite.

If you do come searching for moose, plan on getting your feet wet. NEOS overshoes, hip waders, or just hiking sandals are a great idea as water is the glue that holds this habitat together. If you are afraid of a crossing a little water, than you will significantly decrease your chances of getting onto some big moose.


I read a statistic one time that stated a full 98% of visitors to National Parks never traveled more than 100 yards from their vehicles. From my experience, this applies to photographers just as much as it does to tourists. And like tourists to these parks who more often than not miss out on some of the very best that these parks have to offer, photographer’s who choose to remain roadside will find themselves stuck in a crowd and battling over the wildlife photography scraps that the parks have to offer as well.

So with all of this now said, you may be wondering if I ever shoot roadside? Sure. Given the right opportunity or if its something truly unique. My point here is not to make a wildnerss purist out of you, or proclaim that I am one. Instead, I feel that its important to realize that we as photographers are very limited in terms of what we find and what we can do when we limit ourselves to the crowds and refuse to, well, find our own wildlife in the wild.

This entry was posted in Wildlife Photography.