Packed with natural wonders, stunning landscapes, and captivating wildlife, Yellowstone National Park is a photography dreamland for both professionals and amateurs. No matter which part of the park you decide to visit, you’ll find great photo ops around every corner.
Before we get started, here are a few general tips for photography at Yellowstone.
- Study a map of the park before you arrive to learn where your must-see spots are located and get a feel for how long it takes to travel around its 3,500 square miles.
- Know when sunrise and sunset are and plan where you’d like to be at those times when the light is perfect and the animals are most active.
- Be present. In the quest for the perfect photo, it’s easy to lose sight of the wild beauty that surrounds you. Don’t forget to put your camera down from time to time in order to fully experience nature’s beauty.
That said, here is our list of Yellowstone’s best photos spots.
MAMMOTH HOT SPRINGS
Mammoth Hot Springs is a large complex of hot springs in Yellowstone. It’s composed of water, limestone, and a whole lot of heat.
The most popular spots to photograph within the Mammoth Hot Springs area are the Lower Geyser Basin and the Canary Spring terraces. The Lower Geyser Basin is spread out over a fairly large area and features regularly erupting geysers, hot springs, and a fascinating mud pool that’s often described as “otherworldly.” Likewise, the Canary Spring terraces are known for their ultramarine pools. Although the amount of water running through the terraces varies greatly throughout the seasons, the water creates multi-colored bands of algae and cyanobacteria that are definitely worth a snap or two.
Some of the features of Mammoth Hot Springs are difficult to photograph in full because of their size, so either pack a wide angle lens or focus on more detailed shots of the mud pools and colored algae.
THE MORNING GLORY
The Morning Glory Pool was named in the 1880s for its remarkable likeness to the eponymous flower. Though its coloring has changed over the years due to pollution, it’s still as mesmerizing as ever. Seriously, it looks like a giant geode pool that disappears into the center of the earth.
Although the middle of the day at Yellowstone isn’t typically ideal for landscape or wildlife photography, it just so happens to be the perfect time to photograph hot springs and geothermal pools. The midday sunshine cuts through the water and reaches deep into the funnel to fully illuminate the colors of the pools without all the harsh shadows. With a convenient viewing platform immediately next to it, the Morning Glory Pool itself is easy to photograph. Because you’ll be standing so close, we suggest using a fairly wide lens. Also, using a polarizing filter will deepen the colors and help cut through any glare.
GRAND PRISMATIC SPRING
The granddaddy of Yellowstone’s hot springs is the Grand Prismatic Spring. The largest hot spring in the United States and the third largest in the world, the Grand Prismatic Spring is located in the Midway Geyser Basin. Did we mention that it’s rainbow-colored?
In order to capture its fluorescent hues, hike up the adjacent hill for an overhead view. Find the trailhead for Fairy Falls and follow it toward the waterfall. The trail will curve around to face the Midway Geyser Basin (about a mile down the trail). From there, you’ll need to climb up the ridge to find a view between the lodgepole pines. The climb is fairly steep, so if you’re not up for it, take some close-up shots instead and aim for a more abstract vibe.
If it happens to rain while you’re there, don’t be dismayed — cloudy skies at Yellowstone add an ominous look to geothermal photography.
Just because you’ve heard about this natural wonder your entire life doesn’t mean it will be any less awe-inspiring when you finally see it in person. In case you’re still not convinced, let us spell it out for you: superheated water powered by steam shoots hundreds of feet into the air for up to five minutes at a time. And it happens every 35 to 120 minutes. It’s crazy!
Old Faithful has been the most talked-about geyser in the park for well over a century, and it’s by far the most popular subject of photography at Yellowstone. The best way to capture it is to show off its scale, so put something (or someone) in the frame. Or, if you’re feeling adventurous, try a long exposure of the eruption using a tripod and a neutral density filter. Also, note that cooler temperatures create the best photo opportunities at Old Faithful and at other geysers around the park because their steam is more visible in the cold.
We’ve already mentioned the algae and cyanobacteria that live in the hot springs of Yellowstone, but the bacteria also formed mats that can be found scattered about the park. Found in most geothermal areas, these microorganism mats are intensely colorful and cool — true abstract art brought to you directly by Mother Nature.
Yellowstone’s bison herd is the oldest and largest public herd in the United States. And with over 4,000 of these majestic creatures roaming the park, you’re pretty much guaranteed to get some great bison photos. That said, remember that these large, unpredictable animals are not domesticated. Park rules actually state that you should stay at least 25 yards away from them, so remember to stay safe.
When photographing bison, keep in mind that their dark, wooly coats absorb light like a black hole. So to get more detailed shots, try overexposing by a half-to-full stop from what your camera’s meter recommends.
Also note that the best time of day to track down these beautiful beasts is in the early morning. They are most active during that time and, in addition to that, the morning light can be spectacular. Bonus: If you leave early enough, you’ll also get to catch a brilliant Yellowstone sunrise.
Yellowstone is home to nearly 300 species of birds, 67 species of mammals, 16 species of fish, six species of reptiles, and five species of amphibians. That’s a lot.
In order to catch some great photos of your newfound friends, you’ll need to rise early. Head to the Lamar Valley, just east of Tower-Roosevelt, where you’ll find an array of exotic wildlife. Additionally, the Lamar Valley is one of the best places in the world to spot wolves. The easiest way to find them is to locate the wolf spotters (people whose chosen hobby is observing wolves). The spotters are usually in elevated positions lining the valley, and if you arrive around 6 a.m., there will be plenty who will point you in the right direction.
Yellowstone is home to so many waterfalls that park rangers and hikers find new ones every year.
Two of the most noteworthy falls in the park happen to lead into in the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. To get a good view of the Upper and Lower Falls, head to Artist Point on the southern rim of the canyon. You can reach it by car or by hiking the South Rim Trail. If you do make the trek, you’ll traverse a short, flat hike with beautiful views along the way. Although the north side is more popular, Artist Point commands a 700-foot vista down to the river, and promises far fewer photobombs.
You can also get up close and personal with the falls by taking Uncle Tom’s Trail from the parking lot. But beware — there are tons of stairs. If you don’t have time for both, head for the Lower Falls, as they are much larger. But if you have time to spare, we recommend seeing both.
When photographing a waterfall, make sure the sun isn’t shining directly on the falls — this will create light and dark spots in the water. It’s best to shoot them in the shade or on a cloudy day, and look for that soft light.
SEPULCHER MOUNTAIN TRAIL
Although there are plenty of peaks in Yellowstone, the 9,646-foot Sepulcher Mountain in the Gallatin Range is known for its insane views — perfect for photography. Rising over 4,000 feet along the north edge of the park, the mountain trail reps the second-highest elevation gain of any Yellowstone hiking path, and starts just beside the main terraces at Mammoth. The hike stretches 4.9 miles and zig-zags through sloping ridgelines, jagged cliffs, and densely wooded areas. But the trail also offers views of peaks, valleys, and dark volcanic rocks.
To take better photos while hiking, brace yourself against a tree or rock (as you’ll likely be out of breath), include various elements in the foreground to add depth, take close-up shots of the details, and try not to worry about the light — any shot will turn out better than a photo not taken at all.
Given the size of the park, there are countless spots where you can sit down to enjoy the sunset and some golden hour photography. At end of the day, Yellowstone’s reddening sky creates a stunning backdrop to the geysers and hot springs of the Lower Geyser Basin.
Other prime spots include Firehole Lake Drive, Yellowstone Lake, and Duck Lake. So think ahead, plan your sunset spot around where you’re staying, and arrive early — about two hours before sunset is ideal. Sunsets constantly change over time and can produce incredible colors well after the sun goes down, so keep shooting at different exposures and focal lengths and be sure to enjoy the view!
Header image by Annie Ujifusa.