Photographing Yellowstone National Park

Established in 1872, Yellowstone is the first national park in the US, and in the world. The park is known for its geothermal features and wildlife. Millions of visitors come to this park to see geysers, hot springs, mud pots etc. Spanning an area of over three thousands square miles, it's the 8th largest national park in US. In this article, I'm going to walk you through major areas of the park so can plan accordingly to enjoy the most of the park with limited time. 


If you plan to fly into this area like we do, the closest airport is Bozeman Yellowstone International Airport in Bozeman MT. It's a small airport but we were able to find direct flights from San Francisco. The airport also has car rental services by major rental companies. The airport is only one and half an hour away from Yellowstone's north entrance. There is a small town called Gardiner almost next to the north entrance providing abundant lodging options. If you plan to enter from other entrances, National Park Services has a web page where you can find GPS coordinates of them.  

Best Time to Visit

Although photography-wise there isn't really a best season to visit any place because each place has its own unique characteristics in different seasons, you do want to give some additional thoughts on this given the popularity and extreme weathers of the park. As you can see from the average low/high temperature chart below, Winter is the least pleasant season to visit the park. In the summer, the weather is good but it's also the peak season so lodging fills up quickly and the park is very crowded. Spring and Fall are the two better seasons to visit the park. I also highly recommend late September since all the roads will still be open before Yellowstone enters into the Winter season but the crowds will be much much smaller.


Since Yellowstone has so much to offer, it's not surprising that you will need a wide range of focal length to cover various scenes. In this article, I talked about the equipments we use in general. 

While visiting Yellowstone, I used both Canon 6D and Canon 7D Mark II.  I used 6D to photograph all thermal features such as geyser, spring, pools etc, as well as other landscape scenes. 7D was only use for wildlife shoots so I can get extra reach. 

For lens, I used mostly Canon EF 16–35mm f/2.8L III and Canon EF 24-105mm f/4L IS. For wildlife, I used Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II

Additionally, filters are really really useful in shooting springs and pools. You can use a polarizer filter to reduce the light reflections from the pools and springs, and to saturate the colors. I always put on a B+W polarizer (77mm and 82mm) in front of my lens during the day shooting time. A graduated neutral density filter would be very useful too considering that a lot of time you would like to include sky in the frame with a thermal feature in the foreground. For this, I use the Lee filter system. I like the Lee filer system better than the screw-on versions made by B+W because I can adjust the height of the filters in any direction, providing much better flexibility. You can buy a set of them which comes in three filters providing 1-stop, 2-stop, and 3-stop darkening capabilities. I used to hear from other photographers that you can produce similar results in photoshop or Adobe Raw. However, that definitely has its limitations if part of your photo is over-exposed or under-exposed too much. I prefer to produce a photo that's as well-balanced as possible so I have more options in post-processing.

Major Areas

Despite of being one of the largest national parks, the park is very easy to navigate with a car and most of the famous springs and geysers can be easily accessed via paved or boardwalk trails.

1. Mammoth Hot Spring

Road to Mammoth Hot Spring
Mammoth Hot Spring area is the closest area to the north entrance - only less than 10 minutes drive. It's the most accessible area if you stay in Gardiner. Although you will not see erupting geysers there, it is one of the most popular destinations in Yellowstone thanks to its unique and constant-changing thermal features. The major attractions there are hydrothermal features (pools, springs) and travertine terraces. Travertine terraces are created by natural deposit of calcite when hot springs rise up through limestone and dissolve the calcium carbonate. This area is divided into two parts: lower terrace (also called main terrace) and upper terrace. The lower terrace tends to be more crowded due easier access from the main road. The upper terrace is much quieter, circled by a one-way drive.

Palette Spring

Devil's Thumb at Palette Spring
The above pictures are palette spring and devil's thumb. If you search palette spring online, you will probably see images of different colors at different time. These colors are determined by microbial mats, which are constantly changing. 

Mammoth Hot Spring Area
Upper Terrace
Orange Mound Spring
Orange Mound Spring is another hot spring in this area. It's named this for its dark orange color created by bacteria living on the travertine. There is a small parking lot next to this spring. 

Cupid Spring
Mound Terrace

2. Midway Geyser Basin

Midway Geyser Basin hosts some of the most famous geysers and springs in the world. The most famous one would be Grand Prismatic Spring. To get to this area, check the "Grand Prismatic Spring Parking Lot" in the above map. Then take the boardwalk which will take you pass over the Firehole River, after which you can explore the astounding thermal features. 

While walking on the bridge, the first thing you will notice is heated waters dumping into the river from the other side. This is the runoff from Excelsior Geyser. The geyser has been in dormant for much of the 20th century, but it was once the largest geyser in the world, erupting up to 300 feet.
Runoff from Excelsior Geyser into Firehole River
Excelsior Geyser Crater

To the right of Excelsior Geyser, it's the Turquoise Pool, named by members of the 1878 Hayden Expedition.

Turquoise Pool
Walking past Turquoise Pool, you can see the beautiful Opal Pool.

Opal Pool
Continue walking, you will quickly reach the Grand Prismatic Spring, also named in the 1878 Hayden Expedition. As the name suggested, it's a huge spring spanning across 250*380 feet. In fact, it is the largest hot spring within the Yellowstone. The spring is world famous not only because of the sheer size, but also the brilliant colors made possible by bacteria. I would say if there is one place you can visit in Yellowstone, this is the one! Don't expect yourself to be alone there either. You will not be able to take a complete picture of the spring in this area since it will be too close to the magnificent spring. There is a trail leading to Fairy Falls where you can stop half way to get a great classic view of it like the picture below. Using the "Parking to Grand Prismatic Pool Overlook" spot in the above map to locate the trail head. Once you're there, it's hard to miss it by following the signs.

Grand Prismatic Spring - Bacteria Mat
Grand Prismatic Spring - Taken from the Overlook

3. Norris Geyser Basin

Heading down on highway 89 from Mammoth Hot Spring, near the conjunction to Norris Canyon road, you can find the Norris Geyser Basin. 

Norris Geyser Basin is the hottest and also the oldest thermal features in Yellowstone. According to National Park Services, there is an evidence showing that it has thermal features for at least 115 thousands years. The basin is divided into two areas: Porcelain Basin and the Back Basin, both of which can be accessed via boardwalk and partial dirt trails. 

Porcelain Basin
Porcelain Basin
Echinus Geyser at Back Basin
What's special to Echinus Geyser is its acidic nature. It's the largest acid-water geyser, which itself is very rare on earth.

Crater Spring

4. Artist's Paintpots

Continue driving down to on highway 89, there is a very accessible 1-mile trail called Artist's Paintpots Trail. The trail provides access to several hot springs, mudpots and geysers. The thermal features are not as spectacular as other areas, but its also much less crowded. 

Artists Paintpots

5. Fountain Paintpot Trail

Located at Lower Geyser Basin, Fountain Paintpot Trail provides easy access to all types of thermal features you can find in Yellowstone: hot springs, geysers, mudpots and fumaroles. 

Silex Spring
Although It's a good area to explore to learn the thermal features, it's not the best place to go in Yellowstone photography-wise. However, I do like a spring called Silex Spring. It's a deep pool with a blue hue. 

6. Old Faithful Area

This is probably the most visited area in Yellowstone. The area is open even in the winter season. The area is famous for the Old Faithful Geyser, but do not just stop there - there are a lot more interesting pool and geysers to check out! To explore this area, start at the Old Faithful Geyser. The geyser is named so because its eruption is highly predictable with only around 10-minutes error margin. It erupts every 44 to 155 minutes for the past 10+ years. I would rank this as the second must see attraction in Yellowstone, only after the Grand Prismatic Spring. An eruption can last from 1.5 to 5 minutes, shooting boiling waters to the height of 106 to 185 feet. To find out the predicted time of eruption, you can use a mobile app or a sign on the desk of the Old Faithful Hotel. Both show the eruption time of this spring as well as others. We literally watched the eruption three times since it happens so frequently and so predictably. 

Old Faithful Geyser Eruption
After watching the old faithful eruption, I would strongly recommend to explore the upper geyser basin. The trail can be either taken from the Biscuit Basin or from the old faithful area. We took the later one. Expect to spend a couple hours on the trail as there are many many beautiful pools and geysers to check out. Allocate even more time if you plan to wait for eruptions of some other geysers, which are less predictable.

Heart Spring
Heart Spring is a pool of blue hue water.  It looks like a small pool but it actually has a depth of 15 feet. It's named for its heart-like shape. 

Lion Geyser Eruption
Lion Geyser is a cone-type geyser named for the roaring sound when it erupts, reaching 90 feet for a couple minutes. The eruption is not as regular as the Old Faithful so plan ahead accordingly. For this image, I wanted to shoot the starburst behind the eruption but the eruption was too short for me to move around to find the best angle.

Wave Spring
Spasmodic Geyser
Morning Glory Spring

Morning Glory Spring is arguably the most colorful and beautiful spring on this trail. Same to other springs, the color is produced by  living bacteria. There is a sign near the spring explaining why the color of the spring has changed over the year due to clogging by objects thrown by visitors (so sad!) and mixed results of manual intervention to restore it. Expect this area to be crowded - another reason to visit Yellowstone so you have enough time to enjoy the thermal features.

7. Black Sand Basin

Emerald Spring

Black Sand Basin is close to the Old Faithful area, so if you visit Old Faithful, you should make a quick trip to Black Sand Basin too. There are a few springs you can see in this basin, accessible via a boardwalk trail as well. The most famous and colorful spring there is called Emerald Spring. The spring is named so because of its emerald green color of the water when the sunlight filtering through the water. But it's not always feasible to see this color depending on the wind direction and evaporated water.  

8. West Thumb Geyser Basin

The West Thumb Geyser Basin is located on the west shore of Yellowstone Lake. There is a short 1-mile loop trail providing access to the lakeshore and pools. There are a couple of beautiful pools situated there. Two of them are perforated pool and abyss pool. I didn't get any good shoots of these due to too much evaporated water combined with bad wind direction. But these pools are gorgeous when you get a clear view.

9. Mud Volcano 

The Mud Volcano area is an area of muddy hot springs. It's about 10 miles south of Canyon Junction (again, use the above map to locate it). When arrived at that area, what will be greeting you is the very strong rotten-egg smell. This is the result of microorganisms eating sulfur producing sulfuric acid. Sulfuric acid evaporates, creating this odor. The odor is much stronger than the same smell you would experience in any other areas within Yellowstone so be prepared. :) Again, you can hike a short boardwalk trail (less than a mile) to explore this area. There is some elevation gains so the hiking is by no means effortless even though it's very short. Also depending on which direction you hike the loop trail, the effort would be different. There is a sign at the trail-head telling you which direction is easier to hike. The area itself is OK from photography perspective. You won't see any colorful spring or pools here. It's all mud.... But I do find that Churning Caldron is an interesting pool to see. It used to be a cool pool but a few earthquakes dramatically increased the pool's temperature, resulting in boiling water with mud.

Churning Caldron

10. Trout Creek and Hayden Valley

Hayden Valley is located between Yellowstone River and Trout Creek off the Grand Loop Road. It's a wonderful place to see wildlife at Yellowtone. Easy to see are herds of bison, some elks, ducks and geese. Just drive along the Grand Loop Road and stop at each of the turnouts, you're guaranteed to snap a few good photos.

Sunset at Trout Creek from Grand Loop Road

11. Canyon Village

We stayed at Gardiner for the first half week to explore the northern part of Yellowstone. For the second half week, we stayed at Canyon Village, given that it's closer to the lower part of Yellowstone. There are quite a few lodging options in Canyon Village but as expected they're more expensive than the ones outside of the park. It is very close to the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. You can read all the geographical features of the canyon by visiting NPS's website. It is another example of showing how developed Yellowstone is compared to other national parks. There are many view points easily accessible by cars, such as Grand View, Lookout Point, Artists Point, Brink of the Upper Falls, and Brink of the Lower Falls etc..

Grand Canyon of Yellowstone
Grand Canyon of Yellowstone - Artist Point
I read from online that from Artist point, the rainbow often appears under the falls around 10 AM. I wasn't able to see it. Maybe it wasn't the right season. But it's something you may want to consider if you're visiting during the summer time.

12. Wildlife

Yellowstone is known for thermal features as well as wildlife. You're guaranteed to see wildlife if you visit Yellowstone. Your patience and luck will determine how many and what wildlife you will see. During our one week visit in September, we saw elk, bison, black bear, grizzly bear, bighorn sheep, swan and bold eagle. 

Black Bear
Black Bear with a cub

Female Bighorn Sheep
Male Elk
Grizzly Bear with two cubs


Yellowstone is definitely one of my favorite national parks. It has so much to offer, and most destinations can be easily accessed. Because of its popularity, it's probably also the most-photographed national park in US. But there is always some unique angles you can use to distinguish your photos from others. It's a place where you can take those classic photos relatively easily, but also a test of your creativity.

1 comment:

  1. Great Job!! Thanks for sharing the information. Regards