By Marc Bowen
My friend Scott and I decided to spend three days in Grand Teton National Park and just travel around the area stopping anywhere we felt like shooting, all hours of the day and/or night. We would not purchase lodging anywhere but would sleep in Scott’s truck (when and if we took time to sleep). We would take enough food and water with us to allow us the freedom of driving into town only if it became necessary.
We left my house about 7:00am and drove to Jackson Wyoming by way of Ririe, Swan Valley and Victor. We rolled into Jackson at 9:00am, parked and checked out the Thomas Mangelsen Photography Studio, for inspiration? To ‘focus’ on our objective? (pun intended, sorry) I think we were just excited about what we were here for and wanted to admire another photographer’s photos of this area. We then headed out to the park to scout possible sites in which to photograph sunsets, sunrises and the Milky-Way.
Our first stop was Mormon Row, a historical district with the remains of old homesteads built by members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the early 1900s. It’s located in what’s known as Antelope Flats east of the Jackson-Moran highway.
The two barns in this area are two of the most photographed barns in the country. Both of us have probably filled up lots of memory cards with images of these barns over the years but there seems to be this need to improve and get better and make each captured image better than the last. I used to stress over that aspect of my photography but have since tried to be more relaxed, more patient and enjoy my surroundings, trying not to be disappointed if I don’t capture an image in the way I had hoped.
Today the clouds were great so we couldn’t resist spending an hour here seeing what we might capture.
My favorite type of photography is landscape/nature photography. I do like to put people in my shots on occasion. Especially people I know. When shooting with Scott or my daughter Nicole (also a photographer) It’s easy to ‘include’ them in the shot even when they are unaware. Scott (in above photo) is a master at landscape photography and brilliantly puts his own stamp on often-shot scenes.
After about an hour of watching the clouds and light play we moved on up the highway to another popular and often-shot scene.
At the Snake River Overlook we watched some awesome cloud formations over the Teton range. The light which was attempting to break through the clouds created all the right conditions for a black and white. I wanted the focus of this image (above photo) to be on the light rather than the colors in the scene.
But this scene looks good in color too.
We decided to head back down the highway and drop off the hill down to the river and another very popular location.
Located on the Snake River and not too far off the highway is Schwabacher Landing. Just like Mormon Row I’ve been here many times. Even so, it never gets old. Each time is a little different. Different seasons. Different animals present (or not). Different weather. Different cloud formations. Different company. I love this place, the sights, sounds, smell and general ‘feel’ of this area. It’s like something special is going to happen and I’m going to miss it if I’m not here…
Lucky for us because of the cloud formations (above photo) the light was still good late morning at Schwabacher Landing and we had a few ducks posing for us as well.
In order for us to decide where we would be shooting sunset and the Milky-Way that night we decided to scout some more locations. We drove out to Oxbow Bend, Colter Bay, Jenny Lake and Signal Mountain. We checked out Oxbow Bend for a possible sunrise or sunset shoot. Colter Bay on Jackson Lake provides some possibilities for photographing the Milky-Way with interesting foreground.
I have an app named SKY GUIDE that shows me where in the night sky the Milky-Way galaxy or any planet is going to be and what time it will be there. It’s a must-have for astrophotography.
We drove to the top of Signal Mountain, checked the future location of the Milky-Way using the SKY GUIDE app and decided that this would be the location from which we would shoot the Milky-Way on this first night in the park.
Other then driving through Jackson in the morning we never made it back to town the rest of the day and would spend the night on Signal Mountain. We had plenty of snacks to eat throughout the day. Protein bars, Kind Bars, breakfast bars, apple chips, dried fruit, trail mix, almonds, V8 Fusion Energy drinks and plenty of water.
One of the most photographed locations in Grand Teton National Park is Oxbow Bend. It’s such a beautiful area in any season. The bend of the Snake River with majestic Mt. Moran in the background is a breathtaking sight. No matter how many times I have photographed this scene I can’t drive through here without stopping and taking some shots. It’s almost guaranteed that dozens of other photographers will be there right at my elbow.
We decided to use this location for our first sunset shoot. We got here a few hours early, picked our spot, set up cameras, tripods and camp chairs and waited, taking a few shots here and there as the light changed. It was hot! I had already soaked-up plenty of sunshine throughout the day. Mosquitos harassed us but we saw herons, beaver and pelicans while we waited. As we sat there other people came. Some stopped to take photos, others fished or glassed the area with binoculars for wildlife. Many, like us, stayed for the sunset.
Sunsets always seem more colorful here. Maybe it’s because the landscape is so awesome that any extra color just accentuates the scene. Having some clouds in the sky can make a sunset even more interesting by scattering the light and color in beautiful displays across the sky and water.
After sunset we headed over to the Colter Bay area on Jackson Lake for some ‘Blue Hour’ shots.
Colter Bay – The BLUE hour.
My friend Scott showed me just how beautiful the blue-hour can be. That 45-60 minute period after the sun goes down is a great time to capture some long-exposure shots.
Scott suggested we get some images here (Colter Bay) to possibly use as foreground for the Milky-Way shots we would capture from Signal Mountain that night. We stood on this beach in the dark, cameras on tripods as we tried to capture the image we wanted. The photo (above) is deceptive in that it appears to still be fairly light out which is what happens with a long-exposure shot. In fact it was almost too dark for me to see the stump in front of me without my headlamp.
A few minutes later we drove south and then west along Jackson Lake and just past Signal Mountain lodge turned left on Signal Mountain Road. It’s about a five-mile, 20 minute, 1000 foot climb of switchbacks to an observation area at the top of the mountain. Set far apart from any other mountain peak Signal Mountain provides some breathtaking views of the Teton mountain range, Jackson Lake and the flat glacial plains below. There is a parking lot with restrooms and picnic table. From there we had a short climb up the trail using our flashlights to navigate by as we entered the observation area. Using headlamps we set up our camera equipment and camp chairs.
We started shooting just after 11:00pm facing south with the Milky-Way arching across the sky from the north (behind us) over the top of us with the thicker part of the formation above and in front of us to the south.
(above photo) Night view from the top of Signal Mountain. You can barely see the wooden rail that surrounds the viewing area. The lights from the Jackson area are in the distance and lights from traffic on the Jackson-Moran highway stretch for miles. We saw falling stars, bright planets (Mars and Saturn) and aircraft moving across the sky. It was cold up here at almost 8000 feet even though I had several layers of clothing on (long sleeve t-shirt, light weight hoodie, fleece jacket and wind breaker) I was wishing I had brought my down coat.
I brought two cameras with me on this trip. A Nikon D610 with Nikon 14×24 wide-angle lens that I brought for my long-exposure shots and a Sony A7II with 28×70 lens that I prefer using for my daylight landscapes (personal preference because of the smaller size and weight). I didn’t know until I got home that I shot all my night shots in .jpg format instead of raw format. I was mystified at first because I never shoot in .jpg with either camera but figured out that while fumbling around with settings in the dark on the beach at Colter Bay I must have bumped the ‘quality’ button. Because of the compressed format of these images there’s not much I can do with them in post-processing especially if I want to combine one of these Milky-Way shots with one of the Colter Bay blue-hour images. Just glad I used the Sony camera (which was set for raw format) for all my other images.
We shot the Milky-Way until about 2:00am. Those who haven’t shot the Milky-Way as it moves across the night sky should try it sometime. I’m a novice but was lucky to have the opportunity to stand beside and learn from an expert. Three hours of shooting in the dark on top of a mountain can be a wonderful experience. The sound of the wind blowing through the trees. The smells of the forest, mountains and rivers in the night air and good conversation while looking up at the spinning celestial wonders above is one of those things in life that shouldn’t be missed.
At 2:00am we packed up our equipment, climbed into Scott’s truck, kicked the seats back and got a few hours sleep. We left Signal Mountain about 4:45 am and drove back to Mormon Row to shoot the blue-hour and sunrise.
Back to Mormon Row. arrived at 5:30 am. Not as many clouds in the sky this morning so we weren’t sure what kind of sunrise we would get. A few other photographers showed up as we waited for the sunrise. Sunrise happened around 6:00am.
(Above photo) I always enjoy watching the first light of the morning sun hit the tops of the Tetons and warm up the surrounding area. The mountains are a perfect back-drop for the old barn. John Moulton’s barn is built of logs and was built sometime between 1908 and 1916.
John Moulton’s house sits just to the south of the barn on the homestead and has pink-tinted stucco walls. It was built around 1938 and replaced the original house. I enjoyed the play of warm light filtering through the trees onto the front of the house. Turned the pink to almost a peach-color.
Farther to the south is John Moulton’s brother’s homestead. This is another popular barn to photograph. The Mormon Row area is so popular that the historical district put a restroom near by to accommodate the needs of the thousands of photographers and tourists that flock to this site every year.
After some shots of this barn we drove over to Black Tail Ponds located on the opposite side of the highway from Antelope Flats.
Black Tail Ponds overlook is just west of the Highway. It’s on a bench overlooking a lush area of trees, grass, willows and beaver ponds. Prime habitat for wildlife. I have seen Elk, Moose and bear in this location. There are several companys that run wildlife safari’s out of Jackson. One of them was at this location letting there clients take turns looking through a spotting scope they had setup. The scope has an attachment that fits your mobile phone and enables you to take photos using the powerful lens of the spotting scope. While we were there we watched a young bull moose chasing a cow moose out of the tree line and through the willows and ponds.
We then went north a short drive up the highway to Schwabacher Landing where we were the day before.
Very little in the way of clouds gives the scenes a slightly different look then the shots from yesterday. This scene (above) is several hundred yards from the parking area. There is a path from here that leads to a beaver pond that is also very scenic.
Got some good mountain reflection in the water this day and the few clouds moving through added interest to the scene.
From Schwabacher Landing we got back out on the highway drove south and turned to go through the unincorporated town of Moose Wyoming and through the south entrance into Grand Teton National Park.
Just past the entrance to the park we turned right to check out the Chapel of the Transfiguration. I have shot this beautiful little chapel many times in every season. It is quite picturesque with the back drop of the Teton mountains and has lots of history. Always worth stopping here when in the area.
We drove on to Jenny Lake but with its popularity and all the renovation construction going on, it’s almost impossible to find parking during mid-day. Today was no exception so we decided to head into Jackson to grab some lunch. By now, because of lack of sleep we were getting very tired and pulled over into a rest-area near the Taggart/Bradley lakes trailhead. We found some shade and with windows open to get a nice cross-breeze napped for a while.
After our nap we drove to Jackson via Teton Park Road, then Moose-Wilson Road, saw some deer and then a young grizzly wearing a tracking collar crossed the road in front of us. We also checked out the Laurance Rockefeller Preserve.
In Jackson after grabbing a bite to eat we took some time and walked through four of the many art galleries. When finished with this inspirational tour, Scott bought us some ice cream at Moo’s Gourmet Ice Cream. Their Key-Lime ice-cream is fantastic!
After leaving Jackson, Scott asked me if I knew about the old homestead used as one of the ranches in the movie ‘Shane’. I hadn’t so we drove out to Kelly and then up the hill to check out what was left of the ranch. We explored further up the road and stopped at a turnout and an overlook.
Lower Slide Lake (above photo) sits in this little valley and is a natural made reservoir. It was created when the Gros Ventre landslide of 1925 dammed the Gros Ventre River. It’s hard to miss the beautiful colors of the Red Hills overlooking the lake.
With plenty of time still on our hands we drove back out towards Moran and took a look at the old Cunningham Cabin. At this point we were growing tired again so found some shade down on the Snake River at a put-in point used by rafting companies and slept some more. Nothing better than being lulled to sleep by the breezes rustling the leaves in the trees and the sound of rushing waters from the river. We drove from there to Colter Bay, checked out the marina and surrounding area then hiked a trail which took us around the shores of the bay. Then on to Jenny Lake / Leigh Lake area. On the way there we stopped at the Mountain View Turnout which has a view looking south down the valley and the Cathedral Group of the Tetons. We decided this would be the place we would shoot the Milky-Way from this night. A photographer we had met at Mormon Row that morning joined us while we shot the Milky-Way as it moved from left to right on the horizon (our perspective – earth is turning to the left).
Again it was beautiful but cold as we all stood together visiting, wearing head lamps, layered clothing and snacking. We shot the night sky from about 10:30pm to around 12:30am.
Then Scott and I loaded up, said goodbye to the other photographer and headed back to Mormon Row to rest for a few hours with the intention of shooting the sunrise at Schwabacher Landing.
This second day was a good day, fun although a day with very few clouds. Great for shooting milky-way astrophotography but not so much for sunrises/sunsets. When we arrived at Mormon Row we climbed in the back of Scott’s pickup this time and stretched out on mattress’ in our sleeping bags. Went to sleep shortly after 1:30am hoping the next day would dawn with some clouds in the sky.
We awakened about 4:30am to the sound of rain drops on the camper-shell roof and the first thing Scott said was, ‘We got our clouds!’
We quickly got our gear together and drove over toward Schwabacher Landing. The clouds were looking pretty darn awesome over the mountains, no light on them yet. At the last-minute Scott suggested we stop at Glacier View Turnout first, set up and see what happens. And then…magic happened! What we experienced next took our breath away!!
A glorious Teton Sunrise! This was such a special and magical moment. As we stood there and watched the light hit the tops of the mountains the colors were soft and subtle in the beginning but then the yellows and the oranges started appearing in the clouds above and mountains below and the view just kept getting better and better.
It looked to me as if the sky was on fire. We were amazed and humbled by the sight of so much majesty!
After about 10-15 minutes of shooting from Glacier View Turnout we quickly loaded back up in the truck and drove down the hill to Schwabacher Landing. There were dozens of photographers on the river just as amazed by the sight we had beheld as we were. As we were unloading our gear and heading out along the river a good share of the photographers were leaving allowing us to set up with no one in front of us.
The clouds were still amazing even after the orange color had faded away.
As we were standing there with this scene in front of us I visited with a photographer who had come up and setup his camera and tripod next to me. He said he travels here from Texas every year to photograph this area and told me that one time as he stood here a few years back, a rainbow appeared and he was able to get some awesome shots. A short time later while we talked it started to rain a little and then he said excitedly, “Here comes the rainbow!”
And that’s when God painted a rainbow for me to photograph. It was there between me and the mountain only for a few moments but the timing and placement was perfect. More magic!
After the rainbow disappeared Scott and I walked over to the beaver ponds.
Here the water was calm, there being no wind, creating another beautiful reflection of the mountains on the surface of the water.
We finished up here and headed down the highway to the Snake River overlook to see how things looked from there.
The bits of sunlight filtering through the rain clouds gave us another great photo opportunity.
This scene (above) made famous by Ansel Adams.
I learned a lot on this trip. I learned that fun times can be had photographing most of the day and night with little thought of food or sleep. I learned that ‘Blue Hour’ is basically the twilight hour before sunrise and after sunset and that the Milky-Way is an exceptionally beautiful thing to watch over a period of several hours as our planet spins within it. Makes me think about all those other planets and solar systems out there and how we mortals on this planet and those on other planets in other solar systems are staring with wonderful awe up into this same Milky-Way. Makes a person’s problems seem very small and opens the mind to some wondrous possibilities. If a night or two on top of a mountain under the stars can expand the mind and bring peace as well as wonder to the soul, who wouldn’t love it. I for one, am better for the experience.