In 2022 we spent a month at the Sax-Zim Bog in Northern Minnesota. This 300+ sq mile area is home to a wide variety of winter birds and animals including great gray owls. We were incredibly fortunate with our sightings that month with 25 great grays, 8 barred owls, 4 snowy owls, one northern hawk owl, 8 bald eagles, two pine martens, multiple porcupines, a bobcat, a red fox, and many of the regular winter birds.
We knew we could never top our 2022 trip and debated whether to include a stop on our way home this year. But since we were practically driving right by, we booked a week at an Airbnb in Hibbing. Kalen’s place was perfect: roomy and comfortable with everything we needed, plus conveniently located to both downtown Hibbing and the Sax-Zim Bog.
According to everyone we spoke to, great gray owl sightings were down this year. The resident owls were all seasoned hunters, snow totals less than half of what they should be in January, and temperatures warmer than normal.
This combination allowed the owls to catch their voles at the night, with no need to hunt alongside the road in the daytime. Owls were seen sporadically pre-dawn or at dusk, in extremely low light conditions. Of course, I was optimistic that we would see at least one before our week was over.
On our first day, we did see a northern hawk owl, so far away it was only an owl-shaped outline even with my fully zoomed Nikon P900. Some people had blazed a trail through the snow to get closer and in doing so flushed her even further from view.
As fortunate as we were in 2022, we kept coming up owl-less on this visit. Not to be discouraged, we focused on some of the smaller bird species that had eluded us last year or that we wanted to improve upon.
There was a lovely flock of snow buntings at the gravel pits on Admiral Road and we caught them one morning in the bright sunshine.
TG was able to capture some beautiful images of a boreal chickadee at the Arkola Road feeders – another species that eluded him last year.
He also managed to catch a Canada Jay stretching a glob of peanut butter like saltwater taffy.
I was able to spy both male and female evening grosbeaks together at the feeders on Admiral Road.
That was three new bird species for TG and two for me: not bad for a week with “not much happening!”
It snowed all day on Monday, January 16, and we woke up to six inches of new snow on Tuesday morning. We followed the snowplows through the bog,
And accidentally flushed a barred owl in the pre-dawn light.
The fresh snow seemed to have picked up sightings and we caught several of the winter birds at the feeders around the Bog:
Evening and pine grosbeaks,
Multiple species of woodpeckers,
And much to our delight the return of the northern hawk owl!
After spending some time with the hawk owl, we decided to head home but first detoured past the spot where we saw the barred owl earlier that morning. Imagine our surprise when she returned while we were chatting with two other men who happened to stop by at that same time.
It was just the four of us, and she stayed long enough for us to snap a few photos before once again disappearing into the woods.
We decided to leave Hibbing a day early to shave a few hours off our drive on Friday. Wednesday the 18th was our last full day in the Bog. We were headed towards the Admiral Road snow buntings when something big caught our eye: no sooner had we grabbed our cameras when she nose-dived into the snow and disappeared. It was a great gray owl. No photos but a thrill nonetheless!
With that encouraging spy we agreed that, if we could get packed and ready, we would make one last run out to the Bog early Thursday morning. We left the house at 7 am, feeling drawn towards Overton Road where GGOs had recently been spotted. Overton Road is in the western section of the Bog, not heavily trafficked, and a long drive from most of the areas we had frequented over the week.
No sooner had we turned down the road when we got a message: “GGO on Overton. Look for the blue SUV.” We were at the spot within ten minutes, the first car behind the ladies who had spied her.
We spent almost an hour with this magnificent creature, and I left crying tears of joy. A huge, heartfelt Thank You to Beth and Debbie who so kindly shared this sighting with us and the handful of folks who happened to be out that early — and close by!
Great grays, also called Phantoms of the North, are the largest owls in the US, and one of the most elusive. They tend to avoid areas with people and even in places like the Sax-Zim Bog it is a treat to see one. We feel fortunate that on this short trip we were able to spy two.
Final tally for the week: two sightings of a barred owl, two sightings of the northern hawk owl, a quick look at a great gray on Admiral Road, an hour-long visit with a great gray on Overton, and multiple winter birds around the Bog.
“There are few guarantees in the world of birds, but if you keep an open mind and an open heart, a winter day in the Sax-Zim Bog may be frozen, but like ice cream, it’s guaranteed to be sweet.” (Laura Erickson)
You can view all of our photos from this visit at our Flickr links below:
On September 18, 2022, we left Florida for a 5 1/2 -month road trip, visiting Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks, New Mexico, Saskatchewan, North Dakota, and Minnesota. It was an ambitious itinerary and we were excited about checking many “must-sees” off our bucket list.
Sometime in December, we decided that spending two more months in the cold, northern winter would be too much. So, we cut our month in the Sax-Zim Bog down to just a week and pointed ourselves towards home at the end of January.
By the time we pulled into our driveway in Okeechobee, we had traveled 22,614.6 miles for 130 days, visited 19 states and two Canadian provinces.
In all those miles, we sat in traffic due to an accident just once: ironically, it was outside of Orlando on our way home, less than 100 miles from Okeechobee.
We stayed at seven different Airbnbs and spent 15 nights in hotels while moving from one place to the next. TG fully packed and unpacked the car sixteen times, and partially unpacked/repacked it 30 times.
After we returned home, someone asked, “what was your favorite sighting?” In 4 1/2 months of favorites, that’s an impossible question.
Instead, we’ve compiled a list of the “Best/Worst” along with a few photos. We’ve also put together a highlights video you will find at the end of this blog.
Best Drive: The roads from Canora, Saskatchewan to Fargo, North Dakota for the beautiful landscapes and all the wildlife we saw along the way.
Worst Drive: Teton Pass had TG white-knuckling it while I breathed into a paper bag. (Seriously!)
Best AirBnB: Our cozy home in Canora, Saskatchewan. It had everything we needed and was laid out perfectly, with a fenced-in yard for Oscar and Maddie.
Worst AirBnB: None! They were all great!
Best Hotel: Hyatt House, Minot, North Dakota. Full size kitchens and complimentary washers & dryers!
Worst Hotel: Days Inn, Topeka, KS. Don’t even ask.
Best Meal: Huevos rancheros at the El Corral Café in Corona, New Mexico
Worst Meal: Thanksgiving, 2022. We wanted fancy cheeses but all we could find in Socorro were Kaukauna cheese balls.
Funniest Moment: See Worst Meal. I asked the salesperson if they had any brie and she replied, “is that a type of alcohol?”
Scariest Moment: Driving the Norris-Canyon Road in Yellowstone National Park on a sheet of solid ice.
Favorite Sighting: Huck, the huge grizzly bear we spotted crossing the Snake River while driving the Rockefeller Parkway between Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Park. “It’s a bear!!!! In the water!!!”
Favorite Landscape: Mormon Row, Grand Teton National Park
Favorite Night Sky: The Northern Lights in the wee hours of January 4, 2023
Most Memorable: Our week at the McReynolds Blacktail Cabins in Grand Teton
Our Bucket List:
Grizzly and black bears √
Yellowstone’s hydrothermal features √
Bear and bison jams in Yellowstone √
You can read all about our visit to Yellowstone in Episode 1: Walk on the Wild Side
We also had some delightfully unexpected surprises. The first was when I had taken a turn driving and said, “I’ll just go to the next rest area.” Little did we know that rest area was home to the beautiful sculpture, “Dignity.”
Both TG and I had the opportunity to meet up with several schoolmates along the way.
And many surprises in New Mexico where we spent a lot of time driving around the state during our month-long stay:
Gallup and the El Rancho Hotel
Valley of Fires
Gila National Forest
Rio Grande Gorge
The Rattlesnake Museum in Albuquerque
You can read all about our trip to New Mexico in Episode 3: Back to the Bosque
We were also smitten with the rolling hills in both South and North Dakota and the beauty of Saskatchewan including the hoarfrost, all of the wildlife we saw while driving around, the “prairie sentinels” that dot the landscape, and the delicious Ukrainian food!
If you know me, you know I am a bit owl crazy. I never get tired of seeing them, whether it is a tiny screech owl in our backyard, a barn owl in flight over the cane fields south of Lake Okeechobee, or a barred owl hooting above my tent while camping.
We have traveled to Michigan in the middle of January to photograph snowy owls and spent a month at the Sax-Zim Bog one February to see the great grays. So, it should come as no surprise that we included a stop on our 5 1/2-month road trip in hopes of spying a northern saw-whet owl, Aegolius acadicus.
These pint-sized little owls are found from Alaska and Canada into the north and western US. They can be spied further south on occasion, but the odds of seeing one in South Florida are zero.
With adorable, catlike faces and large, expressive eyes they captured my heart and I longed to see one for myself.
We scouted the listings on e-bird and determined that the area around Fargo, North Dakota was a “hotspot” with multiple sightings over the years. We booked a week at an Airbnb in Dilworth, a short 20-minute drive from several of the most popular locations.
In the happiest of coincidences, we were able to connect with Fargo’s northern saw-whet owl whisperer, Dan Mason.
Before we arrived, Dan did his best to set my expectations: “Be aware they seem to be getting harder to find than usual, possibly due to the heavier-than-normal snow pushing them to new hunting areas, and severely sagging their favorite roost trees/bushes.”
He also sent me a link to his photo set along with this caveat: “While many of these are the standard, out-in-the-open “glamour shots” others are more realistic in showing how well these birds can be mostly hidden or only partially visible when on the roost. Seeing these is helpful in training your mind’s eye in what to look for when you are out in the field.”
He even offered to scout various locations before our arrival and seemed genuinely excited about helping me find one. On Jan 1, 2023, I received another email with an attached photo: “Found my first Saw-whet of the new year today in Fargo’s Orchard Glen Park, so there is at least one of the birds still hanging around, waiting for you!”
Dan and I agreed to meet on the morning of January 7. But first, TG and I went to breakfast at the Fryn’ Pan Family Restaurant. They were so impressed with the fact that we were on a 24,000-mile road trip that they comped our meal! “We want to make your visit to Fargo just a little bit more special,” our server said. Thank you, Bailey and the Fryn’ Pan!
With that auspicious start, we met Dan at our rendezvous spot. We scouted five different areas …
… With nothing but a beautiful merlin to show for it.
Recent snowfall had the tree branches weighed down. That, combined with the morning fog, made it difficult to spot much of anything.
But I learned so much from Dan about where and how to look. I left him feeling confident that at some point during the coming week, our quest would be successful!
The next day we stopped by the Fargo-Moorhead Visitor’s Center, built in the now-familiar style of an old grain elevator.
We were chatting with the nice young ladies when my phone chimed. A text from Dan with some exciting news: he had found a saw-whet owl at one of the parks we visited yesterday and was waiting for us there. “On our way!” I texted back.
Dan was in the parking lot when we arrived, and together we hurried to the spot. She was still there, a little ball of puff about three-quarters of the way up an evergreen tree.
Our first-ever northern saw-whet owl and TG and I got to share this wonderful moment!
Although she never lifted her head, she was still a thrill to see.
The next day Dan texted again. He had found another owl: “glamour shot possibility, unobstructed, and only 8 feet off the ground.” Twenty minutes later we were at the spot, and it was everything I dreamed of.
She was roosting quietly on a branch, not at all perturbed by us or our clicking cameras.
She even lifted a foot and did a little face scratch.
The next day we found her again – in an even better spot than the day before!
TG said, “ if yesterday we got Monopoly money shots, today we got US Benjamins.”
This time it was me textingDan and he responded, “be sure toget some video!”
I had just finished shooting a little clip when she puffed up and turned her back to us. We took that as a clear sign she was done, and quickly left the area. We were the only ones in the park and were certain that once we left, she would settle back into her nap.
We left the park and headed into Fargo to capture a bit of the downtown.
Dominating downtown’s Broadway Street is the art deco Fargo Theatre. Built in 1926 as a cinema and vaudeville theatre, the beautifully restored Fargo Theatre now serves as an art house featuring independent and foreign films. It is also a venue for concerts and other live events.
That evening we returned for dinner and to take photos of the marquee at night.
Later that night I received another email from Dan: “I went back out this afternoon and Lady Saw-whet was still in the same spot, snoozing.”
Dan added that as he was leaving, he met a photographer who driven all the way to Fargo specifically to find a saw-whet owl. “Another kindly soul whose eyes and smile lit up at the sight of the bird … And the wheel keeps on turning.”
We are grateful for Dan’s time, expertise, and generosity. We could not have accomplished this goal without him and cannot thank him enough! Also, it was nice meeting and spending time with another owl-lover. Hopefully, he didn’t think I was *too* crazy for singing songs and talking to the owls. 🦉
After a successful detour to South Dakota’s Badlands for bighorn sheep, we continued with our original itinerary north to Canora, Saskatchewan in search of the Aurora Borealis.
The drive through the Dakotas is beautiful – reminiscent of the Palouse Region in the Pacific Northwest with miles of gentle, rolling hills.
And – an abundance of wildlife! On our drives both north and back south, we spied multiple deer, including a large buck that crossed the road directly in front of our car, an elk, a bighorn ram, two foxes, a herd of pronghorns, bald eagles, a golden eagle in aerial combat with a peregrine falcon, and dozens of ruffed grouse and pheasants running alongside the road.
The further north we drove, the more wintery it became but the roads were clear with no traffic.
We crossed the border at Northgate,
Entered Canada with no delay and were comfortably settled into our cozy Airbnb in Canora by late afternoon.
We took our time getting to know the charming little town. We went to the Ukrainian Catholic Church’s bake sale for cabbage rolls and to chat with the local ladies – who were amazed that we had driven all the way from Florida with our two pups!
We scouted out various dark sky locations for Northern Lights — should Lady Aurora decide to dance,
And photographed the beautiful Christmas lights on Main Street.
One morning we drove to the Whistle Stop, a small diner in Norquay. Over breakfast, we struck up a conversation with a local couple, Livia and Rick.
Livia insisted on hurrying home for some of her freshly baked skuffles – a type of Ukrainian cinnamon roll. “I’ll be right back,” she promised.
Sure enough, ten minutes later she was back with a package of tiny, cinnamon-sugar deliciousness. OMG!
Another evening we enjoyed the annual Christmas Lights Festival in Sturgis, a small town to the north. Horse-drawn carriage rides …
Hot cocoa …
A warm fire …
And beautiful lights …
It was ♪♪ beginning to look a lot like Christmas! ♪♪
Clouds continued to blanket all of Canada, and thus far our Northern Lights quest was unsuccessful. Who could have predicted so many nights of overcast skies?!?
But we are not ones to sit around and mope. We quickly shifted gears and focused our attention on the 90ft grain elevators that stand guard over every town.
Historically, Saskatchewan’s economy was based on agriculture, producing a significant percentage of Canada’s wheat and other grains. Grain elevators were iconic symbols of Saskatchewan and synonymous with the province’s agricultural roots. By 1960, the number of these “prairie sentinels” had peaked at close to 3000.
But as farmers moved to steel silos, the wooden elevators became obsolete and expensive to maintain. They are now a dying breed; it is estimated that 10-20 are lost every year to demolition, fires, or natural disasters, and only about 300 remain standing.
We wanted to capture a little of this history before it is gone forever. TG plotted multiple routes and we spent days driving from town to town, photographing the vintage towers,
Along with cool old barns, beautiful churches,
And interesting buildings.
One day we drove east into Manitoba to photograph the Inglis National Historic Site, the last complete row of vintage grain elevators in Canada, and a rare survivor of the long rows that once dominated the prairie towns.
The Inglis row was built between 1922 and 1941, Manitoba’s golden age of elevators. The buildings have been preserved in their original positions and restored to original condition.
On another snowy day, TG plotted a route that ended up with too many roads that had not been plowed. I had more luck shooting wildlife photos than he did with the grain elevators!
After back-tracking twice we finally arrived at the grain elevator in Waldron.
As we snapped away a man asked what we were doing and then invited us into his home for a cup of coffee. Our hearts — and our toes — were warmed by an hour of delightful conversation in Don and Virginia’s kitchen!
You can view all of our “prairie sentinel” photos here:
While we waited for conditions to improve, we found other interesting things to photograph. Light pillars happen on cold winter nights when there are ice crystals in the air. Lights that point straight down reflect off the snow on the ground, and the reflected light lights up the crystals.
Sun dogs, or parhelions, are formed by ice crystals suspended in clouds that drift in the air at lower levels. These ice crystals act as a prism, bending the light rays that pass through them.
And we were pleasantly surprised by all the wildlife we saw while out and about!
Although I would not recommend traveling to Canada in the dead of winter just for the wildlife, we regularly spied moose, foxes, coyote, deer, and many species of birds while out on our photo safaris.
You can view all of our wildlife photos here:
And we celebrated Christmas dinner at Lynn’s, a little Chinese restaurant in Sturgis … because nothing says “Christmas” like veggie chow mein! We actually made Lynn’s a regular stop for reasonable and good food!
But this trip was all about capturing the Northern Lights. Our friend Janet lived in Alaska for 28 years and she had warned us that there were many winters when they never saw any lights. So, we came to Canora with high – but realistic – hopes and agreed that even onegood night would make the drive worth it. The night of Dec 22 looked promising. The skies were finally clear, the solar wind speeds had picked up, and the BZ numbers were dropping – all indications of increased aurora activity.
Sure enough, our “Aurora Alert” app chimed around midnight. We bundled up and headed out to our dark-sky spot. We could see the shimmering lights before we even got out of the car, and they grew more brilliant as we watched.
Despite the -15° temps and 20mph wind, it was everything we could have hoped for. We both stood in awe, hearts caught in our throats as we watched Lady Aurora’s beautiful dance for the first time.
The next night she danced again, and we were there to capture her.
She appeared for a third night on Christmas Eve. The Christmas Lights (northern style) we had hoped to see!
December 29 gave us a relatively weak night, but if it had been our only sighting, we would have been thrilled.
The Space Weather Prediction Center issued a G1 geomagnetic storm watch for the night of January 3, 2023. Without getting too technical this meant that, if the skies were clear, we were sure to see a show. Although we were heading back to North Dakota the following morning, we drove out to our dark sky spot at midnight.
Lady Aurora’s dance was the best thus far, and two hours in the cold passed quickly.
She was still dancing when we returned home, and we captured a few more images above the house.
Capturing the Aurora is not easy. It is a ballet between the cold, the clouds, and the light. But nothing in the sky can compare to the beauty of what we saw on those five magical nights in Canora. As we watched the Lady dance, it felt at times like my very soul was being drawn out of my chest and into the stars.
You can view all of our “CanorAurora” photos here:
We traveled to Canada for the “Christmas Lights, Northern Style” but experienced so much more: historical grain elevators, wonderful wildlife, and beautiful, pristine landscapes. As we say au revoir, we cannot help but be enchanted by this Land of Living Skies.
Coming soon: Westward Ho(ly Cow)! Episode 5: “Saw-Whet, Say What?!?”
In November of 2021, we spent a wonderful month at a little Airbnb in Lemitar, New Mexico.
It was located about 30 minutes from the Bosque del Apache Wildlife Refuge, where over 100,000 sandhill cranes, snow geese, and other migrating birds winter each year. So, when we returned to Casita del Cranes this year it was like coming home. We arrived late afternoon on Wednesday, November 2, and were settled in long before bedtime.
When we left Grand Teton, winter was right around the corner. A week later they had a foot of snow and temperatures had dropped to below zero. It was nice to return to autumn in New Mexico where the aspens and cottonwoods had just started to peak,
And we tracked the color changes over our month’s stay.
On this visit, we spent a lot of time just relaxing at Casita del Cranes.
It is the last house on a quiet road and the only sounds are the birds
And occasional freight trains that rumble by day and night – something we found charming.
Oscar and Maddie loved going for sunset walks along the ditch road,
And checking on Pam’s chickens!
And we loved all the photo ops right outside our door.
We heard the calls of the sandhill cranes every time we stepped outside.
And often found them in the nearby fields or flying overhead.
The Bosque del Apache is a combination of wetlands and agricultural fields, and the planted/flooded areas are rotated each year. Last year the birds were close to the roads and easy to photograph from the various observation decks.
This year the Wetland Roost, an area alongside the road heading towards the main entrance, was flooded and we got some wonderfully close shots of the snow geese
And sandhill cranes,
Along with the coyotes that regularly scouted the shoreline in the early mornings.
We also managed to capture several of the Bosque regulars: an adorable least bittern doing her best to shoo away an American coot,
the many duck species,
And dozens of TTB’s (tiny twitchy birds).
In addition to a 14-mile scenic driving loop, the Bosque maintains twelve hiking trails of various lengths and difficulty. Instead of spending all of our time looking for birds, we hiked several trails.
Some, like the Desert Arboretum, are short and easy.
It shares a parking lot with the Visitor’s Center and Gift Shop, making for a convenient stop on your way to or from the Bosque.
Others, like the Canyon National Recreational Trail, require a bit more planning.
It is a 2.5-mile trail through a canyon where we found animal tracks in the sand
And nests tucked into crevices high up on the cliffs,
While winding our way up to the top of a ridge with a glorious bird’s-eye view of the refuge.
The Bosque is not just about birds. Many other animals call this area home including javelinas,
And multiple species of reptiles.
You can view all of our bird and wildlife photos here:
We had such an incredible time in 2021 that we did not feel under any pressure to get “the shot” on this trip. We visited other wildlife refuges and explored the beautiful state of New Mexico.
One day we drove east to Tularosa and on our way, happened upon the Valley of Fires.
According to the BLM website, 5,000 years ago Little Black Peak erupted and flowed 44 miles into the Tularosa Basin, filling the basin with molten rock.
The resulting lava flow is four to six miles wide, 160 feet thick, and covers 125 square miles.
The lava appears black and dead but take a closer look and it is full of life
On another day we drove south and west to Silver City, stopping at the VLA.
The VLA (Very Large Array) is comprised of twenty-eight enormous radio telescopes and is part of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory.
It also makes for some excellent photo ops!
Catron County in western New Mexico has a population of over 12,000 elk. We did not see any elk on our drive, but we did see mule deer, a roadrunner running across the road (where else?), a coyote, and a beautiful golden eagle.
We passed the Chino (aka Santa Rita) Open-Pit Copper Mine, the third largest in the world
And something you must see to believe!
We drove through the Gila National Forest with its astounding beauty
And exhilarating hairpin curves,
Stopping at the Emory Pass Overlook for a panoramic view of the mountains and forest.
Ride along with us for 30 seconds as we head down the mountain. Unless you get dizzy easily – then skip the video!
On yet another day we drove north to the Rio Grande Gorge
And the High Bridge, located about ten miles west of Taos.
At six hundred feet above the Rio Grande, it is the tenth highest bridge in the United States, and a bit unnerving for even the most intrepid!
I wanted to photograph the bighorn sheep that are common in this area, but all we managed to find were some fresh tracks.
We detoured home via Ramah, with prehistoric cliff dwellings dating back to 1200-1300 A.D.
And stopped at the El Morro National Monument where a waterhole hidden at the base of a sandstone bluff made it a popular campsite for hundreds of years.
We did not take the time to hike to the ancient campsite to see the over 2,000 signatures, dates, messages, and petroglyphs carved into the sandstone walls. Instead, we enjoyed a quiet picnic lunch in the Cibola National Forest before pointing ourselves back towards Lemitar and Casita del Cranes.
You can view all of our landscape photos from both the Bosque and our day trips here:
One day we drove to Gallup to visit the historic El Rancho Hotel. Opened in 1937, it was the base for many Hollywood movies filmed in the surrounding area and is full of movie star photographs and memorabilia.
We had so much fun and took so many photos that this visit deserves its own Flickr album!
Although we celebrated our 40th wedding anniversary back in October by splurging on a week at the McReynolds Blacktail Cabins in Grand Teton, the day we officially said “I do” was in November. We celebrated this special day with a long walk along the dirt road in front of Casita, dinner at the only restaurant in town open that day, and a night out shooting stars while being serenaded by howling coyotes. It was, indeed, a Happy Anniversary!
During our month-long visit we sampled some of the local cuisine: huevos rancheros in Tularosa,
Frito pie – which is shredded lettuce, tomatoes, beans, and cheese on top of Fritos mixed with red or green chile sauce – and considered a specialty in these parts.
Piñon coffee – a “must” for coffee lovers in our opiñon!
We also drove east and north to the tiny town of Corona for a delicious lunch at the El Corral Cafe, where real cowboys (complete with Old West hats) strolled in for their pick-up orders.
When ordering any dish with chiles, you are always asked “green” or “red.” We overheard a guest at El Corral say, “make mine Christmas-style.” And with December right around the corner, that is the perfect ending to our month in New Mexico!
Coming Next: Westward Ho(ly Cow)! Mini Episode 3.5: “The BIG Surprise”
When we were planning the Grand Teton leg of our 5 ½ month road trip, TG happened upon a most unique accommodation: two cabins located inside the national park boundary and only 1.5 miles from the famous Mormon Row and Moulton Barns.
McReynolds Blacktail Cabins looked like the perfect place, but TG said, “it’s a little out of our budget.” “Wait a minute,” I replied, “isn’t this 2022??? It’s our 40th wedding anniversary this year!”
Forty years of marriage is certainly worthy of a Grand Splurge celebration, don’t you think?!? TG inquired and the West Cabin was available the last week of October.
If you haven’t already read Episode 1: Walk on the Wild Side, you can click here to open a new tab and read all about our 32 nights in Big Sky, MT and Yellowstone National Park.
We left our Airbnb in Big Sky on Monday, October 24. It had snowed non-stop since early Saturday, and there was somewhere between 18-24 inches on the ground. It was a bit edgy going the nine miles down the mountain, but thanks to TG’s great driving we made it safe & sound.
Any drive through Yellowstone or Grand Teton National Park is a potential photo safari so we always keep our cameras within easy reach. On the Rockefeller Parkway we saw two cars stopped on a bridge up ahead. Did they spot a moose? No! OMG!!! A huge grizzly bear was crossing the river!
We quickly parked the car, and we got some wonderfully close shots of this magnificent animal as he lumbered by. We found out later that the locals have nicknamed this grizzly “Huck,” for the nearby Huckleberry Mountain. He is extremely elusive, so this was a rare and very fortunate spy.
Watch “Huck the Magic Grizzly” slowly walk by!
Thus began our animal count for Grand Teton NP. In addition to Huck, we also saw a coyote in the beautiful afternoon light,
A skunk, a badger, and a lovely herd of pronghorns.
We pulled into the driveway at McReynold’s West Cabin a little after 4 pm.
The cabin was perfect, with everything we could need, and an incredible view of the Teton mountains.
We woke up early Tuesday morning, excited to begin our week inside the park. As predicted, the sky threatened snow, so we headed to the Snake River Overlook to channel our inner Ansel Adams – aka concentrate on black and whites on this cloudy, gray day.
This is approximately where the famous photographer Ansel Adams took his iconic image of the Snake River and the Tetons rising above it – and helped convince Congress to designate this area a national park.
After a picnic with a view,
We drove to the Chapel of the Transfiguration, another iconic park image. This tiny rustic chapel was built in 1925 and provided local ranchers as well as tourists a place to worship close to home.
It is a spiritual place, with beautiful stained-glass windows in the foyer
And a view of the mountains behind the altar.
At the back of the chapel is a book for prayer requests. I am not a particularly religious person, but I wrote a special prayer in the book. It seemed the right thing to do in such a sacred space.
Within walking distance of the chapel is the old Menor’s Ferry. This was the only way across the Snake River before they built the steel truss bridge in 1927, making the ferry obsolete.
Wednesday morning started out cold. From the coziness inside our cabin, we could see that the clouds over the mountains were dramatic.
After a quick breakfast, we buddled ourselves up and spent some time photographing the Mormon Row barns.
While TG concentrated on his long-exposure panoramas,
I entertained myself with the adorable little chipmunks that scurried about the old, wooden buildings.
You can see all of TG’s beautiful Mormon Row Historic District photos here: (click on link to open in new tab)
Thursday morning started clear, and we drove the loop road, stopping to admire the beautiful sunrise along 191,
And the Willow Flats Overlook.
Along the way, we spied the largest herd of elk we had seen yet. There were at least 200 cows, all herded along by three or four large bulls. We could hear the bulls bugling, which sounds like something between a painful scream and a horse neighing and is part of their mating ritual.
We stopped at the Jenny Lake Overlook,
And checked out the Taggart Lake trailhead. The clouds had started to move in, obscuring our view of the mountains, so we decided to leave the hike for another day.
By nightfall the clouds were gone, and millions of stars lit up the sky.
The Big Dipper was perfectly positioned above the Teton mountain range, so I set up my tripod for a star stack.
As I broke down my tripod 90 minutes later, I heard a loud rustling in the tall grass and the distinctive sounds of something (big?) crossing the small stream that runs through the property. A moose? A pronghorn? A coyote??? Whatever it was, it wanted nothing to do with me and given the number of mule deer we saw around the cabin, I’m guessing that’s what I most likely heard.
Friday was another cold but clear day. We found a nice set of black bear prints and TG may or may not have taken off his shoes and socks for a bear feet/bare feet photo op.
We took advantage of the beautiful weather for another photo shoot at the Moulton Barns,
Went for a drive around the park,
And captured the last vestiges of autumn before heading home for an afternoon nap.
That night the stars once again filled the sky. Around 9 pm, we drove the five minutes back to Mormon Row to capture the Milky Way rising above the famous T.A. Moulton Barn.
Before we arrived in the Greater Yellowstone/Grand Teton area, it was my dream to see a moose and we had already spied 35. After all of our great animal sightings over the past month, we started Saturday with no expectations.
We decided on an early morning drive on the Moose-Wilson Road and no sooner had we turned the corner when we came upon two beautiful bull moose grazing in the meadow very close to the road.
On our way back, a cow had joined them! Make that 38 moose — so far!
The beautiful Teton mountain range lined the west side of our drive as we made our way north.
A large group was pulled over at Oxbow Bend and as we hopped out of the car, we spied a bald eagle on the ice. TG managed to capture the eagle in flight along with a little beaver sitting nearby, hoping no one would notice him!
The afternoon warmed into the balmy mid-40s with plenty of sunshine. We decided to hike to Taggart Lake – something we had been looking forward to all week. This beautiful glacier lake is a 3.2-mile round trip hike and is rated “easy” on the park website.
The trail crossed through flat, rolling sagebrush and past a little waterfall,
Before beginning a slow, gentle climb through aspen-covered moraine and pine forests.
The lake is stunning, and we could not have picked a more perfect day. The water was like glass, reflecting the Teton mountains rising above it.
Despite it being so late in the season, there were plenty of hikers on the trail, meaning we did not see much wildlife besides chipmunks, squirrels, and a few snowshoe hare tracks.
It was simply a beautiful day for a lovely hike!
You can see all of TG’s beautiful landscape panoramas here, including Taggart Lake:
After a fun morning with the muskrats and beavers at Oxbow Bend, we relaxed on Sunday afternoon. We had been going pretty much continuously for the past six weeks and needed to ready ourselves for stop #3 on our road trip: New Mexico.
We did enjoy a lovely last supper at Dornan’s Pizza & Pasta Company.
It’s nothing fancy, but it has a million-dollar view and was a relaxing place to enjoy the sunset.
Our road trip thus far had been extraordinary. Between the two parks we had enjoyed 29 photo safari days and already a lifetime of memories!
You can view all of our wildlife photos from Grand Teton on the Flickr link below:
Most locals say that fall is a perfect time to visit the Yellowstone-Grand Teton area. There are far fewer people and a 50/50 chance of decent weather year in and out. In our six weeks we only had two days of what we would consider “bad” weather.
And McReynolds Blacktail Cabins was the perfect “Grand Splurge” for our 40th anniversary! It is a charming cabin and its location inside the park is priceless.
You can view all of our Grand Teton landscape photos on the Flickr link below:
As we left the Grand Tetons in our review mirror, our feelings were bittersweet. We were sad to leave this place, with its astounding beauty, but also excited to continue our journey.
Coming next: Westward Ho(ly Cow) Episode 3 “Back to the Bosque”
After months of tweaking the itinerary, we were finally ready to head west on our epic, 5 ½ month road trip. We pulled out of our driveway in Okeechobee, FL early Sunday morning with the plan to arrive at our Airbnb in Big Sky, MT on Thursday.
We built in a little extra time for sightseeing, including stops in Tupelo, MS at Elvis’s birthplace, a Graceland drive-by,
And the 27-mile scenic tour of South Dakota’s Badlands.
You can view photos of our quickie trip though the Badlands here:
It was a long time to be in the car, but there was no traffic and 2,800 miles later we arrived in Big Sky as scheduled.
Domenick’s condo could not have been more perfect for us AND Oscar & Maddie. We had plenty of room to spread out and since it was a corner unit, plenty of privacy.
It was located at the base of Lone Mountain, which offered us gorgeous views every time we stepped outdoors.
You can find Domenick’s condo on the Airbnb website here:
It proved to be an excellent way to navigate around the park and also hear enriching facts and stories as we drove along.
According to our Gypsy guide, the Madison River sees over 200,000 angler days per year –that’s an average of almost six hundred anglers Every. Single. Day! p.s. We named the narrator “Edward” after our wonderful guide in South Africa.
We also spent one day driving around the west side of the Tetons, over the pass, through Grand Teton NP, and then home via Yellowstone.
Given my absolute terror of heights, it was all I could do to snap the few pics I did while on Teton Pass. I was too busy breathing into a paper bag and eating crybaby pie.
It made for a long, nine-hour day (O & M are SUCH troopers!!)
But we were rewarded with gorgeous views of the mountains from both the west and east sides.
And at the end of the day, we spied a group of male moose grazing in a meadow alongside the road. Just that quick, my life count for moose jumped from zero to three!
The first thing most people think about when they hear “Yellowstone” is Old Faithful. But the park is made up of over 10,000 hydrothermal features including geysers, beautifully colored hot springs, steaming fumaroles, and boiling mud pots. The land is truly wild! Instead of racing through the park, trying to see as many features as we possibly could, we chose to visit places we had targeted to thoroughly explore:
Upper Geyser Basin, which has the most concentrated grouping of hydrothermal features in the world, including Old Faithful.
We stayed long enough to see Old Faithful erupt three different times, from three different vantage points.
On our 6-mile hike around the Upper Basin, we also saw Anemone, Spasmodic, and Beehive Geysers erupt.
We walked as far as Morning Glory Pool, which is sadly fading due to all the coins and other items people keep throwing into the center.
Midway Geyser Basin, home to the Grand Prismatic Spring, third largest hot spring in the world, and Excelsior Geyser.
We even managed the one-mile hike up to the Grand Prismatic Overlook.
A beautiful afternoon at the Fountain Paint Pots in the Lower Geyser Basin, with views of all four of Yellowstone’s hydrothermal features: geysers, hot springs, mud pots, and fumaroles.
And a full day at Mammoth Hot Springs, with its amazing travertine terraces.
You can view all of our hydrothermal photos here:
Of course, Yellowstone is also all about the wildlife! I kept a count of all the animals and birds we spied and for “too many to count” I put an “X.”
By noon on our first day, bison were already an “X.” They are everywhere!
One afternoon we received intel that Yellowstone’s celebrity grizzly bears, “Raspberry” and her cub, “Jam” had been spotted in the eastern section of the park. Raspberry is a 15-year-old sow with a history of keeping her cubs longer than usual. Typically, around two years bear cubs are on their own so that the mother can mate again, but in the spring of 2022, Raspberry and 2 1/2-year-old Jam were still seen together.
After a bit of detective work, we determined the general area. As we rounded a curve, we knew we were in the right place: a crowd of 150+ armed with big-lens cameras and binocs were all pointed in the same direction.
Sure enough, Raspberry and Jam were there – a good 200 yards away and in harsh mid-day light but a thrill, nonetheless.
And as if that were not enough, on our drive home we spotted a mountain goat, grazing high up on the side of a hill. What a magical, mystical end to our day!
TG had been battling a cough and a friend suggested it might be allergies. So, one Sunday afternoon we drove down the mountain for some local honey – a good home remedy. And on the way, we came upon a moose family grazing right by the side of the road!
Besides beautifully terraced hot springs, Mammoth is also home to dozens of elk who like to hang out around the buildings and nicely manicured lawns. But that doesn’t mean they are in any way tame. Rangers are posted everywhere, reminding you to keep your distance.
On our way home that day we spied three more moose: a bull who was doing his best to hit on two cows, neither of which wanted anything to do with him. But Oscar and Maddie had been in the kennel since early morning, so we had to hurry home before the grand finale — if there even was one.
You can view all of our wildlife photos here:
Between all the rivers, waterfalls, lakes, and deep canyons that make up Yellowstone National Park, there are wildly beautiful landscapes everywhere you turn.
Artist’s Point is an iconic “must-photograph” image. It is a glorious waterfall that drops 308ft into the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone.
Hayden and Lamar Valleys have sweeping open plains with huge herds of bison and other animals,
Firehole River was named by early trappers for the rising steam which makes it look like it’s on fire.
And is one of only two places inside the park where you can actually swim!
And Yellowstone Lake, the largest lake above 7,000 feet in North America. Research has found that if one could empty all the water out of Yellowstone Lake, the bottom is similar to what is found on the land: geysers, hot springs, and deep canyons.
We also spent a day driving to Upper Mesa Falls, located about an hour west of Yellowstone. A wooden boardwalk lets you get so close you can feel the mist from the spray!
And another delightful afternoon hiking to Ousel Falls, located in Big Sky.
You can view all of our landscape photos here:
“Animal Jams” are a quintessential part of Yellowstone. The animals in the park roam free, and that means they sometimes use the same roads we drive on.
On any given day, at any given time, in any given place you are likely to encounter stopped traffic. But it’s all part of the park’s experience so you just enjoy it — and try not to get frustrated!
We had been in the Yellowstone area for a month and thus far blessed with unseasonably mild weather: warm days with plenty of blue skies and bright sunshine. But the forecast for the weekend of Oct 22 and into the following week did not look good. We decided to take advantage of what might be our last warm, sunny day and drive down to Grand Teton for some landscape shots.
It’s a long 4-hour drive in good weather so we also booked an overnight at the Cowboy Village in Jackson.
We spent all day Friday in the park, shooting landscapes
And all the wildlife we happened upon. In that one day of driving around, we saw a big male grizzly bear, a very dark gray wolf, a bald eagle, nine different moose (yes!!), a coyote, a ruffed grouse, and a little black bear.
Old Man Winter showed up with a vengeance on Saturday morning.
It took us 7 1/2 hours to get home. Part of that was driving below the speed limit on snowy, mountain roads. But we also sat for an hour in a “snow jam.” Someone had slid off the road and the rangers stopped traffic in both directions while we all waited for the tow truck. When the guilty car finally came by (his “drive of shame”) we saw it was a Range Rover of all things! I guess the guy got overly confident.
In spite of the wild drive home, it was well worth the trip!
Before we left Florida, I had already penciled this episode as “Walk on the Wild Side” for the “Wild West” and “wildlife” connotations. But between the wildly fantastic hydrothermal features of the park,
All the wildly beautiful landscapes,
All the wildlife we saw, and the wild weather our last time driving through the park, our 32 nights in Yellowstone were indeed a Walk on the Wild Side!
If you haven’t gotten enough photos, you can also check out our entire Flickr albums, which include pics not in any of the above categories as well as all of TG’s beautiful panoramas.
In June of 2022, we found ourselves in a bit of a predicament. We had a confirmed reservation at an Air BNB outside of Gardiner, MT for a month-long visit to Yellowstone National Park in September. As wildlife photographers, visiting the park was high on both our bucket lists: TG had never been and I was too young to remember much of my family’s visit in the early 1960s.
But unprecedented flooding caused the park to close, with not a lot of hope that the north (Gardiner) entrance would be open any time this season.
To salvage the Yellowstone portion of our trip we had a lot of boxes to check: the dates had to work as we were due at our next stop the third week of October. It had to be within an hour’s drive of one of the park’s entrances, it had to be dog friendly, and the price needed to be within our budget.
As luck would have it, we found a condominium in Big Sky, MT that fit the bill. It was located about 50 miles from the west entrance and was dog friendly.
Something about the host’s Air BNB profile rang a bell. Could it be the same Domenick that owned and operated the Quito Inn & Suites in Tababela?!?
Sure enough, it was! After the new international airport opened outside of Quito in 2013, it was the only place to stay those first few years and we met him on several of our trips to Ecuador.
After catching up on old times, Domenick offered us the Big Sky condo at a considerable discount. Yellowstone, followed by eight nights in Grand Teton, was back on track.
Our original plan was to head to New Mexico the first week of November for the sandhill crane migration at the Bosque del Apache before heading home in early December. But we thought as long as we’re this far, why not just keep going?? So we added … and added … and added …
After the Bosque we drive north to Yellowknife, Northwest Territories to spend the holidays photographing the aurora borealis, then back south to Fargo, North Dakota for a chance to spy saw-whet owls, and finish with another month in the Sax-Zim Bog with the great gray owls.
By the time we’re back home in Okeechobee, Oscar and Maddie will have added six more states to their already impressive count (23 total), plus 3 Canadian provinces.
Blogging a trip this long must be broken up into several parts (“Episodes”) which I will post as we go. Travel along with us – or wait until we’re back home and binge-read them all at once. Either way, it should be quite the ride! So fasten your seatbelts and hang on as we hit the road – again.
Coming next: Westward Ho Episode 1 “Walk on the Wild Side”