Discover the crisp air, scarce crowds, and incredible wildlife of Yellowstone National Park in the fall. Magnificent bull Elk fill the air with frosty breath and clarion mating calls while cottonwoods shimmer in hues of gold. An early snowfall may decorate the landscape, bringing a sense of urgency to animals preparing for winter. Few places in the world match Yellowstone for viewing the dynamics of large mammals and the drama played out between predator and prey. What’s new for this year’s trip? We’re sending along a photo expert in addition to our Naturalist Journeys guide to help those who are interested in improving their photography.
We begin on the west side of the park, at wildlife refuges and Harriman State Park, vital wetland areas for the Yellowstone Ecosystem replete with waterfowl and significant species such as Trumpeter Swan and Sandhill Crane. After two nights at a beautiful lodge on the Henry’s Fork River, continue with two nights at West Yellowstone from which we follow the Madison River to witness steamy, iconic geyser basins and plentiful wildlife at Old Faithful and other thermal basins. From two nights’ lodgings at Gardiner on the park’s north entrance we visit Swan Flats and Mammoth Hot Springs and venture to Hayden Valley, where we see wildlife and the dramatic Upper and Lower Falls of the Yellowstone River. Finally, from the northeast entrance, with lodging at Silver Gate just outside the park, we have time to explore incredibly scenic Beartooth Pass and back in Lamar Valley spot mammals in their prime: Bison, Elk, Pronghorn, Bighorn, Mountain Goat, Otter, Beaver, and more. Raptors on the wing, possible wolf sightings, fall color, and perhaps the first snowfall—this trip is a naturalist’s or photographer’s dream!
Absorb the rich legacy that is Yellowstone, the world’s first and still most famous national park, and a World Heritage Site?there is simply no other place like it on the planet. This tour in the fall is a sampler trip, designed not for keen birding but for time to savor this treasured landscape and its signature species, and with time to enjoy photography if you wish, watch animal behavior, and meet local experts working with wolves and other species.
Early on they called it Wonderland … and we think you will too.
- See Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife Refuge and Harriman State Park—en route to Yellowstone
- Visit iconic Yellowstone destinations, including Old Faithful and Mammoth Hot Springs, without the summer crowds
- Watch for Bald Eagle, Osprey, Trumpeter Swan and Elk along the rushing Madison River
- Search for Bison, two species of deer, Elk, Moose, Pronghorn, Bighorn, and Mountain Goat
- Witness the dramatic Upper and Lower Falls of the Yellowstone River
- Spot possible Great Gray Owl, Pine Grosbeak, Harlequin Duck, American Dipper, numerous raptors including Golden Eagle, and Gray-crowned and Black Rosy Finches
- Watch for Mountain Bluebird, Dusky Grouse, and Red-naped Sapsucker under colorful Quaking Aspens
- Savor a relaxed-pace tour immersed in the wild wonder of Yellowstone
- Travel in comfortable minivans, easy to carry gear and getting in and out of for our wildlife stops
- Find awe in this region’s landscapes
- Gain skills in wildlife watching and photography with an expert in each venue!
Day 1: Arrival in Bozeman, Montana | Yellowstone National Park | Angler’s Lodge
Bozeman is a great small city with a western flair and some of you may want to arrive early to enjoy it. We can make recommendations—book early to find the best rates. We plan to leave from the airport not later than 2:00 PM today to head south to West Yellowstone, following the Gallatin River, film site for the Robert Redford directed film A River Runs Through It.
En route we cross the Continental Divide from the Madison to the Snake River drainage, looking out for Moose and raptors such as Ferruginous Hawk and Northern Harrier. Near Island Park we settle into our lovely lodgings on the river. With luck a Common Loon glides on the river and Caspian Tern fly overhead.
Accommodations at Angler’s Lodge (D)
Day 2: Red Rock Lakes NWR | Yellowstone Ecosystem’s Western Side
We love exploring the quieter side of the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem. At Angler’s Lodge we are close to Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife Refuge, Hegben, and Earthquake Lakes, and to Harriman State Park, a conservation area left as part of the legacy of the Harriman family of railroad fame.
We plan our day according to weather and road access, with plans to spend time looking for Moose, Northern Flicker, Williamson’s Sapsucker, and both Hairy and American Three-toed Woodpeckers. Big valley meadows here are frequented by Elk, the river bottoms by Moose; in view of the Centennial Mountains we hope to find Prairie Falcon, Golden Eagle, and a host of waterfowl species. In groves of conifers we look for seed-eating specialties like Pine Grosbeak, Cassin's Finch, and Pine Siskin. Enjoy a picnic lunch afield.
Common Loon and Red-necked Grebe use the lakes here, and the area has always been a stronghold for the Yellowstone population of Trumpeter Swan. Harriman State Park has extensive trails and several wildlife viewing areas. Osprey and Bald Eagle are frequent sightings here, too.
We return to our lodgings on the river for a nice dinner and some time to enjoy the views.
Accommodations at Angler’s Lodge (B,L,D)
Day 3: Harriman State Park | Madison River | A Peek at Geyser Basins
We make an early morning foray to nearby Harriman State Park to be there at prime light for photography and prime time for birds and mammals. We return to Angler’s Lodge to enjoy a hearty brunch and pack up our gear to head to Yellowstone. We retrace our steps to West Yellowstone where we enter Yellowstone Park and drive up a wildlife-rich corridor along the Madison River. At this time of year Elk often congregate in the lushness of the river corridor. On sunny days they seem to savor the warmth … perhaps they know winter is coming. Cow and calf herds lounge, feed, and interact. Big bulls may bugle, round up the females, or do some sparring.
We have the full afternoon to explore a few of the various thermal basins all leading into the grandest of them all at Old Faithful. Photographers and naturalists equally delight in seeing boiling mudpots, crystalline pools of rainbow colors, and steamy misty landscapes. We should spot Coyote, Killdeer, Barrow’s Goldeneye, American Dipper, and possibly River Otter. Today we focus on Grand Prismatic Spring and Midway Geyser Basin.
We may linger in the area for sunset light over one of the thermal areas on our return drive back. Then we settle into modern rock and log architecture lodgings for the next two nights. Enjoy dinner at a fun local restaurant.
Accommodations at Three Bears Lodge (B,L,D)
Day 4: Old Faithful | Upper Geyser Basin | Madison River
This year we added a day to our tour as the photo opportunities, birding, and wildlife near the thermal basins is so extraordinary. On a sampler tour we don’t want to rush, we want to savor and find awe.
After breakfast we head out and enjoy a stop along the Firehole Falls Loop. We continue on to Fountain Paint Pots to walk the boardwalk loop there. Then it’s on to the Upper Geyser Basin, which holds not only Old Faithful Geyser but also a host of other impressive features such as Grand, Beehive, Riverside, and Castle Geysers and Morning Glory Pool. We take time to walk the loop that winds between them.
Walking back along the Firehole River is memorable. Lunch in the Old Faithful Inn is a treat. As we travel in three small mini-vans for ease of carrying gear and stopping for wildlife, we can offer options this afternoon. Some may want to return to West Yellowstone for free time or to experience the Wolf and Grizzly Discovery Center. Others may wish to do more photography and birding along the Madison on the route home.
This is a free night for dinner as we may be on different schedules, and in West Yellowstone restaurants abound. You are welcome to join the guides or strike out on your own.
Accommodations at the Three Bears Lodge (B,L)
Day 5: Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone | Hayden Valley | Lake
Today is a full but rewarding day. We leave West Yellowstone in the morning to drive the grand loop, this time going beyond Old Faithful over Craig Pass to reach the West Thumb Geyser Basin, a small thermal wonderland right on the lake. We walk a loop here that is often good for birding, with a chance to see Fox Sparrow, Pine Grosbeak, or Red Crossbill.
From here we continue on up to Lake, where we make a stop to see the famous Lake Hotel and take a break. At the lakeshore we may find Western Grebe. LeHardy Rapids is our next stop, with hopes of finding late season Harlequin Duck. Hayden Valley is one of the most beautiful landscapes of the park and also home to Bison, Sandhill Crane, a resident wolf pack, and raptors.
At the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone we take time to also stop at viewpoints from the famed Hayden Valley and the Upper and Lower Falls of the Yellowstone River. Enjoy exhibits on the park’s geology and lunch at Canyon. Then it’s time to head on, depending on construction completion we route over Dunraven Pass or go back through Norris Geyser Basin and down.
Our lodgings for the next two nights are in Gardiner, at the park’s historic North Entrance, and here our rooms overlook the Yellowstone River and the beauty of the mountains. Dinner is at a favorite local restaurant.
Accommodations at Absaroka Lodge (B,L,D)
Day 6: Mammoth Hot Springs | Little America | Tower Falls
We make an early drive (optional) to catch the beautiful light at Swan Lake Flats and experience water birds through our scopes there. We return to Mammoth where we enjoy a brunch, thermal features, and look for the herd of Bighorn Sheep so often on the cliffs just past Mammoth. Often in fall there are Elk on the green grass lawns of the park headquarters and surrounding buildings.
We then explore the area of the park known as Little America, full of small ponds inviting waterfowl, and open spaces that are great to scan. At lower elevations in the sagebrush we could find Lazuli Bunting, Sage Thrasher, Brewer’s Sparrow, Green-tailed Towhee, and possibly some lingering western warblers such as Orange-crowned or McGillivray’s. In Aspen groves we look for woodpeckers, grouse, Mountain Chickadee, and Mountain Bluebird. We check out the Petrified Tree area that Black Bear are known to frequent, look for American Dipper that should be active in the stream, and spend time with Elk and Bighorn Sheep.
After lunch, and a view of Tower Falls if it’s open, we return so you can enjoy some free time in the western town of Gardiner, or linger a bit at Mammoth Hot Springs to enjoy a walk on boardwalk trails between thermal features. Dinner tonight is guide’s choice; go with one of our team to the restaurant of your choice, from famous local burgers to pizza or fine dining.
Accommodations at Absaroka Lodge, Gardiner (B,L,D)
Day 7: Lamar Valley | Yellowstone’s Northeast Entrance
Today we focus on the scenic Lamar Valley where much of the drama of Wolf restoration first played out. We leave EARLY today, to be out with the good light for photography as well as the wildlife action. We head right to Lamar and network with local biologists in the know about where there is action. We plan a full morning in Lamar, and return to the Roosevelt Lodge area for lunch.
Learn more about this highly successful Wolf restoration program and with luck find the wolves! We may find American Badger, Coyote, Red Fox, or other smaller predators as well. Or there may be action at Slough Creek, bears or Wolves, or simply a great walk to look for Williamson’s and Red-naped Sapsuckers. Raptors on the wing could include Cooper’s, Sharp-shinned, Ferruginous, and Rough-legged Hawks, as well as American Kestrel, Merlin, and Peregrine.
At the studio of a famous wildlife photographer and friend, we hope that Pine Grosbeak, Steller’s Jay, and Clark’s Nutcracker, even Gray Jay may be around.
Settle into cabins near the park entrance at Silver Gate. Dinner is in a cozy log cabin restaurant.
Accommodations at the Pine Edge Cabins (B,L,D)
Day 8: Montana’s Fabulous Beartooth Highway
Today we head out to the breathtaking Beartooth Plateau, home to Clark’s Nutcracker, Mountain Bluebird, Pine Grosbeak, Rosy and Cassin’s Finches, and some of the finest scenery on the planet. The Beartooth Highway is rightfully famous as the most beautiful roadway in America. There are wonderful views and lots of places to stop and take photos of the spectacular vistas too.
We bring a picnic lunch today and take time to look for Mountain Goat, which linger above tree line, with 360-degree views of mountains and sky.
This is our final evening; some may want to make one last run to the Lamar Valley, others may want time to pack or shop. Tonight’s final dinner is at a delightful bistro.
Accommodations at the Pine Edge Cabins (B,L,D)
Day 9: Return to Bozeman | Departures
It is time for our flock to disperse. It is about a three hour drive from our hotel to Bozeman. The earliest we can get to the airport, realistically, is 11:00 AM. Please book flights out after 12:30 PM so we can have breakfast and then drive to the airport. Our route is scenic, passing through Paradise Valley back to Bozeman (B)
Cost of the Journey
Cost of the journey is $3590 DBL / $4145 SGL per person, based on double occupancy.
This cost includes: accommodations for 8 nights, all meals as specified in the itinerary (B=breakfast, L=lunch, D=dinner), park entrance and other activity fees for activities for 9 days as described in the itinerary, professional guide services, pre-departure materials, and miscellaneous program expenses.
Tour cost does not include: round-trip airfare to and from Bozeman, Montana (BZN). The tour cost does not include items of a personal nature such as laundry, telephone, drinks from the bar; or gratuities for luggage handling or personal services.
The airport for this journey is Montana’s Bozeman International Airport (BZN). Please plan to arrive in Bozeman on or before September 11, no later than 1:00 PM. We travel to Island Park, past West Yellowstone this day, so we do suggest coming in a night early, as there is no public transport into the park, so a delay could mean a costly transfer to catch up to the group. We plan to return to the airport by 11:00 AM on September 19, for flights out 12:30 PM onward. We can also drop you off at a hotel in town if you plan to stay on after the tour.
Hugh Simmons is a freelance photographer, avid birder and conservationist. Combining forty years of photography experience with a life-long love of nature he strives for images that give the viewer a sense of place. Hugh is a former National Audubon board member and is currently an Audubon chapter president and volunteer field trip leader for both his Audubon Chapter and the Cape May Bird Observatory. His photographic subjects range widely including medical settings, events, people, birds and landscapes.
Photo credit: Hugh Simmons Photography
Other trips with Hugh Simmons
Yellowstone in The FallSeptember 20 - 28, 2022
- Yellowstone in The Fall
Photo credits: Grand Teton Mountains by Greg Smith; American Dipper, Gary Stone; Elk by Peg Abbott; Black Wolf by Greg Smith; Steller's Jay, Naturalist Journeys Stock; American Red Squirrel by Hugh Simmons; Bison by Hugh Simmons; Grand Teton w lake landscape by Hugh Simmons; Bull Elk, Naturalist Journeys Stock; Golden Eagle, Greg Smith; Bald Eagle, Greg Smith; Bison, Naturalist Journeys Stock; Mountain Bluebird, Hugh Simmons; Group in Yellowstone, Naturalist Journeys Stock; Trumpeter Swans, Greg Smith; Sunrise, Hugh Simmons; West Thumb thermals by Hugh Simmons; Willow Flycatcher by Hugh Simmons; Group birding by Hugh Simmons; American Dipper by Hugh Simmons; Bighorn Sheep by Hugh Simmons, Harlequin Ducks, Carol Comeau; Osprey, Carol Comeau; Common Mergenser, Carol Comeau