I had a bunch of fun yesterday testing out Fujifilm’s XF100-400mm in western Montana with howling winds, blowing snow and very photogenic Bison. What more could you really ask for? Perfect conditions for testing out a lens’s image stabilization and handling. The Fujifilm XF 100-400 really impressed. Trying to grab focus on an animal’s eye with falling snow is a real challenge, but the XPro2 and 100-400 worked very, very well and produced tack sharp images. The image stabilization was definitely on par with my old Canon 100-400mm and overall I was surprised at how comfortable it was to shoot. I’ll be posting a full review soon of this lens and also my thoughts on switching over from Canon to Fuji.
Planning a photography trip to Montana and wondering where to spend your time? Here are few of my favorite locations throughout the state that I revisit year after year for amazing landscapes, wildlife, and to experience the diversity of Big Sky Country.
Montana is our fourth largest state in the US but it feels much bigger partly due to its large open spaces and much like Alaksa it’s one of the least populated states, topping just over a million people for the entire state. Definitely more cows than people here, in fact more than double.
What really makes Montana stand out even more than its big wide open spaces is its diversity. Spend your time in the northwest and you’ll find expansive wilderness areas, millions of acres of national forest and mountains, big mountains. The Continental Divide cuts right through here creating an impressive backdrop from Glacier National Park down to the southern border of the Rocky Mountain Front.
Venture east and you begin to head into the plains where rivers like the Missouri and Yellowstone snake their routes through the state joining in the northeast to continue their journey to the Mississippi. When you get out this way you get an understanding for what “Big Sky Country” means and you also get a sense of how small you are in the great wide open of eastern Montana.
Below are just a few of my favorites places to explore that represent a good cross section of the state if you’re looking for some key locations during your travels. I have left out Yellowstone, because technically almost all of it’s in Wyoming (although many of us still secretly consider it a part of the state).
Glacier National Park
If you can only visit one destination in Montana, Glacier National Park is the place to go. I find my time spent here is usually some of the most productive of anywhere else and for good reason. You simply can’t beat the dramatic landscapes and abundant wildlife. The mountains rise up from the plains in the east and tower over you with sharp jagged ridges, glaciers, and sweeping vistas. The blue waters tinted with glacier silt of the many lakes reveal their multicolored rocks, like candy under the turquoise surface and wildflowers erupt in an epic display of color throughout the park.
There’s also only one road though Glacier and it’s probably the most jaw dropping 50 miles you may ever experience. Literally blasted out of the cliffs, hugging the mountains with thousands of feet of empty space below, it joins the west and east side of the park climbing in the middle to the top of Logan Pass. Completed in 1933 after nearly three decades of construction it’s a real testament to the determination and ingenuity of the men who constructed it and put in place a scenic drive that seemed an impossibility.
Bringing your long lenses? Grizzly & black bear, moose, big horn sheep, mountain goats are just a few of the large mammals that call Glacier home. Head to the northeast for some of the highest concentration of grizzly bears in the lower 48 or head up high and hang out with mountain goats as you point your camera over sub alpine meadows dotted with wildflowers and stunning backdrops of some of the parks 10,000ft peaks.
Best time to visit is July-Oct, the rest of the year main access to the interior of the park is closed due to snow.
Makoshika State Park
Head east, far east in Montana, to the small town of Glendive nestled up against the North Dakota border where you will find Maksoshika State Park, a surreal landscape and one of our coolest State Parks (in my opinion) in Montana. Makoshika is relatively small, only about 11,000 acres, but it sits in an area that is unique geographically and gives a glimpse into our prehistoric past. The park is an ancient exposed seabed that has been shaped by wind and water over millions of years and gives you a sense as you’re hiking through that you’re wandering in some sort of martian-like landscape.
Makoshika in Lakota translates to “Bad Land” or “Bad Earth”, which seems appropriate as it’s situated in the badlands that stretch between Montana and North Dakota connecting up in Theodore Roosevelt National Park, which is a short drive east from Makoshika. The badlands in this area can be beautiful in late spring as the rains come and green starts to dot the brown parched landscape. In early summer, awesome thunderstorms make their way through bringing lightning shows and dramatic weather that can make for some fantastic landscape photography.
To get to Makoshika head to the town of Glendive just off of I-94. There is some camping inside the park and also lodging in town. Late spring through fall is the best time to visit, but be prepared in mid summer for hot temps and drier conditions.
Are you searching for the perfect fall location to explore in Montana? Wondering where the best time is spent for great colors and epic landscapes? When fall arrives there is one place I head every year and that’s the Seeley-Swan Valley located in western Montana, a short 45 min drive northeast of Missoula.
The valley is bordered by two distinct mountain ranges, the Missions to the west and the Swan Range to the east. On the other side of the Missions lies Flathead Lake and the Mission Valley and to the east past the Swan Range lies the famous Bob Marshall Wilderness. What makes the Seeley-Swan Valley so special?
One, it’s home to a chain of lakes that stretch from north to south, some large some small, providing great landscape opportunities, especially with fall reflections. Second the valley is thick with larch or “tamaracks” as the locals call them, the only deciduous conifer and one that turns a brilliant orange in the fall, one of the primary reasons for photographing the area. Third are the mountains. Both ranges provide great backdrops, especially when the snow comes to the high country, adding nicely fitting snow capped peaks into the scene.
Not only are the views amazing, but you have some great wildlife opportunities with both grizzly & black bear, moose, elk, and other large mammals. Not to mention some birding opportunity as well with bald eagles, loons, waterfowl and other migrating birds.
The best time to visit if you’re coming for the larch, is mid-late October.
Rocky Mountain Front
What can I say about the Rocky Mountain Front? Well if I had to sum it up in into one word, I think it would be “Wild”! That’s the sense I get every time I make a trip into this incredible wilderness area. The “Front” in Montana stretches from just south of Glacier to the town of Lincoln and the two main towns that border this area are Choteau and Augusta. The mountains here rise up dramatically from the plains towering over the foothills where ranchers graze their cattle and grizzly bears still wander onto the plains just as they did before these lands were settled.
One of the main draws of the Front is the Bob Marshall Wilderness. Just beyond the front range lies one of the largest roadless wilderness areas in the lower 48. Home to the second largest migratory elk herd in the United State and also the largest band of Big Horn Sheep it encompasses some of the most important and protected lands we have here. For day hikes or multi-day trips you can explore endlessly here with jaw dropping views and wildlife just about everywhere you turn.
In the late spring I like to visit the Front as huge blooms of wildflowers appear carpeting the foothills and making for some awesome foregrounds. Late May into early June can be the best time, especially when the rains arrive. As you explore here whether driving the backroads or hiking in, you rarely see many people, giving you a sense that you have this whole place to yourself. I liken it to Glacier without the crowds.
The National Bison Range
The National Bison Range is located just north of Missoula next to the small town of St. Ignatius in the southern end of the Mission Valley. The Mission Mountains provide a spectacular backdrop all along the valley in the east and extend to the Bison Range. The National Bison Range was established in 1908 by President Theodore Roosevelt to provide a natural habitat where bison could roam, protected. The Bison Range is just over 18,000 acres and is home to about 500 head of bison.
What makes the Bison Range such a special location for photography is it also has some of the best elk and white-tailed deer photography around. Visit in the fall and you will have the elk and deer in rut, which is pretty amazing with some huge bull elk bugling everywhere you turn. The range also is home to black bear, bighorn sheep, and a fantastic bird habitat.
The reason I like to visit here so often is the combination of great close-up wildlife photography combined with the scenery of the Mission Mountains. It’s a productive area to work both early morning and late evening, with the latter providing the best lighting for your mountain backdrop. There’s one scenic drive that goes through the range with the upper portion being a one way tour taking you up into the higher elevations.
Best time to visit is Spring-Fall, with special attention to Bison, Elk and White-tailed Ruts.
Just returned from a week back in Yellowstone National Park during one of my favorite seasons to explore our first park’s incredible wildlife and winter landscapes. It seems like the theme of my trip this go around was “blue & cold”, at least that’s the way a lot of my images seemed to turn out! The weather was clear and cold with temps around -20f during the mornings in the Lamar Valley which made for some interesting landscapes and also produced some pretty cool sun dogs and overall shooting atmosphere. Not to mention some cold fingers!
If you haven’t visited Yellowstone in winter, it’s really a must for nature photographers. Whether you shoot landscapes or are a dedicated wildlife shooter, the uniqueness and beauty of the park in winter really offers up something for everyone. Obviously its wildlife is some of the best in the lower 48, especially when winter arrives, but the landscapes as well can bring some pretty cool things you don’t normally get a chance to see. When the weather turns harsh, it gets even better with unique atmosphere producing sun dogs, trees with hoar frost, and dramatic fog in the valleys.
Jan-Feb is a great time to experience winter in the park and also to find the solitude that comes minus the crowds. Spending a cold morning in the Lamar Valley with only you and few others around you are quickly reminded of this. As wolves howl in the distance and frosted bison roam nearby, it’s also a reminder that you’re standing in the last little bit of wild we have here and a place that has a new surprises around every corner for photographers.
Now that 2016 is coming to an end, I thought I would share some of my favorites from this year. It’s been an adventurous year in the western U.S. and I’ve had the pleasure of meeting some truly wonderful travelers on my workshops. I’m always amazed at the dynamic nature and diversity of our groups and how everyone shapes each trip. When you put a bunch of passionate photographers together in some stunning places, you can’t ask for a better time.
One of the things I love about teaching photography workshops is watching the creativity that is stirred up by the group. Watching each other work and how each individual approaches the same scene spurs new ideas and really helps encourage thinking outside of your creative comfort zone. I think sometimes I learn just as much while teaching and traveling with others.
As we begin 2017, I look forward to meeting new friends, exploring new places and staying in gratitude for the amazing abundance we all share here. Wishing everyone the best in the new year!
Just returned from a fantastic trip co-leading for Natural Habitat Adventures on their Yellowstone Winter Photo Expedition. We had such a wonderful group of travelers and perfect conditions on this trip, allowing great views of the Tetons and some pretty sweet wildlife viewing. We started out in Jackson, Wyoming working our way up into the interior of Yellowstone, exploring geyser basins around Old Faithful and eventually working our way up in the northern range of the park over the course of the week. We had some great wildlife viewing in the northeast getting to spend some time observing the wolves of the Lamar Pack and also some great Bison photography.
I’m finally back at home now getting caught up on some much overdue editing and getting ready for spring (hard to believe!) and also some upcoming talks. In a couple weeks if you happen to find yourself in western Montana, I will be giving a talk on the “Art of Nature Photography” at the Bitterroot Audubon Society on Feb. 15 in Hamilton. If interested, feel free to contact me for more details or visit their site at bitterrootaudubon.org. In the meantime, I will be enjoying the little bit of winter we have left and looking forward to getting out and about around western Montana.
It’s nice to be back doing some photography in Montana! It’s been a busy couple months getting caught up on print orders and traveling for workshops and now finally having a little time to sneak out for some photography in western Montana before I head back out. Things are looking spectacular out here right now and are only getting better. The National Bison Range is just a short drive from where we live in the Bitterroot and one of my favorite locations to photograph in the Mission Valley. Arrow-leaved balsamroots are in bloom, baby bison running around and snow still on the peaks. I only wish I had more time to spend here! Out last night I had some good luck with Yellow-headed blackbirds and some nice backlight work with the Bison. The light was also pretty nice on the Mission Mountains at sunset:) What I love about the Bison range is that even though it’s boundaries are small, it has so many rich elements in one area. The wildlife is usually within decent working distances, great bird habitat and you can’t beat the geography and the Missions as a backdrop. Lots of potential and you never know what you’re going to come away with. Looking forward to more trips this summer!
This last month I’ve had the pleasure of working with Natural Habitat Adventures on their Wolf Quest Photo Trips in Yellowstone National Park. We’ve had some amazing encounters so far and I look forward to sharing some images soon when I return home.
Weather throughout the west has been really warm and things are thawing rapidly in Yellowstone. Signs of spring are definitely here with bears out, migrating birds showing up, and remaining snow pack quickly disappearing.
This big bison was taken in the northeast corner of the park as he broke his way through some of the remaining deep snow on a cold morning in early March.
Last year I had the opportunity to photograph some locations for author Anna Marlis Burgard’s Islands of America. Little did I know about all the fascinating, quirky, and unique locations there are! One of my favorites was Antelope Island in Utah with a very memorable fall bison roundup. Be sure to check out Anna’s latest article at Atlas Obscura.
After spending an amazing week exploring locations around western Montana, I’m finally getting a chance to get caught up on some of the images here this morning. I had the opportunity to spend some time at the National Bison Range last week and had a couple days of just outstanding light and activity with many different animals. The Bison were still exhibiting a little bit of their rutting behavior and were doing some great dusting and much more active. Sometimes it’s being in the right place at the right time, but I was hoping for some of these guys to wander into the great backlighting we were having at first light and managed to get a few that came in front of the camera. Hope to spend some more time this next week capturing fall colors across Montana and making another visit to the range.
Canon 1DX 500mm f4L IS II f4.5 1/8000 ISO800