Revisiting Mt. Washburn and so much more!

This year, we are planning a trip to Yellowstone National Park to photograph spring babies and we are super excited!

In anticipation of this year’s trip, I wanted to share a blog post from our first trip to Yellowstone in July 2010. And, it was my first blog post that started Shot shorts!

As you’ll soon discover, our day included a drive through Hayden Valley and a hike up Mt. Washburn to photograph big horn sheep — where we captured a coyote catch!

Blog post from July 2010:

Since starting wallnerphotography.com, I’ve had numerous people ask me if I’m going to write a behind the shot stories for some of the more rare and unique photographs. As I thought about it, I figured it also would be a fun way to share my photography adventures. And what to call the blog? Shot shorts.

Without a doubt, one of the most unique photographs (and one I get asked the most about) is of the coyote carrying its marmot meal down rocks. 

The funny thing is, the day started off with the goal being: to see and take photographs of big horn sheep on top of Mt. Washburn. I had no idea the day would bring so much more.

Our hike up Mt. Washburn was the first day of our Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks trip. The day started out before the crack of dawn, which is the best time to get wildlife photographs. And, since Mt. Washburn is one of the most hiked places in Yellowstone, Kristin and I wanted to beat the summer crowds to the top. Hot beverages in hand, we drove from Old Faithful Lodge to Mt. Washburn, with a quick stop in Hayden Valley for a few sunrise photographs. 

Hayden Valley

Let me pause here to share a few words about the buffalo silhouette photograph. (I realize there are debates about if they are called bison or buffalo, but since I like the word buffalo and this is my blog, that’s what I’m going to use.) We arrived at Hayden Valley just in time for the sunrise. We spotted an animal, possibly a moose, down near the water’s edge — far out of my lens’ reach. We kept looking. As the Jeep crawled down the road and up over a small hill, there sat a buffalo about five yards from the edge of the road. I pulled right in front of him and the brilliant sunrise colors beamed around him. He majestically sat there without a care in the world and wasn’t bothered by us or the Jeep, so there we sat, taking pictures and enjoying his immense beauty. We had him all to ourselves.

Bison Silhouette
The early morning sunrise is the backdrop to a bison in Hayden Valley, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming.

Mt. Washburn

Next, we headed toward our hike destination — Mt. Washburn. There are two trails that lead up to the top of Mt. Washburn. Both are three miles in length. Our plan was to take the less strenuous trail, Chittenden Road. However, when we pulled up to park, the trail was marked off with chains with a sign “Trail is closed.” We found out later that the path had active grizzlies in the area. So, our trail was chosen for us — Dunraven Pass. No other cars were in the parking lot, which increased our excitement and hopes for wildlife sightings. Hiking up the mountain, we saw marmots, American pika, red squirrels and a few birds.

Marmot Yawning
A yawning marmot in the rocks around the ranger station at the top of Mt. Washburn, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming.

My hope for seeing big horn sheep at the top increased with every step. At the very top of Mt. Washburn sits a Lockout Tower, which is used to spot fires. Just before the trail curled around to lead up to the tower, we walked across snow — it was July 3. 

As the trail wound around, the Chittenden Road trail merged with ours. The final stretch up to the top and we were not seeing any big horn sheep. I won’t forget the moment when I said, “Where are they? The big horn sheep?” hands outstretched in wonderment. At that moment, I turned around, looked up the embankment behind me and there lay two big horn sheep. They just sat there and stared down at us.

Serene Big Horn Sheep
These big horn sheep were the first of about a dozen that I saw after hiking up Mount Washburn in Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming.

We hiked up the final stretch of the hill, where there were more big horn sheep sitting right on the trail. We were the first visitors of the day to the top, making our arrival more special.

Mt. Washburn Bighorn Sheep
Bighorn sheep on top of Mt. Washburn with Observation Peak in the background, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming.

We spent time at the top taking pictures of the view and of the marmot running in between the large rocks that surrounded the tower. There were so many of them, screaming, yawning, chasing each other in the rocks. We took a few more pictures at the top and then began our descent.

Coyote close up

A new group of big horn sheep had moved closer to the path, so I took more photographs. We were on the trail that overlooks the Chittenden Road trail. Just then, I spotted something trotting along the trail below. All I saw were its ears and part of its head bobbing up and down. It looked like a dog, so it could have been either a coyote or a fox. I couldn’t quite tell what it was, but it was clearly on a mission to get somewhere and fast.

As the animal came to the intersection of the Chittenden Road and Dunraven Pass, I could see what it was — a coyote. She walked right past a family that was coming around the bend, scaring everyone in their group. She did not stop. I followed quickly down the trail hoping to snap a few pictures. I looked up on the rocky hill (where all the marmots live) and saw something flailing in the air. I immediately guessed that she was getting breakfast from marmot hill. I moved closer down the path and came to a stop. The trail was barely big enough for a four wheeler. On one side was the rocky hill just below the tower and the other side, well, it was a steep cliff down the mountain.

There we stood on the side of the path closest to the steep cliff (I know, I know…), cameras in hand snapping away. The coyote had just killed a marmot, which she was now carrying down the rocky hill in her mouth — toward us! Closer… closer. The coyote began to climb down the rocks directly in front of us!

Coyote Catch
A coyote carries a freshly killed marmot down from the ranger tower where marmots live in the rocks on top of Mount Washburn in Yellowstone National Park.

We stood absolutely still (taking pictures of course) as she walked right by us, so close that I could have stuck out my foot and tripped her. She trotted by us as if she only had one care in the world — to get home to feed her pups with breakfast.

One of the most amazing experiences of my life, captured with photographs.

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