Grand Teton National Park
In June and July this past summer I had the joy of making my third trip to the Grand Teton National Park. A photo buddy, Frank, and I piled our gear into my car and drove from Asheville, NC to the Tetons. It was a long 3-day drive but once the first day was out of the way, the drive really wasn't too bad. Having downloaded plenty of Netflix movies to my iPad helped pass the time when I wasn't driving. But the excitement of our destination helped motivate us during the long drive.
Before we left, Frank and I met to lay out our desired locations and identify the prime locations we wanted to shoot in the mornings. We were only going to have five days in the park before packing up and heading to the Rocky Mountain National Park for four days before heading back home. The trouble is there are so many fantastic locations that would all look their best photographed with early morning light. Our top picks were Schwabacher Landing, the Moulton Barns, Taggart Lake and Spring Lake. This would be my first time hiking to Taggart and Spring Lakes.
Family and friends thought we should have flown to the Tetons vs. driving all that way. But flying would mean limiting the gear we were able to take and we didn't want to get there and not have what we needed to get the desired result.
Weather turned out to be a key factor. We got caught up with the heat wave affecting the western states. So the high temperature each day was around 90 degrees. At least the humidity was low and that did help. Nonetheless, when it's 90 and you're averaging hiking five miles per day, you're hot. While the mornings were great, the light quickly became very harsh after sunrise. This really limited getting winning shots during the day. And since we were getting up at 3am each morning, we chose not to be in the park in the evening. I regret that decision now. But by late afternoon, we were hot and pretty tired.
We arrived in the Tetons mid afternoon. Since our check-in time was late afternoon, we decided to visit Mormon Row and the Moulton barns to scout the location. It had been nine years since my last visit and the first time for Frank. My preferred location at the T.A. Moulton barn is on the left side near a small patch of trees. Since this area is rather small, knowing your favorite spot to set up your composition is important as this location can be packed at sunrise. We were determined to be the first ones there.
So we're up early at 3am and get ready to go. It was a bit of drive to the location but we got there around 5:40am and we were the first ones there. Others started to arrive around 6am. The odd thing was that everyone else that came set up directly in front of the barn. Not exactly a good composition in my mind. But good for us as we had the better spot all to ourselves and allowed us to move around a bit. The last time I was there, there was hoard of photographers packed into that small area shoulder to shoulder.
If you've been to the T. A. Moulton barn you want to be there early to not only catch the sunrise shining on the Tetons but also catch the wonderful warm glow that lights up the front of the barn as the sun reaches over the mountains to the east. Just not on this morning since there were too many low clouds in the east. This blocked the sun from lighting up the barn. Pretty disappointing but with a little help with post processing, here is the image I got.
So even though Mother Nature wasn't on our side on this morning, I was still able to create some of the warm light on the barn. Hopefully, you'll also agree that setting up in the trees provides a more pleasing composition.
Our next stop was to hopefully get to the Antelope Flats area just east of the barns to capture some wildflowers in the foreground. But first we made a quick stop to get a few shots of the John Moulton Barn.
In hindsight, knowing now the wildflowers would be in harsh light, I would have spent a bit more time at this location getting some additional compositions. Guess I'll have to go back for the fourth time.
To truly get some spectacular wildflower images, we would have had to be in the park about two to three weeks earlier. There still were numerous flowers just more spotty and looking a bit aged. It would have been best to have gotten there earlier or better yet on a cloudy day. I tried as best I could but this was the best shot for that morning. This is a 15 shot stacked image.
We then headed to Oxbow Bend to get the classic shot of Mt. Moran. But, unfortunately, it was already early afternoon and the Mt. Moran's reflection in the water was long gone. This is definitely a sunrise location. We just didn't have enough days to fit everything in. Nothing I photographed made the cut.
As you have likely read in many landscape photography articles, professional photographers always recommend scouting a location prior to shooting. That's exactly what we did next. Since we were hiking to Taggart Lake early the next morning and had learned how short the sunrise light lasted, we decided to scout out Taggart Lake before hiking it the next morning. We were already hot and tired but I'm so glad we made the effort. The roundtrip hike was about 3.5 miles including looking around at the lake. I hadn't been to Taggart before so getting the lay of the land for possible compositions proved wise. We found the locations we wanted to shoot first during the good morning light.
Once again we were up at 3am and got to the trailhead before dawn. The cooler morning temps made the hike up to Taggart more pleasant. Sometimes you just get lucky and I came away with this photo. It turned out to be one of my favorite photographs of the trip.
Our first stop the next day would be to hike to Spring and Leigh Lakes. This was the first time I've been to these lakes so we didn't know what to expect other than seeing photos from these locations. Arriving at the trailhead shortly before dawn we started hiking. The trail was in great condition and flat. But by the time we reached the first spot we wanted to set up, the mountains had lost the alpine glow. Nevertheless, it is stunningly beautiful along the way. Here is one image I took.
There was already a bit of a breeze and hard enough to not allow mountain reflections in the lake. Oh well. We spent several hours here and took a lot of photos but I still have to process more from the hike.
We then headed east out of the park near Moran Junction on US 26/287. A short distance up the hill, there is a hard to see turnoff to the right. If you drive in there a little bit, you'll come to a beautiful overlook of the entire park with aspen trees in the foreground. Here's what we saw. This was taken around 2:30pm so the sun was high overhead. This would be much better in the very early morning. That was the theme of the trip as we learned.
As we heading back into the park, we saw the sign for the turnoff to the Cunningham Cabin. We weren't real excited to see it but we had the time so why not.
It was already late afternoon so it took a little creativity to get an acceptable photograph. The Teton range was brightly lit at the time. The cabin itself wan't all that spectacular. Its shape looked a bit like a shoebox. As I entered one of the rooms, the window showed a wonderful view of the Tetons. With blending a few images I got a shot I liked.
Afterwards, I walked around the perimeter of the cabin and saw a great curvy log fence, which would make a great leading line to the Tetons. But looking at the photo during post processing the foreground was rather dull with all the sage brush. Typically when the photo doesn't have a lot of color interest I try converting it to black and white to see if it gets any better. In this case it didn't seem to help much. But using Silver Efex Pro, I tried a number of their filters finally ending up with one with a sepia vintage tone. This look may not be for everyone but here it is.
On our final day in the park, we couldn't wait to get to the iconic Schwabacher Landing. This location has been photographed in nearly every way possible but we still wanted to get OUR shot. We got up once again at "stupid o'clock" and made it there well ahead of sunrise. There were some good clouds so we were hoping for some great shots. We were not disappointed.
There was already a crowd of people at the parking lot and we thought our spots might be packed. We lucked out in that the majority of the people stayed near the parking lot. We walked down the trail to one of the main photograph compositions. As I waited along with only three other photographers a mother moose and her offspring walked out of the woods and stopped to dine in the marsh. My long lens, 80-400mm, was in the car, so I asked the guys to watch my gear while I ran to my car to grab it. The moose were still there when I got back but, you guessed it, by the time I got it set up and ready to shoot, they left. Agony. I missed a priceless shot. But I quickly brushed the loss off as I saw the morning light hit the peaks. I took a longer exposure with great colorful clouds and here's what I got.
As the sun rose higher the light lit up the lake a bit. I was beside myself.
I moved down the trail a bit and snapped off this one before the colors faded.
As the sun rose higher the color quickly faded and the clouds began to dissipate. I headed back toward the parking lot and grabbed this image with a lush marsh in the foreground. I added a touch of Orton Effect to it using Luminar 4.
A friend of mine, Jeff Clow, was leading a photo tour this week and he suggested going to another location at Schwabachers. As you drive down the entrance road you'll see a left turn to a small parking lot before the main parking lot. He said go here and follow the trail to the left to see four beaver dams and some great reflections. It was so worth it. There were many great compositions. You could shoot a week of mornings here.
Although the clouds were gone by now we still got some great mountain reflections. There were tons of fading wildflowers along this trail but we were two to three weeks late to hit the peak.
Overall, it was a great trip to the Tetons. If you've never been, I hope these images have motivated you to visit yourself.
Keywords: barn, grand teton national park, lake, landscape, national park, nature, nikon, rocks, tetons, water, wildflowers
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