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Autumn at Oxbow Bend
Autumn at Oxbow Bend

Fall Photography in Grand Teton National Park


Golden cottonwoods and the snowcapped jagged peaks of the Grand Tetons in Jackson Hole

Golden trees and jagged peaks of Jackson Hole

September 27th at dark-thirty shortly before the first hint of dawn, with a crisp nip of fall in the air, I usually find myself at Oxbow Bend in Grand Teton National Park with my ten new best friends I have just bumped into the dark and with the appropriate apology, and a couple dozen other gourps of equal size in great anticiapation of what the dawn might bring. At the Oxbow at this early hour, we are hoping for the first hint of light to reveal an expanse of cirrus clouds above Mt. Moran to stop the warm rays of morning light from spilling over the edge of the world to an un-captureable point beyond the Grand Tetons. Oh, the Oxbow is still a stunning spot, even devoid of clouds, as the first rays of dawn sneak over the eastern horizon, a rose colored blanket of light hovers over the mountains as it shares its wealth of alpenglow with the peaks below, but none the less, we photogaphers are all hoping for natures reflector and diffuser to magnify the magnificence.

Red and Yellow aspens in Jackson Hole

Red and Yellow aspens in Jackson Hole

Any windless morning at the Oxbow always doubles the photographer’s pleasure because of the mirror image of Mt Moran off the calm waters of the Snake River which has filled many a memory card. To the exponential delight of informed photographers though, during a few days in autumn, leaves of gold, amber, and red precariously hang from the limbs of the white trunked aspens threatening to be blown away by the first big wind, but stoically they hang on so the click of a shutter can save them for posterity. The alpenglow, the autumn color, the Grand Tetons, the hopped for clouds all team of for a festival of color at one of the worlds most compositionally perfect places.

Reflections of autumn and moose.  A bull moose casts his reflection in a calm pond in front of the Grand Tetons.

Reflections of autumn and moose

The parking lot at the Oxbow will soon be a sea of headlamps as photo tour companies and their participants from around the world vie for a favorable spot for tripods at this celebrated and well-documented spot at the peak of fall color. The mood of the photographers as the eastern sky lightens is of cautious optimism but all are watchful, as all have made a great effort to be here at this moment of time.

The peak of fall colors in the Grand Tetons usually starts getting good during the last week of September and the Oxbow is the grand finale, many other favorite spots peak sooner and they  provide many good shooting opportunities while waiting for the Oxbow to peak.

Jackson Hole is largely a flat valley, punctuated with a few buttes, where the Grand Tetons jump up from the valley along an earthquake fault that dislodged these fantastic monoliths from where they once lived below the sagebrush that was previously the western fringe of the Great Plains. This gigantic displacement of granite from where it once lived below the earth provides the juxtaposition of large flat plain, granite cliffs, and sky that is Jackson Hole’s recipe for Grand!

Elk heard during autumn rut.

Elk heard during autumn rut.

The Oxbow is only one of many Jackson Hole iconic, grand scenics that want to live in your portfolio. The Grand Teton Range is fifty miles long, and the whole valley is studded with yellow aspen groves and riparian areas lined with golden cottonwoods.

The Snake River overlook above the Snake River S, Ansel Adams made famous in 1943, but photographer William Henry Jackson first photographed this compositionally perfect vista in 1871. Yellow cottonwoods line the graceful curve of the river along this iconic spot beneath the Grand Tetons; many photographers try to coordinate shooting from here during the setting of the full harvest moon.

Sunrise at Schwabacher Landing is full of autumn opportunity. Schwabacher Landing is a side channel of the Snake River studded with a series of beaver ponds that like to share their reflections of the full expanse of the Grand Tetons accentuated with complimentary golden cottonwoods.

Oxbow autumn from above

Oxbow autumn from above

The western heritage of Jackson Hole is fun photo fodder in this beautiful valley. There are miles of buck rail fences for foreground elements and picturesque barns and deserted log cabins to complement the abundant groves of cottonwood and aspen.

Autumn is also berry season, black bear eating berries

Autumn is also berry season

The park has many places of lesser renown that are of equal beauty for those seeking something new. All eight-glacier lakes at the foot of the mountains have vistas to explore. The RKO Road that runs above the west bank of the Snake River provides some, off the beaten path, opportunities. The south face of Signal Mountain has some elevated valley views, mountain vistas and well-placed aspen groves.

To the east of Jackson Hole are the Gros Ventre Mountains and the Bridger Teton National Forest; the western Gros Ventre Range hosts many Grand Teton framing aspen groves for the adventurous, cliché averse photographer. From the Gros Ventres’ I like to shoot telephoto scenics I photo-merge in Photoshop for panoramas.

For those autumn shooters who arrive in the middle of September or earlier, don’t miss the mountain maples of the Snake River Canyon and Palisades Reservoir, south of Jackson.  When lucky, the reds of the mountain maple will overlap with the yellow of the aspens.

Buffalo Fork Autumn

Buffalo Fork Autumn

Fall colors aren’t the only gift from nature in this valley resplendent with its embarrassment of riches. At dawn and dusk of every day, parts of the valley fill with the sound of bugling elk as this is breeding season for the majestic animals. For those, that search out these places will be rewarded with what I think is one of the coolest shows nature provides that can be easily viewed – the rutting of the elk.

The elk aren’t the only wildlife show in the park though; both the mule deer and the moose are sporting their freshly shined and sharpened antlers and doing their part to impress the girls. Grand Teton’s ubiquitous bison always seem eager to spice up a Grand Teton Landscape. It is a wonderful thing when you can line up one our regal antlered animals with our fall colors with the Grand Tetons for a backdrop!

The truly lucky may come across a grizzly bear family who has called Jackson Hole home for several generations and has become quite famous. Grizzly Bear Sow 610 is regularly seen with her cubs (2012) traipsing across the landscape foraging for food.

Grand Teton Park during the last week of September is awash in photo opportunities, and it had been my pleasure to have been shooting here since 1987. There may be other places to shoot during this window of time, but there is nowhere else I’d rather be.

Autumn in Jackson Hole Collection - prints available


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