Geographic and time differences

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Posted by Ballpark Frank ( on 09:55:06 08/02/16

In Reply to: October posted by Nancy


Both Hoot and Granite Head supplied sound information.

I'm going to drill down a layer, and provide some info on the gathering contrast we see as autumn progresses in Yellowstone. These differences can impact what you do, where you do it, and when.

First, due to Yellowstone's location, "up north", hemispherically speaking, and its elevation (between 6,000 and 8,000 feet above sea level for the most part), the impact of seasonal change is more pronounced in October than it is in most parts of the country.

By October, most migratory critters have either left the park or are "moving toward the exit". With every day that passes between mid-September and mid-October, we see progressively less diversity, in terms of avian and mammal life. This is compounded by the loss of those who don't migrate out, but instead, opt to hibernate. The ground squirrels typically disappear before Labor Day! The contrast between higher and lower elevations grows steadily sharper. The eastern portion of Yellowstone, which is mostly near or above 8,000 feet elevation, sees more rapid change, and by October, places like the East Entrance Road and Hayden Valley can be fairly boring places for wildlife watching. That said, there are sometimes amazing opportunities on the east side, particularly in the first 2 weeks of October, observing large gatherings of migratory water fowl or wandering hyperphagic grizzlies.

The temperature gradient between the east side and west side becomes more stark. Those of us who have spent many Octobers in the park have learned that in October if it is cold on the east side, we can usually count on it being much warmer on the west side, down around the geyser basins.

The warmest area is usually the north end, again, due to its lower elevation. Mammoth, Roosevelt Lodge, and Lamar Valley are all closer to 6,000 feet than 7,000. (Mammoth is 6,239 and Roosevelt is 6,278.) The north end, particularly over toward Mammoth, is much dryer, so if rain or snow arrives, there is usually much less of it up north.

The early mornings (first few hours of light) and early evenings (last few hours of light) tend to be much cooler than the middle of the day, so plan accordingly. When pursuing the wily elk for rut photography opportunities, we usually find ourselves wearing insulated underwear and a winter-like outer layer on those frosty mornings, even in late September. By 10 or 11:00 a.m., we have shed the outer layer, and are wishing there was an easy way to doff the long handles.

Of course, if winter suddenly shows up, everything changes. Be wary of foreign and domestic drivers from tropical climates driving rental cars lacking snow or ice tires!


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