Although you can hike the entire distance of the Mary Mountain Trail, the first few miles on either side are the best for wildlife photography. Views of incomparable Hayden Valley on the east give way to forested sections of the high Yellowstone Plateau. The western side of the trail travels through the meadows and trees of Nez Perce Creek for a few miles. Bison, elk, bears and wolves are the stars of the day here.
What Makes It Great
From the Hayden Valley side, you can walk along the trail for a short distance and set up for the day. Bison heavily roam this portion of Hayden Valley so you should be able to get great shots of buffalo up close and from a distance. Wildflowers and the green rolling hills of the valley will make for awesome pictures. In spring, baby bison steal the show while the massive bulls take center stage in late August during the rut. Elk are common as well as coyotes, raven, eagles and waterfowl on the creeks and lakes.
Hayden Valley is an excellent area to observe grizzly bears. They’re drawn to carcasses, especially in the early spring and after the bison rut. The rest of the summer they might be foraging for fish, roots and tubers as well as mice and voles they dig out of the ground.
On the western side, you might also see bears, but the chances are slimmer. Elk frequent Nez Perce Creek plus you might have an otter sighting as well.
Who is Going to Love It
Opportunities to expand your photography skills abound on this trail. You can shoot panoramic landscapes to close ups of wildflowers and everything in between. Even if you just have a small point and shoot with a zoom lens you’ll find plenty of subjects. Hayden Valley with its colors and ever-changing light is a photographer’s playground.
Photographers with a half day will find plenty to keep them occupied on either end of the trail. Early mornings and late afternoon are best for light as well as animals.
Directions, Parking, & Regulations
From Cody, take US HWY 14/16/20 west 52 miles to the East Entrance to Yellowstone. Continue over Sylvan Pass down to Fishing Bridge. At the intersection with the park’s Grand Loop Road go right toward Canyon. You’ll drive along the Yellowstone River for several miles.
Just west of Mud Volcano you’ll enter Hayden Valley. This entire stretch is good for photography. At the west end of the valley just beyond Alum Creek is the large paved pull out parking area for the Mary Mountain Trail. The western section is just south of the Fountain Flats Road on the western portion of the Grand Loop. There’s ample parking and a large trailhead sign.
Entrance fees for Yellowstone are $25/vehicle which is good for both Grand Teton National Park as well as Yellowstone, and is valid for seven days.
Remember, all of Yellowstone’s wildlife is dangerous. Never approach any animal closer than 25 yards. Carry bear spray and travel in groups of three or more when hiking. Understand all park regulations for safe travel in bear country. Cell phone service is very spotty in the park.