A Night Under the Stars in Yellowstone National Park

Sept. 19, 2023  |  Grand Prismatic Spring in Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming

The last two nights in Yellowstone reminded me how much I love the experience spending a night under the stars. There is nothing like my eyes adjusting to the dark and, all of the sudden, seeing the universe overhead.

I went out on Sunday night at Grand Prismatic Spring. Just as I was settling in on the boardwalk, clouds rolled in. There was a low rumble of the aurora on the horizon that night, which is often a prelude to a bigger show. The forecast looked promising, so I returned on Monday.

I headed up the trail to the Grand Prismatic overlook hoping to see the aurora above the most spectacular geothermal spring on the planet. I started with a 24mm f1.4 lens. This tighter focal length made the foreground more prominent in the composition. Wider the focal lengths push the subject matter into the distance, but the solar storm exploded beyond the confines of my 2x3 viewfinder, so I switched to my 14 mm f2.8 lens. You can see examples of the different focal lengths below and the way that impacts the composition.

Aurora borealis over Grand Prismatic spring in Yellowstone National Park.

The northern lights pulsate in the skies over Grand Prismatic Spring in Yellowstone National Park. It's unusual to see the aurora borealis at Yellowstone which makes this encounter over an iconic landscape so special.

For fifteen minutes, giant pillars of light danced on the horizon. I always think it's going to go on all night but just as quickly as they arrived, the light dissipated to a dull simmer on the horizon.

The vibrant colors in the photos are not visible to the naked eye, but they are exactly what the camera picks up. I didn't make color adjustments to the photos other than a few slight tweaks to the white balance.

Here are my top 10 tips for seeing the Aurora Borealis in the northern reaches of North America:

1. Go HERE or HERE for the long-term forecast

2. Go HERE for a three-day forecast.

3. Go HERE for a real-time, 10-minute forecast.

4. Go HERE to see if the skies will be clear of clouds.

5. Plan to view the aurora the week before and the week after a new moon. Light pollution is the enemy of seeing and photographing night skies.

6. Get away from city lights and find a location with a clear view to the north with no city or civilization to the north of your vantage point.

7. It helps to be up high on a ridge or a vista.

8. The forecasts have improved in recent years but there are no guarantees. If I see the media make a big deal about a potential aurora display, I roll my eyes because it often doesn't pan out.

9. The best recipe for success is to approach it as a long-term project, not a one-time outing.

10. The lights ebb and flow as the night goes on. Be patient. It just might pay off.

I'll write a follow-up post with photography tips.

See below for other photos I took while exploring the nights skies over Grand Prismatic Spring.

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