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Photographer Michael Nichols on Yellowstone

A Wildlife Photographer of the Year captures the paradox of the park.

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The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River from Artist Point

Michael Nichols is one of six photographers who contributed to  National Geographic magazine's special issue on Yellowstone. Learn about the other five at  natgeo.com/yellowstone.

For Michael Nichols, National Geographic’s longtime staff photographer and photo editor at large, committing to shoot the Yellowstone project meant living full-time in the park, accompanied by his wife, Reba Peck. From spring 2014 until summer 2015, Nichols barely stepped away from the assignment—with one notable exception. Late October found him in London, in a tuxedo, at a Natural History Museum awards ceremony where the Duchess of Cambridge presented him with an award: 2014 Wildlife Photographer of the Year.

Nichols won the prestigious award for his photo of a lion pride that he’d tracked through the Serengeti for six months. Returning from London, he resumed his coverage of Yellowstone and the paradox of its purpose: “Is it for the benefit of the people? Or is it to protect the animals and the wonderland?” If telling Yellowstone’s story encourages its stewards and visitors to find a balance between those two missions, he says, “then maybe we can help all of our parks solve that conundrum.”

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The colors of Grand Prismatic Spring come from thermophiles: microbes that thrive in scalding water. The green is chlorophyll they use to absorb sunlight.
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The swim team from Santiago High School in Corona, California, could be horsing around in a motel pool. Instead, like legions of soakers before them, they’re braving Boiling River, a kind of natural hot tub formed where water from some of Yellowstone’s hot springs flows into the Gardner River. Elsewhere the park’s springs can be dangerously hot: More park visitors have died in them than have been killed by bears.
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Bison below Lower Geyser Basin, Fountain Flats

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Elk, Cervu elaphus nelsoni, between Hayden Valley and Canyon Village

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A camera trap caught a grizzly reaching for fruit in the branches of an apple tree. Grizzlies are frequent visitors to yards like this one in front of a historic house along Yellowstone’s northern boundary. Caution and attentiveness are necessities that come with dwelling safely in this wild-and-rural interface. 
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Sports Illustrated found an all-American setting to frame a shot for its swimsuit issue, posing model Jessica Gomes above the ageless beauty of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. 
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Rutting bison joust in Yellowstone’s Lamar Valley. More than 4,500 bison roam free in the park. They’re descendants of a few dozen animals given sanctuary more than a century ago, rescuing the species from extinction. 
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More than a third of Yellowstone, including Grand Prismatic Spring, sits within the caldera of a giant, ancient, yet still active volcano. Someday it will erupt again, catastrophically—but the odds of it going off anytime soon, scientists say, are extremely low.
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Yellowstone bison set the pace of traffic over the Highway 89 bridge in Gardiner, Montana, on the park’s northern border. Winter pushes the bison out of the park to lower elevations in search of food, a migration that comes into conflict with agriculture and development. 
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A lone woman vanishes into the steam clouds billowing from Tardy Geyser in Yellowstone’s Upper Geyser Basin. Geysers are formed when underground water meets superheated rock and blasts back out through a narrow hole.

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Old Faithful throws a tower of steam into a moonlit sky. Americans rely on the geyser’s steadfast eruptions the way they’ve come to rely on the park itself, as an enduring image of what the continent once was and still can be. 

See more from Michael Nichols on Instagram and his website

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