Mountain Goats: Photographing the Masters of the Mountain

Backlight and rim light on mountain goat at sunset by Andy Long.

Low back lighting can put a nice rim light on a mountain goat’s coat.
Canon 1D Mark II, Canon 100-400mm at 400mm, 1/640th sec., f/5.6, ISO 500

What child did not find a small mound of dirt and play king of the hill? Or maybe they were reprimanded for climbing up and over the furniture. Mom and Dad may have yelled at us as children, but this is a typical day in the life of a young mountain goat. If in fact it is a mountain goat!

Let’s learn about these agile creatures so you can plan your mountain goat photo adventures.

About Mountain Goats

When is a goat not a goat? When it’s the Rocky Mountain goat found in the Rocky Mountain region of North America and the mountains of the Pacific Northwest. Though called a goat, they’re just relatives of the goats found in Europe and Asia. They actually belong to the antelope family seen roaming the plains of the West.

Living at 10,000 feet and higher, mountain goats are built for the extreme conditions in which they live. While some alpine animals head to lower ground during the winter, goats found above timberline during the summer remain there during the harsh winter months with only short excursions down to the timberline to feed on the tips of trees and other vegetation.

Females, or nannies as they are called, give birth to one baby (kid) a year, but sometimes have two. During the summer they gather in groups of up to two-dozen nannies and kids. At times, it might appear as if a mother has more kids of her own, but actually they’re taking baby watch so another nanny can get away for some alone time for grazing or resting.

Two nannies (female mountain goats) watching over five kids grazing by Andy Long.

A couple of moms are keeping an eye on a group of grazing babies.
Canon 1D Mark II, Canon 70-200mm at 165mm, 1/640 sec., f/4.5, EV +1/3, ISO 400

Most photos of the Rocky Mountain goat show them perched on precipitous rocks, so you too will have plenty of opportunities to create images while they are in this natural stance. These masters of the mountain were built for this rocky habitat. Their hooves have a hard outside with a rubbery, concave footpad that acts like a suction cup when walking and provides cushion when landing after a jump. Their cloven hooves can spread out to give even more traction.

While an adult can jump up to 12 feet, quite often it’s the babies seen jumping around all day. From shortly after birth they are extremely active – jumping from rock to rock or playing king of the hill in the attempt to push each other from the top. It’s all fun and games, but it’s also an early show of aggressive behavior to determine which one is more dominant. It’s their way of getting prepared for the age when they can breed. This action will go on all day long. After all, at these elevations, time is of the essence, as they have a short window when there is little to no snow on the ground.

Kids (baby mountain goats) playing King of the Hill by Andy Long.

King of the Hill: I’m on top! No, I’m on top!

Canon 1D Mark II, Canon 70-200mm at 195mm, 1/1000th sec., f/4.5, EV +1/3, ISO 400

Like other horned animals, a goats’ age can be determined by counting the number of rings on its horns. Just like everything else living in alpine areas, once mature, growth is at a slower pace. With a lifespan of 12 to 15 years, their horns don’t grow much each year. They can be considered exceptionally large at 12 inches in length, with 10 inches being the average. Both male and female have horns that grow at about the same rate, but the curve of the males horns are more pronounced, are closer in proximity at the base of the skull and are a little thicker.

Mountain Goat Habitat

There’s a good reason goats are seen scaling steep, rocky ledges. This extreme environment provides protection from their primary predators – golden eagles, mountain lions and humans. The eagles only go after the kids shortly after birth when they are small and don’t weigh very much. Adults, which weigh between 100 to 300 pounds, only have to be concerned with mountain lions and human hunters.

The adaption of their hooves and dual-layer hollow fiber coats allows them to stay in the harsh terrain and low temperatures of the mountainous alpine area they call home. It provides a safe haven for themselves and their young.

Mountain Goat rubbing its neck on the ground to remove its winter coat by Andy Long.

Working on looking good – rubbing off the winter coat.
Canon 1D Mark II, Canon 600mm, 1/1000th sec., f/6.3, EV +1/3, ISO 400

Be Prepared

Be prepared for any type of weather, so your photo excursion is not cut short. Because you are visiting areas high in elevation, always carry a coat, gloves and hat in your pack. On Mt. Evans for instance, it’s not uncommon for the temperatures to be in the low 30’s and windy with a chance of snow around sunrise. You might not need them, but it’s better to have them and not use them to not have them and wish you did.

Likewise, have protective gear for your camera equipment with you in case of rain or snow.

Where and When to Photograph Goats

In my experiences, the most accessible group of mountain goats in the country is found on Mt. Evans west of Denver, Colorado. The road to the top of this 14,265 mountain is the highest paved road in North America and provides easy viewing of the goats between Memorial Day and Labor Day weekends.

Female mountain goat and kid with mountain backdrop by Andy Long.

Using a little bit of plus exposure compensation helps
make sure the whites are exposed correctly.
Background features give a sense of height and their environment.

Canon 1D Mark II, Canon 100-400mm at 250mm, 1/2000th sec., f/5, EV +1/3, ISO 400

In Glacier National Park, located in Montana, there are numerous places the goats can be spotted without difficulty. The best is around the Visitor Center on Logan Pass, along with groups at Goat Haunt and even around Many Glacier.

Although there are quite a few goats in the state of Washington, the best chance of seeing them is at Hurricane Hill in Olympic National Park. You’ll have to be goat-like yourself to get to most other viewing areas, as it entails several hours of hiking in steep terrain.

If you visit Alaska, the most effortless place to have access to them is along Turnagain Arm between Anchorage and the Kenai Peninsula or in Denali National Park.

Yellowstone National Park will likely provide you with the simplest access in the state of Wyoming.

Be sure to check at visitor centers or with the rangers in all of these locations as they can possibly provide you with information regarding recent sightings.

Because they live at very high elevations and the roads are closed due to heavy snowfall in places like Mt. Evans, Glacier, and Denali, the summer months will be your only option to gaining access to their habitats. Yellowstone National Park has some roads open during the winter months, so if you want to explore the area while in a blanket of white, you may have the opportunity to make some great images.

Look for Those Special Moments

When the opportunity arises for photographing a tribe of goats – yes, that’s what a group of mountain goats is called – there are certain things for which to look. In most places there’s little concern of getting too close. They are so comfortable with people that, when sitting on a rock, they might come and sit down alongside within arms- length. If they do, just observe and be ready for those close-up images. Do not reach out to pet them. Remember, they are wild animals!

Concentrating on the kids provides some of the best photo opportunities. When seeing one standing on a rock several feet from another rock, compose within the image to give space for it to jump into the frame. Bump the ISO up so a fast shutter speed can stop the action. 1/2000th sec. or faster is an ideal goal.

Images of baby mountain goats jumping and playing by Andy Long.

Leave space for the kids to jump into the frame and adjust the shutter speed
to make sure a sharp images occurs. Working with a tripod helps, though
at lot many photographer hand-hold their camera.
Upper left: Canon 1D Mark II, Canon 100-400mm at 260mm,
1/2500 sec., f/5.6, EV +1/3, ISO 400

When several babies are together stick with them, as there is bound to be interaction among them.

Another beautiful scene is when a kid is approaching its mother, so keep a close eye on them. A cute nose touch to say hello can happen, as well as the baby enjoying using mom for a bit climbing exercise when she’s lying down. As interaction amongst babies is fun, interaction between baby and mom can be quite tender.

Close-up of baby mountain goat greeting its mom by Andy Long.

When a baby approaches mom you know some good images are just around the corner.

Canon 1D Mark II, Canon 600mm, 1/1000th sec., f/5.6, EV +2/3, ISO 250

Images of baby mountain goat climbing on its mother by Andy Long.

Lower right: Canon 1D Mark II, Canon 100-400mm at 400mm, 1/1250th sec., f/8, ISO 400

Once an adult starts losing its winter coat, they begin to look ratty, so headshots and environmental landscapes work best. Nannies that give birth that year are the last to lose their coat, so images of them with their babies can still be good later into the season. The kids – they are always cute and worthy of great images. 

Close-up photo portrait of a newborn mountain goat by Andy Long.

Newborns have no horns at all.
Canon 1D Mark II, Canon 600mmClose-up photo portrait of a young mountain goat with short horns by Andy Long.

Bring out the big glass for those headshots.
1/3200th sec., f/5, ISO 250

Sunrise and sunset, like with most photography, can provide some beautiful light on the goats, rocks and distant hills. Keep watch for a goat with the light coming from behind it. This is great for a full or partial silhouette with rim light shining through the goat’s coat and will always create stunning images (Lead photo above).

Sunrise photo of female mountain goat and her kids perched on rocks by Andy Long.

The Golden Light of Sunrise
Canon 1D Mark II, Canon 100-400mm at 275mm,
1/1250th sec., f/5.6, EV +1/3, ISO 250

Now, get ready for your next summer outing and plan a mountain goat photo adventure of your own.

by Andy Long
First Light Photo Workshops
All text & photos: © 2013 Andy Long. All rights reserved.

All written content (and most images) in these articles are copyrighted by the authors. Copyrighted material from Apogee Photo Mag should not be used elsewhere without seeking the authors permission.

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