Crazy about Critters: Wildlife Viewing in Yellowstone
Bison, elk, bears, and wolves are among the stars at this oldest national park
Written by: Candyce H. Stapen
Yellowstone National Park, along with harboring the world’s highest concentration of geysers, fumaroles, and other geothermal thermal features, offers spectacular wildlife viewing. In Lamar Valley, among the most wildlife-rich areas of the park, you might spot bison, elk, black bears, grizzly bears, wolves, and other wildlife. It’s thrilling to see these wild creatures in their native habitat as they hunt, graze, mate, and roam the park.
But what you see in Lamar Valley as well as other areas of the park depends on the time of day, the season, your equipment and your expertise. Since animals are most active in the early morning and late afternoon, schedule your prime viewing for those times.
To make the most of your wildlife watching, bring binoculars or a high-powered spotting scope. Also, consider going on a guided group or private wildlife watching tour. The experts, after all, know the latest sightings and how to locate even the hard-to-see animals.
Finally, keep a safe distance from all wildlife, which are unpredictable and can be dangerous. The National Park Service recommends not approaching bears or wolves on foot within 100 yards or other wildlife within 25 yards.
Here’s where to spot Yellowstone’s star critters:
Bison: Both Lamar and Hayden valleys attract bison herds. A visit in late July through August brings the primal spectacle of bison mating. As part of the ritual, big bulls grunt, paw the ground, and sometimes lock horns as they challenge each other for domination and the females. In winter, you might see icicle-laden bison warming themselves near the hot springs and thermal features in the Upper Geyser Basin. Yellowstone operates snow coach tours in winter through select areas of the park.
Elk: The elk rut starts in September and continues through mid-October. Even before coming upon the herd, you hear the males’ bugling, a sound that starts like a low grunt and escalates into a shrill whistle. Elk tend to congregate in Hayden Valley, Lamar Valley, and also in Mammoth Hot Springs.
Bears: Although black bears, like grizzlies, are most active at night and in the early morning, they might be spotted during the day in Lamar Valley and also near Tower Falls and the Roosevelt Lodge. Visitors report seeing grizzlies in the vicinity of Mount Washburn and between the Canyon and Fishing Bridge areas.
Wolves: Although wolves roam the park, Lamar Valley offers the best sightings. When snow covers the meadows and hillsides, it’s easier to spot the wolves.
Birds: Osprey, herons, ducks, and other waterfowl can be found in and around Yellowstone Lake and park rivers. From late August through early October, look for hawks in Hayden Valley.
Madison Wildlife Excursion: Travel by snow coach through a 7-mile swath of the Madison River area to look for bison, elk, Trumpeter swans and other waterfowl. The 4½-hour tour departs from the Old Faithful Snow Lodge from mid-December to the end of February.
Wake Up to Wildlife Tour: Explore Lamar Valley on a guided ride in a refurbished 13-passenger, historic Yellow Bus, circa 1936. The roof rolls back for better wildlife viewing. Tours depart from Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel, Canyon Lodge, and Roosevelt Lodge. Summer tours run from June to about mid-September. (With Mammoth Hotel closed for the next two winters, this tour isn’t available then.)
Lamar Valley Wildlife Excursion: Guided by an expert, tour Lamar Valley at dusk, leaving from the Lake and Canyon areas in the afternoon and returning in the evening. Tours operate from early June through early September.
Cruise Yellowstone Lake: On a one-hour Scenicruise of the lake, catch sight of eagles, osprey, and other birds from aboard the Lake Queen. Tours depart from Bridge Bay Marina from mid-June to about mid-September.
For more information or to make a reservation call us at 307-344-7311.
Long-time family travel guru Candyce H. Stapen writes for many publications and outlets. She has written 30 travel guidebooks, including two for National Geographic. For more information, see gfvac.com and follow her @familyitrips.