We dare you to drive through Yellowstone and not see wildlife—deer, bison and elk regularly saunter through the border towns, trout glimmer from the streams and raptors cruise overhead.
While 300 bird species have been spotted in Yellowstone and boreal chorus frogs sing from the reeds, most visitors seek a glimpse of the more elusive hefty mammals: grizzlies, wolves, black bears, mountain goats and bighorn sheep.
Yellowstone isn’t a zoo, and sighting a wolf or bear isn’t guaranteed, but there are some ways to boost your odds. For starters, try the early morning or evening, when animals are out feeding. Secondly, hike or backpack, where you’ll get into quieter habitat that animals frequent. Thirdly, try coming in the late spring or the early fall, when it’s cool enough for wildlife to move in the lowlands near roads. Finally, visit one of Yellowstone’s hot spots, places where wildlife are frequently seen.
The Lamar Valley doesn’t boast the same geological strangeness as the Park’s more notorious areas, but its open plains make up for it in dramatic wildlife sightings. Visitors report seeing grizzlies on bison kills, coyote tracking prey, throngs of bison and the occasional wolf here.
Directions: Cruise the road from Cooke City to Tower Junction, stopping for hikes and pullouts.
The largest valley in the Park also hosts the largest rut of free-roaming bison in the world. Flat and open, it’s an excellent place to glimpse elk, grizzly and the occasional moose. Note that the Yellowstone River is closed to fishing in Hayden Valley.
Directions: Drive between Canyon Junction and the head of Yellowstone Lake.
Scope the roadside for shy black bears, a little south of Roosevelt Lodge.
Directions: Head south from Tower Junction.
Mount Washburn and Dunraven Pass
The hike on Mount Washburn often turns up grizzly sightings (so bring your bear spray), in addition to bighorn sheep.
Directions: Head 8.7 miles south of Tower Junction, turning onto Chittenden Road (where you might get lucky and see grizzlies just from the car.)
The steep cliff faces near Tower Falls make for excellent bighorn sheep watching (and if the sheep aren’t out, you can always take in the Falls).
Directions: From Tower Junction, watch the cliffs across the river.
Mammoth Hot Springs
A herd of elk has pretty much set up permanent residence in Mammoth Hot Springs, so you’re very likely to see them munching on the lawns of the visitor services buildings during the autumn rut. As you drive in from the North Entrance, look towards the cliffs of Mount Everts across the river, scanning for bighorn sheep, and the sagebrush flats along the road, looking for pronghorn.
Birdwatchers will want to patrol the shores of Yellowstone Lake (or take a boat tour) to see waterfowl (including trumpeter swans and white pelicans), loons and bald eagles, all with the thrill potential of the odd grizzly or moose thrown in.
While “wildlife jams” can often be your guide, sometimes it pays to, well, pay someone. Wildlife guides know the park inside and out, and since they’re in the park daily, they can use recent sightings to predict where wildlife will crop up next. Yellowstone Safari Company offers tailored trips based on what wildlife you’d like to see, and will pick you up at your hotel in Bozeman, Gardiner or West Yellowstone, so you don’t have to drive. Wildlife biologists at The Wild Side offer wolf-focused excursions based out of Gardiner, and Yellowstone Alpen Guides offer evening wildlife tours.
Normally, we’d put a paragraph here about never approaching or feeding wildlife, carrying bear spray and not stopping to gawk on the road, but you know the drill: Yellowstone’s wildlife is both precious and dangerous. Help us all enjoy it in the future by enjoying it responsibly now.