The Best Wildlife Viewing in Yellowstone
In addition to geysers, the exciting thing about going to Yellowstone National Park is the wildlife. There are the standard deer and chipmunks that you’d expect to see, but there is so much more. The bison were a real hit with our family… but then so were the bears just outside of our car window… and the elk walking through the parking lot… And wildlife in Yellowstone National Park is closer than you might expect and often not afraid of the millions of people they see every year, so there are lots of rules.
Following the safety chat (remember “safety first”) we’ve highlighted our favorite places for the best wildlife viewing in Yellowstone. Having plenty of experience in the Park and beyond Yellowstone, these are our top three things to keep you safe from wildlife in Yellowstone National Park.
Don’t feed the bears
Really. If you research, you’ll find funny pictures from the 50’s of tourists feeding bears by hand out of their car window. It’s ridiculous. This practice eventually led to the relocation and termination of many black bears from the park, as their behaviors and health were severely impacted…and they were cranky. Today, there are very strict guidelines regarding food storage and clean up.
Here’s why we are calling this out: if you’re planning on camping and picnicking in the Park, you must unpack and repack EVERYTHING except your sleeping equipment whenever you leave. Even with an efficient group of campers, this is a frustrating hassle, and if you don’t do it right, you’ll have an unplanned experience for wildlife viewing in Yellowstone.
What this means: 1.) wake up 2.) get out food, cooking equipment and utensils 3.) cook and eat 4.) clean up AND transport grey water to a dump station somewhere 5.) put EVERYTHING back in the car 6.) wipe down table and inspect for food residue 7.) go about your day. REPEAT AT ALL MEALS.
We absolutely love camping and are willing to go through this process over and over, but it really is a continual plague on the camping experience. We really feel that everybody should fully understand this before committing to camping in Yellowstone (or Glacier, Yosemite, Mt Rainier… and National Park).
Tip: having storage bins with lids is an efficient way to store meal prep stuff and dirty dishes (separate tubs). Doing this will make prep and clean up much faster and easier, having the last meal of the day be the one that includes the dish washing.
Picnicking with the bison
The American bison is the most iconic animal in the USA. Today, due to mass hunting in the 1800s, they are scarce and mostly found in Yellowstone and on farms. The safe haven of the Park has really allowed the bison to flourish and they are everywhere. True, there are a few key areas that you’ll see them in abundance, but you have to watch wherever you stop.
**Fun anecdote: My favorite morning on our most recent trip was spent with the family doing picnic breakfast on the Yellowstone River, at the Nez Perce Ford. Sitting across the shallow river from us was a bull bison, watching us, enjoying his own breakfast. Having just watched several big guys ford the river not too far from there, we kept a wary eye on him. We stayed safe, but were ready to run at a moment’s notice.
Tip: ask a ranger or use a park guide to find/select a picnic area. If you don’t know where there is one, you might be driving for a long time.
Tip 2: we always have our portable Weber Q Propane BBQ with us and use it both in camp as well as on the road at picnic sites. It makes lunch more fun.
Tiny, furry poachers
Oh ground squirrels. So cute and so greedy. Chipmunks too. And let’s add bold to their description. Know that if you’re sitting on a bench or by your campfire, your snacks aren’t safe. The smaller wildlife of the park is always watching, waiting to get a free meal. Know that human food isn’t meant for the little guys and that they need to do their job in the forest ecosystem, so feeding them or allowing them to find your scraps offsets the delicate balance that is nature.
Tip: even looking away from food for too long will provide an opportunity for a ground squirrel to run up and grab your sandwich. They are bold.
Anecdote: picture a box of graham crackers and a shifty little raccoon running up, grabbing it and running off sideways, looking at us as he ran… #TrueStory
We love spotting bears across a valley or watching a herd of elk in the distance, but in Yellowstone it’s much more involved than that. While the overall rule is to not approach wildlife, sometimes it just approaches you, so here are the best places to safely experience this from your car (see map below for planning). Wildlife viewing in Yellowstone is that easy, but it still can be dangerous.
They love the hillsides where they can forage for berries and roots, so keeping an eye out in the Tower Falls and Mt Washburn areas are best. **Please note though, the bears aren’t reading our blog, so they might choose other places to hang out too.
On our most recent trip, we were fortunate enough to see 6 black bears and 2 grizzlies. How we saw them:
Black 1/2/3 – in a field at the base of a hill. 100 yards away. Dusk.
Black 4 – on a hillside eating. 50 yards away. Midday.
Black 5/6 – Mama and cub on the hillside directly next to us. Couldn’t get out of the car because they were right there. 5 yards away. Midday.
Grizzly 1 – in a field at the base of a hill. 200 yards away. Dusk.
Grizzly 2 – in a very small meadow next to the road. 10 yards away. Dusk.
Important identification note: bears can be black or blonde too, not just brown. Look for shoulder haunches, especially if you’re alone and want to report a sighting back to the ranger station.
They are almost everywhere in the Park, but there are two guaranteed spots: the Hayden and Lamar valleys. Each of these is so very different. If you’re traveling with kids, you’ll probably just see the Hayden Valley, as you must drive through it to get to any of the fun stuff in the park (falls, geysers, boats…). If you have the time though, and want to do some hikes, the Lamar Valley is for you.
The Hayden Valley is beautiful and exactly what you think of when you picture a lush, wildlife populated area. The Yellowstone River slowly winds through the valley from the lake. On a gingerly evening drive one night, we encountered a bison herd (on all sides of us), saw a grizzly bear across the river, watched a pelican fish and saw a family of trumpeter swans float by. Truly, the type of experience to leave you awestruck.
The Lamar Valley is also beautiful and has a river, but its landscape is very different. The Lamar River has cut through this flat valley floor and left a variety of scattered bluffs and oxbow lakes. The vegetation is primarily deciduous trees and where there aren’t trees, it is the rough and tumble prairie you’ve heard about in songs like Home on the Range (dry grass and tumbleweeds).
Tip: see our article on picnics in Yellowstone for some ideas of where to set up lunch and dine while viewing wildlife in Yellowstone.
While bison are all that we saw on our last trip through the Lamar, on previous visits we’ve also seen the wolf pack and several bears. The great thing about observing bison here is that there are many pullouts that allow you safe viewing distance and you’re not stopping traffic. The Hayden Valley offers these too, but they are fewer and there are thousands more people. The Lamar Valley is a relatively empty retreat from the rest of the Park and it is well worth the extra time spent relaxing as the clouds roll by.
The rarest sight in the park, if you ask us, but that’s just because we aren’t as lucky as some. Moose tend to hang out in marshy areas and along rivers. On previous visits we’ve had great luck seeing moose in the Fishing Bridge and Lake areas, and also along the Yellowstone river at dusk. If you get the chance to sit and watch a moose for a while, they’ll quickly become your favorite animal, both for their rarity and goofiness. This last trip to Yellowstone, we were skunked on the moose. We were fortunate to hit the jackpot though when we made it to Glacier National Park (see video here).
Know that for most wildlife viewing in Yellowstone, or any habitat for that matter, the early morning or dusk are the best times to see animals. That’s especially true with moose. Who knows where they go during the day, but yeah, we have the most success at dusk.
Tip: if you have the time, Grand Teton National Park is a day trip just to the south. The Tetons are home to a larger moose population and they are statistically sighted more
frequently there. The scenery is really amazing, and so different from Yellowstone. It is an easy way to add some extra fun and two extra stamps in your National Parks Passport.
The only guarantee in Yellowstone, besides Old Faithful, is seeing elk. The Mammoth Hot Springs area is the easiest place to spot them, as they do just linger by the Hotel and Park Headquarters. This is usually the mamas and babies. The bull elk tend to be more centrally located. Our best experiences watching bull elk with enormous racks have been in the Canyon area, in the meadows and thin forest near the visitor center. I actually can’t think of a Yellowstone trip where we haven’t seen handsome, majestic bull elk here. I might even call seeing multiple bull elk together a guarantee…maybe. And not to waffle, but like I said, wildlife viewing in Yellowstone isn’t a 100% spot on experience every day, but it is, but… just go see for yourself.
Yellowstone is a birder’s paradise. We brought a good friend with us on our most recent trip and she was in bird heaven. We were fortunate to see pelicans flying, fishing and swimming, all very close to us. We got to experience a family of trumpeter swans, resting and then swimming off from very close. One morning we were lucky enough to have breakfast near a heron nest and talk with a group of researchers with a telescope who were documenting the heron family behavior. And there were so many wonderful song birds.
Tip: the Bridge Bay Visitor Center has an amazing collection of taxidermy birds. They also have bird checklists and guides to help spot the different species.
To see the cutest video ever: our oldest son telling a stranger about the taxidermy pelican family… and their two dads. It was adorable and he’s adorable and, well, just watch the video.
Click the map below for a larger version. Please note that there aren’t a lot of roads, but there sure are a lot of sites to stop at. When at the Park, ask for an Experience Planner for a more detailed map showing common sighting locations and picnic areas.
Besides what we’ve listed here, there is much more wildlife in the Park. What have you seen? Where did you see it? Share your experience and questions in the comments below or via email.
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