Experiencing the best of Wildlife in Yellowstone National Park
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… 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.
What you'll find...
Viewing wildlife in Yellowstone
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 in Yellowstone is bold and experiencing it is that easy, but it still can be dangerous.
Disclaimer: we are writing about experiencing wildlife in Yellowstone from the POV of somebody in their car or common area, not from the stance of a backwoods hiker or somebody gallivanting on their own. Be safe.
Black and Grizzly Bears in Yellowstone
Bears of both the black and grizzly variety 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.
What to look for: if bears are far away, you might not think twice about them, mistaking them for a rock or bush, but take out your binoculars (we love our Bushnell autofocus binocs [affiliate]) and you’ll get to watch them foraging and playing and it’s amazing! Dusk is a great time to spot bears on the western slopes of hills due to the low sunlight and active time of day.
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: brown/grizzly 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.
Unforgettable bison herds
Bison are some of the most prevalent wildlife in Yellowstone; they’re almost everywhere in the Park. While they do move around a lot, there are two guaranteed spots to find them: the Hayden and Lamar valleys. Each of these is so very different. If you’re traveling with kids, you’ll probably see the Hayden Valley without even planning to, 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 Valley, 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.
Moose sightings in Yellowstone (and beyond)
Moose are one of the rarest sightings of wildlife in Yellowstone, 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 of the experiences with wildlife 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 very different from Yellowstone. It is an easy way to add some extra fun and two extra stamps in your National Parks Passport.
Elk herds. OMG.
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, while the bull elk tend to be more centrally located deeper in the park.
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 in Yellowstone isn’t a 100% spot on experience every day… but it is, but… just go see for yourself.
Amazing birds in Yellowstone
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 during a mid-day stop in the Hayden Valley and an early morning at Nez Perce Ford. We got to experience a family of trumpeter swans, resting and then swimming off from very close one evening on a drive north from the Lake area. One morning we got to have breakfast near a heron nest and talk with a group of researchers with a telescope who were documenting the heron family’s 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 while you’re watching for wildlife in Yellowstone.
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.
To get a better grasp of the layout of Yellowstone National Park, 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. When in 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 Yellowstone, including wolves, otters, owls, and eagles. What have you seen? Where did you see it? Share your experience and questions in the comments below or via email.
And want to pin this for planning your own epic time experiencing the best wildlife viewing in Yellowstone National Park? Go for it!
Rob Taylor is the founder of 2TravelDads, the original LGBT Family Travel blog. Focusing on ecotourism and education, 2TravelDads inspires LGBT families (and traditional families also) to go beyond their usual getaways and use travel to learn about and be part of a bigger world. “Traveling the globe and giving the kids a broad worldview.”