Yellowstone National Park is one of the best wildlife-viewing destinations in the world. You can have a wildlife encounter just about anywhere in the park, at any time of day and in any season, but there are a few things you should know before coming to the park that will help you increase your chances of having that incredible sighting you are hoping for.
Safety first. You want your trip to be memorable for the right reasons. Keep in mind that wildlife is just that, WILD. Many people get lulled into a false sense of security since many of the animals in the park have gotten use to people and don’t seem to be too bothered by cars. The fact is, people get injured and even killed by animals every year because they got too close or were breaking some other rule. Park rules mandate visitors stay at least 25 yards away from all wildlife and 100 yards away from bears and wolves. A good rule to live by is if you are changing the behavior of the animal then you are too close even if you are far enough away according to the regulations. Wildlife are more comfortable with vehicles than a human on foot. So even though that bison just calmly walked past your car, don’t think that he won’t toss you 15 feet in the air if you are standing outside and have him perfectly framed for your selfie. Last but certainly not least, never feed wildlife.
Got it? Great! Now for the tips
Consider the time of year.
Late April through early June is a great time for wildlife. Animals are very active and can be found at lower elevations, such as along the roadways in the park. This is also the time of year when brand new baby animal, can be found.
July and August can be a difficult time of year to find wildlife. Temperatures can get surprisingly hot and a lot of animals disperse up into the high country to escape the heat. If this is when you are planning on visiting don’t worry, animals such as bears and wolves are constantly on the move and are still spotted this time of year, just not as frequently. Also, the bison rut, or mating season takes place in August and is one of the most incredible events Yellowstone has to offer.
September through November is another great time to view wildlife. Cooler weather brings a lot of wildlife back into the valleys and animals are actively migrating and preparing for winter. The deer, elk and moose ruts take place in the fall which can be very exciting to watch big males battle for breeding rights.
Late November through March is the winter season in Yellowstone. Travel is greatly restricted throughout the park, but careful planning can lead to incredible wildlife viewing. Wolf watching during Yellowstone’s winter can’t be beat. Wildlife congregate at low elevations and can be see in concentrations that are astounding.
Time of day.
Wildlife is most active and most commonly seen at dawn and at dusk. Many animals bed down during the middle of the day which makes viewing difficult. If you want a true Yellowstone experience you need to wake up early. The crisp cool air, fewer people and plentiful wildlife will make missing out on a couple hours of sleep well worth it for the wildlife enthusiasts.
Where to go.
We will go into greater detail regarding the best places for each kind of animal but there are a few places that give you the best bang for your buck. Lamar Valley is referred to as “the American Serengeti” because of the astounding diversity of wildlife that can be found here. Hayden Valley is another great area with wide open views of prime habitat for large animals.
Follow the scopes.
We recommend that you bring your own scope or binoculars as a lot of wildlife will be found off in the distance. However, park visitors are constantly scanning the hillside for wildlife and once an animal is spotted, a crowd will surely form. Lots of spotting scopes pointed in the same direction is a sign you are in the right spot. You will find that most visitors are nice enough to point out what they are seeing.
Grizzly Bear – Grizzly bears can be found throughout the park, but Lamar Valley and Hayden Valley are arguably the best places to find them. Other great areas of the park to find grizzlies are on the northern slopes of Mount Washburn on Dunraven Pass, the East Entrance road, Swan Lake Flats, and an area known as “Little America”, which is in between Tower-Roosevelt junction and Slough Creek. There is no better time to find grizzlies then from late April until early June.
Wolves – Once again, Lamar Valley and Hayden Valley are excellent places to see wolves. When it comes to wolf watching it is all about the northern part of the park. One of the more consistent locations along the northern range to see wolves is the Slough Creek area. Winter is the best time to look for wolves, but they can also be found consistently during spring and fall.
Black Bears – If you are looking for black bears start at Tower-Roosevelt and drive in any direction for a couple miles and you will find yourself in prime black bear habitat. Just like grizzlies, spring and fall are your best bet.
Bison – It is hard to think of an area of the park where you are not likely to find a bison or two, but large herds can often be seen in Lamar and Hayden Valley. Seeing these massive herds feels like you are getting a glimpse into the past of what the western united states would have looked like centuries ago. Unlike most wildlife, late August is a spectacular time to watch these animals. The Bison rut is an awe-inspiring experience as you see just how powerful these animals can be.
Elk – Elk can be found all throughout the park. Along the Madison River and at Mammoth Hot Springs are great places to watch the elk rut in September and October. Listening to the loud bugle of a large male elk in the early morning hours is an incredible experience and one you won’t soon forget.
Moose – Moose aren’t as common in Yellowstone as you might think but good places to look are around Yellowstone Lake, Indian Creek and near the Northeast Entrance of the Park. If you are visiting in the winter moose can often be found near Pebble Creek. If moose are really on your bucket list, consider making a quick detour down south to Grand Teton National Park where sightings occur much more regularly.
Bighorn Sheep – These mountain specialists can be found in many areas in the Park. Look for them in the Gardner river canyon between Mammoth Hot Springs and the North Entrance, on the slopes of Mount Washburn, the East Entrance, Tower area, Junction Butte, and in Lamar Valley near the confluence of the Lamar River and Soda Butte Creek. It can be difficult to find these impressive animals during the summer months as they typically climb to high elevations to escape the heat.
Mule Deer – Mule deer can be found throughout the park. They favor more hilly areas with mixed forest and open areas.
Whitetail Deer – This deer species is much rarer in Yellowstone than Mule deer. They prefer lower elevations and often around waterways.
Pronghorn – Often called “Antelope” this animal is actually the fastest land mammal in North America. The best places to find this speedster are Lamar Valley and near the North Entrance.
Mountain Goat – Mountain Goats are a non-native species to Yellowstone. They were introduced into the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem in the 1940’s and 50’s. They are still a fun animal to see for many visitors. Mountain goats can be found on the cliffs surrounding Pebble Creek and on Barronette Peak near the Northeast Entrance. They are typically very high up so a spotting scope will come in handy.
Mountain Lion – This elusive predator is rarely seen in Yellowstone. They were actually hunted to extinction within Yellowstone in the 1920’s but have since naturally returned to Yellowstone from the surrounding areas. While sightings are still extremely rare, they have increased over the last few years in the northern section of the park.
Coyote – These canines are common throughout the park. They are often seen trotting along the roadsides and through meadows.
Red Fox – The fox is the smallest canine of Yellowstone. They can also be found throughout the park. They thrive in just about any habitat of the park so there aren’t any specific areas to go search, but near the northeast entrance seems to be a particularly good spot.
Bobcat – Bobcats are seldomly seen in Yellowstone. Winter is the best time of year to find these elusive cats. Along the edges of rivers that remain unfrozen due to nearby geothermal activity has proven to yield the most consistent sightings. These include the Madison, Firehole and Gardner rivers.
River Otter – These playful animals can be found in most waterways within the park. They are constantly on the move which can make tracking them down difficult but spend enough time along the rivers’ edges and you are bound to encounter this playful critter.
Yellowstone's wildlife is extremely diverse. There are 67 different kinds of mammals that inhabit Yellowstone so we won't get into every one but here is a list of some other notable mammals that you might encounter: Badger, Beaver, Long-tailed Weasel, Short-tailed Weasel, Pine Marten, Yellow-bellied Marmot, Pika, and even the incredibly rare Canada Lynx and Wolverine.
Yellowstone can also be a birder's paradise. over 70 species of birds can be found here during certain times of the year. Some notable bird species include Bald Eagle, Golden Eagle, Osprey, Great Grey Owl, Great Horned Owl, and an incredible array of waterfowl.