Yellowstone National Park has always been a bit of a dream for us, so we grabbed an opportunity to stop at the park on our tour of the U.S. West Coast (despite it being a bit of a detour!).
We gave ourselves four full days in the park as well as one day to travel through Grand Teton National Park and over to Yellowstone’s West Entrance. In short; it was amazing and a highlight of our entire U.S. trip. We got to see incredible megafauna such as bears (Black & Grizzly) and wolves, which are unfortunately lost from Scotland’s landscape. Based on our visit we have a few tips for anyone hoping to visit Yellowstone and watch wildlife.
Travelling through the Tetons was our first glimpse at the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem and a beautiful drive; low flat plains and clear lakes surrounded by jagged mountains.
We wish we could have spent more time in this beautiful national park and do some walking (you need bear spray of course!) but Yellowstone was calling our names. It didn’t stop us from seeing some incredible sights and our first Coyote;
It wasn’t long after leaving Grand Teton National Park that we saw a sign we had been looking forward to seeing our whole trip;
We had a two and a half hour drive from the South Entrance to just outside the West Entrance where our motel was. The drive flew in as we eagerly discussed plans for the next 4 days, occasionally slowing down and stopping to observe the steam from the thermal features and some Elk and Bison from a distance. We found an awesome place to have pizza in West Yellowstone then hit the hay knackered after just a taste of what was to come.
We got up early for our first full day in Yellowstone. We had decided to drive towards Mammoth Hot Springs on our way to Lamar Valley, in the hope of seeing wildlife in the Northern Range. Of course, in somewhere as incredible as Yellowstone National Park you end up stopping regularly to take in the incredible scenery which varies wildly from deep gorges and canyons to hydrothermal vents and pools.
As we approached Swan Lake we began to see a huge back up of traffic and slowed down to see what all the shutterbugs were pointing at. To our right, we could see a large brown lump lumbering through the sagebrush at which point we screamed; “IT’S A BEAR!!!!?!’
Grabbing the binoculars and camera from the footwells we looked up to see two very small brown specks racing away from the bear – chasing and playing with one another. Here we were less than one hour into our first full day in Yellowstone and we were looking at a female Grizzly with two very young cubs!
The traffic on both sides of the road was essentially at a standstill, which allowed us to get a really good view of these bears. However, the rules in place at Yellowstone state that no cars may stop on the roads and anyone viewing wildlife should drive on to the next lay-by to park and walk back to view the wildlife from a safe distance (minimum distance of 100 yards for bears & wolves, 25 yards from all other wildlife).
The National Park rangers were quick to the scene and moved on the stopped cars, as we were moving away on the opposite side of the road from the bears a huge herd of Bison were slowly passing with calves in tow. Bison are pretty common in Yellowstone and after the first couple of sightings you get strangely acclimatised to seeing these huge animals.
We reached Mammoth still in disbelief at our luck. So we took some time to wander and take in the magnificent Hot Springs.
While in Mammoth we stopped by the visitor centre to ask the rangers about the likely locations and best times to see wolves, surprisingly they weren’t very helpful and the only information we got was to go to Lamar Valley and look there so off we set. On our way to Lamar we got lost and ended up going past the Tower- Roosevelt junction but it turned out to be an excellent mistake to make….
This time- a female Black bear with two young cubs! It was awesome to see both families on the same day, for us our first experience of wild Grizzly and Black bears and we were able to compare the size of the two females which was pretty cool. When we (finally!) got to Lamar we couldn’t see any wolves but to be fair we were just looking at a massive valley covered in Bison, Elk and Pronghorn with no idea where the packs might be.
We did however get a pretty good look at another coyote (which I will admit to mistaking for a wolf initially).
This little Coyote put on quite a show, modelling for us for a long time at the river.
After spending a lot of time in Lamar Valley with not a wolf in sight we decided to call it a day and head home. On our way home we witnessed another, smaller mass car pile up in a turnout. We thought we better have a look..
Another Black bear mum and cub! This cub was much bigger than the others so we think it was probably a yearling. Black bear cubs stay with the mother for around 18 months so not long to go! For us- this was a brilliant first day but it definitely made us want to go back to Lamar and see wolves.
Day 2 turned out to be more of a sight-seeing adventure. Our morning was spent at Old Faithful and the surrounding area, including the Inn and the Visitor Centre. It was colder than it had been the days before which meant snow! A gentle fluttering of snow as the geyser threw out boiling water made for a picturesque spot to enjoy a hot chocolate.
Later we made our way past Yellowstone Lake towards Hayden Valley, the other valley in Yellowstone, noted in our books and maps as a prime wildlife viewing location.
After a few hours driving we got to Hayden Valley and to our disappointment it was empty bar the occasional solitary Bison. The incredible view made up for it, we sat to take it all in then drove a bit further north to see the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone before heading back to West Yellowstone.
Having done some research at nights in our motel, we had a hatched a full proof plan for Day 3; get to Lamar Valley for sunrise and we would be bound to see wolves. This meant getting up a 3am to get there for 6am as Lamar is a good two and a half hour drive from West Yellowstone. Thankfully we woke up at 3am to rain and snow and decided against it and changed our plan to stay still sunset in Lamar.
First though, more sight-seeing, we took in some more of the geyser basins we had previously avoided due to the weekend tourist rush then decided to head up to Gardiner to see the famous North Entrance Teddy Roosevelt used.
Right next to the entrance was the Yellowstone Association, we initially thought it was just another gift shop but Elliot insisted he go in and ask if they had any information about wolves. It turns out they did! Not only did they have notes on where various wolf packs and bears had been spotted the previous day, they were also able to tell us exactly where one of the wolf packs had a den (Slough Creek in Lamar Valley) and how many cubs and adults we were likely to see. It gets better, they even rented out spotting scopes (small telescopes, typically used for hunting unfortunately, which are great for viewing wildlife from a distance) 24 hours for $25 which was a tremendous deal.
With this new information and equipment we made our way back into Mammoth and stopped for tea at the Mammoth Hot Springs Dining Hall (they do a fantastic veggie burger with chips!) before making our way to Slough Creek.
Upon arrival it was clear we were in the right place, there were a group of 6 or 7 people all with their own sight scopes. Everyone was really helpful, showing us where the wolf den was and helping us to set up the scope as we had no clue. What followed was an incredible evening..
Can you spot the three wolves in the picture above?!
Through the scope we counted 4 cubs at the den entrance throughout the night and a total of 7 adults- with coat colours ranging from almost white to black. At the beginning of the evening the wolves all remained miles away from us up the hill around the den but towards the end of the night they made their way down the hill directly towards us and towards some Bison in front of us.
We thought we going to get to see them hunt but they ended up just playfully chasing one another. Unfortunately our camera and binoculars couldn’t give us a good view of them when they were at the den- if it wasn’t for the sight scope we would never have known they were there. We did get some photos when they got down to the plain at the bottom of the hill but even then they were a speck on the landscape. It was a brilliant night topped off by hearing the pack howl across a silent valley on 4 separate occasions, that noise is something we’ll never forget!
On our last day we headed back up to Lamar Valley to make the most of our rental of the sight scope. It was easier to see the den but we only saw a cub poke its nose out of the den entrance for a while before we had to return the scope to Gardiner. Afterwards, we stopped by Beaver Lake where we thought we could see a beaver lodge and waited patiently.
The Beavers were a no-show but we’ve been lucky enough to see them at home (a future post) so we ended our day by visiting the Grand Prismatic Spring which we hadn’t got around to yet. It turned out to be very steamy indeed..
The next day we packed our bags and headed further North into Montana to Glacier National Park where we had more incredible wildlife encounters (Check out our blog post about it!)
So ,what are our tips for viewing wildlife in Yellowstone?
In four days we were able to explore the park pretty well and balance wildlife watching with exploring the incredible geothermal areas but we could have easily stayed for a week so consider what your Must- Do’s are.
Time your visit to take into account things you would like to see could be a good idea. For example we visited towards the end of May which meant we got to see lots of babies! Bison calves, bear cubs and wolf pups were some of our favourites. We were also assured that later in summer it gets VERY busy in the park so traffic ‘jams’ can be more common, however the weather would likely be more pleasant. In May it rained and snowed and was quite cold but it did get warmer when the sun came out so be prepared for all weather conditions, especially if camping. If we were to make a return trip; I would seriously weigh up the option of returning in winter to really get a feel for the place when there are fewer tourists, winter is also the easiest time to spot wolves as they all move down into the valleys following prey and are much more visible against snow. At this time of year much of the park is inaccessable due to snow (though I did see signs for snowmobile hire!) except for the Northern Range and Yellowstone’s bears would be in their winter dens so it’s a fine balance.
Also think about where you want to stay – in our experience there was a greater abundance of wildlife in the Northern Range around Lamar Valley. If we are able to go back to Yellowstone we would almost certainly try to find accommodation in the nearby town of Gardiner or stay in the Park at Mammoth Hot Springs. However I would still consider the town of West Yellowstone for anyone that wants to be less secluded and have more restaurant options (and an IMAX) but you are further from the wildlife hot spots.
In terms of viewing wolves in Yellowstone (there are 9 packs recorded in the park with 2 additional smaller groups) we did a lot of google searching and came up with pretty inconclusive results- most said that Lamar Valley was the best bet. This information sent us in the correct general direction but it wasn’t until we stumbled across the Yellowstone Association in Gardiner that we got up-to-date information on wolf locations. The Association have interactive maps and really helpful people around who can explain locations of recent sightings for Black and Grizzly bears as well as wolves and where best to park to your car. In our case there was a known wolf den with pups- this small piece of information was invaluable to us. As we mentioned; the YA rent out spotting scopes and binoculars for a decent price- renting the spotting scope really allowed us to have an unforgettable evening watching some wild wolves.
A last tip would be- Safety. Over the course of 4 days we saw some crazy things; people driving straight up to massive bull bison and piling out of the car to take pictures next to them, others striving to get closer and closer to bears despite warnings. In fact only days after we left Yellowstone there was a very sad incident where an individual died as a result of falling through the fragile crust in one of the geyser basins upon leaving the walkway. The maximum driving speed in the park is 45 mph for good reason- we think everyone should follow the parks guidelines for their own safety and to preserve this incredible ecosystem. Bear spray is an important consideration- this product works rather like a pepper spray for bears and is extremely effective in deterring attacks. We found the cost to buy bear spray in Yellowstone to be around $60-70 and you can hire bear spray in Yellowstone from Canyon Village. After our visit to Yellowstone we found bear spray in Walmart for only $30 so perhaps buy before you arrive. If you plan to do any hiking at all, even short hikes, take bear spray and know how to use it.
Finally- Have fun! Yellowstone is an amazing place for all to enjoy 🙂
If you have anymore questions about trip, get in touch.
For now, keep exploring
Kirsten & Elliot