When, Where and How to See The Animals of Yellowstone National Park

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When, Where and How to See The Animals of Yellowstone National Park

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Yellowstone National Park

So what do you say about Yellowstone National Park? It’s just freekin’ awesome! It was the world’s first National Park made so in 1872.  It is huge- covering almost 3500 square miles and touching 3 states, Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho. It is the mother of all things geothermal, spouting 2/3 of the worlds geysers, hot springs and, their thermals. In fact, there are approximately 10,000 geothermal features in all. There is a massive ecosystem housing one of the worlds most diverse collections of critters. You can find free-ranging bison, elk, bears and wolves. You can fish for trout and see all manner of species of birds. And all this sits on top of a volcano so large that if it erupted, it would spew enough ash to cover an area the size of Texas 5 feet deep. So what’s not to love? There is if fact SO much to love that one blog post will not cover it. So this will be the first of several posts celebrating One of Americas greatest treasures- Yellowstone National Park.

We spent a month near Yellowstone camping about 20 minutes west of the town of West Yellowstone 2 years ago and another 2 months this year.  You can check out the beautiful campground we stayed at in Island Park here.  Since we were staying so close to the park, we went in A LOT!.  We were never disappointed. The park roads are laid out in kind of figure 8 with two loops north and south. We drove it all multiple times. By far our favorite thing about this beautiful park is the wildlife. Coming in from the west we were almost always guaranteed to see herds of elk along the road into the loop. These are the most beautiful creatures, roaming along the river and grazing without a care in the world. We stopped all along the road and took dozens of pictures.  Several times there were so many cars stopping that the Rangers had to be on hand to direct traffic to keep moving.

Here are a few of our favorite animals that we have had amazing encounters with inside Yellowstone National Park.

BISON: It is almost impossible to drive any distance in Yellowstone and not see bison. On the brink of extinction a hundred years ago, the bison of Yellowstone has made a full recovery through conservation efforts and now number in the thousands. These bison are direct descendants of the animals that roamed most of the US and are true descendants- not hybrids crossbred with cattle as many herds in the US are. Yellowstone is also the only area that these herds have free ranged throughout history. As the herds have grown, they have also returned to their more natural migration patterns which are important to know if you want to see them in large numbers.

While bison can be found year round in the Lamar and Hayden Valleys, during the winter and cooler months, many will be found in the warmer thermal areas and lower elevation valleys along the Madison River and Gardiner Basin. As the weather warms up they migrate towards the Lamar and Hayden Valleys again.  This being said, if you keep your eyes open you will see bison just about anywhere, just about any time- often times in the middle of the road!  Did someone say traffic jam? The bison herds we encountered more to the eastern side of the upper loop which is a beautiful drive through some large sweeping prairie lands. The bison are absolutely amazing and massive, really massive. Since hunting is prohibited in the park, the bison have no real threat. They may be harassed by a bear or wolves from time to time, but they really just OWN the place.

Our Best Bison Sighting

Our best bison sighting happened this year when we went into the park very early (6 am) in the morning. We were driving up towards Norris when we spotted a large herd near the road just north of Madison Junction in an open area we like to call “Lucky Field” because over time we have had quite a few great animal sightings here. Anyway, this herd was quite rambunctious and a couple of the males started fighting- lowering their heads and crashing horns. It was a sight to see, you can imagine how excited all of us were to experience this.  They tangled for a bit and then went tearing off down the hill in a cloud of dust. Honestly, you don’t realize how fast these animals can move until you see it with your own eyes.  The video is posted to our FaceBook page, it really is something to see.  We have seen people getting way too close to bison to take pictures, including parents trying to get the perfect picture with their kids.  Please see this footage if you are ever thinking about getting too close to one of these guys for a selfie. They don’t look like they can move very fast, but you will see here that they can really haul a**!  After watching the video, I think you’ll rethink your selfie idea and realize that taking a photo from your car will do just fine!

Yellowstone Bison

 

ELK: Elk are the most abundant large mammal in Yellowstone. There are several large herds which can be found at differing times of the year along the Lamar Valley, Madison River, Hayden Valley and North sections of the park. The elk tend to go to lower elevations north and south of the park during the winter months and migrate back in as the weather gets warmer. When we were in the park in the late summer/early autumn, there were tons of elk along the Madison River on the drive in from West Yellowstone. This year, we are in the park early summer. The same valley was full of bison until mid-June when they all migrated out, and the elk started showing up a couple of weeks later. Mammoth Springs is a great place to see elk as there is a herd that inhabits the town most times. We have seen a lot this year (June) in Hayden Valley as well.  You can see them up close and personal relaxing in grassy areas in the middle of town, it’s quite something to see.

A Quick Story about Elk

When we were here two years ago in Mammoth Springs, we were able to watch a bull elk herd his ‘ladies’ back to one corner as they were scattered all over the middle of town.  I guess one wasn’t too keen on being told what to do, he sprang into action, bolted across the road and got her moving.  Within minutes she was across the road where she was supposed to be.  One driver got a bird’s eye view as the bull narrowly missed taking his car mirror off running past him.  The park rangers had to keep us moving to ensure everyone’s safety as this guy took care of business!

WOLVES: Another tremendous story of animal conservation, Yellowstone’s wolf population is staying very strong. Although numbers vary from year to year. It is estimated that about 85-100 animals in 10 packs. The numbers now are much lower than they were about 10 years ago when as many as 170 wolves were known in the park. The level now is considered to be much more in line with the size of the park and sustainability of the packs. These wolves have made quite an impact since their re-introduction into Yellowstone’s ecosystem in 1995. Elk in the park, who can no longer lounge about by the riversides eating the saplings all day, have been forced to stay more active and on the move. This, in turn, has allowed the riverbanks to return to their former status, impacting plants and aquatic life throughout the park. The wolves have also grown in numbers outside the park boundaries, which is the cause of some friction between conservationists and ranchers.

Hayden and Lamar Valleys are once again great viewing areas for wolves. There is a large community of spotters that can be seen on any given morning or evening along the roads of these valleys, radios in hand. You can see them easily, they have the very large, very expensive scopes.  Passing along information to their friends about where the wolves are being seen. Sticking with those folks can really increase your chances of seeing these beautiful but elusive creatures.

Our Wolf Sighting

We spotted some scopers when we were driving through Hayden Valley and stopped to check out what they were looking at.  We got talking to this very nice woman who was telling us about a pack of wolves with a den nearby.  She told us they had a kill the night before so they probably wouldn’t be seen anytime soon as they were enjoying their meal.  She was excited to see the kids in their Junior Ranger vests and we exchanged phone numbers.  She told us the best bet to see animals was to get up very early (4 am) and head to the park.  We decided to do that the next day.  It was hard, I’m not going to lie, getting up at 4 am was not easy and getting a text from Sylvia at 5:15 telling us the wolves had come out and were gone again was heartbreaking.  Getting to Hayden Valley took us almost 90 minutes because it’s way up there.  However all was not in vain, 10 minutes after we arrived at the spot, the wolves came out to play.  Sylvia graciously shared her scope with everyone so we could all take a look.  We were able to watch 6 wolves frolicking about and laying around – CLOSE UP!!!

It didn’t stop there, another pack of wolves was across the road and across a stream.  In order to get to where they wanted to, they needed to swim across a small stream.  Two made it, one was a little skeptical of the idea.  We have him on video howling for his friends until finally, he swam across, then ran beside our truck until he finally crossed the road and reached his buddies.  This went on for over an hour!  You can see this video- yup, you guessed it- on our FB page. That same morning we saw an elk chasing a wolf away from her little one. Did not get that on camera but it was uber cool!  EST DAY EVER!

BEARS: Both Black Bears and Grizzly’s live in Yellowstone Park. While black bears are prevalent over a great deal of the US, Grizzly’s are only known in large numbers in the Yellowstone area and parts of Montana. Although they may roam over huge areas, grizzly’s can be seen in the Lamar and Hayden Valleys fairly regularly if you are there early morning, and evening. They are also often seen from Fishing Bridge to the East entrance of the park. Black bears are seen around the northern areas of the park around Mammoth and Tower.

Our Bear Encounter

On the same morning, we were watching the wolves, we saw something in the distance to the right of us.  Was it….could it be….no way….that would be too cool.  We turned out to be right, as the wolves were playing and frolicking around, there was a grizzly bear wandering around in no particular rush.  He seemed to want to cross the road but the traffic was stopping him from doing so.  He wandered around, digging for food and eating, staying close to the road until he finally gave up and headed up into the mountains.  We have epic footage of this guy again on our facebook page.

On our way out of the park that morning, we came across a bull moose.  WHAT!!!!!  Yep, it was an insane morning and so worth getting up at 4 am!  We made it home in time for lunch.

COYOTES: During the period of wolf absence from the park, Coyote populations grew quite large. Lacking a consistent predator, they did not face much danger until the re-introduction of the wolves in the 1990’s. Since then the population has decreased by as much as 50% as they compete with the wolves for resources. Coyotes usually travel in small family packs and hunt smaller mammals. They are also creatures of convenience and will try to sneak in on kills from other predators. Coyotes can be seen in many areas of the park. We saw a pair in the Madison River Valley earlier this summer, they crossed the road right in front of us, several times actually.

MOUNTAIN GOATS: These guys can be seen along the cliff walls of the Lamar Valley. They are pretty easy to spot because they look like lumps of snow high up in the cliffs. We have not been able to get too close to them here, but maybe next time.

BIGHORN SHEEP: Bighorn sheep occupy most of the Rocky Mountain range. They are most frequently seen in the park up by Mount Washburn and along the northern entrance of the park.

Those are some of our absolute favorite animals to spot. The list of critters inhabiting Yellowstone goes on and on and we hope to continue visiting with these amazing creatures in the future. We hope that you will enjoy a few of them yourself.

Here are some tips for getting great animal encounters

  • GO EARLY OR LATE: We tend to be early goers. We get up as early as 4 am to get into the park before traffic. While Lamar and Hayden are favorites, driving around anywhere in Yellowstone can allow some awesome encounters.
  • YELLOWSTONE LODGE:  Upstairs in the Lodge, there is a whiteboard where people share their animal encounters.  This will give you some idea of where the different animals are hiding out!
  • WATCH FOR JAMS: If there are cars on the side of the road, chances are that someone saw something. Stop and find out what. Could be a bear with cubs playing in a tree!
  • PAY ATTENTION TO THE RULES: Keep your distance- don’t attempt to get close, don’t feed em. That’s pretty much it. No picture is worth being gored by an 800lb bison or kicked in the head by an elk. The warnings are EVERYWHERE in the park and the stories go around constantly. But still, there is always some yahoo trying to get a selfie with a grizzly bear. Darwin at work I guess- don’t let it be you.
  • iF YOU ARE HIKING, CARRY BEAR SPRAY! They are out there and if they decide to come for you they will come quick. Bear spray will stop a grizzly in its tracks, but only if you get it off your hip on time. Learn how to react and be safe at all times.

We wish you the best on your own trip to Yellowstone National Park. Hopefully, you will find it as amazing as we do.

If you’re interested in following us along on our travels, you can follow us on Instagram, or on facebook here or come join our facebook group

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