When wildlife enthusiast Dan Barr found out that members of one of Yellowstone’s larger wolf packs, Junction Butte, had been spotted in the national park’s remote Lamar Valley, the California resident was elated. It was a cool October morning, and Barr was on the first of a multi-day trip geared towards tracking these elusive canines: some of Yellowstone’s most famous residents. “We knew they were around,” he said, “because we could hear their howls up and down the valley.” But to actually see them? Well, that’s a whole other story.
Once their driver pulled over to the side of the road, Barr and his fellow group members jumped out of the van and began setting up their spotting scopes. Some utilized high-powered binoculars, hoping to catch sight of some movement in the area where others were already focusing. They were in luck. About two miles from where they had stopped, about seven or so wild wolves were resting after a recent feed. Barr found himself beaming.
Ever since U.S. and Canadian wildlife officials reintroduced gray wolves into Yellowstone National Park in 1995, it’s been one of Barr’s missions to see these fantastic beasts.“I’ve always felt an affinity to wolves,” he says. “There is something about them that is both wild and civilized at the same time.”
Over the next several days, Barr and his group also spotted a trio of moose, herds of elk, and plenty of bison, some of which even stopped traffic. He’d hit the wildlife jackpot, for sure, though it wasn’t entirely unexpected. After all, Barr was in the middle of one of the greatest concentrations of fauna in North America, also known as the “North American Serengeti.”
Yellowstone’s “American Serengeti” nickname is a nod to East Africa’s own Serengeti, an ecosystem of vast open plains, savanna and woodlands that covers approximately 12,000 square miles and is home to a drizzling array of wildlife, including blue wildebeest, zebra, giraffe and elephants, as well as the continent’s three big cats: cheetahs, leopards and lions. But while it can take a full day to reach northern Tanzania from some parts of the U.S., the Serengeti of North America exists right here in our own backyard. What’s more, the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem even boasts its own “Big Five” for wildlife sightings—in this case, bears (grizzly or black), wolves, bison, elk and moose.
Established in 1872, Yellowstone is considered to be the world’s first national park and one brimming with a literal hotbed of geothermal wonders. We’re talking bubbling mud pots, hissing steam vents and plenty of active geysers. In fact, along with neighboring Grand Teton National Park, federally managed lands such as Shoshone National Forest and Grays Lake National Wildlife Refuge, and additional state-managed and private properties in Wyoming, Montana and Idaho, the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem is actually one of the largest nearly intact temperate zone ecosystems on the entire planet. Of course, there’s also the wildlife.
Tens of thousands of elk, more than 100 wolves, and the largest free-roaming, wild herd of bison in the country make their home in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, along with more elusive animals such as cougars, lynx and wolverines. You can often see bighorn sheep grazing on the slopes of Yellowstone’s Mount Washburn, and grizzly sows and their cubs feeding on grasses in its Lamar and Hayden valleys. Yellow-bellied marmots are sometimes spotted propelling themselves up steep rock faces, while moose snack on duckweed and water lilies along the park’s lake shores. Here in this natural landscape is also a tapestry of jagged peaks, wide-open valleys and free-flowing rivers. The diversity and density of it all is quite simply, phenomenal.
More than half of Yellowstone’s four million annual visitors flock to the park during summer months, when the wildlife is also out in droves. But sightings aren’t guaranteed. “We had one advantage,” says Barr, talking about his wolf-tracking expedition. “We had a wolf biologist with us and he knew just the people to point us in the right direction.”
This is where the expertise of Nat Hab’s Expedition Leaders comes in handy. Although the entire Yellowstone ecosystem is teeming with fauna, there are specific pockets of the larger park that offer a greater chance of seeing wildlife than others, and the naturalist guides leading our seven-day Hidden Yellowstone & Grand Teton Safari know exactly where to look. For instance: the Hayden Valley, a lush, centrally located expanse of taller grasslands and meadows, and patches of lodgepole pines that are a prime spot for bison, as well as grizzlies feeding on roots; bodies of water such as high alpine lakes and the banks of the Yellowstone River, where birds and mammals often congregate; and the legendary Lamar Valley, its broad meadows perfect for spotting herds of elk, soaring osprey, and wolves (if you’re lucky!).
Tips for Spotting Wildlife in Yellowstone
Despite its abundance of wildlife, including burrowing badgers, short- and long-tailed weasels, and even Canada lynx, the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem houses animals in their natural habitat—meaning spotting them is completely by chance. But while it’s nearly impossible to predict if and when you’ll catch sight of a wandering black bear or a romp of river otters, there are some ways to improve your luck. Please remember, the National Park Service suggests staying at least 100 yards away from bears and wolves, and 25 or more yards away from other large creatures, like elk and bison.
Here are some tips for making your time in the North American Serengeti of Yellowstone as wildlife-filled as possible:
Hit the Trails
Getting away from the crowds and into the wilderness also allows you to spot wildlife beyond the roadsides, making the nature experience even more extraordinary. Be sure and hike with another person(s) and make plenty of noise, so that you don’t startle, say, a mama grizzly and her cubs as they’re coming around a bend. For example, Yellowstone’s Hayden Valley is home to two incredible hiking trails, the 13.6-mile Hayden Valley trail and the 20.2-mile Mary Mountain trail. While both are long and rated moderate-to-difficult, hiking just a short portion of one of them increases your chances of seeing bison, elk and even bears. Another fun option is a scenic float down the Snake River, which has its headwaters in Yellowstone’s southeast section before flowing into Grand Teton National Park. You can often glimpse moose and beavers along the river banks, as well as osprey, pelicans and other interesting wildlife, all from the safety of your raft.
Vary Your Viewing Hours
Wildlife tends to be most active at either dawn or dusk, when the weather is cooler and many animals tend to feed. By waking early or driving around the park once the sun starts to set, you’ll increase your chances of spotting bison, grizzlies and more.
Look for Tracks, Signs and Scat
In the American Serengeti, wildlife is often just around the corner. Keep an eye out for footprints in the mud, fresh animal droppings, or even a patch of fur caught on a piece of tree trunk. The larger the print, typically the larger the animal. If you do see tracks, see if you can spot the wildlife too. They might be hiding in the nearby brush, or have scurried up the mountainside above you.
Ask the Professionals
Rangers at the Yellowstone visitors centers (and often on the trails) tend to have the inside scoop on where wildlife has been seen recently, so ask them!
Binoculars and spotting scopes can make a big difference when it comes to seeing wildlife. They allow you to truly get “up close” without endangering yourself, those around you or the animals themselves.
“Understand that wildlife doesn’t work on your schedule,” says Barr, “so just be patient.” You may have to move to a different spot, stand in one place and wait for an animal to reappear, or simply try again the following day.
It’s all part of the experience.