When it comes to Yellowstone National Park, it’s all about the numbers. Established in 1872 as America’s first national park and often called an American Serengeti, Yellowstone shelters one of the largest concentrations of wildlife in the contiguous United States, including 300 species of birds and 67 species of mammals. What’s more, Yellowstone wildlife—from bison and bald eagles to gray wolves and grizzly bears—can often be found in the same locations, and the park’s 2.2-million-acre spread also claims some 10,000 geothermal features that host millions of multi-hued microscopic organisms. Such numbers, no surprise, also make Yellowstone one of America’s most visited national parks: More than 4 million people flock there each year, particularly in the summer months.
In Yellowstone, though, less can often be more, and communing with Yellowstone wildlife need not be a crowded affair. Led by two naturalist guides and limited to only 13 guests traveling in two safari vehicles, Natural Habitat Adventures’ small-group Hidden Yellowstone & Grand Teton Safari slips the summer crowds to visit some of the park’s remote, off-the-radar spots in search of intimate encounters with Yellowstone wildlife. From spying the park’s largest and most powerful megafauna to its most colorful microscopic organisms, here’s a glimpse of the top wildlife experiences to look forward to on a Yellowstone safari.
1. See Bears Up Close—from a Safe Distance
Strange but true: From 1910 to the 1960s, Yellowstone National Park visitors were allowed to feed black bears along roadsides and at refuse sites that doubled as popular ursine picnic spots. Fortunately, modern park etiquette—and wisdom—dictates that Yellowstone’s black bears and their fellow grizzlies (which can weigh up to 300 and 700 pounds, respectively) find their own food and that guests give them the wide berth they warrant.
Look for them: High-powered spotting scopes offer a safe and sustainable way to spy black and grizzly bears in their shared stomping grounds, including the meadows of the remote Lamar Valley, grasslands in the Hayden Valley and the shores of Yellowstone Lake, particularly in spring.
2. Get Caught in a “Bison Jam”
Pushed to the edge of extinction by the late nineteenth century, bison now number some 5,500 strong in Yellowstone, which shelters America’s only continuously free-ranging population since prehistoric times.
Look for them: “Free-ranging” is the operative term here, as herds are allowed to roam unfettered throughout much of the park. Favored banquet sites include the Hayden and Lamar valleys, but North America’s largest land-dwelling mammal is wont to graze where and when it wants, including along Yellowstone’s roads. The resulting bison jams are likely to be the most blissful traffic backups you’ll ever encounter, however, especially while parked in Nat Hab safari vehicles, whose custom roof hatches offer prime perches from which to snap bison portraits.
3. Follow the Park’s Biggest Influencer: @YellowstoneElk
Elk were influencers before influencing was a thing. As Yellowstone’s most abundant large mammal (as many as 20,000 summer in the park), elk and their grazing habits have been known to affect everything in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (to both its benefit and detriment), from how plants grow to where rivers bend.
Look for them: Frequent sightings occur at Yellowstone National Park’s north entrance near Gardiner, and large herds typically head to Mammoth Hot Springs along with the Lamar and Hayden valleys. Preferred by bears and mountain lions, Yellowstone elk also make up most winter meals for the park’s gray wolves, so the two are often spotted in the same vicinity.
4. Get the Facts on Gray Wolves
Not without controversy or complexities, U.S. and Canadian wildlife officials reintroduced gray wolves to Yellowstone in the mid-1990s after being killed off in most of the U.S. by the early 1900s. Long vilified as indiscriminate killers and rampant reproducers, wolves in fact serve as a keystone species in Yellowstone National Park, for starters by helping keep elk populations in check and providing leftovers for opportunistic diners like eagles, magpies and coyotes. Today, an estimated 100 gray wolves reside in the park, a number that reflects a balance with current predator-to-prey ratios.
Look for them: High-powered scopes bring wolves into focus (as do wolf biologists who join Nat Hab tours) in places such as the Lamar and Hayden valleys, where wolf sightings and symphonies are often described as life-changing.
5. Make Way for Moose
Word to the wise: Yellowstone moose may appear harmless, often seen staring with Zen-like concentration or casually browsing on willows by a river’s edge, but these ungulates—the largest member of the deer family in Yellowstone National Park—are famously contrary and can weigh up to 1,000 pounds. Oh yeah: Moose can also run up to 35 miles per hour and males’ antlers can measure up to six feet long.
Look for them: Although less than 200 moose now call Yellowstone home, sightings are likely around Oxbow Bend just east of Jackson Lake.
6. Watch Bighorn Sheep Battle (Or Not)
Not so fun fact (at least if you’re a bighorn sheep on the losing end of a collision meant to determine dominance): A ram’s (male’s) horns can weigh up to 40 pounds and land with hundreds of pounds of force. And although it’s true that bighorns’ battles make for epic wildlife sightings, it can be just as thrilling to see these ungulates peacefully grazing on clover in grassy meadows or gracefully scaling the park’s rocky cliffs and mountainsides.
Look for them: Keep your binoculars, telephoto lenses and spotting scopes ready for sightings in Gardner Canyon, cliffs along the Yellowstone River and, in the summer months, the slopes of Mount Washburn along Dunraven Pass. Sightings in the park’s lower elevations increase in shoulder seasons (spring and fall).
7. Contemplate Bald Eagles’ Comeback Story
Master anglers, bald eagles are right at home in Yellowstone, given its abundance of rivers, lakes and slow-moving streams. America’s first national park is also a fitting sanctuary for the country’s national symbol and poster bird of its conservation successes: Some 5,000 nesting pairs now live in the contiguous U.S., up from just 500 in the early 1960s. (Partial to birds of prey? More than a dozen raptor species soar through Yellowstone’s skies, including golden eagles, ospreys and peregrine falcons.)
Look for them: Yellowstone National Park’s bald eagles are often spotted snacking on fish and waterfowl by Oxbow Bend near Jackson Lake. Other popular nesting and fishing spots include the Hayden Valley, Madison River and, in summer, Yellowstone Lake.
8. Watch Trumpeter Swans Take Flight
Though less heralded than the bald eagle’s comeback story, the trumpeter swans’ resurgence is no less impressive: Concerted conservation efforts have returned North America’s largest waterfowl—hunted to near extinction in the U.S. by the 1930s—to much of its former breeding ranges. Some 300 now call the Yellowstone area home.
Look for them: Trumpeter swans may also be one of North America’s heaviest flying birds, but their aquatic takeoffs and landings are made with surprising style and grace. See the swans, whose wingspans can reach up to seven feet, swimming and soaring in places such as Swan Lake and Yellowstone Lake.
9. Think Small—As in Thermophile Small
They may be miniscule (so miniscule that they can’t be seen with the human eye), but millions and millions of thermophiles make a huge splash in Yellowstone National Park. The ultimate hot tubbers, these heat-loving microscopic organisms not only thrive in the park’s assortment of hydrothermal features, but they also paint them in dazzling hues of deep blues, pinks, emeralds, yellows and reds.
Look for them: See their pied palates in places like Morning Glory near Old Faithful, Grand Prismatic Spring and Excelsior Geyser at Midway Geyser Basin, Mammoth Hot Springs and the nearby Canary Springs.