Wolves have long fascinated wildlife enthusiasts. We tend to view them as truly wild and rugged. Their tendency to live and travel in family packs echoes our own social tendencies. Their stirring nighttime howls, graceful movements and keen sensibilities connect us to our primal selves.

The gray wolf is one of the most iconic animals of Yellowstone National Park. And, yet, that hasn’t always been the case. Now one of the most famous conservation success stories in recent memory, Yellowstone wolves and those in the surrounding Rockies were extirpated by 1927. Fast forward almost 60 years, and the native gray wolf (Canis lupus) population has made an astounding comeback.

Related: Watch Nat Hab’s “The Big Bad Wolf” and Meet the Film’s Co-Producer—Wildlife Biologist, Aaron Bott

Today, we’ll take a look at the top places to see wolves in Yellowstone National Park and learn why winter is the best time to spot them and how you might experience this on a winter wolf safari with Natural Habitat Adventures.

Yellowstone’s Gray Wolves

Yellowstone is home to the gray wolf, recognizable by its large head, long legs and bushy fur that can be gray, mottled gray and black, and even completely black. Although wolves are related to coyotes and domestic dogs, up close, it’s easy to tell that a wolf is much larger and more powerful than your average family pet. Gray wolves can weigh as much as 165 pounds and can stand 2 to 3 feet tall at shoulder height.

As of 2022, wildlife biologists believe about 90 wolves roam in the Yellowstone region, with as many as 450 total in the greater Yellowstone area. About one out of every three the wolves is collared, providing vital information to researchers about the packs’ locations and behaviors.

Best Places to See Wolves in Yellowstone National Park

Wolf watchers in Yellowstone have the most success sighting gray wolves in the Lamar Valley, Hayden Valley, the Canyon Area and on Blacktail Plateau. Since 1995, wolves have flourished in these parts, supported by a bountiful prey, including elk and deer. When you’re traveling to Yellowstone on a Nat Hab wolf trip, your guide will explain more about the wolves’ current living conditions and how they have restored balance to the natural ecosystem. There are fewer wolves living in the park now than at the peak of their re-introduction; biologists believe this reflects how many wolves the park can naturally sustain now that the elk population has been brought back into balance.

Within the park, the packs are fiercely defensive of their territories, which can range from 30 to 2,500 square miles. Yellowstone wolf packs generally cover territories of about 165 square miles. though the territories in the northern section of the park are about one-third the size of those in the interior. Again, this is largely dependent on the availability of elk.

Gray Wolves in Yellowstone National Pak

Lamar Valley

Generally considered the best wolf-spotting location in the park, the Lamar Valley is in Yellowstone’s northeast corner. It also offers an excellent chance to see bison. Nat Hab trips include dawn and dusk outings into the valley, with the opportunity to use a spotting scope onboard the expedition vehicle to enhance observation of the wolves’ activities from a distance without disturbing them. Pack movements are unpredictable, and the wolves are generally shy in the presence of humans, but Nat Hab Expedition Leaders are experienced trackers who can teach you about wolf behavior and share information from scientists who conduct research on wolves in the region. Wolf watchers also have good luck at nearby Slough Creek, just east of Lamar Valley, and the valley of Little America.

Elk Creek

In Elk Creek, near Tower Junction, you may spot the Wapiti Lake pack, known for its beautiful white alpha female (currently the oldest wolf in the park). The pack roams widely, moving around Hayden Valley in Yellowstone’s interior and moving, in the winter, up onto the Northern Range for better hunting opportunities. Look for them, too, from Hellroaring Overlook, a few miles east of Tower Junction.

Blacktail Plateau

The 8 Miles pack lives here on Blacktail Plateau, a wide-open stretch of land west of Lava Creek between Mammoth and Tower Junction. Consider setting up your spotting scope at the parking area for the Forces of the Northern Range nature trail, which is the highest point on the Blacktail Plateau.

Spotting wolves in Yellowstone

© Moana Leong

Hayden Valley

As winter turns to spring, the park’s interior roads start to open, providing more chances for wolf viewing in Hayden Valley. Grizzly Overlook is one of the most opportune spots to pull over and look for elusive gray wolves, particularly those of the Wapiti Lake pack.

When Is the Best Time to Spot Wolves in the Park?

Bundle up! Winter is the easiest time of year to see wolves in Yellowstone, as you can more easily spot their dark coats against a snowy backdrop. They tend to get a bit lazy during the warm summer months, due in part to those thick coats of fur. Hot and sluggish, they tend to stay in the shade all day, making them harder to find.

Once the snow falls, the wolves become more active, particularly during their breeding season of January to March. You’ll also hear them howl more during this time, communicating their size and status for breeding purposes. When you do spot them, they’ll most likely be hunting the elk who live at lower elevations. While the park’s bears are hibernating, the wolves come out to play and prey.

Pro tip: Find wolves by looking for elk, which make up about 90% of the wolves’ winter diet. Look for birds, too. If you see scavenging birds circling a kill, there are likely wolves nearby.

The best wolf-watching opportunities will not only require you to bundle up but also wake up—early. Wolves are typically crepuscular, which means they’re most active at dawn and dusk. Get out early and you’ll catch them hunting in the twilight.

More Yellowstone Winter Wildlife

Lest you think wolves get all the glory during a Yellowstone winter, we assure you there’s much more to see. Winter safaris, like those with Nat Hab, during which we travel on specialty North American Safari Trucks, put you within easy viewing distance of bighorn sheep, coyote, bison, mule deer, moose, elk, and bald and golden eagles.

Outside the park, you can glide on a horse-drawn sleigh through the nearby National Elk Refuge, photographing the massive herd that winters here. In the Lamar Valley, especially, you’ll find plentiful bison, their shaggy coasts encrusted with hundreds of tiny icicles, and their breath steamy in the frosty air.

© Eric Rock

Ready to wolf watch? Our Nat Hab wolf tours in Yellowstone and the surrounding area will give you the opportunity to witness these majestic creatures for yourself as they roam free in one of America’s greatest parks, happy to be home again.

Feature photo © Henry H Holdsworth