The West wouldn’t be the West without its amazing wildlife. Grizzly bears, moose, elk, black bears, bald eagles, wild horses, bison, and wolves all call Yellowstone Country home. From the thrill of spotting an animal in its native habitat to learning more about wildlife at an interpretive center, the West offers a bounty of opportunities to get in touch with your wild side.
Begin: Grand Teton National Park
Begin this DIY safari at Grand Teton National Park, where frequently spotted wildlife include black and grizzly bears, moose, elk, and bison. Drive slowly as moose tend to distract drivers and sometimes wonder into the roads.
Hikers should try the 10-mile (round-trip) Amphitheater Lake Trail or the 13.6-mile (round-trip) hike to Forks of Cascade Canyon. Other great sites for wildlife-watching include Timbered Island, Blacktail Ponds, and along the Snake River. Be bear aware: Make noise while hiking to prevent surprise encounters and consider carrying bear spray.
Cody, Wyoming’s McCullough Wild Horses
From Grand Teton National Park, drive north into Yellowstone’s South Entrance. After passing Yellowstone Lake, turn east and exit out the East Entrance to Cody, Wyoming. (These Yellowstone roads are closed in winter)
One of three areas near Yellowstone with wild horse herds, the McCullough Peaks area east of Cody is home to wild mustangs believed to be descendants of Buffalo Bill’s horses from his Wild West Show. Daily guided mustang tours are available in summer.
Yellowstone’s Hayden and Lamar Valleys
If any place in the West can rival the Tetons for wildlife, it’s Yellowstone National Park, day two’s destination. Hayden Valley in east-central Yellowstone is a dependable browsing ground for elk, moose, and sometimes grizzlies. Continue driving north and east to find the grasslands and rivers of the Lamar Valley, a great spot to see bison, elk, and—if you’re lucky—wolves.
Silver Gate / Cooke City, Montana
Exit out Yellowstone’s Northeast Entrance and stay in Silver Gate, Cooke City, or Red Lodge. These small towns are in the center of wildlife central, so you could watch wildlife right from your cabin or lodge. (Beartooth Highway from Cooke City to Red Lodge is closed in winter.)
Gardiner to Livingston, Montana
Backtrack west through Yellowstone’s Lamar Valley to Mammoth Hot Springs. It’s almost a sure thing to spot elk, bison, and mule deer here. Exit out the North Entrance to the gateway town of Gardiner, Montana.
Leisurely cruise all or part of the 53-mile scenic drive from Gardiner to Livingston, Montana. You’ll drive along the Yellowstone River (a great place to stop and fish – get a guide in Gardiner) and through Paradise Valley. Keep an eye out for golden eagles and osprey fishing in the river. Elk and mule deer are often spotted along the banks of the river. Pick a spot to turn around and stay in Gardiner or Livingston for the night.
West Yellowstone, Montana
The next morning, return to Yellowstone to reach West Yellowstone, driving from Mammoth to Norris before turning west and head toward West Yellowstone, Mont. The West Entrance road in the park follows the Madison and Gibbon Rivers, so be prepared to pull over on a wayside to watch eagles.
Seeing wildlife requires some luck in the national parks, but your West Yellowstone destination always delivers: At the Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center in West Yellowstone, bears and lupines are a sure thing. The interpretive center also features kids’ activities, naturalist talks, and live bird-of-prey demonstrations.
Harriman State Park in Idaho
Next, head an hour west to Idaho’s Harriman State Park, located inside an 11,000-acre wildlife refuge. Moose, elk, sandhill cranes, and trumpeter swans are commonly seen. Round out day three by camping at one of the area’s campgrounds or RV parks, or continue on to Rexburg, Idaho.
Begin your last day with a visit to Yellowstone Bear World for an up-close look at elk, bison, white-tailed deer, black bears, and grizzly bears.
End: Jackson Hole, Wyoming
Swing east to Jackson and visit the National Elk Refuge, winter home to a herd of 7,500 elk. Visitors can also glimpse bighorn sheep, moose, coyotes, badgers, and waterfowl year-round.