Yellowstone National Park offers a unique opportunity to view wildlife in one of the most intact ecosystems left on our planet. Every predator and big game animal that originally roamed the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem in the days of Lewis and Clark still roams this land. But if you’re looking for wildlife at noon on a hot July day, the Yellowstone gift shop might be the only place animals can be found.
The animals are out there, but finding them requires patience and a willingness to brave the elements and early morning hours. Here are some pro tips to give you the best chance of spotting wildlife in Yellowstone.
1. Get Out Early
Yes, that 5 a.m. alarm can be rough on vacation! But the gutsy visitors who hit the road by sunrise will be rewarded by more active wildlife and fewer crowds. Generally, the best time to look for wildlife in Yellowstone is at dawn. Remember to account for travel time from your hotel or campsite so that you can arrive at a good wildlife hotspot like Lamar or Hayden Valley by sunrise.
When it gets warm enough to remove your jacket, wildlife will become less active. You may also have success looking for wildlife in the hours before sunset, but the crowds will be larger.
Tips: Pack a picnic breakfast and a Thermos® of hot chocolate or coffee to enjoy while watching wildlife in the early morning. Lay out everything you need the night before to make that pre-dawn start a bit easier.
2. Bad Weather is your Wildlife-Viewing Friend
Overcast, gloomy skies means less heat distortion for viewing or photographing animals. Rain may result in fewer crowds, and often times bad weather will clear up in Yellowstone’s unpredictable mountain climate. Animals are more active on cool, cloudy days than hot, sunny days. While the cold weather and off-season closures of early spring may deter visitors, it is a naturalist’s favorite time of year! With bouncy newborn bison, an abundance of migratory birds and glimpses of the first wildflowers of the season, spring is a magical time in Yellowstone. And it’s the best time of year to observe bears!
Tips: To stay warm in the cold and wet weather, bring lots of layers. Waterproof boots and wool-blend socks will keep your feet dry. A rain or ski jacket over a wool sweater will keep your torso warm. Don’t forget warm and waterproof gloves.
3. Seek Intimate Experiences
Oft-repeated advice to new visitors to Yellowstone is, “Just drive around until you see a bunch of cars pulled over and you’ll find wildlife!” While that’s the easiest way to find your first bear, there is also great value in spending time in the field away from the “Paw-parazzi.”
Turn off your vehicle’s engine, get outside and be quiet. Look and listen. Take a gentle stroll away from the road. Seek out intimate experiences but maintain situational awareness: carry bear spray, do not leave the boardwalk in geothermal areas, and use common sense. The most memorable moment of your trip might not be watching a grizzly with several hundred other people, but hearing the call of a trumpeter swan echoing off the mountains, or a glimpse of the elusive pine marten as it darts across the trail.
Tips: If you do come across an animal jam (and the animal is a safe distance away), move your vehicle off the road, get out and walk slightly away from the crowd. Watch the animal with binoculars or a spotting scope. You’ll enjoy a more personal experience without the distractions of noisy crowds or passing vehicles. If the animal is close, pull over and watch from the safety of your vehicle.
4. Bring Good Optics
The best wildlife viewing in Yellowstone occurs in the big open valleys, and high quality optics will help you find and enjoy wildlife. For instance, 7×32 binoculars are a good minimum size for wildlife watching. For more power, 8×32, 8×42, and 10×42 are excellent choices, but get progressively heavier as the power increases. Binoculars larger than 10×42 get too heavy to hold for long hours in the field and are best mounted on a tripod.
If your binoculars are small enough to fit in a pocket, even if they have a high magnification value (like 10x), their smaller field of view makes it harder to find animals. For wolf watching and other shy wildlife, a spotting scope is usually essential. A smartphone can be mounted to a spotting scope for pictures and video of distant animals. For DSLR photography, a minimum of a 300 mm lens is recommended.
Tips: Large, expensive lenses for wildlife photography can be rented for the duration of your trip from local or online photography stores. Spotting scopes can be rented in some Yellowstone gateway communities as well as online. Take any new optics to a local park to practice on neighborhood wildlife – even pigeons and squirrels will do nicely – before you arrive in Yellowstone. You don’t want to be struggling with unfamiliar optics as a bald eagle soars overhead.
5. Take Advantage of Local Knowledge to Find the Latest Wildlife-Viewing Hotspots
If you’re unsure of where to look for wildlife, ask. Visitors nearing the end of their trip love to share their sightings. Long-time visitors, locals, and visitor centers are great resources for information. If you have limited time, a guided wildlife tour is a fun, educational, and efficient way to see wildlife. Wildlife guides will know the best places to look for wildlife, and tours usually provide high-quality binoculars and spotting scopes. If you will be spending several days looking for wildlife, plan a guided tour early in your trip. Your guide can give you up-to-date suggestions for the rest of your trip to maximize your chance of seeing wildlife.
Tips: When you see other visitors viewing wildlife and wish to ask them what they are looking at, you will often get a friendlier response if you pull over first, walk over, and politely ask them what they are looking at.
For more information, visit www.wildlifeexpeditions.org.