When most people hear “Yellowstone National Park,” they think of mountains, bison and geysers—more specifically, the famous Old Faithful geyser comes to mind. While all of these are indeed found in Yellowstone, the park also has the largest concentration of wildlife in the lower 48 states, with 300+ species of birds and 200+ species of animals that call the country’s first national park home. With such an abundant amount of wildlife, Yellowstone is the prime location for seeing grizzly bears, bighorn sheep, Trumpeter Swans, and many other species of wildlife.
Recently, Yellowstone reopened after having been closed to the public for nearly two months following the mandatory shelter-in-place orders in both Wyoming and Montana. This reopening is Phase 1 of a three-phased plan for reopening the park. As of May 18, the south and east entrances into the park (both located in Wyoming) have been reopened, allowing access to the lower loop of the park, which includes Norris, Old Faithful, West Thumb and Grant Village. In June, as health conditions allow, additional areas of the park may begin to reopen to the public.
In order to get the most out of your visit, we recommend planning your trip for either early summer or the fall. While the usual summer tourist crowds are expected to be significantly smaller this year, many animals spend spring and early summer at lower elevations, often grazing closer to roadsides before retreating to higher elevations to escape the heat during the hotter summer months, increasing your chances of spotting wildlife both up close and at a distance. During the fall, you’ll be more likely to see wildlife during migration or preparing for hibernation before winter sets in. Though habitat preferences and migration cycles can influence where and when you’ll see the most wildlife, here are a few of the best spots in the park to visit that are currently open.
- Hayden Valley
Once filled by an arm of Yellowstone Lake, Hayden Valley still contains fine-grained lake sediments that water cannot easily percolate, thus creating the marshy valley that is now a wildlife paradise containing the largest rut of free roaming bison in the world, in addition to a plethora of other birds and animals.
While bison, elk, moose, grizzly bears, and coyotes are often found in Hayden Valley, the mud flats at Alum Creek contain a variety of shore birds. Bald Eagles, Sandhill Cranes and American White Pelicans can all be seen cruising the river, while Great Gray Owls can be seen searching the meadows for food, although spotting them is a little more difficult because their sensitivity to human disturbance is high.
- Old Faithful
Named for its unusual predictability, the Old Faithful geyser’s normal eruption interval is 94 minutes (give or take 10 minutes), with intervals ranging from 51 to 120 minutes, making it only one of six in the park that rangers are currently able to predict. When you’re not watching Old Faithful’s regularly-scheduled eruption, you may get lucky and spot bison or elk in the area, depending on the size of the crowd. And, if you’re coming from the West Thumb side, your chances of spotting a moose along the way to Old Faithful are relatively high.
- Norris Geyser Basin
The hottest, oldest, and most dynamic thermal area within Yellowstone’s borders is also brimming with wildlife. While Killdeer are found in this area year-round, black bears and grizzly bears are sometimes spotted as well. Additionally, the warmth of the nearby hydrothermal activity makes the Norris Geyser Basin one of the few areas in the park where sagebrush lizards live.
- West Thumb
While black and grizzly bears both frequent this area through the spring and early summer months, elk cows and their newborn calves can also be spotted regularly in both May and June. Birds commonly spotted in the West Thumb area include bald eagles, osprey, common loons, bufflehead and goldeneye ducks.
Additional spots to visit while in Yellowstone (once they are accessible to the public) include the following:
- Lamar Valley
Lamar Valley is often referred to as America’s Serengeti for its expansive landscape and easy ability to spot animals at a distance. While here, be sure to keep a watchful eye out for bison, grizzly bears, coyotes, badgers, and the valley’s most famous resident, the grey wolf.
Wolves in Yellowstone were hunted to eradication in the early 1900s, as many mistakenly believed that they were harmful to the other animals. Without the fear of nearby predators, elk moved into this area and quickly decimated much of the land’s vegetation. When wolves were reintroduced into the valley beginning in 1995, the elk population was once again driven away, allowing for the destroyed vegetation to recover. This new growth brought in beavers, which in turn created a perfect habitat for birds and native fish. It’s easy to appreciate how dramatically both the wolves’ presence and absence have shaped the park we know today, so spotting one is an extra special treat.
- Tower-Roosevelt area
With sheer-faced cliffs, stunning waterfalls and the famous Petrified Tree landmark, the Tower-Roosevelt area is also home to many different types of wildlife including elk, bison, pronghorn and the occasional bobcat and red fox. Near the gorge and cliffs by Tower Fall, sightings of Osprey, Peregrine Falcons and Red-tailed Hawks are often reported, as well as both grizzly and black bears during the spring months.
- Mammoth Hot Springs
Using common sense and staying safe in the park are important at all times, and Mammoth Hot Springs is no exception. Elk live in this area year-round and often exhibit wild and unpredictable behavior. As the visitor center and hotel are nearby, tourists are placed in closer proximity to wildlife than in many other areas of Yellowstone. Swan Lake Flat just down the road is an excellent place to watch for cranes, ducks, and other waterfowl, while the canyon face of Mount Everts yields bighorn sheep.
Regardless of where you are in the park, always remember to keep your distance from wildlife. Approaching on foot within 100 yards of bears or wolves, or within 25 yards of other wildlife is strictly prohibited, so don’t forget to keep your binoculars, telephoto lenses and/or your Hawkin System handy for safe viewing. Mimicking animal sounds and feeding the wildlife are both illegal in Yellowstone, as mimicking is considered harassment, while feeding the wildlife can lead to them catching diseases or even having to be killed if they become too aggressive while looking for more food. Keeping the park safe for both animals and tourists is important and depends on everyone using good judgment.
Yellowstone National Park contains one of the country’s most complex and fascinating ecosystems. From the geysers to the animals to the striking scenery, the park boasts unlimited opportunity for wildlife watching and birding, no matter which area you visit. Plan your Yellowstone vacation today!