When I think of Yellowstone, the first thing that comes to my mind is that iconic bison standing stoically in front of a breathtaking backdrop. In reality, witnessing raw wildlife in this incredible national park is so much more of an unforgettable experience, that it is truly difficult to explain, but I will do my best below.
A quick disclaimer, I purposefully avoided seeing the majestic and numerous geysers on this trip. During these three days, I was solely focused on seeing wildlife, and hopefully my adventure can help you plan a memorable journey for yourself.
If you want to visit another great area for amazing views and wildlife, check out this 3-day itinerary to Boulder.
For this trip, I was based out of Gardiner, Montana and drove in through the North Entrance of the park. I chose Gardiner because it's only a 15 minute drive into the park each day, and during mid-May, most of the roads are open and not jam packed with cars. The weather was cold, but the isolation and total immersion into undisturbed nature was more than welcomed after being in a city for a couple months.
My main cruising area was Lamar Valley, nicknamed “the Serengeti of North America”, and for good reason. Bison, foxes, wolves, bears, elk, and all sorts of animals can be spotted all throughout the roads connecting the North through Northeast entrance of the park.
Seeing all of these animals can certainly be planned to a point, but many sightings are a combination of patience and fortune. My advice? When you do have the incredible experience of spotting wildlife without anyone around, savor the moment. Capture as many images as you'd like, but linger with the animal as it fades away into the brush. The experience of Yellowstone truly lives in those spiritual moments with nature that you'll remember forever.
You'll occasionally see large groups of cars pulled over, with packs of visitors standing on the side of the road with huge telephoto lenses, scopes, and binoculars. Pull off and join these groups, if only for a moment. You may not see what they're looking at right away, but half the fun can be searching for a glimpse of a bear with a group of total strangers who share similar passions to you. For any avid photographers out there, I came with a 100mm-400mm lens from Sigma, and it would get me close enough for essentially everything I came across. Most of the time, more elusive predators like grizzly bears and wolves are too far to see without a scope, but 99.99% of the people are friendly, and when I asked where something was, most people would excitedly point me in the right direction and occasionally invite me to look through their equipment.
Once you have been through an area a couple times, you'll realize that there are specific spots you can go to tilt the odds of seeing wildlife in your favor. For instance, near the Tower Junction area, I got to spend about an hour with a mama black bear and her three cubs, and learned that, during the mornings or evenings, they graze in a generally specific radius. I could usually tell where they were based on a large crowd of people stopped at the side of the road, and it was refreshing to see most people keeping a respectful and safe distance (with the help of the friendly park rangers, of course).
Mornings & Nights
I woke up in the mornings at 5:00am to be around Lamar Valley at 8:00am. This gave me plenty of time to stop and take some nature photos with the sun rising, and also gives you a great chance of seeing wildlife as they wake up, search for some breakfast, and get their energy out.
The Lamar Valley area is the perfect place to start and end your days, as the drive through and back can fill up anywhere between 3-6 hours, or longer if you want to hike or picnic in one of the scattered campgrounds. In May, the sun doesn't set until around 8:45pm, so your days are very long! Keep your eyes open and take your time. There is no need to rush to each sighting, or even stop at each big group, because you never know what each moment can bring you. I can't even tell you how many random stops I made to let someone pass me on the road, and then ten seconds later, I was either alone or with one other person, watching a fox run through the brush, or an eagle swoop and land in a tree overhead.
I also spent an afternoon in Hayden Valley, another incredible spot to see some guaranteed wildlife sightings further south in the park. Admittedly, I didn't spend as much time in the area, because I didn't find the pace as slow and respectful as I did in the northern side of the park. It's beautiful, and opportunity to witness some unforgettable sights is certainly not something you should pass up, but I felt that people were in a hurry to get from point A to point B, and not as willing to soak in the important points in between.
Remember to really slow down on this trip. Not only to take some pictures, but to really revel in the beauty of a fleeting moment.
My final story: all weekend, I hoped to see wolves, but made no expectations, and was incredibly grateful to see whatever presented itself. Nature is unpredictable, but more often than not, patience and faith can show you more than you could ever imagine. I woke up before sunrise morning for the best chance at catching a glimpse of these beautiful creatures, but every time I pulled up to a crowd of people huddled with binoculars, telephoto lenses, and scopes, the wolves were either too far away or I had just missed them. On my last drive out of the park, all alone as dusk approached, I spotted these two running together. Their pack was calling to them and I got to sit and listen to them talk across the valley while soaking in the beauty of a chilly evening in Yellowstone. It’s not the closest shot, but certainly one that will stay with me. Stay vigilant, and keep your heart and eyes open. You’ll be amazed at what you’ll see.
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