The first thing you need to remember when you visit Yellowstone is that this isn’t a zoo. The animals aren’t kept in pens or enclosures. They don’t perform. They don’t “come out” during the day and “go in” at night.
They are wild animals. They hunt, they breed, some live, and some die. The whole point of our National Parks is to preserve the ecosystems that support a wide range of life in their natural habitat. When we are lucky we get to visit and appreciate this landscape and the life it supports.
So with that said, it is obviously a bit hard to predict where to find wildlife in Yellowstone. Especially if you are visiting Yellowstone with kids, you will want to find the wildlife. Your best bet is going to be to stop into one of the visitor centers and talk to the rangers about what they are seeing, where the herds are, and what has been spotted recently. But a lot of these animals are creatures of habit and tend to show up in the following places.
Mammoth Hot Springs
Elk are a very common sight in Mammoth Springs. As we drove into town on the evening of our second day in Yellowstone, at first I assumed that these massive creatures on the village green must be sculptures…until they moved. Apparently it is common knowledge the elk come into town to graze on the grass and park rangers are stationed about to keep aggressive tourists from getting too close. Trust me, you do NOT want get on the wrong end of one of these racks.
If you are staying in Yellowstone for a few days, I’d recommend at least one night in the Mammoth Springs area. It is just too cool to look out your hotel window and see giant elk having their dinner.
Roosevelt Arch North Entrance
At the northern entrance to the park near the town of Gardiner, keep your eyes down low and look for pronghorn antelope resting in the grasses.
This Northern section of the park loop between Tower-Roosevelt and Mammoth Hot Springs is much quieter, without the tour busses and traffic jams you may encounter further south. Driving through in the late afternoon, we didn’t see a car for miles but we saw herd after herd of bison. We didn’t get up as close as we did in Hayden Valley, but there is something special about seeing the hillside dotted with bison. You can almost imagine it when giant herds roamed the plains.
Another common area for spotting elk would be just off the road near Madison, on your way to or from West Yellowstone.
This area is famous for its wildlife and it isn’t uncommon to encounter a bison jam. This is one traffic jam you probably won’t mind because it is pretty darn cool to watch a big old buffalo saunter down the road (although driving behind it may not be as fun.) All throughout this area we saw bison just munching away just off the road.
We also spotted a bald eagle and even a black bear meandering across the hillside.
This may be more of a gamble and also where it pays to check with the rangers to see what the habits of some of the park’s creatures have been in recent days. We were just driving along when we saw a ton of cars in a small parking lot near LeHardys Rapids. Looking at the map, I couldn’t imagine what was over there. Then we saw photographers lined up by the river with gigantic zoom lens. That is when I knew that whatever was there, it was not only interesting, it had been hanging out there for a while. We found a spot and wandered down, only to encounter some people excitedly coming up the path talking about a grizzly bear.
When I saw what they were talking about, at first I couldn’t believe it was a grizzly – it was so dark but it was also SO BIG. Luckily it was on the other side of the river and heartedly engaged in chowing down on a dead bison, paying no attention to the show of a lifetime it was providing to its audience. A ranger was there keeping a close eye on things and also educating people about the bear and its habits. Yes, it was a grizzly (a dark one) and it had been coming back to this spot for a few afternoons to feed on this bison. In fact, the day before, two grizzlies had a squabble over it (now that would be a scene from the nature channel.) The one we were watching must have won but you could also see the scratches on its muzzle from many a bear fight in the past.
This was definitely a lucky find and honestly the highlight of our whole trip. Everyone agreed it was something that would never be forgotten. And all because we had our eyes peeled.
Tips for Where to Find Wildlife in Yellowstone
- Ask the rangers where the wildlife has been most active
- Go searching for wildlife early in the morning or closer to dusk. Just keep in mind that driving in Yellowstone at night can be harrowing. You have to contend with narrow, winding roads and you could very well come around the corner to a bison in the middle of the road.
- If you see a bunch of cars pulled over, pull over too and ask questions later. Usually it means someone has spotted something.
- Bring binoculars. If you do spot something from a distance, it will be even more exciting if you can get a close up. Same goes for zoom lens.
- Hike with bear spray. We all want to see a bear. From the car. Or a safe distance. Don’t take any chances when you are hiking, especially in the backcountry or less-popular trails. Just stop and purchase some bear spray in the visitor center if this is your plan and always hike in pairs or groups.