One of the most exciting things about Yellowstone for me, was that while I was wandering among the cool geothermal features, I was also wandering among big, impressive wildlife. I found it amusing to see the signs notifying visitors that bison have the right of way on boardwalks, but when a one ton animal casually walked up onto the path and stood there looking at me, I had to respect the sheer size of the thing. Now, in all honesty, the farm girl in me had the idea noodling around in the back of my head that maybe waving my arms and going “shoo!” would move it along so I could continue my hike, and apparently I’m not the only one with notions of this sort. Immediately upon entering the park, I was handed both a map and a flyer reminding me that buffalo, elk and bears can and have killed people here. Right. So, I guess it’s best to just wait it out from a safe distance.
The map for Yellowstone includes a chart of the animals that the park is famous for, and I decided to make a bit of a game out of trying to see as many of them if I could. It was a wildlife scavenger hunt (at this point in my trip I’d been alone for a long time, so I was looking for ways to amuse myself.) I had asked some locals ahead of time where I would be most likely to see certain types of animals, and they were willing to oblige so with a little inside intelligence, I made up my list: grizzly bear, elk, bison, wolf, coyote, mule deer, bighorn sheep, mountain goat, and whatever birds I found along the way would be a bonus.
Here’s what I found.
I think it would almost be impossible to visit Yellowstone and not see their iconic bison; they are everywhere in the park. I was less than a mile into the east entrance when one sauntered across the road in front of me, then stopped. Eventually, it moved to the side of the road, but it was not at all phased by my presence and stood there patiently while I took its picture. I soon discovered that would be the case throughout the park. There are bison in herds, bison wandering alone in places where they surprise you, and fortunately for me when I visited, bison with newborn calves and their fluffy red coats. At one point I found a number of them sprawled across a field soaking in the sun looking as though they had expired. It was just a nice day though, and they were enjoying it.
Elk also seem to be pretty much everywhere in the park, and I saw a lot of them. They seem pretty docile from a distance, which is probably why a lot of visitors were taking selfies with them. I wouldn’t get that close, though.
True to the advice of my local sources, I found several males right along side the road down by the east entrance, and some heavily shedding females up towards the Lamar Valley in the northeast.
I was told the only place to find these is in the far northeast section of the park, so I headed on up there and pulled over when I reached the area around the Montana border where there was a high cliff to the north, and several cars parked looking at something with binoculars. I didn’t see them at first, but with the helpful guidance of a fellow traveler, was finally able to make out the tiny white dots. After zooming in as much as my camera could, I was able to make out their shapes a bit better.
Wolf & Coyote
As I was headed back out of the Lamar Valley, there was a traffic jam and much excitement as the word “wolf” began to circulate among my fellow travelers. I was super excited, because hey, wolves in the wild is about as cool as it gets, and this is the area of the park where they were originally introduced. I slowly inched forward in my truck, trying to get close before abandoning my vehicle to chase the thing down with my camera, when to my good fortune, it emerged directly outside my truck window! It was off a little bit in the distance, so I grabbed my zoom lens and focused in. I peered through the lens and immediately started laughing, because this was clearly not a wolf but a coyote, and he didn’t seem very impressed by all the attention he was getting. Sadly, I never did see a wolf. Maybe on the next trip!
Yellowstone has both black bears and grizzly bears, and pretty much any bear sighting from the area around the roads will instantly cause a bear jam. Traffic backs up, and Rangers are immediately dispensed to get people moving along again and to prevent people from wandering too close in their picture taking fevers. I encountered three bear jams along my travels, and caught glimpses of what I am calling two black bears and one grizzly. The differences in them are both color and size, as well as a tell tale shoulder hump for grizzlies that you don’t find on black bears. There are also differences in their faces, but the bears I saw weren’t really as interested in my as I was in them, and mostly kept their heads down looking for whatever they dig out of the ground in the spring. Grubs, maybe?
Mule deer are all over the west, and I had already seen a lot of them. Up in the Lamar Valley, I saw a female nestled into a grove of trees who was about to give birth. That was a very special moment, and I decided to just take one quick picture before I left her alone so that I wouldn’t add any stress.
I saw Osprey, swans, ducks, bluebirds, and a variety of other species that I wasn’t familiar with. Next time, I’ll be sure to bring along a field guide!
At the end of my wildlife scavenger hunt, I was quite pleased to have seen so many of animals on my list, and took one final shot of this fellow, deciding that he was handsome, and wolf-like enough to warrant mention:
Overall impression: Yellowstone was definitely one of the highlights of my trip and it’s all big moments all the time, because both the wildlife and the landscapes were extraordinary. I visited in the early spring, before the crowds had really descended and I’m glad I did that because by the time I left in early June, it was getting a little nutty. Parking at popular destinations was already at capacity, so I imagine during the summer it’s pretty difficult. I would love to go back in September or early October.
Costs: A seven day pass for Yellowstone is $30 per non-commercial vehicle. My admission was free with my annual pass. I stayed at the Fishing Bridge RV Campground, which is the only campground in the park with RV hookups. It ran about $55/night (including taxes and fees). There are “grocery stores” and gift shops in each of the main visitor areas. These have a small assortment of produce, meats, bakery items and other supplies, but at prices roughly 20-40% above what you would pay in an urban grocery store. The cafes and restaurants had good options, including gluten free options, and lunch ran me about $15 when I ate out. I mostly packed my lunch or ate at my camp site, and I would recommend doing that for the most part just to avoid crowds.