Yellowstone National Park: Wildlife Viewing

Road Journals Blog—I’ve seen Yellowstone National Park in every season: deep snow and beleaguered bison in winter, traffic jams and rising trout in summer, bugling elk and golden aspens in fall. But the park is at its best—its liveliest, most scenic, and most inspiring—in spring. From early May to mid-June, visitors can see more wildlife with less aggravation than at any other time of the year.

bison calf, Yellowstone National Park, image

A mother bison and her calf graze near Madison Junction. | William Woolston

My family has made an annual springtime visit to Yellowstone for the last seven years. Our 2012 excursion was one of the best: wildflowers, t-shirt weather, and mostly quiet roads. And the animals were out in a big way. We saw five wolves working on a bison carcass, four grizzlies (including a sow grazing in a meadow with her two fat cubs), a cow moose with her calf, four bighorn ewes, a bald eagle, a cinnamon-colored black bear, several elk herds, and bison beyond counting, complete with a bumper crop of fuzzy red calves.

Swan Flats, Yellowstone National Park, image

Swan Flats is a good place to spot elk and bison. | William Woolston

We picked the route that gave us the best chance to see wildlife. Starting in Mammoth, we first headed southwest towards Norris Geyser Basin. After five miles or so, the road passes through Swan Flats, a huge expanse of wetlands, green grass, and sagebrush. It’s a good place to see elk and bison. It’s also where we saw the mama griz and her cubs. We like to go at least as far as Gibbon Meadows, about 30 miles from Mammoth. It’s another gathering spot for bison and elk, which, in turn, makes it popular for wolves, too.

Then we backtracked up to Mammoth and headed south to Tower Junction. (After Dunraven Pass opens in late May, you can get to Tower by way of Canyon VIllage.) The 29-mile stretch between Tower and Cooke City, Mont.—especially the Lamar River valley— is the prime wildlife real estate in the park. You don’t need to be especially sharp-eyed to see grizzlies or wolves around here. They’re often doing their thing within sight of the road. You can simplify your search by looking for small knots of wildlife watchers, a sure sign that something’s afoot.

We like to spend at least one night in Cooke City, a small town near the park’s northeast entrance, known for snowmobiles and moose. After checking in and finding a quick dinner, we drove back into the park to scope out the evening scene. The Lamar Valley really glows in twilight, and the wolves and bears are often on the move. It’s springtime in Yellowstone—a lively time for a lively place.

This blog post was first published in May 2012. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.