Yellowstone National Park is a natural marvel that has inspired activists and U.S. presidents alike. The 2-million-acre park and preserve, encompassing a slumbering caldera atop one of North America’s biggest geological hotspots, is one of the continent’s idyllic and iconic landscapes. Few places better represent the wildness of the West—and the hordes who come to visit—and one of its biggest attractions is the wildlife.
There aren't many enclaves that remain for free-ranging bison, but Yellowstone is one of them. The grizzly bear has been all but eradicated from the Lower 48, but you can find them here, not that you would want to. And that’s not all: The biggest land animals in North America, species that once roamed the continent in abundance, are found in Yellowstone, including the gray wolf, coyote, Canadian lynx, elk, mule deer, black bears, mountain goats, pronghorn, bighorn sheep, cougars, and white-tailed deer. More than 300 bird species can be found in the park, too. Simply stated, the park is one of the best wildlife habitats in North America, and the allure is perhaps more enticing than the wilderness itself.
While wildlife is abundant throughout the park, your chances of seeing Yellowstone’s many species are more opportune in certain places. Here’s where you need to go. Early morning and evening hours tend to be the best times to see wildlife. Also, different species prefer different terrain, so keep in mind the type of animal you wish to see.
Without doubt, Lamar Valley is the best place in Yellowstone to see wildlife. Carved by glaciers and fed by the Lamar River, the grasslands that cover this valley are easily accessible on Highway 212 and attract the biggest land species in the park—bison, elk, moose, and bears. Wolves are also found here.
Nature’s towers are created with cliffs. So the logic goes that Yellowstone’s species that are more vertically inclined will gravitate to its rockier terrain. Come here to see pronghorn, bighorn sheep, marmots, bison, antelope, deer, and bats (if you time it right). Agate Creek is a fantastic 14-mile lope into the Tower-Roosevelt area. Mount Washburn is prime habitat for bighorn sheep. Tower Fall Campground is in the area if you’re looking to camp.
The Yellowstone River feeds Yellowstone Lake at the heart of the park via the Hayden Valley, and along its course are prime opportunities to see wildlife, especially if the Lamar Valley is overrun by visitors. The usual suspects can be found here, but this part of the park is especially scenic, too. The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone certainly lives up to its name, and it’s made all the better by the opportunity to see wildlife. Options also include the Yellowstone River Picnic Trail, which traverses the canyon rim.
There are at least 10,000 geothermal features in the Yellowstone National Park, and they provide important habitat for its wildlife, especially in the winter. Although they aren’t the busiest places for wildlife in Yellowstone, it’s possible to see bison and elk at places like Mammoth Hot Springs and Old Faithful—just don’t count on it when the crowds come out in force. Don’t count out microbiotic life, either. Other possibilities include Biscuit Basin, West Thumb Geyser Basin, Midway Geyser Basin, Norris Geyser Basin, and the famous Upper Geyser Basin. Not to be missed: Boiling River Hot Springs, in which you can soak while you watch for wildlife.
Look, the wildlife of Yellowstone operates on its own rhythms, and we can’t always predict where and when they’ll appear. Called the Serengeti of North America, Yellowstone is so rich with wildlife that they appear in unpredictable places. Here are just a few we’ve found:
It happens a few times per year that park wildlife injures a visitor. And, more frequently, visitors harm wildlife. It is most important to keep your distance. Stay beyond 100 yards of wolves and bears and 25 yards of all other wildlife. Don’t try to feed them. Don’t try to snap a selfie with them. If you cause them to move, you’re too close. Be respectful!