People go to Yellowstone for three reasons. 1) Geysers 2) Mountains 3) Wildlife. The geysers and mountains pretty much stay in the same place so they’re not hard to track down. As for the animals that roam the park, they’re more of a moving target, but if you want to give yourself the best chance of seeing the big ticket items, then Lamar Valley is your best bet. Any resource on the park will tell you that Lamar Valley, located in the northeast corner of the park, is the best place to spot grizzlies and wolves. Sightings are still far from guaranteed, and chances are that they’ll be off in the distance (probably a good thing), but driving through the valley around dawn or dusk is the best way to maximize your chances. Even if you don’t see any of the highly sought after carnivores, Lamar Valley is teeming with bison and plenty of other animals to keep your camera busy. Not to mention, the valley itself is insanely beautiful, so it would still be worth visiting even if it were completely devoid of animal life.
Since we were staying just outside the northeast entrance to the park in silver gate, it was easy to get up early in the morning to go on a safari through Lamar Valley. After entering the park, it took about 15 minutes to get to Lamar Valley and it took about 30 seconds to see our first bison. We took a bunch of pictures but it only took another 30 seconds for the novelty to wear off, because the valley is overflowing with bison at all times. Even though we weren’t alone in our quest, a drive through this more remote part of the park is much more tranquil than the more hectic areas of the park which start to resemble Disney World on a typical summer day. Everyone knows its the place to be for wildlife, but since it’s a fairly long drive from some of the more popular places to stay in and around the park, the amount of people willing to make the trek at 5:00 AM is somewhat limited. That being said, you’ll always see small groups of cars pulled over on the side of the rod, which is generally a good indication that they spotted something worth stopping for.
The valley itself is expansive and flanked by massive snow capped peaks that tower over the Lamar River which runs through the middle of the valley. It’s an amazing drive but it’s also nice to get out and walk around when possible.
Before entering the valley from the northeast, the densely wooded area along the road is a good place to spot some more reclusive forest-dwelling creatures. Although it’s all luck of the draw, we managed to see two moose and two black bears right off the road. The black bears looked much bigger, hungrier, and more menacing than the ones we have back in New England. There was also an extremely gregarious red fox that posed for pictures by the roadside, all the while looking like a character from an animated movie. It had such sharp, almost-humanlike features, that it wouldn’t have been in the least bit surprising if it started speaking to us (in a British accent…obviously).
Bison are everywhere in Lamar Valley. The only way to not see a bison in Lamar Valley would be to drive with your eyes closed…but even then you’d probably still end up seeing one because you’d most likely crash into one as it crossed the road.
Wolves & Grizzlies
These are the main event for anyone coming to Lamar Valley in search of wildlife, and of course, they’re the most difficult to spot. We saw a grizzly, but we had to look through a powerful scope to be able to tell what it actually was. From what we’ve heard, this is how most people see grizzlies in the park. It’s much better than the alternative, which involves being ingested.
Although people often see wolves throughout the valley, the best place is at the den by Slough Creek. Again, you need binoculars or a scope to really see the den, but if you stake out long enough you will almost certainly see one emerge. Unfortunately, we did not have the patience to stay there all evening, and thus left Yellowstone wolf-less.
A Wild Scene
Just when we thought we had grown tired of bison, we saw an incredible scene transpire before our eyes. It was like something out of Nat Geo. We’ll set the scene…
Just off the side of the road was yet another massive herd of bison. We had no intention of stopping until we noticed that interspersed among the bison was a small group of pronghorn. This was just interesting enough to convince us to pull over.
We took a few photos, but then out of nowhere, a coyote enters the scene and starts circling the herd.
The bison didn’t even give the coyote the time of day. The pronghorn on the other hand looked like an attainable meal, and they clearly knew it because they all started losing their minds.
We’re watching all of this unfold when the biggest wild card of them all makes an appearance. This little badger (or at least we think it was a badger but not entirely sure) comes out of left field and sprints right in front the group of people on the side of the road. It was as if this little thing was jealous that no one was paying attention to him and just put his life on the line to have his 15 seconds of fame. It was completely insane…but it was spectacular. Everyone really wanted to watch the coyote, but it was impossible not to be mesmerized by this brazen little critter. It was like watching a streaker at a baseball game. That’s really the only way to describe it. A very nice couple, trying to hold back their laughter, pointed to the badger and in broken English asked “what type of animal is this???”. To which we replied, also fighting back tears of laughter, “a badger?…or a marmot…or something??” (give us a break…we said we like animals, we didn’t say we knew anything abut them). This little guy was the MVP of the day, and quite possibly the entire trip.
So that was our experience in Lamar Valley. The final tally was 1 grizzly, 2 black bears, 2 moose, 1 million bison, a bunch of pronghorn, a couple deer, 1 fox, 1 coyote, and one very plucky badger-thing. We definitely would have liked to have seen a grizzly up close (from the car) or to have seen some wolves, but all in all it wasn’t a bad haul. It was our favorite area of the park, in part because of the ubiquitous wildlife, but also because of the amazing scenery and relative lack of crowds. Any trip to Yellowstone should include at least one game drive through Lamar Valley.