Yellowstone National Park is the home to a wide variety of animals and wildlife. No Yellowstone National Park vacation would be complete without a wildlife spotting hike. However, the various animals listed below (and others) are generally very common to the Park, so it would be difficult to spend any time in Yellowstone National Park without seeing at least some of them. There are many detailed maps and guides available to this end, and you can even purchase wildlife guided tours. While this avenue can lack some of the special “lucky” feelings when you’re alone and stumble along a certain animal, taking a tour is a relatively safe and reliable way to see the wildlife of Yellowstone National Park.
It is important to keep in mind that there are strict rules and regulations in place and enforced in Yellowstone National Park regarding interacting or interfering with the local wildlife. These rules are in place both for your protection and safety as well as that of the animals in question. Approaching, handling, and certainly feeding any of these animals is dangerous to both the animal and the observer. Besides just being dangerous, you could face some hefty fines for violating these rules. Familiarize yourself with them and just simply use common sense.
Some advice to keep in mind during your wildlife spotting trips:
- Keep your camera’s zoom handy. If you’re looking to photograph the local wildlife, don’t put yourself in danger by getting to close to them. Even the best photograph is not worth being injured or worse. Try not to move around while you’re looking through the camera. Besides the danger posed by the animals, you could easily fall and injure yourself if you’re not paying attention.
- Education your family and companions on safety. This is particularly important if children will be along with you. It’s not enough for just you yourself to know how to handle a situation; you must be clear with everyone about the need for safety.
- Don’t carry too much food, and make sure what you do have is tightly sealed. This is a common-sense rule that is easily forgotten. Do not create a situation where an animal may be tempted to approach you if it picks up the scent of your food.
Here is some specific information and details about the animals you can find and where you can expect to find them. While most of these animals are observable throughout the park, notice that the majority of them will be concentrated around waterways and at mountain bases. For the best chance of getting a glimpse of any of these animals, focus your efforts around these areas. Note that your chances of seeing most of these animals are greatly increased during the warmer seasons, so have a realistic expectation for results during off-season and winter. Be particularly careful of the environment during that time, as the park can be very hazardous if you aren’t paying attention. There’s a reason why these animals “keep a low profile” during the winter months, so if that’s the time that you’re in the Park, just take your time and some extra caution.
Recognizable to the point of being iconic, the grizzly bear is an incredibly powerful and formidable animal. Grizzlies can weigh up to around 600 pounds, and in Yellowstone are natural predators of other mammals, plant life, and fish. During the winter, grizzly bears will birth their young and hibernate, so if you’re looking to avoid grizzlies, this is the best time to go. Grizzly bears are common through the whole of Yellowstone National Park, but are most commonly found around Mount Washburn and in Hayden Valley.
Black bears are smaller than almost any other species of bear, weighing up to 600 pounds. With less of a predatory spread than the grizzly bear, the black bear most commonly feed on plants and small animals. The black bear is very commonly found throughout Yellowstone National Park, with the exception of the winter, during which they hibernate.
The elk is a massive species of deer, trumped in size within the deer family only by the moose. The elk can be seen at any time of the year and throughout all of Yellowstone National Park, but a specific goal of elk-spotting would be served by sticking to rivers and waterbeds where the animals tend to gather.
One of the larger animals you may have a chance to see in Yellowstone, the moose weighs in at over 1,000 pounds. An herbivore, the moose feeds on the various plan life found throughout Yellowstone National Park. Like the elk, a hiker or camper seeking to find a moose should stick to watery areas like streams and rivers. Remember to keep your distance if you do find this elusive animal, as because of their size and apparent sluggishness, people often underestimate their speed and power.
The bison (or buffalo), with their iconic and recognizable girth and coat, is a bovine that can be found along rivers in Yellowstone, particularly in Hayden Valley. This animal has a troubled history in Yellowstone due to a number of factors, and recent years have seen rapid fluctuations and an overall decline in numbers. If you seek out or come upon bison, be sure to keep your distance. These are dangerous animals, and there are many incidents annually of park visitors being injured.
Another iconic native of the park is the gray wolf. Their lonely moonlight baying has become an auditory symbol of Plains wildlife. However, these wild animals are far more likely to be heard than seen, and certainly keep your distance should you find a pack. If you’re seeking them out, your best chance is morning or dusk in Lamar Valley.
The coyote is one of the most common animals in Yellowstone. Smaller than a wolf, with grey coats and a more lithe build, the coyote generally feeds on small animals and will generally avoid perceived threats. You won’t have to actively seek out a coyote if you’re spending any amount of time in the park, but like most animals, you’re most likely to encounter them along riverbeds.