Where to See Yellowstone's Most Impressive Animals: Bears, Bison, and Beyond
The Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem encompasses the largest concentration of free-roaming wildlife in the contiguous United States. At the core of the ecosystem sits Yellowstone National Park and its nearly 3,500 square miles of forests, canyons, rivers, and steaming geothermal areas. Equally impressive are the hundreds of animal species that make their homes here, including black bears, bighorn sheep, elk, bald eagles, moose, mountain goats, gray wolves, the largest free-roaming herd of bison in the U.S., and the only significant population of grizzlies south of Canada.
Given the abundance and variety of creatures at the park, wildlife-watching rivals geyser-gazing as one of the top reasons for visiting Yellowstone. It’s important to remember, however, that this isn’t a petting zoo. Wild animals can be unpredictable and dangerous to humans who get too close. The National Park Service recommends staying at least 100 yards from bears and wolves and at least 25 yards from all other wildlife at all times. Bring binoculars or a camera with a telephoto lens to get a closer look.
Here’s where to go to see—again, and we can’t stress this enough, from a safe distance—Yellowstone’s rarest, most beautiful, and most exciting animals.
And for help planning further outdoor adventures in the area, check out Frommer's Yellowstone & Grand Teton National Parks, available in print and as a downloadable e-book.
Pictured above: A bison grazes near Old Faithful.
• Distinguishing characteristics: humped shoulders, brownish fur, rounded ears
• Where to look: the northeast area of the park, such as the meadows and hillsides of the Lamar Valley (pictured) or, in the park's center, the Hayden Valley north of Yellowstone Lake, particularly when trout are spawning in the late spring
• When to look: spring, when the animals emerge from hibernation, and fall, when they’re busy fattening up for winter naps
• Chances of a sighting: not great, unless you spend days in the backcountry
• Distinguishing characteristics: pointy ears, no shoulder hump, straight rather than rounded profile; black, brown, or cinnamon fur (name notwithstanding)
• Where to look: from the North Entrance in Gardiner, Montana, along roads and trails from Tower Junction to the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone; or, farther south, between Madison Junction and the Old Faithful area, where bears feed on grass, herbs, berries, ants, and animal carcasses on the west side of the park
• When to look: spring, when bears emerge with cubs from their winter dens
• Chances of a sighting: so-so—certainly more likely than a grizzly sighting because black bears will get closer to human settlements in hopes of raiding unattended campsites
• Distinguishing characteristics: stocky, grayish-brown bodies with white rumps; coiled horns on males, straight horns on females
• Where to look: steep, rocky terrain, often with unlikely footholds—best bets are the hikes up Mount Washburn (Chittenden Rd. parking area, Dunraven Pass Trailhead in north central Yellowstone near the Grand Canyon) and among the petrified trees of Specimen Ridge (accessed from the Yellowstone River Picnic Area near the northern Tower-Roosevelt area); listen for the telltale clattering of the sheep's hooves
• When to look: year-round, but during winter the animals tend to stick to lower elevations near the Yellowstone, Lamar, and Gardner rivers
• Chances of a sighting: only so-so, given the animals’ remote habitat and relatively small population in the park
• Distinguishing characteristics: doglike but massive (about 3 feet tall at the shoulders), with rounded ears and long legs; coyotes are smaller, with thinner legs and pointier ears
• Where to look: the park's northeastern Lamar Valley, where gray wolves are like high-profile celebs for wildlife-watching paparazzi on stakeouts with binoculars and spotting scopes
• When to look: year-round; dawn and dusk are wolves' most active times of day
• Chances of a sighting: slim for casual visitors; though the wolf population is thriving since being reintroduced to Yellowstone in 1995, there are still fewer than 100 in the whole park
• Distinguishing characteristics: big antlers on males (though the racks are shed every spring—which is the difference between antlers and horns, by the way); grayish-brown body with chestnut brown head, shaggy mane, short tail, and tan patch on the rump
• Where to look: throughout the park; sightings are especially common near the North Entrance in the Mammoth Hot Springs area, where elk often lounge on the lawn of the square close to Fort Yellowstone and the Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel—all a steaming stone's throw from geothermal terrace formations
• When to look: year-round, but the herd is largest (up to 20,000 strong) in summer
• Chances of a sighting: pretty much guaranteed—elk are the most common large animals in the park
• Distinguishing characteristics: up to 150 pounds in size, making this the largest feline in the Rocky Mountains; also known as cougars
• Where to look: rocky areas in the northern portion of the park—but don’t seek mountain lions out because they’re extremely dangerous
• When to look: year-round; higher elevations in summer, lower in winter
• Chances of a sighting: very slim—after near-eradication in the 20th century, fewer than 50 cougars are estimated to live in the park today; you’re more likely to hear the cats’ high-pitched, human-sounding wails
• Distinguishing characteristics: on males, broad antler racks that can grow up to 6 feet across; pendulous muzzle; fleshy dewlap hanging beneath the neck like a bell
• Where to look: on the edges of ponds and in damp, lush valley bottoms, where moose feed on willows and water plants; try the Willow Park wetland (drive south of Mammoth Hot Springs on the Grand Loop Road in the park's northwest corner) or Yellowstone Lake and the Hayden Valley in the center of the park
• When to look: year-round—but antlers are at their full glory in summer and into early fall
• Chances of a sighting: moderate; population numbers (fewer than 200) aren’t high, but the silhouette is unmistakable
• Distinguishing characteristics: striking white head and tail feathers; wingspan up to 7 feet; a feeling of national pride upwelling in viewer’s breast
• Where to look: in the trees and cliffs along the Snake River in the southern part of the park or the Gardner River (pictured) in the north, around Yellowstone Lake in the park's center, near the headwaters of the Madison River in the west—basically keep looking up when you're close to any open water where there might be fish
• When to look: year-round, but population numbers are higher in the summer because during the winter some eagles return to nesting sites elsewhere
• Chances of a sighting: pretty good—Yellowstone has one of the largest eagle populations in the continental U.S.
• Distinguishing characteristics: short black horns, tan-and-white body, black accent stripes; this is not an antelope—those live in Africa and southeast Asia
• Where to look: the Lamar Valley in the northeast and near Yellowstone’s North Entrance (in Gardiner, Montana), where pronghorn often graze, as in the photo above (that's Electric Peak in the background)
• When to look: year-round; in winter, pronghorn tend to move toward the northernmost reaches of the park
• Chances of a sighting: good because the population (around 500) is large, but pronghorn can be difficult to photograph—they're skittish and can run away at speeds up to 45 miles per hour
• Distinguishing characteristics: big, woolly head and burly, 2,000-pound frame balanced on ballerina-thin ankles; deceptively docile demeanor (the animals will attack if you get near)
• Where to look: the central Hayden Valley (pictured), marshy Pelican Valley off East Entrance Road, the Madison River area near the West Entrance, the geyser areas near Old Faithful and the Firehole River, and anywhere else where there’s grass to munch and dust to wallow in
• When to look: year-round; in the winter, bison use their big heads to clear snow to find better grazing; snowmobilers should keep an eye out for animals on roads
• Chances of a sighting: very good; bison are among Yellowstone’s most common large mammals—not to mention the most iconic
Our complete guide to planning outdoor adventures in the area, Frommer's Yellowstone & Grand Teton National Parks, is available in print and as a downloadable e-book.