We went back to Yellowstone National Park last summer because I love wildlife, however, I have a few opinions on general things to do.
My experience of Yellowstone is a lot like Bali. I get people who say they didn’t love Yellowstone and I quickly inquire about where they went only to discover we were on opposite ends of the park.
On one side of the park, it’s like going to Disney World, with crowds of people on small walkways. On the other side, it’s as close as one could get to a safari in the US.
In this post, I’m going to map out all the spots I saved from my research and experiences. Show exactly where I saw wolves two trips in a row, bear, coyote, elk, moose, where I like to hike, where I avoid, and where I like to stay.
I’ll go over where I recommend to stay last, because it should be obvious by then which areas I like.
Map of where to see wildlife, things to do, and where to stay in Yellowstone National Park:
Best Places To See Wildlife in Yellowstone NP
First, here are the pages of what wildlife you’ll see.
- If you want to see wolves or birds, you need to bring binoculars. The real wolf geeks bring scopes.
- Do not approach wildlife, especially Bison, Moose, and Grizzly bears.
- Apparently you should hike with bear spray if you’re going to go out in the wilderness. I personally don’t and have seen lots and lots of bear (more in Glacier)- even had a mom and a cub walk around me in Yellowstone, and I’m still alive.
- So if you don’t have spray, know that you’re not supposed to run. Don’t approach bears, especially cubs.
- If you like wildlife, go to Lamar Valley every day.
1) Lamar Valley
This is my favorite spot in Yellowstone, by far.
You need to do a pre-sunset drive (or sunrise) through the valley, and if you’re staying close, you can do it daily.
Here are 8 videos of why (scroll through to see all 8 videos – or click here to view on Instagram):
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All 8 videos are in Lamar or nearby. Some are on the drive from Canyon Village near Tower Junction, as Grizzly are most commonly seen coming down from the slopes in the evening, like coming down Mt Washburn (or Lamar & Hayden Valley).
This does not include the wolves I saw on both trips!
Bear sightings require a little bit of luck but they are around here!
Elk you’ll see eventually if you’re in the northern half of Yellowstone.
Bison are as common as grass in Lamar Valley.
Deer and pronghorn are all over the park.
Wolves – in order to see wolves you need to catch them as they come out of the woods to hunt in the evening. Just drive east in Lamar Valley at sunset until you see a bunch of people with scopes and binoculars
However, I guarantee if you spend enough time in Lamar you’ll see all of those, and the wolves take a little bit of luck, but if you ask around and/or do the drive looking for those who already know where they’ve been coming out, you’ll increase your odds. But you’ll most certainly need binoculars to see them.
To me, seeing the wolves come out was the highlight of my trip. They were a mix of grey and black wolves.
2) Hayden Valley
This is the other place that is big for seeing wildlife in Yellowstone.
You will certainly see Bison and the other common mammals. However, apparently people have also seen wolves here. I have not had that luck, but usually spend more of my time in Lamar. However, the advantage of Hayden Valley is that it’s more centrally located.
This is also where you can see bear.
3) Going from Canyon Village to Tower Junction
Actually, I was really going from Hayden Valley to Lamar Valley, but I’m trying to narrow down the area to the mountain crossing…
Which is where I saw a Grizzly my first time and where the video of the black bear is, and leaving Canyon Village is where the video of coyote (above) is from.
4) Blacktail Deer Plateau
The second black bear video is from an area on the drive from Lamar Valley to Blacktail Deer Plateau, near tower junction. So it’s a good place to get to and hang out.
Then it’s also where we off-trail hiked up to a pond (also on the instagram video).
This area is interesting because it was a little less visited. We got out and hiked up to a pond we identified on the map (which wasn’t exactly easy), and when we got up there, we saw a heard of elk.
We also found giant antlers (although the photo doesn’t show size well):
5) Other spots for specific wildlife
- Moose: take 89 south from Mammoth Springs. Unfortunately this road was under construction last summer. I didn’t have any luck, but it looks like moose territory and from what I’m told, that’s one of the best spots to see them. (Or wait for my post on Glacier National Park).
- Goat: If you keep going east past Lamar Valley you get to a super scenic area where it becomes more mountainous. This area is beautiful and a great place to hike, both on the east and west “Cooke City-Silver Gate” entrances.
- Sheep: In the very southeast is the “Whiskey Basin” area.
- Cats – cougar, lynx, and bobcats – these are very rare. If you see a cougar, I recommend buying a lottery ticket too. Most stay in very mountainous areas, like the east side of the park. But it’s not worth looking for, IMO.
The Other Things To Do In Yellowstone
Two thoughts before I give my list…
First, there are tons and tons of hot springs and geysers in the park. I’m giving my opinion on what to do with the main sites and how to avoid the crowds and the best views.
Second, everything on this first list is a popular spot which means lots of crowds. But I think these spots are worth it and part of the reason I like them is because the crowds thin out.
Also, the reason there are so many crowds is because the place is full of nature’s miracles. It’s really crazy.
However, my bias is different than a lot of people. I can spend all of an hour looking at geysers and hot springs, and I could spend a week looking at wildlife and hiking. So calibrate my recommendations based on your taste.
1) Yellowstone Falls
This is a beautiful area in the center of the park, and while the crowds are still there, the hikes are still interesting, just because you’re hiking along a canyon with giant waterfalls.
Also, my first time hiking there, a park ranger stopped us and pointed out a falcon which made a nest. For some reason this seems to be a bird-watching hot spot.
2) Hike from Old Faithful
The visitor center is right next to Old Faithful and that’s where all the crowds are, but the Old Faithful geyser is a dime a dozen in this area. It’s just the one on a schedule.
However, start up there and walk down the boardwalk along the river and you’ll see a dozen other geysers and hot pools that are even better but without the crowds. And the experience of walking over dozens of geysers is certainly a unique experience.
3) Grand Prismatic Spring Overlook Hike
Here’s the irony of the big popular hot springs. Yes, the overlook hike is ~5 miles total instead of instantly being able to park right next to the hot spring. However, we had to park over a mile away.
Then, we were on the most crowded boardwalk we experienced in the park.
Then, turns out it’s a less less scenic experience from eye level.
4) Mammoth Hot Springs
This is my personal favorite of the hot springs and it’s a cute, tiny tourist town with semi-tame elk.
And you might as well go visit because the drive south is where I mention spotting moose, and everything to the East is amazing- the best scenery and wildlife viewing.
5) Cascade Canyon Trail, Grand Teton National Park
Yeah, it’s a different national park, but very close by and most people are going right by from Jackson Hole.
This is a long hike. 9 miles if you take the boat across the lake, and 3 miles longer if you hike around the lake.
The majority of it is hiking up waterfalls to get to the valley in between the peaks, and that part is amazing.
The further you go the better. It gets better with time, of course it’s a little bit of an incline at first and a long hike, so plan accordingly.
FYI, the water is freezing, even in summer. 😀
Where to stay in Yellowstone National Park
Check out the campsite facilities here.
I personally want to camp in places with showers. My favorite was Canyon Campground because it was so centrally located (based on my map of wildlife above). However Madison Campground wasn’t bad either and I got to hear a group of Coyotes yipping at night and saw many elk in the campground.
However, I think the best place to stay would be the Roosevelt Lodge. Personally, I want to go out every night and see wildlife in Lamar Valley (or further east on the road to the mountains), I want to go west to Blacktail Deer Plateau, and I want to cross over Mt Washburn.
Know that a lot of these cabins and lodges that are actually in the national parks are a little more basic. But the ability to wake up to a view is worth it. They aren’t bad – the beds are comfy and cleaner than a Super 8! – they are just more basic than hotel rooms of the same price.
However, the Canyon Lodge is even more centrally located.
Yellowstone is the closest thing to an African Safari in North America and it’s a crazy collection of hot springs and geysers.
I’ll also do a write up on Glacier National Park which is even more scenic and we saw way more bear there.
Thanks, Drew!! I’ve always wanted to take my family to Yellowstone but the anticipated summer crowds are such a turn off, I’ve never planned a trip. Great to hear you had a good experience…can you let us know what time(s) you’ve visited? Jun/Jul/Aug?
We were there mid/late July last year.
I mean, some areas are totally crowded. But you can take hikes in areas without seeing people.
I love all of your suggestions. We will be there this summer (I know it’s peak season there). Staying @ Lake Village. Looking forward to this experience! Thank you for your post and pic’s.
Hey we were there in July, which is definitely peak season, and I had a great time.
Excellent article! Have been on an African safari many times and I agree wholeheartedly with you that the natural scenery is fantastic but animal sightings take the experience to another level.
Can you pls specify which part of the year is best up travel to see wolves and bear. I’ve never been to Yellowstone and wound love to plan a trip for next year to see the wildlife, but not sure if we should go during Spring break, Summer, or maybe Thanksgiving week (we have two children in high school so it would have to be a week during one of the school breaks).
I’m in Yellowstone now, and I saw a bear and cubs today. It is mid August. I think that this summer people have seen a lot of wildlife. Yellowstone is at a high elevation with lots of snow in winter, so it will be closed over thanksgiving and probably your spring break, too. I would go as late in August as possible to avoid crowds – there are not many people here now, relatively speaking. We see people everywhere we go but we are not impacted by the crowds, the days are long and the weather is beautiful.
Thanks for the advice. We will visit the park for the first time end of August. This is exactly what I have been researching for. Very much appreciated.
No list is complete without mention of the boiling river near Mammoth and Lone Star Geyser. One of the benefits of living 2 hours from Yellowstone is making it over a few times a year.
Thanks for this! I just got back from Yellowstone and Grand Teton – I wish I had seen this before as I would have made more time to venture further into Lamar Valley. We saw a bunch of bears driving between Mammoth and Tower Falls. Moose we saw in Grand Teton (on Moose road actually). Going the third week of June I didn’t think the crowds were as bad as I was expecting and although it was still chilly everything was open. A great time to go especially if you don’t mind a little cold. Even though Old Faithful was iconic I think I preferred the north side of the park too. I can’t wait for your post on Glacier!
Thanks for sharing this. Your tips are very helpful. I am a travel freak and travel a lot. Next year Yellowstone is on my card.