Yellowstone National Park covers 2.2 MILLION acres. It’s huge and full of bubbling, geothermal pools, vast forests, rushing rivers, and sprawling plains. What does that all add up to? A lot of wildlife! 

Yellowstone boasts many enticing reasons for visitors to flock to its land, but the prospect of seeing wildlife stands out for most people. And we don’t blame you! There are over 67 known species of mammals and nearly 300 bird species in the park.

Grizzly bears, black bears, bison, bighorn sheep, bald eagles, mule deer, wolves, mountain lions, river otters, mountain goats, pronghorn antelope, moose…all these majestic animals call Yellowstone National Park home.

But of course…they are wild animals, though, and their whereabouts are unpredictable. Still, there are some places in Yellowstone National Park that are known for being the best place to see wild life. We’ve had amazing wildlife spotting experiences at these spots, but it does take a bit of luck and smart timing, such as arriving to the valleys in early morning or at dusk. 

We’ll include some more tips on increasing your chances of seeing wildlife due to best time of day and other logistics, as well as how to do so safely later in the article. First though, let’s go over WHERE you should hang out in the park to increase your chances. 

Lamar Valley: Known for…Well, Everything. But Especially Wolves and Bears

Yellowstone’s Lamar Valley in the northeastern corner of the park is often heralded as one of the best places to see wildlife. It’s even nicknamed the Serengeti of North America since you’ll no doubt feel like you’re on an American safari driving through the valley and viewing the large herds of bison and species of birds flying overhead.  

We have to agree. The scenery and wildlife in this area of Yellowstone is astounding. It’s where we’ve seen a mama bear and her cub (so cute!) and a moose, so it always stand out in my wildlife memories for that reason. 

Moose spotted in Lamar Valley

Lamar Valley is indeed known for grizzly bears and other bear sightings. However, it’s real claim to fame is being the place where you have the best chance of seeing the pack of gray wolves that call Yellowstone home. These wolves are most active at dawn and dusk, with most sightings happening in the early morning hours, so plan to be up before the sun. Staying in Cooke City or Mammoth Hot Springs Resort will help you eliminate some of the driving time to get to the Lamar Valley. 

Winter in Yellowstone Tip: The Lamar Valley is the only area you can drive through during the winter months, besides getting from the Roosevelt Arch to Mammoth Hot Springs (the only entrance open in the winter is the north entrance by Gardiner). So if you’re not planning to do snowmobiling or cross-country skiing while in the park, your best bet to see wildlife is to drive through Lamar Valley to Cooke City and back (or as far as the road is open). 

Lamar Valley is also where many of the bison herds hang out. I would be shocked if someone told me they drove through Lamar Valley and didn’t see any bison. They’re always hanging out there, though they may be farther against the horizon than right by the road, especially if they’re following the banks of the Lamar River. Still, don’t be surprised if you get stuck in a bison traffic jam while driving through Lamar Valley — or Hayden Valley, which brings us to the next good place for wildlife viewing. 

Hayden Valley: Bison, Swans & More

Bison Herd in Hayden Valley

I love the Hayden Valley for bison viewing. The elevation is a bit higher than Lamar Valley and I appreciate the sweeping vistas and grassland plains that aren’t as marred with trees (I of course love trees, but they do a good job of hiding animals!). We saw some amazing views of bison herds here, especially the baby bison, known as red dogs due to the reddish tint of their coats when they’re little. 

Yellowstone’s resident trumpeter swans are also often spotted in the Hayden Valley gliding along the water. While driving through the valley, there’s also a good chance of seeing elk and deer. Sightings of bears, foxes, and wolves also possible. 

East Entrance: Bighorn Sheep

The East Entrance has many sloping cliff areas right by the roadway, which is a good area to spot Bighorn Sheep. Keep in mind you might need to use one of the pull-out spots and park your car so you can properly scan down the side of the mountain.

We had good luck seeing Bighorn Sheep driving from the East Entrance to Lake Yellowstone in the evening.

Mammoth Hot Springs: Elk and Rut Season 

The best way to hear a a bull elk bugle during rutting season is to book a room at Mammoth Hot Springs Lodge and open the windows and listen. Or have a grab and go meal at one of the picnic areas by the lodge.

Just stay out of their way. You do NOT want to make a bull mad during their rut (mating) season. They will charge if they think you’re getting in the way of them wooing their sweetheart.  

Old Faithful & Geyser Area: Bison

Bison and more bison! Seriously, if you go to Yellowstone and don’t see bison, I think you’re doing something wrong. When we stayed at the Old Faithful Inn, I was startled multiple times by a lone bison just hanging out by the lodge, gift shop, or parking lot.

With two little kids in tow, I quickly became adept at scanning frantically every which way during our exits from buildings and walks. Chances are, a bison in this area is going to be accustomed to people milling about, but don’t take chances: Never get within 25 yards of a bison, even if it looks all serene and fluffy like this one we walked by by Old Faithful Inn: 

Trout Lake: Otters and Bears

One of my favorite exhibits at aquariums or wildlife conservation centers are the river otter exhibits. They are also so fun and playful! If you want to see them in their natural habitat, Yellowstone is a good place to start. River otters tend to hang out on the banks of the rivers and lakes in Yellowstone. But they’re fast! So keep your eyes peeled before they dip beneath the surface and race away.

Trout Lake is one of the best places to see river otter in the park, but you’ll have to put on your hiking shoes to get there along the 1.2-mile Trout Lake Loop Trail.  Luckily, it’s a pretty easy hike. Parking can be a bit of a pain, though, so try to get there early or be prepared to park down the road and walk back to the trailhead.

Trout Lake Trailhead and packed parking lot

Along the way, also keep an eye out for bears as they frequent this trail. I personally DON’T want to see a bear while hiking along any of the trails in Yellowstone, but I’m also (I think, appropriately!) terrified of grizzlies. And I never leave the car in Yellowstone without bear spray

Wildlife Beyond Yellowstone

The Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem extends beyond the park. So remember to keep looking for wildlife even after you’ve exited the park. I’ve seen bighorn sheep on the side of the road driving to Big Sky, mountain goats atop the Beartooth Highway pass, bald eagles flying overhead in Paradise Valley, and moose in rivers of the Absaroka and Gallatin national forests. 

One more moose tip: you’re much more likely to see them in Glacier National Park or Grand Teton National Park than Yellowstone, but…as is the common tale with wildlife viewing…you never know what you’ll see where! Check out our One Day in Grand Teton National Park itinerary here.

Also, if you didn’t see the wildlife you were hoping for in the park and you or your kids are bummed, I highly recommend checking out the Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center in West Yellowstone

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