If you love viewing wildlife and visiting national parks, then there’s no better experience than spotting bison in Yellowstone! Of course, the park is not only known for its impressive roaming bison herds but many other animals as well. Grizzly bears and black bears bound through meadows. Moose, elk, and pronghorn graze on tall grasses. Wolves and foxes stalk prey amid conifer forests. Bighorn sheep trot along improbable ledges. Bald eagles and osprey soar over lakes and rivers. Plus, hundreds of other species can be spotted by those with a keen eye.
Yellowstone is like a vast wildlife preserve, where animals range freely throughout the park as they search for food. For this reason, spotting these amazing creatures isn’t as simple as strolling past enclosures at a zoo. There are no guarantees when it comes to wildlife viewing—after all, they’re called wild animals for a reason! But if you want to see a particular species, or just witness as much wildlife as possible during your visit, there are some top places that offer the best chances for certain animals.
In this post, we’re going to share the best places in Yellowstone National Park Wyoming to spot bison and other wildlife. When visiting these locations, it’s very important to consider proper safety, which we’ll discuss below. When done safely, a wildlife tour of Yellowstone National Park will create lifelong memories for the entire family, and this can make for a particularly rewarding roadtrip with kids.
Wildlife Safety While Driving & Hiking
The best ways to see wildlife are from pull-outs and viewpoints along the park roads and during hikes on the park’s many trails. In recent years, car accidents in the park have increased due to unsafe driving practices like speeding and stopping in the roadways to watch wildlife. For this reason, the park service firmly enforces speed limits and asks drivers to only stop their vehicles when they can fully pull off the roadway. When wildlife is near the road, observe safely from a distance by remaining in your vehicle.
When traveling on foot, for the safety of both people and animals, the park service requires that visitors stay at least 100 yards away from bears and wolves, and at least 25 yards away from all other wildlife, including bison. Wherever you hike in Yellowstone, the park service recommends taking safety precautions for bears, including carrying bear spray, which is available in park stores.
Whether traveling by vehicle or on foot, never approach wildlife for any reason. Do not attempt to feed wildlife, which conditions the animals to approach humans and makes them less likely to survive in the wild. The Instagram account Tourons of Yellowstone collects photos and videos of dangerous behavior from throughout the park. Every year, foolish visitors are injured after approaching wildlife too closely. Sometimes, the attacking animals may have to be killed. In general, if an animal approaches humans, it is the visitor’s responsibility to back off to a safe distance. For the best views, bring a pair of binoculars or a camera with a telephoto lens.
Where to See Yellowstone National Park Bison
Bison are the largest land-dwelling mammal in North America, and the bison in Yellowstone are exceptional for several reasons. Numbering over 5,000 individuals, they represent the largest bison population on U.S. public land. Bison have lived in the Yellowstone region continuously since prehistoric times, whereas overhunting and extermination by the U.S. Army rendered wild bison nearly extinct in other parts of the country. Today, Yellowstone bison still exhibit wild behaviors like seasonal migration and congregation during breeding season. Bison are most active during the day and into dusk.
Two of the best chances for spotting bison, primarily from late spring through early fall, is in Lamar Valley and Hayden Valley. Lamar Valley is located in the northeastern corner of the park, between the North and Northeast Entrances. The valley is home to the Lamar River, which winds through a grassy plain between mountains. The Northeast Entrance Road, aka U.S. Highway 212, runs through the valley, and most wildlife watching happens at pullouts and viewpoints along the road.
For a more adventurous experience, consider hiking the Lamar River Trail. Starting from the Lamar River Trailhead at the east end of the valley, this out-and-back trail is roughly 7 miles, round trip, and follows the river up the picturesque Lamar Valley. The odds of encountering bison is high, so make sure to review the safe hiking section above.
Hayden Valley is located in the center of the park, north of Yellowstone Lake, on Grand Loop Road. Most visitors will try to spot bison from pull-offs along the road, which follows the Yellowstone River. For those seeking a more adventurous experience, consider hiking on the Mary Mountain-Nez Perce Trail. Starting at the Mary Mountain East Trailhead, the trail heads west for about 20 miles to the western side of the Grand Loop Road. Along the way, the trail passes through the heart of Yellowstone, offering many opportunities to spot large mammals. For a short day hike through the Lamar Valley, with ample wildlife watching potential, start from the eastern trailhead and hike as far as you are comfortable before returning as you came.
During winter visits to Yellowstone, a great place to spot bison is at hydrothermal areas throughout the park, including Old Faithful and Mammoth Hot Springs, plus other areas along the Madison River. Of course, given that bison herds regularly roam the landscape, it may be possible to view them at many places throughout the park. Upon arrival, stop by a visitor center for updates on where bison have been spotted recently.
Where to see Grizzlies and Black Bears
Yellowstone is one of the few places in the U.S. where black bears and grizzly bears coexist, with the latter species mostly extinct throughout the country. Grizzly bears are more aggressive and generally twice as large as black bears, and it’s important to review bear safety precautions before visiting. Because both species of bears hibernate during winter, the best time to see them is spring through fall.
The park service has estimated that about 700 grizzly bears live in the greater Yellowstone ecosystem. Inside the park, two of the best places to spot them are the Hayden Valley and Lamar Valley, particularly at dawn and dusk. For descriptions of the driving and hiking routes through those valleys, check out the bison section, above.
Another good area for spotting grizzlies is the northern slopes of Mt. Washburn, accessed from the road between Canyon Village and Tower Fall. A fourth area for potential grizzly activity is between Fishing Bridge and the East Entrance on East Entrance Road, aka US-20.
Black bears are more common than grizzlies, and they can be seen throughout the park. Spotting black bears is most likely in the northern parts of Yellowstone, including areas around Mammoth Hot Springs and Tower-Roosevelt.
Where to See Other Wildlife
The most abundant large mammal in Yellowstone is elk, with an estimated 10,000 to 20,000 individuals belonging to at least six different herds. With their impressive antlers, bull elk are one of the most photographed Yellowstone animals. Due to their prevalence, they can be seen almost anywhere. During summer, odds for spotting elk are particularly high at Lamar Valley, Cascade Meadows, and Madison Canyon. During fall mating season, they are often found in the northern part of the park, including around Mammoth Hot Springs and the Madison River.
Seeing a moose in the wild is an awesome experience. Though the Yellowstone population is relatively small at less than 200 individuals, you’ll increase your chances by focusing on meadows, lakeshores, and riverbanks near the Northeast Entrance, South Entrance, and West Thumb area of Yellowstone Lake.
Bighorn sheep spend much of their time in less accessible places, like mountain slopes and riverside cliffs. For example, year-round they might be seen in Gardner Canyon between Mammoth Hot Springs and the North Entrance. During summer, try the slopes of Mount Washburn or Dunraven Pass.
Two other crowd-pleasers, red foxes and gray wolves, are harder to spot. The smallest canid in Yellowstone, it’s unknown how many red foxes roam the area. Primarily nocturnal foragers, sightings around dusk and dawn have increased in recent years, particularly in the northern part of the park. Not to be confused with more prevalent and medium-sized coyotes, gray wolves are one of Yellowstone’s top predators. An estimated 100 wolves are active mostly around dawn and dusk. They range widely throughout the entire park, with the northern areas being one of the best places in the world for wolf spotting.
Of course, this list has focused on some of the most popular animals in Yellowstone. There are plenty more species of wildlife to spot, including mountain lions, pronghorn antelope, bald eagles, and others. To learn more about Yellowstone wildlife, including information on other species or fascinating facts about bison migration, habitat for grizzly bear, or even black bear diets, check out the park’s excellent wildlife page.
We hope this post has helped you plan your wildlife tour of Yellowstone National Parks Wyoming. For information on visiting hydrothermal areas, hiking, and paddling, check out our post: Top Things to Do at Yellowstone National Park!
If you have more tips for spotting wildlife in the park, we’d love to hear from you in the comments below!
Want an exciting way to keep track of the national park wildlife you spot on your journey? Check out this national park scratch off poster that includes wildlife found in Yellowstone.
Cover photo: A bison herd in Lamar Valley. NPS/Neal Herbert