Finding and Photographing Yellowstone Wildlife
There is an overlook in Hayden Valley which always seems to have a crowd. The parking area is always full and folks are camped out there with chairs and spotting scopes.
These are the “wolf peepers,” as I term them… Folks who sit for hours hoping to catch a highly magnified glimpse of a wolf.
I have only seen a wolf once in three previous trips to Yellowstone, albeit at great distance through a very powerful spotting scope. It looked like a gray flash in the sage brush.
Still, I often check in to see what’s going on. While driving north one evening, we spotted most of the “wolf peepers” up at their scopes. That’s the surefire way to tell something is going on… If the “peepers” are sitting in their chairs, there’s nothing to get excited about. If they are up and looking through their scopes, there’s some excitement.
Bonnie dropped me off (more on that little tidbit in a moment) and I asked the “peepers” what was going on.
“We are watching six wolves move across the valley.”
I quickly got set up, mounting my Canon 100-400mm lens to the monopod and started scanning the valley. They walked me in visually to the wolves, who were moving through high sage brush. I could barely see the tops of their heads. Fortunately, two of the wolves were black, so they were a lot easier to track.
After parking, Bonnie joined me and used the binoculars to follow along with the action.
Holy cow! I could actually see a defined form of a wolf through my camera lens. This alone was worth the cost of renting this lens. I have only seen a wolf though my camera lens once, in Denali National Park and Preserve in Alaska. Now, I was seeing six!
Then they turned and the chase began! They tore after a herd of elk through the sage. The wolves (I think) took down the littlest/youngest elk just behind a small rise in the valley, just out of line of sight, but still… WOW! OH MY GOD! THAT WAS SO COOL!
The American Serengeti
I have heard Yellowstone National Park called America’s Serengeti and I couldn’t agree more. It is one of the largest, most wild places left in the continental United States. The sheer amount of Yellowstone wildlife is staggering. There are 67 different species of mammals living in Yellowstone, including more than 100 wolves, nearly 700 grizzly bears and large numbers of black bears, elk, bison, bighorn sheep, deer, and pronghorn antelope. Less commonly, you can find wolverines, lynx, non-native mountain goats and moose.
That’s a lot of critters. You can visit several times and not see all of them. Indeed, lynx and wolverines have relatively small populations and, unless you are a backcountry wildlife biologist, you will likely never see them.
Even some of the larger animals can be difficult to find. For example, we have never seen a moose in Yellowstone, much to Bonnie’s chagrin.
Other animals, you will see in great abundance. Elk and bison, for example, are so abundant I can pretty much guarantee if you spend a day driving in Yellowstone, you will see both. I would even bet that you will see them close to the road and in large quantities. Indeed, if you enter the north entrance and head into Mammoth Hot Springs, you will likely find elk hanging out on the grass lawns of the village.
I say this to alleviate the biggest problem we have in Yellowstone: folks stopping on the roads to look at bison or elk. In most places in the park, there are plenty of places to pull off the road and let folks by. Please. Do this. It will save everyone behind you a headache and keep the rangers from giving you a ticket. That’s right, its against the law to block the road.
How to Get Good Yellowstone Wildlife Shots
One thing Bonnie and I do is designate a photographer (me) to be ready to jump out of the car and go take pictures of Yellowstone wildlife while she parks the truck. This allows me to be mobile and taking pictures. It sucks a bit for Bonnie, because sometimes she misses the action, but it is necessary to get the shot. Since Bonnie likes good wildlife shots as much as I do, she is ok with it.
If you want good pictures of Yellowstone wildlife, you have to be ready to jump out and start taking pictures, so have your gear ready and be ready to go.
For more tips on visiting Yellowstone, be sure to check out Bonnie’s article here.
Let’s talk about gear for a moment. For best results, I recommend a DSLR and a high-end zoom lens. There is not way around it, if you want professional quality results, you need to use professional quality gear. While your iPhone is a really good landscape camera, it blows when it comes to shooting Yellowstone wildlife.
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I shoot with a Canon EOS 7D MkII (my new baby!). It has three custom modes, one of which I have set for shooting wildlife. I rented a Canon EF 100-400 professional grade lens. I have rented this lens before and I know it is a solid performer for Yellowstone wildlife shots. The link is for the updated version… That’s the lens which is on my “to get” list.
While the lens is light enough for hand-held shots, I also take a Manfrotto monopod to allow me to get a steadier shot. I keep a spare memory card on my sling and a spare battery in the truck.
I used to keep a digital wallet with me to be able to dump memory cards if I ran into something really cool, but with my new camera, I have slots for two memory cards. Now, I use a 128 GB card as my in-camera back up and two 64 GB cards to shoot with.
Even with a 20 megapixel camera shooting nothing but RAW images, I have never filled a 64 GB card in one day of shooting and it was not until my fifth week of shooting that I filled the 128 GB back-up card. Pro-Tip: always carry a back up for both.
You can use something like a bridge (also called super zooms) camera for wildlife. There are plenty of folks who use something like the Canon SX60. I have the SX40 and have used it for wildlife and action shots. The great optical zoom on the camera combined with light weight and low overall cost make it a good entry-level wildlife camera. A good bridge camera can get you close to Yellowstone wildlife without breaking the bank or the arm.
If you are planning on shooting with something with a zoom like that, I highly recommend getting a hiking stick with a camera mount screw or a monopod for it. Handholding it at maximum zoom makes it very hard to keep the image steady. I am in the process of looking for a good collapsible hiking stick I can put a quick release mount on for my bridge camera.
The other thing I am looking at is a new bridge camera. I am looking at the Sony Cyber-shot RX10 III. Both the lens and sensor would be a huge improvement over the SX40, even with the sacrifice of some of the zoom capability. That said, it weighs 68 percent more (39 oz vs 23 oz) and costs about $1,000 more.
There are trade-offs for everything in the camera world! For me, the improvement in the lens quality is worth the trade-off. For a beginner, however, the cost is often a pretty big burden.
Finding Yellowstone Wildlife
Ok, you got your gear ready in your lap, you are sitting shotgun while your dutiful assistant is ready to drive you all around the park. You are ready to jump out, do an A-Team roll and hop up to take pictures. Now what? Where do you go for the action?
The short answer is: it depends. It depends on what you are looking for in terms of Yellowstone wildlife.
My first suggestion is look at the time.
The best times to find wildlife, any Yellowstone wildlife, are in the mornings and evenings. Seriously, get up early, go out looking for wildlife, then eat breakfast. When you get done sightseeing for the day, have an early dinner, then go back out to look for wildlife. Just be careful driving at dawn/dusk… Yellowstone wildlife, particularly elk and deer, have a tendency to just step out into the road.
My second suggestion is avoid hot days. If the temperature is above 80 degrees, you will find that the wildlife is bedded down in the shade, not out roaming. Back in 2014, the Fourth of July was really hot and we saw no wildlife at all… save one grizzly bear hanging out in a creek, cooling off.
Bison and Elk
You can find both of these animals just about anywhere in the park. Seriously, anywhere. If you are looking for herds, I suggest either Lamar Valley or Hayden Valley.
Wolves eat elk, among other things, so if you are looking for wolves, look for their prey. Both Lamar and Hayden valleys offer long views which make spotting the elusive creatures easier.
When looking for wolves, be sure to check in with the “wolf peepers.” These folks stay out in the park for days on end and know the behaviors of the various packs better than anyone.
If seeing a wolf is your main goal for coming to Yellowstone, I suggest bringing chairs to sit on, a spotting scope, tripod and plenty of snacks. It takes a lot of patience (or, in my case, luck) to spot a wolf.
We spotted a large number of black bears this time around, most of them north of Dunraven Pass up to the Tower-Roosevelt Junction. We also spotted them near Mammoth Hot Springs (see Bonnie’s article on seeing them on a trail) and, in the past, on Blacktail Plateau.
Bears are pretty easy to spot versus bison or elk. At least in the summer, they are always moving. Whereas bison will stay in one spot and munch, bears are constantly moving around and foraging.
On one day in 2014, we spotted a male black bear chase a female up a tree, then get run off by a larger male. The larger male went up the tree and brought the female down the tree, who promptly rebuffed his advances. He got tired of being rejected and left, with the female chasing after him.
We have found grizzly bears are, more often than not, a little further south in the park. We have seen them in Hayden Valley and along the road towards Fishing Bridge. According to some of the books we have read, Pelican Valley, east of Fishing Bridge, is some of the best grizzly habitat in the world. The trail in Pelican Valley was closed until July 4 this trip due to bears.
One of the difficulties with bears is telling the difference between a grizzly bear and a brown, or cinnamon, black bear. Most of the time, the shoulder hump (grizzlies have a prominent hump on its forward shoulders) will distinguish the two, but even then, they can be difficult to tell apart.
Pronghorn Antelope and Bighorn Sheep
You will find the pronghorns in Lamar Valley from time to time in the summer. This was the first trip we have seen them, but the park typically has a couple hundred.
Bighorn sheep are harder to spot in the summer. They tend to spend their time on the rocky cliffs above. In the winter, however, they come down into the valleys to feed. We spotted plenty of Bighorn sheep in Lamar Valley when we visited back in February 2011 and along the Shoshone River outside the park in December 2015.
Coyotes and Foxes
We have spotted coyotes near the Tower-Roosevelt Junction. Indeed, on our horseback ride, we rode past a coyote den with pups. If we had more time on this last trip, I would have hiked out there to take pictures, but alas, the horseback ride was our last evening in the park.
Foxes are tougher to find. We spotted one once up on Dunraven Pass and another close to Hayden Valley, but they are tough to find.
There are plenty of other critters to be found in Yellowstone. Be sure to check the NPS Web site for more information.
Final Thoughts on Yellowstone Wildlife
I know we have said this a lot and I know the accommodations inside Yellowstone can be hard to come by, often requiring reservations months in advance, but stay in the park. Indeed, I recommend staying in the middle of the park.
Roosevelt Lodge or Slough Creek Campground (apparently there is a wolf den nearby) would be my choice for staying on the north end of the park. Canyon Lodge/Campground is a good central location. Bridge Bay Campground, Fishing Bridge RV Park or Lake Lodge are good options a little further to the south. In general, the east side of the park is better for wildlife than the west side.
The key to spotting wildlife from the roads is patience and timing. Make sure you spend your evenings and early mornings checking the usual spots… Hayden Valley, Dunraven Pass north to Roosevelt-Tower Junction, Blacktail Plateau and Lamar Valley.
Talk to rangers and do so in all of the visitor centers. Yellowstone is really big, so a ranger in Mammoth Hot Springs may not have good information on wildlife in Hayden Valley, but a ranger in Canyon or Fishing Bridge might.
Don’t be afraid to get out and hike to a good wildlife spot, or just hike in general… You never know what you will find.
Most of all, get out and enjoy the living story Yellowstone has to tell.