Of all the tall tales passed on by the early 19th-century fur trappers who ventured into the unknown reaches of Wyoming, the story of the mythical land of “Fire and Brimstone” must have seemed the most outlandish. Their tales told of a place where fire spews out of the ground and water violently boils, a place more at home in a passage from Dante’s Inferno than any earthly environment. The region’s inaccessibility meant that it was only in the late 1860’s when the first organized expeditions set out to shed light on the area and separate facts from fiction. What they found was nothing short of astounding, a land of glass mountains, boiling rivers, and geysers that spew water into the sky. These lands were so wild, so unspoiled, that many felt it was necessary to protect them from human exploitation. Sure enough, in 1871 the land that got the name “Yellowstone” became the world’s first National Park.
What could very well be the most photographed national park in the world needs no introductions. Yellowstone National Park is one of the most dramatic and diverse landscapes in the continental USA. Within the almost 9,000 kilometers of the park lies the world’s best collection of thermal features, spectacular mountain ranges, and the most diverse wildlife viewing experience in the lower 48 states.
Many articles have been written about Yellowstone. I have personally written two articles about the park which you can find here and here. The scope of today’s article is based on a question I am often asked which usually goes something like: “What are the best places to photograph wildlife in Yellowstone?” It is a good question and one that is far too broad for a quick reply. Yellowstone National Park has 67 different species of mammals, including enigmatic species such as the gray wolf, grizzly and black bear and the American bison. Other large mammal species include: elk, moose, mule deer, white-tailed deer, mountain goat, pronghorn, bighorn sheep, coyote along with the reclusive lynx and cougar. While the mammals usually steal the show, the park has over 300 species of birds, with almost half of them nesting inside Yellowstone.
The park’s abundance of wildlife is obvious, but this richness of fauna does not guarantee good sightings. Animals such as bison and elk are almost guaranteed sightings by even the most casual visitor to the park. The park’s bears prove to be a much bigger challenge and it takes a good amount of luck and perseverance to find and photograph one. Wolves are often considered the most exciting sighting due to their rarity and innate fear of encountering humans. The park’s diverse and contrasting seasons are a crucial element to consider when looking for specific species inside the park.
In winter, the park experiences a deep freeze that transforms the landscape into a seemingly lifeless wasteland of snow and ice. The temperatures range from 0 to 30F throughout the day and sub-zero temperatures are common at night on the high plateaus. The deep snow means that the only road open to the public is the Mammoth to Lamar Valley road and a 4×4 vehicle with snow tires is usually needed to traverse it. There are options for taking snowmobiles or snow coaches up to the Old Faithful area and staying there as well. The bears are hibernating during the winter and therefore winter is often considered the hour of the wolf. The wolf packs are most easily seen during winter when they hunt for elk in the Lamar Valley and as such, winter is by far the best time for seeing Yellowstone’s wolves. The park’s two other canids, the coyote and red fox are also at their peak during the winter. Not only are their coats at their thickest and most beautiful but they are also easier to see because of the snow. The trumpeter swans are also often seen in the remaining open waters of the park.
With the month of March comes spring in Yellowstone. The temperatures are still low but they gradually climb and range from an average of 30F to 60F with overnight lows often in the single digits. Snow is still common and snow storms can readily appear and blanket the park. The roads begin to open in April and by May all are open. In March the grizzly bears begin to emerge from their winter slumber and the wolves are still at full strength in Lamar. Neotropical migrants, such as the osprey and bluebirds also begin to arrive. By April, the black bears are also out of their dens and join the grizzly bears in feeding on roadside meadows. The bison start their calving season while wildflowers start to take over the park’s meadows.
When June arrives so does Yellowstone’s summer. Temperatures are now well into the 70s and can often reach up to 80F. The park also starts seeing a great influx of tourists that will peak in July and August when the park can become almost unbearable. Mosquitoes are also at their peak in the summer now that the temperatures rarely drop below 32F during the night. The park’s bears become harder to see as they start moving to higher elevations. Bighorn sheep are easy to find in Lamar Valley and in the mountain passes. By July, the bison rutting season begins and it will last well into September. August often brings with it wildfires as the park’s trees succumb to the numerous thunderstorms of the late summer.
By September, fall has officially arrived. The temperature again starts to dip into the 50s and 60s. The temperature at night also begins to go drop below freezing and snow is not uncommon by the end of the month. The elk rutting season begins in the park. The bears also return to lower elevations and roadside meadows. The fewer mosquitoes make it easier to hike and the fall colors add unique tones. By October the bears become even easier to find along the roads and the elk rutting season is in full swing. Roads in higher elevations begin to close. By the end of the month, Winter will begin to return to the park and with it, the bison and elk start migrating to lower elevations while the park’s bears start to hibernate.
After taking the unique seasons of Yellowstone into account, it is time to consider the different areas inside of Yellowstone and which species are more likely to be found in these different regions.