Photographic Focus: American Bison, Pronghorn, Bighorn Sheep, Wolf, Grizzly Bear, Bald Eagles, Moose
Best Time: Early Morning and Afternoon
Season: Year round
Nicknamed “The Last American Serengeti” by some, the Lamar Valley might contain the most visually inspiring landscapes in all of Yellowstone. Nestled between towering peaks, Lamar’s sprawling expanse of hills and rivers create an untamed symphony of nature akin to an Albert Bierstadt painting.
Located between Tower Junction and the Northeast Entrance at Cooke City, Montana, the best way to break down the 29-mile road that makes up Lamar is into three distinct “sections” with each section offering different wildlife viewing opportunities.
The first section is the expanse between the Yellowstone River Bridge and the Lamar River Bridge. With its seemingly endless sagebrush-covered hills, this section of the road is far less immediate than the Lamar Valley itself, but from my experience has proven more versatile in the types of species one can see. You are almost guaranteed to see Bison and Pronghorn here. Grizzly Bears are not an uncommon sight in Spring. And this stretch of the road can prove one of the most productive in the park for seeing one of Yellowstone’s most prized species: The Grey Wolf.
Of the 11 different wolf packs found in Yellowstone four have their territorial home ranges overlap in the Lamar, ensuring its status as one of the most productive areas for wolves in the park. By far the best time to see them here is during the winter months when they will often be found in the valley searching for the prey that congregates in the valleys lower elevation as they escape the harshness of the Yellowstone winter. During the rest of the year, perseverance and a good weeks’ worth of time will usually reward a lucky visitor with a wolf sighting, but to photograph them can prove incredibly challenging. While I have seen wolves many times in Lamar, they are wary of humans and will often go out of their way to prevent a close encounter.
Below is a prototypical wolf viewing experience in Lamar, taken at almost 800mm and cropped, the seemingly endless distances mean that most wolf sightings will be as mere dots to the naked eye and a small grey or black figure through binoculars.
An easier species to see in the first section of the Lamar Valley is the Pronghorn. The last remaining species of the family Antilocapridae, the Pronghorn Antelope is more closely related to a giraffe than any antelope. Unchanged since the last Ice Age, the pronghorn’s stocky body is supported on long, slim legs, which enable it to take massive eight-meter strides at full speed and allows it to outrun any would-be predator. They are the fastest terrestrial mammal in the Americas, capable of reaching top speeds of up to 86 kilometers per hour and maintaining cruising speeds of 70 kilometers per hour for several kilometers at a time. While today they are relatively common, they were once almost exasperated from the USA due to overhunting, with only 13,000 remaining by 1910. Substantial efforts to restore the species numbers have aided in a strong recovery and today they are readily found in lower lying grassy plains around northern Yellowstone, predominantly in Lamar and around the Gardiner area.
Lamar’s second distinct section begins after crossing the Lamar River Bridge and entering the actual Lamar Valley itself. The valley was carved out by glaciers during the last ice age about 10,000 years ago and is very wide which helps to create an immensely grand and sweeping landscape. The picture-perfect scenery would not be complete without the countless bison that are found throughout the year grazing in the valley and they are the main attraction here.
Hulking giants of a bygone era, the American Buffalo seen today are the only descendants of mega-fauna not to die off in the Quaternary Extinction Event in Northern America during the last Ice Age. With large males weighing in at almost a ton and having a shoulder height of over 180cm, their size can only be truly appreciated when you see one from up close in one of Yellowstone’s famous car jams. Nearly driven to extinction in the lower 48 states in the late 19th century due to over-hunting, the Bison’s revival in Yellowstone can only be considered a success story, with their numbers rebounding to around 5000 individuals.
They can be found at Lamar year-round, with each season offering a different take on their lives. In Winter, they can be found struggling to pave through the thick snow in their search for food. When Spring arrives, their calving season adds a new dimension as the reddish. Summer is a time of dust and mosquitoes and by late August the most active time of the Bison’s year begins. As Fall slowly begins, the males will spend hours a day courting females, trying to get a hint of when she is ready to mate. When these signals are passed to the males via hormones found in her urine, that is when the commotion begins. All the males in the area start a low tone bellow, the lower the tone the better the male’s chances. If that does not work, the males will size each other up, and do their famous dust baths as a way of showing each their size and strength. If all else fails and there is still an impasse, then all hell breaks loose, and the jousting truly begins.
Such battles often end up with no serious injuries, but they can also take a turn for the worse for the combatants. The life of a bison is not easy in Yellowstone, while fully sized adults have few natural predators, other bison, and the harsh winters claim many lives each year, and it is anyone’s guess as to what ended the life of this one…
The pullout opposite the historic Lamar Buffalo Ranch is a good place to scout the valley and the trees around where the river bends have often yielded Bald Eagles who use them to scout the surrounding area for food.
The third section of the road begins when Soda Butte Creek enters the Lamar River. Along with the distinct narrowing of the valley, the Soda Butte, a striking hot spring cone about two and a half miles above the mouth of Soda Butte Creek, is the feature that heralds the third section of the valley. Here the valley narrows as the mountains now loom like overseers over the surrounding landscape. The herds of bison are still present but in smaller numbers. The tree line is closer to the road and thus bears can often be seen here in the Summer and Spring. This stretch of the road here can also sometimes yield surprising species like this bull Moose found in the Pebble Creek area.
Or these Mule Deer.
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