Now that spring is officially here—or what passes for spring—you may have come down with a case of spring fever. As ski season gives way to mud season, a drive out to Yellowstone’s Northern Range for wildlife watching might be just what the doctor ordered.
Even during this bridge season, when most of the park’s roads are closed for plowing, Yellowstone’s Northern Range is still accessible by automobile via the 57-mile route between Gardiner and Cooke City, Montana. (Other park roads are scheduled to open in segments, conditions permitting, starting April 19.)
The Northern Range’s high density of wildlife, combined with its wide-open vistas, make it an ideal place for wildlife watching. At its heart is the Lamar Valley, nicknamed “the Serengeti of North America” for its abundant wildlife and considered the world’s premier location to see wolves in the wild. You can not only view a wide variety of species here, but also see predator and prey species interacting with each other. Visitors might catch sight of several large mammals including elk, bison, mule deer, pronghorn, bighorn sheep, wolves, black bears, or grizzly bears.
“If you’ve never gone wildlife watching in the park with an experienced naturalist, I highly recommend you give it a try,” suggests Zachary Park, Assistant Institute Director, Operations for the Yellowstone Forever Institute. “An experienced naturalist can be a real critical aid in locating exciting wildlife, and can bring much more meaning to the overall experience. Make sure they bring along high quality scopes, which can vastly improve wildlife viewing.”
Here are a few more tips to help make the most of your day in Yellowstone’s Northern Range:
Check on conditions. If entering through Gardiner, stop at the Albright Visitor Center in Mammoth Hot Springs (open daily 9-5) to pick up a map, check on current road and trail conditions, and learn of any wildlife closure areas.
Plan your timing. If possible, try to plan the majority of your outing in the early morning or early evening hours, when most large mammals tend to be feeding and are more easily seen.
Pack your binoculars, and your patience. You’ll need to steadily and slowly scan the landscape for a bit of movement, taking advantage of the many road-side pullouts along the Northeast Entrance Road. Don’t forget to look up; watch for eagles, osprey, and other raptors near water sources.
Look for spring babies. Start watching in April for bison calves, or “red dogs.” In May you might also see bear cubs, wolf pups, or bighorn sheep lambs. Elk calves are usually the last to arrive, in late May or June.
Hit a trail. Inquire at a visitor center or ranger station about trail conditions. The Yellowstone River Picnic Area Trail tends to be a good pick in spring when most trails are still covered in snow. The easy to moderate trail (3.7 miles, round-trip) affords views of the river and surrounding mountains. Keep an eye out for bighorn sheep.
Take a tour. To help you explore the Northern Range, the Yellowstone Forever Institute offers educational tours and other programs ranging from a half-day to several days.
Stay safe. Follow park safety guidelines to always stay at least 100 yards (91 m) away from bears and wolves, and at least 25 yards (23 m) away from all other animals. Hike in groups of three or more and carry bear spray, even on short day hikes.