Once reintroduced, wolves quickly acclimated to their old hunting grounds, roaming vast stretches of wilderness, establishing territories and forming new packs throughout the greater Yellowstone region. A revived sense of balance returned to the Yellowstone ecosystem as the predators once again conducted primeval rituals of hunting bison, elk and other quarry of Yellowstone.
Knowing that there are wolves in Yellowstone is one thing, actually spotting a wolf is another. Wolves cannot be seen from a visitor center — unless you are content experiencing Yellowstone on a large screen. Unlike the bison galumphing over the roads in Hayden Valley or the elk grazing on the lush lawns of Mammoth, wolves are elusive. Like the grizzly, wolves can cover large tracts of land in a short period of time. It takes a lot of patience, a little luck and considerable effort to encounter wolves in Yellowstone.
Winter is the best season to spot wolves and other wildlife in Yellowstone. A stunning backdrop of crystal white makes it easier to see animals at a distance. Winter snows push large herds of elk out of the high country and into the more hospitable valleys and meadows near the road between Mammoth and Cooke City.
With Yellowstone’s north entrance just 53 scenic miles south of Livingston, wolf watching in the Park can be an easy day trip. Get an early start with a quick stop at Coffee Crossing (on 2nd Street) for a coffee and muffin. As you head south you’ll soon realize you don’t have to wait to reach Yellowstone to experience breath-taking scenery. An early morning drive through beautiful Paradise Valley is the perfect warm-up to a day in Yellowstone.
Arriving in Gardiner, you may want to stop and regroup. The Tumbleweed Cafe is a charming little bookstore/cafe. Another great place to duck into is the Yellowstone Association‘s new Visitor Center on the edge of Gardiner, overlooking the north entrance to Yellowstone and the Roosevelt Arch. There you’ll find a friendly staff eager to answer any questions, along with plenty of resources for your day trip into Yellowstone.
Once you pass through the arch and enter the park, you’ll start climbing along the Gardner River. Mammoth is another good option for a quick stop before heading east towards the Lamar Valley. The National Park Service has an informative Visitor Center in the heart of the historic military post of Mammoth. Field guides, maps and a knowledgeable National Park Service staff will point you in the right direction. If you’re wanting a more substantial meal, cross the street for a bite at the Mammoth Hotel Dining Room.
From Mammoth drive east towards the Lamar Valley. Wolves can be seen anywhere in Yellowstone, but your chances of spotting Canis lupus increases dramatically as you approach the area around the Lamar. First, stop at the Slough Creek trailhead. Park at the trailhead and hike north up the dirt road (closed to vehicles during the winter). Recently the well-established wolf packs have been disrupted and new packs have started to form around Slough Creek. The wide open vistas of the legendary Lamar Valley make for ideal wolf sightings as well. There are plenty of pull-outs along the Lamar for wildlife viewing.
Wolf watching in Yellowstone requires a lot of patience and some skill. A seasoned wolf enthusiast will tell you to look for signs such as circling birds and uneasy elk pacing the hillsides. Another obvious sign of wolf activity is traffic congestion along the road. Make sure to bring a spotting scope or binoculars as wolves are rarely spotted near the road.
Insider Tip: Late winter is especially good for wildlife watching as there are fewer people in the park at this time and some local establishments offer discounts.
According to wildlife expert Michael Leach, Executive Director of Yellowstone Country Guardians, “Though wolf sightings in the middle of the day are not uncommon, they tend to be fleeting and short lived. If one really wants to experience observing wolves in the Lamar it is imperative to get up early or stay out late as wolves are crepuscular meaning they are most active during the dawn and dusk hours. Rising before light basks the valley or committing to staying until the sun descends behind Electric Peak to the west may make for a long day, but the sighting of a wolf in the wild is something you will never forget.”
If you’re looking for a more in-depth wildlife viewing experience, contact the Yellowstone Safari Company. Their experienced biologist guides will facilitate exciting Yellowstone outings while providing professional background information. The Yellowstone Safari Company specializes in grizzly bear and wolf adventures and they offer a variety of safari packages. The Yellowstone Association also offers field courses, tours and many opportunities for outdoor education. Yellowstone Safari Company | P.O. Box 42, Bozeman, MT 59771 | ph: 866.586.1155 | Yellowstone Association 115 3rd South, Gardiner, MT 59030 | ph: 406.848.2400
If you catch the wolf bug and want to extend your trip, drive east of Lamar Valley to Silvergate. Located on the edge of Yellowstone and surrounded by 10,000 foot peaks, the Pine Edge Cabins offer the perfect blend of rustic mountain charm and modern amenities. Lesser known than its neighbor, Cooke City, the tiny mountain hamlet of Silvergate has wonderful cross-country ski trails, plenty of snow and easy access to prime wolf territory.
Brad Bunkers, GoLivingston.com founder and editor, wears many creative hats. In addition to producing the Livingston travel guide, he owns the Livingston, Montana graphic design and branding company, Engine 8; maintains a Livingston fine art studio; produces the international arts journal, HoboEye; and sits on two non-profit boards. Visit engine8design.com or bradbunkers.com to learn more about Bunkers.
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