When Is the Best Time
Where and when animal sightings happen, depends on habitat preferences, weather and seasonal cycles of movement. Still, it's often a matter of luck but you can increase your chances by following our monthly guide and find out which animal can be seen in which month and season.
The best time to visit Yellowstone for wildlife is either in spring (May to June) or fall (mid-September to mid-October). In spring, bears with their cubs, wolves, baby bison, and other mammals are present. In the fall, it is possible to view the elk rut in Yellowstone.
However, every other season is also excellent because wildlife is present throughout the year in Yellowstone National Park. Every month and season offer fascinating sights and mammals to spot. Read on for our detailed season guide and wildlife calendar and check out the two best available tours below. Because viewing the most intriguing wildlife is also a matter of having an excellent guide who knows the area very well:
A complete Yellowstone Monthly Guide: Don' forget to check out our brand new Monthly Yellowstone General Guide
April - Early June (Spring)
Most animals can be spotted in or near the valleys. It's the time for baby bison, baby moose, baby bear, baby elk and many more. Also a good time to spot wolves and grizzly bears. Grizzly sightings occur mostly at night, dawn and dusk. A great grizzly bear spot in spring is the shores of Yellowstone Lake. Gray wolves are often seen in Lamar Valley and Hayden Valley.
Mid-June - July - August (Summer)
Bears and other animals leave the valleys and head for higher areas in June/July. But still, visitors often report bear sightings throughout June. Later in July and August the chances to spot grizzlies or black bears in the valleys are very low. However, bison are still there, starting to rut in early August. Warm, great weather but also peak tourist months.
September - October (Fall)
Animals return to the valleys. Elk rut throughout September. The fascinating rut can be witnessed up-close in Mammoth Hot Springs, near the northern entrance. Together with amazing fall colors it’s one of the best time to view or photograph almost every animal including elk, moose, bighorn as well as wolves and grizzly. Visitor wise it gets slightly less busy in September after Labor Day weekend. However especially weekends are still busy. In late September/early October the crowds start to dissipate.
November December- January - February - March (Winter)
Winter, a magical time and least crowded. Most animals are in or near the valleys. Some can be spotted near the steaming geyser basins. Winter is the best time to view wolves. You can also observe bison, elk, bighorn and others. Another great time for photographers, since animals are easier to spot against the snow. Grizzly bears can't be spotted, since they hibernate in winter until mid-March. The list with open facilities during winter and the overview with the warming huts are extremely useful. One thing you should always consider doing when visiting in the winter, is a snowmobile tour. That's an amazing experience! Find more useful winter tips on the official NPS website: NPS - Visiting Yellowstone in Winter and check out this great video on YouTube: Yellowstone - Winter in the Park
Must-Know Yellowstone Winter Facts and Tips
- Solitude: Winter is a silent time in Yellowstone. No tourist crowds and no packed areas. It’s not even busy at the popular spots. Example? Watching the geyser eruptions at Old Faithful in winter means standing there with only a handful of others. In the summer there are hundreds of visitors at the same time.
- Wildlife: Winter is a great time for wildlife viewing: You can spot bison, wolves, elk, and bighorn in the valleys (Lamar Valley), near the road, or some even at the geysers at Old Faithful. The higher areas are just too cold for the Yellowstone mammals in winter. Viewing wolves? You’re lucky to spot one in the summer months. In the winter, it’s not unlikely to spot a pack of wolves!
- Entrance and Roads: The only open entrance to private vehicles in winter is the North entrance in Gardiner (read our entrances descriptions). From Gardiner you have 2 choices: A) Drive the only accessible winter road to the Northeast Entrance (Cooke City) through Lamar Valley and spot amazing wildlife or B) Drive to Mammoth Hot Springs, which is like the base for winter activities. From there, you can book a snowmobile or snowcoach which drives you to Old Faithful (the only other place with open lodging in winter inside the park). You’ll spot plenty of wildlife during this ride. The alternative in the South: A guided tour from Jackson. With guided tours, you get into Yellowstone almost anywhere in winter. We recommend these excellent guys: Full Day Snowmobile Tour from Jackson Hole. The best lodging in Jackson: Inn on The Creek (via booking.com with price guarantee).
- Lodging and Facilities: In the winter months most hotels and lodges are closed. Within the park, you can stay at two places: Mammoth Hot Springs and the Old Faithful Snow Lodge. Otherwise, we suggest to stay in Gardiner and drive to Cooke city through Lamar Valley as described above. Both towns have excellent lodging and facilities, even in winter. Check the lodging links in our ‘Entrance Section’
Time of Day for Wildlife
The best time of day for wildlife viewing in Yellowstone National Park is either at dawn or dusk when animals are the most active. Mornings or evenings are their feeding times which makes them more visible. For most wildlife, dawn is even superior.
Our top tip is to be at the valleys just before at sunrise and stay until 9 AM. It's also less crowded. However, dusk is great as well of course, particularly for elk viewing in September. Check the sunrise and sunset times here: Sunrise - Sunset Yellowstone
Avoiding Tourist Crowds
Yellowstone National Parks gets heavily crowded in the peak summer months. If you plan a summer visit, book your hotel well in advance.
The most crowded months are June, July and August: Congested roads, overflown parking lots and the popular places are packed: Old Faithful, Grand Prismatic Spring, the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, Mammoth Hot Springs. The month of May is still moderate visitor wise. However, it gets very busy on Memorial Day. Later in September visitation starts to drop off after Labor Day weekend. However, it's still busy, even more so on weekends. In late September the crowds start to thin out. In October it's getting a lot quieter again.
How to avoid the crowds during peak months? Arrive early! The rush hour in YNP starts between 9 and 10 AM. Get up as early as possible! Another way is to dodge the crowds is by staying late: The main attractions are packed between 10 AM and 4 PM. Get there later, as it doesn't get dark before 9 PM anyway. Another big advantage when arriving early or staying late: You'll get to see more wildlife at dawn or dusk (see above). Extra tip: Check the official NPS Webcams a few days before you arrive during certain daytimes.
There is one word which is true for Yellowstone's weather: Unpredictable! Temperature drops and rain can happen almost any time in spring, summer and fall. Thunderstorms in summer are common in the afternoons. Bring layer of clothes and always rain gear.
If you'd like to avoid snow completely, then don't visit before May/June. It still can snow in June at some places but it will melt very quickly. By late May the valley floor is usually snow free. In higher elevations you may still see some snow in late May and June. That's important to know if you go hiking. After the summer you can expect the first real snow in October. As a local expert says: 'You can count on snow on the ground in Yellowstone by Halloween!'. However, never let the snow stop you from coming. October is an excellent month: Quiet and still so much wildlife to spot! In spring late April and May are our preferred months, regardless of the snow. Just keep in mind that until late April it still can feel like winter!
Itinerary and Yellowstone Entrances +Best Hotels
The amount of entrances and accommodations at Yellowstone can be a little confusing for the first-time visitor. We're here to help. First of all, it's good know which entrances exist. The following map is nice, because it also includes drive times: Yellowstone National Park Map with Mileage (open the map in seperate tab and keep it open. Google Maps - Yellowstone is also helpful). Keep in mind, that the drive times do not include factors like flow of traffic, sightseeing or comfort stops, and of course unpredictable animal jams. Depending on the time you allocated for Yellowstone, split your stays between at least 2 or even better 3 entrance areas. If you focus on wildlife viewing as well as other main sights, Yellowstone experts recommend the following three locations:
West Yellowstone | West Entrance:
This could be your first stay and experts say it's a must-stay place. Here you find the largest selection of lodging and restaurants. You can cover popular spots like Old Faithful (depending on where you are coming from, you may even stop there on your way to West Yellowstone). Best Hotels - Lodging Yellowstone West (bookmark the link to compare later!)
Gardiner | North Entrance:
From West Yellowstone, you drive to Gardiner and cover the Northwest Side, including major sights in the area like Mammoth Hot Springs. Best Hotels - Lodging Yellowstone Gardiner (bookmark the link to compare later!)
Cooke City | Northeast Entrance:
From Gardiner you drive east over to Tower-Roosevelt and drive out into the Lamar Valley, for the best wildlife viewing experience. Then head further east/northeast and spend the next night in Cooke City. Best Hotels - Lodging Yellowstone Cooke City (bookmark the link to compare later!)
Depending on where you're coming from you may change the order of the above places. Or maybe stay in West Yellowstone and Cooke City 'only'. That's also possible including covering Lamar Valley. Always keep in mind that there is plenty of wildlife to watch while driving and of course when you make stops. It could even happen, that you spot more fascinating wildlife on your drive, than in Lamar Valley itself for example. However, you shouldn't miss Lamar Valley!
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Where and Tips
Yellowstone's abundant and diverse wildlife are as famous as its geysers. There are 67 species of mammals including 7 species of native ungulates and 2 species of bears, nearly 300 species of birds, 16 species of fish, 5 species of amphibians, and 5 species of reptiles.
This book is a must read about Yellowstone and its wild inhabitants. Read it, even if you’re only remotely interested in wildlife and wildlands. It feels as if you’re right there with the author on his hikes. Quote from a reader's review:
'I felt like I was back in Yellowstone. Get this book now ...'
- It's extremely valuable to stop by ranger stations to find out the recent animal sightings and whenever you spot a ranger, get perspective from each of them.
- Hike a couple of miles from the busy tourist areas/roads, your chances of spotting other wildlife increases a lot.
- While driving through a valley, stop whenever you see a bunch of people looking through their binoculars or scopes. There is a good chance they already spotted something.
- Equipment: Binoculars (Tip: Canon 10x30) are a must but a spotting scope is even better.
- Listen! Don't just look for wildlife, close your eyes and listen to all natural ambient noises around you. Call of the elk, birds chirping and other fascinating animal noises.
- Always hike with bear spray! Particularly in summer, bring insect repellent and/or wear clothing treated with insect repellent.
3 Amazing Wildlife Spots
Most animals migrate in and out of Yellowstone depending on the availability of food. Thus, wildlife sightingy at any given location will vary greatly by season (see above), weather, as well as other factors. Check out our three top areas:
- Location: Lamar Valley is slightly remotely located along Lamar River in the northeast corner of Yellowstone. Lamar Valley Google Maps
- Animals: Bison, bighorn sheep, elk, grizzly bears, black bears mule deer, pronghorn, wolves, coyote.
- Driving: The Northeast Entrance Road is open year-round. There are many pullouts and viewpoints where you can stop at. Although accessible in winter, you need to drive carefully in snow and icy weather.
- Hiking: A great hiking trail with many opportunities to spot wildlife in the wilderness: Lamar River Trail to Cache Creek However, experts say that sometimes you will see more wildlife from the road than from a hiking trail.
This valley is often called Yellowstone's Serengeti for its wide open meadows with large herds of bison and pronghorn along with deer, coyote, badgers and other mammals. In fact Lamar Valley is the prime spot for bison in summer. However, Lamar has it all. It's the place where you can view the largest variety of animals in Yellowstone. There is even a good chance to sport large predators like grizzly bears or wolves here.
- Location: Hayden Valley is more easily accessible, as it's located in the southern part of Yellowstone. North of the lake and thermal areas. Hayden Valley Google Maps
- Animals: Bison, elk, black bear, grizzly bears, wolves.
- Driving: The Grand Loop Road (usually closed in winter) takes you through Hayden Valley. Like in Lamar Valley there are many spots where you can pull off and start watching.
This is another premier area for wildlife viewing besides Lamar Valley. The Hayden Valley covers a vast area of 50 square miles. Famous for its lush open meadows, surrounding one of the most beautiful stretches of Yellowstone River. The main difference between Hayden and Lamar landscape: Lamar is a lot wider. That means you can sometimes spot animals a little easier here in Hayden Valley. However, long time visitors report that wolves and grizzly bears are frequently closer in Lamar than in Hayden. Besides wolves and grizzlies Hayden Valley is of course another hot spot for bison, which is the most prominent animal there. However, unlike in Lamar Valley no pronghorn or bighorn sheep can be seen.
Mammoth Hot Springs
- Location: Mammoth Hot Springs is located in the northern area of the park, only five miles from the North Entrance. Mammoth Hot Springs Google Maps
- Animals: Elk, bison, black bears, mule deer
- Driving/Parking: There is limited parking which is usually full and overflowing in peak season. Arrive before 9 a.m. or after 6 p.m.
While other places may be better for pure wildlife viewing, this one is a unique thermal spot unlike any other in Yellowstone. And that's why we chose it as the third area: You'll see some fascinating thermal activity as well as wildlife. There are usually herds of elk you can spot around Mammoth Hot Springs. They can be seen here year round. North of Mammoth you may also spot bighorn sheep in the canyon.
More Wildlife Spots
- Fishing Bridge: Grizzly bears
- Madison: Bison, elk
- North Entrance: Bighorn sheep, bison, elk, pronghorn
- Northeast Entrance: Moose
- Old Faithful: Bison, elk
- South Entrance: Moose