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. We gathered information from hundreds of visitor reviews and talked to Yellowstone animal experts to put together a detailed wildlife season guide.
The best time to visit Yellowstone for wildlife is in the spring, from April to May, and in the fall months. Spring is the best time to spot bears with their cubs, wolves, baby bison, and other mammals. In September, it is possible to view the elk rut in Yellowstone. It’s also less crowded during both periods compared to the summer months.
However, every other season is excellent as well because wildlife is present throughout the year in Yellowstone National Park. Every month and season offers 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.
- Wildlife Season Tips
- Time of Day | Wildlife Calendar
- Monthly Weather
- Entrances | Itinerary | Hotels
- 3 Best Spots for Wildlife
- 10 Animals | Viewing Tips
Guided tours are better! Because viewing the most intriguing wildlife is also a matter of having an excellent guide who knows the area and wildlife spots very well:
More Yellowstone Tips: Don’ forget to check out our brand new Yellowstone Season Guide
April – Early June (Spring)
During 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 and 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 in the fall. 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 times 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 and early October, the crowds start to dissipate.
November December- January – February – March (Winter)
Winter, a magical time and the least crowded. Most animals are in or near the valleys during the colder period. 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 is 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 staying 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’
Best 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 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 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 that 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 | Entrances | Best Hotels
The number of entrances and accommodations at Yellowstone can be a little confusing for first-time visitors. We’re here to help. First of all, it’s good to 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 a separate tab and keep it open. Google Maps – Yellowstone is also helpful).
Keep in mind, that the drive times do not include factors like the 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!
Rental Car Deals & Hotel Deals: For a rental car the best choice nowadays is rentalcars.com: They offer the lowest rates for Alamo, Enterprise, Thrifty, Avis, etc. Also check the weekly hotel top deals if you’d like to save even more money (Please note, that you need to pause any Ad-Blocker to see the following deals):
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 …’
Must-Know Wildlife Tips
- 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 10×30) 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 Best Spots for Wildlife Viewing
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 the 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
10 Animals in Yellowstone | Viewing Tips
- Sighting Chance: Low – Moderate
Season/Months: Grizzly bears are most often seen between March and May in Yellowstone National Park – just as they emerge from hibernation. Sightings are also reported during fall, as the bears begin fattening up for winter. Hibernation generally occurs from November until February, meaning the bears are absent during these months.
Time of Day: Peak activity times are around dawn and dusk, with grizzly bears using these times to feed. They can be seen during the middle of the day, although most individuals spend this period sleeping.
Where: Despite being thought of as forest animals, grizzly bears are regularly sighted in upland meadows. North-eastern Yellowstone is the best place to see them, with the Lamar Valley and Yellowstone Lake being hotspots, as well as Hayden Valley.
You don’t have to do backcountry hiking to spot them. Drive through the valleys and stop at one of the pullouts to check the area for grizzlies.
Interesting Facts: Grizzly bears are well known for their size and power, with the largest individuals weighing up to 800 pounds (363 kg). Their formidable appearance disguises their love for berries and fruits, which make up the majority of their diet. However, they also feed on animals, with elk and bison being common food sources during spring.
Speed is one of the grizzly bear’s key weapons, with these animals capable of topping 30 mph in pursuit of prey. 728 individuals were recorded in greater Yellowstone during 2019
- Sighting Chance: Moderate
Season/Months: The spring months are the best time of year to see black bears in Yellowstone, as they emerge from their dens in late March. They move to higher altitudes during the summer but become more visible again in fall before disappearing back into their burrows in November.
Time of Day: Black bears mainly forage at night. However, they can be seen at any time of the day. Most sightings tend to be around dawn and dusk.
Where: Black bears are often seen around Mammoth Hot Springs and Tower Junction, although they are present in many of Yellowstone’s valleys.
Interesting Facts: Black bears are opportunistic foragers, meaning they eat whatever they can get their paws on. Typically, their diet consists of berries, roots, and rodents, although more adventurous bears have been known to raid campsites in search of food.
Black bears track down meals using their incredible sense of smell, which is seven times more powerful than a domestic dog’s. Black bear numbers in Yellowstone are unknown, but they are quite commonly seen.
- Sighting Chance: High
Season/Months: Bison can be seen all year-round in Yellowstone, tending to stay at higher elevation during the summer before moving lower down as winter arrives. Calving occurs from April until June.
Time of Day: Active throughout the day, bison typically graze in the morning and afternoon, resting in between.
Where: The Hayden and Lamar Valleys are home to bison year-round, while the Madison River is a popular spot during winter in Yellowstone.
Interesting Facts: Bison are the heaviest land mammals in North America, with bulls sometimes weighing in at over a ton. For such large animals, they are surprisingly quick on their feet, able to reach speeds of 40 mph. Bison are very social and live in large herds of about 20 individuals, often led by mature females.
Almost 5,000 bison are estimated to live in Yellowstone in total. In the fall, the grasslands echo with the bellows of large males as they fight amongst each other during the annual rut.
- Sighting Chance: Low
Season/Months: Gray wolves can be seen at any time of year in Yellowstone. However, they often move to higher altitudes during summer to avoid the heat, making winter the best time to see them.
Time of Day: Dawn and dusk are the two favorite times of day for wolves. While it’s possible to see them at other times, they often rest during the middle of the day.
Where: Wolves are most common in northern parts of Yellowstone, with the Lamar and Hayden Valleys being good places to see them.
Interesting Facts: With their solemn howls being one of the most iconic sounds in the wild, gray wolves are one of the most popular animals in Yellowstone. Hunted to extinction here in the 1970’s, they have since made a comeback and there are now more than 500 wolves in the greater Yellowstone region. They live and hunt in small packs, using their teamwork and endurance to take down prey as large as elk and even bison. Although greatly feared, they almost never attack humans.
- Sighting Chance: Moderate
Season/Months: Moose can be seen at any time of the year in Yellowstone National Park but are most obvious during September and October when the males call loudly to attract females. Calving occurs in early summer.
Time of Day: Generally active throughout the day, moose are most likely to be seen around dawn or dusk, as they forage for food.
Where: Moose spend much of their time in or around water, meaning rivers and ponds are the best places to find them. Willow Park wetland and Mammoth Hot Springs are prime locations in the park.
Interesting Facts: Growing to over 7 feet tall, moose are the largest members of the deer family. Bulls can be identified by their large antlers, which they keep for most of the year, before shedding after the breeding season.
Unlike other deer species, moose are solitary animals and spend much of their time alone, feeding on aquatic plants such as duckweed. There are fewer than 200 individuals in Yellowstone, with the population decreasing due to hunting in nearby regions.
- Sighting Chance: Almost Guaranteed
Season/Months: Although they are seen all year-round in Yellowstone, elk are most obvious in summer, when their herd sizes swell to thousands of individuals. In the fall, males engage in violent clashes during the annual rut.
Time of Day: Elk are active during the day, with peaks around dawn and dusk. This behavior is an adaptation to avoid Yellowstone’s large predators.
Where: Elk are found throughout Yellowstone’s valleys, with Mammoth Hot Springs being one of the best locations for sightings. They tend to migrate towards the north of the park during winter.
Interesting Facts: Elk are the most common large animals in Yellowstone, with herds numbering as many as 20,000 individuals during summer. Males produce loud, eerie calls during the breeding season – a behavior known as bugling.
Their antlers grow to an impressive size, sometimes weighing as much as 20 kg, a feature that can make them majestic animals to see. Elk are also known as wapiti – a native American word that means ‘light-colored deer’.
- Sighting Chance: Good
Season/Months: Pronghorn can be seen at any time of year in Yellowstone, although they often move further north during winter. Calving occurs during late spring and early summer.
Time of Day: Being crepuscular animals, pronghorn are most active at dawn and dusk. Despite this, they can be seen throughout the day and spend much of their time grazing.
Where: Pronghorn favor Yellowstone’s open prairies and grasslands. In summer, the Lamar Valley is the best place for sightings, with the North Entrance being a popular spot in winter.
Interesting Facts: Closely resembling antelope, Pronghorn are built for speed, able to reach more than 50 mph over short distances. This makes them the second-fastest land animals on the planet – an ability that helps them escape their predators.
Young pronghorn are just as athletic and can walk within 30 minutes of birth, being able to out-run a human at just a few days old. There are just over 500 individuals within Yellowstone, with the population thought to be increasing.
- Sighting Chance: Very Low
Season/Months: Cougars can be seen all year-round in Yellowstone National Park. However, most sightings are during the winter months when they move to lower altitudes.
Time of Day: Cougars are considered to be nocturnal and crepuscular, being very secretive by nature. Dawn and dusk can be the best times to spot them.
Where: Rocky areas and dense forests are the preferred habitats for cougars, meaning they tend to be present in northern regions of Yellowstone. You’re far more likely to come across them in remote areas.
Interesting Facts: Cougars are among the most seldom-seen creatures in Yellowstone, as they typically prefer to avoid humans as much as possible. On top of this, the population is very low – only numbering around 40 individuals – mostly due to the historic impacts of hunting.
Cougars are ambush predators and stalk their prey from the shadows, overcoming them with a burst of speed and power. Deer make up most of their diet, but they will hunt smaller mammals as well.
- Sighting Chance: Low
Season/Months: Although bighorn sheep can be seen at any time of year in Yellowstone, they spend the summer months on high mountain slopes. Thus, they are easier to see in the winter when they move to lower elevations.
Time of Day: Bighorn sheep are primarily active during the day when they feed and rest intermittently. They also come out on moonlit nights.
Where: Steep mountain terrain is the best place to see bighorn sheep. They can usually be found on the slopes of Mount Washburn or in regions surrounding the North Entrance of Yellowstone National Park.
Interesting Facts: The bighorn sheep lives up to its name, with the males flaunting large horns that weigh more than all of the bones in their bodies combined. These impressive weapons are utilized towards the end of fall, with males clashing on mountain slopes in a struggle for supremacy.
Bighorn sheep are closely related to goats, and they are incredible climbers, with their split hooves giving them an excellent grip, even on cliff faces. Almost 350 individuals live in northern Yellowstone, making them rather scarce.
- Sighting Chance: Good
Season/Months: Bald eagles can be seen year-round in Yellowstone, although some migrate elsewhere during winter, meaning there are slightly better chances to see them in summer.
Time of Day: Active during the day, bald eagles are seen most often at dawn and dusk. These are common hunting times, with other parts of the day being dedicated to rest.
Where: The Hayden Valley and Madison River are two hotspots for bald eagles all year-round. They prefer being close to water, meaning the Gardner River is another good place to spot them, especially in winter.
Interesting Facts: As one of the most iconic animals in the United States, the bald eagle can be an evocative sight in the Yellowstone landscape. The park has one of the largest eagle populations in the country, with 31 active nests recorded in 2019.
Bald eagles are powerful hunters, using their keen eyesight to pick out prey from great distances. They feed mainly on fish, but they will also hunt small mammals while occasionally scavenging carrion. Being very long-lived birds, bald eagles will sometimes reach the age of 28 years old.
Sighting Chance: Good
Season/Months: It’s possible to see coyotes at any time of year in Yellowstone National Park. However, they often become more visible during the winter months as they move away from higher altitudes. Pups are usually born in spring, emerging from their dens by early summer.
Time of Day: Coyotes can be active at any time of day, but dawn and dusk are the best times to see them. They also hunt at night on occasion.
Where: They tend to be seen in grassland regions, although they are present throughout Yellowstone, even close to very busy areas.
Interesting Facts: Famed for their wily nature, coyotes are intelligent animals who rely on their opportunistic behavior to find food. They feed largely on small rodents and young elk, but they will also raid bins and steal human food if given the chance.
Coyotes are common in Yellowstone, however, their population has decreased with the resurgence of wolves, as the two species compete for territory and food. They are one of the most vocal large mammals, communicating with distinctive howls and barks.
More Useful Links / Resources
- NPS Yellowstone – Wildlife
- When to See Yellowstone Wildlife
- Yellowstone Park – Wildlife
- NPS Yellowstone National Park – Map
- NPS Yellowstone Season Highlights