Discard the idea that you have to be in Africa to go on safari. Instead, head for the “Serengeti of North America”—the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem—which is spread across the states of Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho.
Grand Teton and Yellowstone national parks form the heart of this 34,375-square-mile swath, which packs in more wildlife than anywhere else in the lower 48 states and represents one of the last large, nearly intact temperate ecosystems in the world.
Here, wild nature still reigns. Grizzly bears lumber through willow flats, wolf howls echo across misty morning air, wild bison kick up prairie dust, and birds of prey soar on puffs of wind.
“There are animals everywhere [in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem]—that’s not an exaggeration,” says Dave Gustine, branch chief of Grand Teton’s Fish and Wildlife Program. “To have the large mammal assemblage that you have here, in [terms of] both the diversity and density of species, is pretty remarkable.” The best part: Most of the wild lands comprising the ecosystem are highly accessible.
> What You’ll See:
You’re bound to see big animals, and lots of them. Charismatic carnivores like grizzly bears, black bears, wolves, and coyotes are common, while mountain lions, wolverines, bobcats, and Canada lynx are more elusive.
Down the food chain, elk, deer, moose, pronghorn, mountain goats, and bighorn sheep roam widely across this vast range. You’re also likely to spy smaller mammals like beavers, yellow-bellied marmots, snowshoe hares, squirrels, and jackrabbits scurrying about.
Overhead, look for bald eagles, golden eagles, great horned owls, trumpeter swans, and hundreds of other bird species. Rest assured, your pencil will get dull ticking off your “life list.”
> When to Go:
Summer is peak tourist season in the Jackson Hole Valley, so if you want to avoid the crowds and have a better chance of seeing wildlife, plan a trip during a shoulder season, like spring or fall.
To hit both parks, visit between May and late October. While Grand Teton National Park is open year-round, most of Yellowstone is shuttered for the winter. (Excepting the road connecting Yellowstone’s north and northeast entrances, vehicle access is quite limited.)
That being said, each season brings its own splendors and offers a different glimpse of life in this biodiverse paradise. Here are a few highlights from each:
- Spring means babies, babies, and more babies. Bears wake from their naps. Lack of leafy cover makes animals easier to see.
- Summer is crowded with visitors, and animals disperse over a massive range. Still, you’re still likely to see elk, deer, moose, bears, and more. It’s also a good time to spot wolves in Yellowstone.
- Fall is mating season. Male elk and bison put on entertaining displays in hopes of impressing potential mates. Bears are also very active, as they prepare for hibernation. Plus, the fall foliage adds a dramatic backdrop to the experience.
- Winter brings vast herds of wildlife to the region, especially to the National Elk Refuge in Wyoming. The snow makes it easier to spot predators like fox, coyotes, and wolves. But you won’t see any bears; they’re hibernating.
> Where to Go: Head to these hot spots to watch wildlife in action.
Yellowstone National Park:
- Lamar Valley—located in the park’s northeastern corner—is a wolf-watching mecca. Bison, elk, and coyote are usually prevalent here, too.
- Hayden Valley, situated just north of Yellowstone Lake, is another good place to find wolves and grizzlies.
Grand Teton National Park:
- At Elk Ranch Flats Turnout, you have a good chance of seeing bison, pronghorn, and elk—and even wolves in the spring (they are known to den here).
- Head to Oxbow Bend at dawn to spot bald eagles, elk, bears, moose, waterfowl, and more while Grand Teton, the park’s namesake mountain, shows off in the pond’s reflection.
- Willow Flats is a great place to kick back and watch bears, elk, and wolves wander past and Moose Junction is a primo spot to look for, well, moose.
> Where to Stay:
Make it easy on yourself and stay in one of the parks.
Spring, Summer, and Fall: In Yellowstone, nine lodges and a dozen campgrounds are in operation when the weather allows. My pick from among them? The Roosevelt Lodge. From your deck, you might hear wolves howling in Lamar Valley. Tip: Plan ahead, especially if you’re planning a trip in the summer. Lodging in the park often books up a year in advance for peak season (reservations begin on May 1 for the following year).
- Nat Geo Expeditions
Spontaneous types and those seeking a quieter experience should opt for Grand Teton National Park. Last-minute rooms are often available (excluding July and early August) and all park campgrounds (except the RV park) operate on a first-come-first-served policy. Jackson Lake Lodge occupies a stunning spot, with a big deck overlooking Willow Flats.
Winter: Jackson Hole, Wyoming, makes a good home base in winter, providing easy access to both parks (especially Grand Teton, which surrounds the town), weather permitting. Or book a room in Yellowstone at Mammoth Hot Springs & Cabins, an easy jaunt to the Lamar Valley.
> Wildlife Watching Tips:
While wild animals are easy to spot in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, you’ll see a lot more if you slow down, look around carefully, and think like an animal.
- Head out at dusk and dawn, the best times to spot wildlife.
- Bring binoculars.
- Wear neutral clothing that will help you blend in with the natural surroundings.
- Speak quietly to avoid spooking animals.
- Drive slowly, stopping frequently to scan for wildlife.
- Maintain a healthy distance from bison, which are faster than they look (and will charge).
- Be patient!
Tip: Take a guided tour early in your stay to learn about the best places to look from outfitters who know the ecosystem best.
Jason Williams, founder of Jackson Hole Wildlife Safaris, leads wildlife tours in the parks to help people learn where and how to spot wildlife. “We teach people why we look in certain places and give an idea of the life cycle of animals,” he says. “[That way,] people can follow up with the knowledge we’ve given them and spend more time searching in the park.”
Boulder-based freelance writer Avery Stonich has traveled to more than 40 countries in search of adventure. Visit her website at averystonich.com and follow her on Twitter and Instagram @averystonich.