We were camped several miles east of Yellowstone National Park, but today we were going to make a long drive into and around the park solely to look for wildlife. In addition to elk, bison, pronghorns, otters, marmots, beavers, muskrats, and more, we finally got to see bears (which eluded us last year).
Amazingly, we got up at 4:30 this morning and were in the Jeep on our way to Yellowstone National Park at 5:00 a.m. in an attempt to see as much wildlife in the park as we could.
We covered the thermal features of the park pretty well last year. They are what I think of most when I think of Yellowstone, and we got great photos and saw many of the geysers erupt. But today, the focus was on animals and only animals.
For those that have never been to Yellowstone, the park roads form a figure eight with an upper and lower loop and several spurs coming in from the various entrances - East, Northeast, North, West, & South.
We drove slowly looking for wildlife in the early morning light, but we didn't see anything until we crossed into the park at the East entrance about 15 to 16 miles west of our campground. Once in the park, we saw Mule Deer one at a time along the road.
Then we saw nothing else until we were over Sylvan Pass. Once over the pass, we saw more Mule Deer, an occasional Elk cow, and a couple of Bison.
Continuing on toward the Fishing Bridge junction ....
we saw lots of waterfowl on the ponds and a large herd of Elk on the north side of Yellowstone Lake.
From Fishing Bridge north to Canyon Village ....
we passed through Hayden Valley, one of the best wildllife viewing areas of the park. You can pretty much count on seeing herds of Bison, several Elk, and the occasional bear or wolf in Hayden Valley - although the views might be distant.
Traveling along the Yellowstone River, there were a few vehicles parked alongside the road at various places. The early risers are true wildlife watchers, but you never know if someone is looking at some rare treat or at a Bison (which are everywhere and often very close to or on the road) or if it's someone that has never seen a Canada Goose.
But we always take a good scan just in case. This time, we saw three River Otters swimming upstream in the river, occasionally popping out and running along the bank ....
or across the gravel bars.
We turned around and parked in a spot giving us a good vantage point to watch them.
To our delight, they stopped going upriver and entertained us both in and out of the water for a good fifteen minutes or so. They weren't exactly close and the best viewing was with binoculars, but we could hear their squeaks and growls as they wrestled in the water. We can almost always count on a show when we find a group of otters.
Moving on through Hayden Valley, we stopped to get shots of a couple of Elk bulls.
The largest was curled up like a cat and wasn't about to move - I guess it was a bit early for him, too.
We stopped at a very popular overlook, where photographers and wildlife watchers had out their huge lenses and spotting scopes. Most were trying to spot the wolves known to be in the area. But during our stop, we saw nothing but more Bison and Elk.
It had been a decent morning so far, but still no bears. We saw two packs of wolves in different locations last August, so even the possibility of seeing wolves (a really big deal in Yellowstone) didn't intrigue us as much as seeing bears.
We stopped in Canyon Village for breakfast and checked out the wildlife sightings on the board at the Visitors Center. Many of the bear sightings were in Hayden Valley where we saw none, but it was encouraging that there were several bear sightings in various places throughout the day, not just at dawn and dusk.
We drove north over Dunraven Pass toward the Tower-Roosevelt junction.
After going over the pass, we stopped a couple of times to scan the valley below - more Bison and Elk. And there was one friendly Yellow-bellied Marmot that seemed to enjoy attention.
At the bottom of the pass, between the Tower Falls stop and the Tower-Roosevelt Junction, they were doing construction (just as they were back in August). We had to sit for several minutes waiting to get through but, fortunately, we brought our Kindles so it wasn't too bad.
Once through the construction, we turned and headed out toward the Northeast entrance and Lamar Valley, the other prime area for wildlife viewing in the park.
Drive out through Lamar Valley and you will see enough Bison to last you for a long time.
There are multiple herds as far as the eye can see, and almost every distant black dot is a Bison. Of course, there are plenty right next to the road, so there is no need to strain to see them.
And there were lots of calves today.
They certainly are cute and fun to watch.
There are also lots of Elk and Pronghorn in Lamar Valley, and it's another area where the wolf enthusiasts are out every morning.
At one pull-off, we scanned the landscape with our binoculars. I saw a moving black dot way up on a hillside. With both of us looking at it, we were pretty darn sure it was our first bear sighting by the way it moved. But seeing a bear that we couldn't tell 100% was a bear didn't count.
Continuing on, we encountered more "wolf people" who were waiting for the wolves to appear. We asked about bears, and we got the same response we've been getting. "Oh, the bears are everywhere this year. Just go to the next pull-out with all the cars and there is a distant Grizz and three cubs. And if you want to see Black Bears, just go to the Petrified Tree near the Tower-Roosevelt junction."
Well, that was helpful and confirmed some other information we had read and heard. Apparently, the avid Yellowstone wildlife watchers were almost as over-exposed to bears this Spring as we have been with Bison and Elk.
So, we ambled on down to the next pull-out. Sure enough, there were lots of cars, and we spotted a mama Grizzly (or sow) and her three cubs across the river. With our binocs, we could definitely tell these were bears, but the pictures aren't quite so convincing.
Well allrighty then. A confirmed bear sighting. We'll take it.
We drove just a bit farther and found some folks looking at Bighorn Sheep through a scope. Not long after that, we turned around and headed back.
At the Tower-Roosevelt junction, we took a right and drove up the road a ways to the Petrified Tree side road. We were told the Black Bears were active at dusk, but we weren't going to be there at dusk and took a chance.
Apparently, everyone else knew about these bears, because there were cars squeezed in everywhere. And, sure enough, there was a mama Black Bear and her two cinnamon cubs.
Somehow, we managed to get a great parking spot above them. And we were close enough that the patrolling rangers made us stay in the vehicle.
The cubs certainly weren't newborns, and though they never got too far away from mom, she didn't seem overly concerned when they wandered.
One of the cubs stood up briefly - they're really cute when they do that. :)
With the sow's dark fur and her constant feeding, it was hard to get a good shot of her face, but we stayed for at least a half an hour and waited for the opportunity.
She and her cubs were beautiful.
We noticed that the cars were thinning out. That made it easy for us to turn around and leave. On the way out, people were walking up the pavement. Apparently, word about the bears had traveled fast so they had closed the road, and people had to walk from a parking lot. Guess we got there just in time.
We saw our bears and lots of other wildlife, and we were ready to get back home. We sat and waited for the construction again as we headed south. We drove through Hayden Valley and made a stop at the crowded overlook to see what was going on this time.
Folks had a female wolf in sight. After scanning with our binoculars, we both saw the wolf trotting in the far distance. All the experts assured us it was a wolf, but from that distance I couldn't have made that call.
We made a stop at Fishing Bridge for ice cream, before doing the last 40 miles back home. By the time we had reached the campground sometime around 3:30, we had driven 200 miles.
It was a long, but successful day of wildlife watching. And we finally saw bears ... and even a wolf .... to go with our elk, deer, bison, pronghorns, otters, marmots, muskrats, beavers, birds, and more. This would be our only visit to Yellowstone this year as we still have our memories and photos from last year. But I'm sure we'll be back in the years to come.