Winter Wildlife Watching on the Yellowstone Northern Range

Winter Wildlife Watching on the Yellowstone Northern Range

December 13, 2019

Wildlife watching around Gardiner, Montana, and Yellowstone’s Northern Range offers an opportunity like no other! Predators and prey inhabit the snow-covered landscape, playing out life-and-death interactions on a daily basis. The snowy backdrop offers a great chance to capture images on a camera, and cool temperatures typically mean the wildlife is more active. Many guiding companies offer the opportunity to have a catered trip—complete with optics and a knowledgeable guide who can interpret animal activity—so you can look for wildlife and not worry about navigating the park’s wintry roads. However, if you prefer to go on your own, below are some ideas on where to look. Be sure to pack warm clothes, beverages, and snacks as no services (except gas) are available between Mammoth and Cooke City.

wolf pack Hoff Photography

Gardiner, Montana, to Mammoth Hot Springs

Drive south through Yellowstone’s North Entrance along the Gardner River and up in elevation on the North Entrance Road to Mammoth Hot Springs. While you’re driving through the canyon, look for elk on hillsides, bald eagles in treetops, and bighorn sheep on cliffs. A number of well-spaced, paved pullouts allow you a safe opportunity to park your car and get out to look at wildlife with binoculars and spotting scopes. While doing this, be mindful the road experiences steady traffic and a combination of blind corners and icy pavement make for potentially dangerous driving conditions. For your safety and the safety of others, never stop your car or walk in the middle of the roadway. Elk—and sometimes pronghorn—tend to forage exposed greenery along the area’s windswept slopes while bison tend to “plow” through snow with their massive heads along the grassy banks of the Gardner River. Tall trees along the river provide perches for bald eagles while shallow riffles appeal to mallard ducks and small, bobbing songbirds called water ouzels, or American dippers. If you’re lucky, you might even see a passing mountain lion! Be on the lookout for groups of some of the more colorful winter residents of the Gardner River Canyon, Bohemian Waxwing songbirds.

elk herd Gardiner

Mammoth Hot Springs to Tower-Roosevelt Junction

Proceeding east through Mammoth Hot Springs toward Tower-Roosevelt Junction look for groups of bison migrating north to lower elevations. Careful: sometimes the bison choose to use the roadway and can surprise you on an icy corner. If you find yourself in this type of “bison jam,” try to slowly maneuver around the animals and don’t cause them to run. Not only does running cost bison calories, but they can also slip on the ice and injure themselves. Deer and elk inhabit the forest along the road as you ascend into more wide-open habitat. Even if you don’t see them, look for evidence of their passing in the form of tracks. Once you exit the forest and enter snow-covered sagebrush steppe grasslands, look for the three species of canids found in Yellowstone: wolves, coyotes, and foxes. These hunters prowl the winter landscape, sometimes near the road and sometimes faraway, looking for their next meal. For wolves, prey tends to be larger animals like elk and bison, which they usually hunt in packs. For coyotes and foxes, prey tends to be smaller and beneath the snowpack in the form of mice and voles. Have your camera ready to snap a picture of a coyote or fox pouncing! Look for big-antlered bull elk, either solitary or in small groups, as they browse on willows along drainages.

wildlife watching Yellowstone Wild

Tower-Roosevelt to Pebble Creek Campground

From Tower-Roosevelt head east along the Northeast Entrance Road toward Cooke City. Look for bison in nearby clearings before crossing a bridge over the Yellowstone River. Search for bighorn sheep along the steep, earthen slopes where the bridge crosses the river. Soon, the view opens and the snowcapped Absaroka Mountains tower over glacial valleys. This is a good place to look for wolves, coyotes, bison, and other wildlife. Take a moment at the Slough Creek Campground road to stop and look through spotting scopes and binoculars; the road is closed to vehicles during winter but you can usually traverse it with appropriate snow boots, skis, or snowshoes. After Slough Creek, look for otters and their sign—slides, scat, and tracks—along the icy banks of the Lamar River before entering Lamar Valley. Pullouts along this section offer opportunities to photograph the winter scenery and wildlife. Continue east past the historic Lamar Buffalo Ranch and toward Pebble Creek Campground. Willow-entrenched drainages here provide excellent habitat for moose. Look for their dark, long-legged forms in the midst of the dense underbrush. Ducks, ouzels, and other birds frequent Soda Butte Creek and bighorn sheep migrate to this area during winter. The entire area is suitable wolf habitat so look for groups of people looking through binoculars and spotting scopes—that’s usually an indication of a sighting!

Wherever you choose to focus your efforts this winter, have fun and happy wildlife watching! For safety tips and other resources for visiting Yellowstone in winter please visit the National Park Service Website here.

moose in willows Emil McCain

Chelsea DeWeese is a writer and guide based in her hometown of Gardiner, Montana, the North Entrance to Yellowstone National Park.