Bugling Elk, Migrating Raptors, and Changing Colors in Yellowstone
Yellowstone National Park and the Northern Range capture the hearts of visitors no matter the season, but repeat visitors often agree fall is particularly special. Elk enter the “rut,” or mating season, and put on a spectacular show. Various birds of prey take flight on their way to warmer winter habitat. And all this activity takes place against a background of evergreen trees intermixed with striking fall foliage. As September wanes and October approaches, we invite you to come stay, eat, and play with us here in Gardiner as we celebrate the turn of seasons!
Where to See Elk
In Mammoth- Drive a short 15 minutes from Gardiner to view historic Fort Yellowstone in Mammoth Hot Springs. By day elk lounge on shady lawns – originally planted in 1902 by the U.S. cavalry – chewing cud. By late afternoon and early evening the animals’ activity increases as bulls gather female elk into groups called “harems” and defend them fiercely against would-be competitors – bugling to each other in challenge. The sight is an exciting fall phenomenon and adds an element of drama to the gathering of historic buildings at the base of the world-famous Mammoth Terraces. The most effective and safest way to view the animals here is to find a designated parking spot, park, and stay in your vehicle. Roll down your windows and turn off your engine so you and others can hear the elk bugling.
In Gardiner- Grab your camera, a jacket, and stroll around town looking for elk walking along sidewalks, munching grass in Arch Park downtown, and taking over the football field at Gardiner High School. Elk migrate to lower elevations in autumn in search of better forage and it’s common to find them taking advantage of green lawns, shrubbery, and even unprotected gardens within town limits. Be prepared to step aside if elk get too close for your safety and be sure to keep your pup on a leash if you’re traveling with a furry companion. Please respect local residents and don’t trespass onto private property and take pictures from a distance so as not to disturb the animals. Listen for the soft “mews” of cow elk communicating with calves and the occasional piercing shrill of a bull bugling in the distance.
Where to See Hawks
Hayden Valley- Drive south from Gardiner to the Hayden Valley in the east-central region of Yellowstone. After driving from Gardiner to Mammoth Hot Springs continue south toward Norris Geyser Basin and then east toward the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River. At Canyon Village drive south toward Hayden Valley. Once in Hayden Valley find a safe place to park and look to the skies for migrating raptors (birds of prey) including harriers, Cooper’s, and red-tailed hawks. Be aware of bison that may be foraging grasses and can sneak up behind you when you’re not looking. Grizzly bears can often be seen digging for food on the surrounding hillsides as they prepare to head into hibernation. We recommend bringing binoculars and a bird identification book to help you identify which types of birds you’re seeing.
Lamar Valley- For an equally impressive, yet different, backdrop head northeast from Gardiner into the “Serengeti of North America” -- Lamar Valley. After driving from Gardiner to Mammoth Hot Springs, drive east to Tower-Roosevelt junction and then continue east toward Cooke City. The Lamar Valley region of Yellowstone is dramatically framed by glacially sculpted mountains. Cottonwood trees, willows, and blue-tinted sagebrush decorate the valley floor where the Lamar River meanders its winding course providing prime habitat for wildlife. Pullouts, picnic areas, and campgrounds provide great locations to pull over, set up a camp chair, and scan the horizon for birds on the wing. Look for ospreys and bald eagles fishing the Lamar River and Slough and Soda Butte creeks. The Lamar Valley and surrounding region also support the highest concentration of wolves in Yellowstone in a variety of different hierarchical packs.
Where to See Fall Colors
Indian Creek- The Northern Range of Yellowstone by far features the widest variety of trees in the park. These include aspen and cottonwood that turn eye-popping hues of yellow and gold at the turn of seasons. Look for autumn shrubbery as you drive along the Gardner River through Gardner River Canyon on your way toward Mammoth Hot Springs. Once in Mammoth, drive south toward Indian Creek Campground enjoying groves of golden-leafed, white-barked aspen trees along the roadway as you approach Glen Creek. After driving past Glen Creek and across Swan Lake Flat, a glacial valley, enjoy a stop at Sheepeater Cliff Picnic Area before turning around and heading back to Gardiner. Look for elk in Swan Lake Flat and for otters near the confluence of the Gardner River and Indian Creek.
Paradise Valley- For fall foliage outside the park drive north from Gardiner on U.S. Hwy 89 toward Emigrant through Paradise Valley. Cottonwood trees in various autumn hues line the Yellowstone River as it parallels the roadway. Enjoy a true taste of Montana while viewing wide-open ranches, complete with big stacks of rolled hay, surrounded by the snowcapped Absaroka Mountains in the distance. Drive safely as you take in the views of this scenic part of Montana before turning around at Emigrant (about a half hour north) and heading back to a relaxing evening in Gardiner. Be sure to watch out for deer, elk, bighorn sheep, and other wildlife that may try to cross the road along this section to access forage and water, especially early in the morning and at early dusk.
Remember to stay at least 25 yards, or the length of a school bus, from any animal including elk for the safety of you and the animal and 100 yards from bears and wolves. Elk can be particularly unpredictable and aggressive during rut. For more information on safely viewing wildlife during your visit please visit the National Park Service website here.
Chelsea DeWeese writes from her hometown of Gardiner, Mont., the North Entrance to Yellowstone National Park.
Gardiner residents and businesses are working to offer a world-class adventure to visitors while keeping safety in mind during the coronavirus pandemic. For local health department updates, information on the status of restaurants and other businesses, and our expectations of guests please click here. We look forward to your visit!