Day 6: Lions and Tigers and Bears, Oh My!

OK, we didn’t actually see lions or tigers, but we DID see wolves, pronghorn, elk, bison and TWO grizzly bears, so our sixth and final day in Yellowstone was pretty epic. After five days of mountains, geysers, springs, canyons and rivers Matt and I woke up early on Monday, October 14th, excited to drive through the Lamar Valley in hopes of spotting some of the park’s more elusive wildlife.

The wildlife sightings started very early. After a quick and delicious breakfast at Wonderland Cafe in Gardiner we stopped back at our tiny cabin to pick up our suitcases. After a few minutes inside we were ready to “check out” (which simply meant locking the door behind us). I stepped outside and BAM! There was an ELK, RIGHT THERE, nonchalantly munching the grass growing around the cabin’s front steps. (Where did this elk come from?? We had just gone into the cabin moments before!!!) I leapt back inside and Matt and I happily watched the elk and her friends enjoy their breakfast for a few minutes before they meandered far enough away from our door for us to make a safe getaway. Wildlife day was starting out well so far.

We entered Yellowstone NP through the North Entrance and immediately saw several antelope-like pronghorns grazing along the side of the road. Then, as we wound our way through the village of Mammoth, we saw dozens of elk, including one massive buck lounging on the lawn in front of the post office. We took several photos of this guy from the safety of our car (I wouldn’t want to meet those antlers outside my cabin door!) before turning east towards the Lamar Valley.

Although Lamar is known for its wildlife watching we knew that it was fairly unlikely that we’d actually see a wolf or a grizzly bear on our last day in Yellowstone. These predators are much rarer and harder to spot than the bison and elk we had become accustomed to seeing several times a day. Nevertheless, we were determined to make the most of whatever wildlife we did get to see, so we satisfied ourselves by watching the numerous herds of bison roaming through the Lamar Valley.  By mid-morning we had pulled over and I was taking a video of a large herd moving serenely alongside the Lamar River.  Then a white SUV slowed down on the road behind us and the driver yelled out “Hey! There are WOLVES a mile down the road!!”  Bison video immediately forgotten, we leapt into our car and headed east towards the wolves.

Sure enough, a mile down the road there were several cars parked along a gravel road and a cluster of people gathered atop a high, snowy hilltop with tripods and spotting scopes. We parked our car, grabbed our jackets (it was “warm” for that week but still in the 20s), and excitedly climbed the hill, eager to see what was going on.

A couple with a scope greeted us almost immediately and pointed to a (very) distant hillside, explaining that members of the Junction Butte wolf pack had just finished eating some kind of animal carcass and were settling down for a post-meal nap in the sun. The couple generously let us look through their massive spotting scope and we could see the dark spots of the wolves against the snow. Cool!

We soon discovered that the wolves were not the only point of interest visible from our snowy hillside. There was also a grizzly bear who was (barely) visible as he lumbered down a steep hillside about a mile to the south. Again the couple generously let us watch him through their scope (all I could really see was his shadow, honestly) before he disappeared into a copse of trees. We were thrilled to have spotted both wolves and bears so quickly (from the same hillside, no less!) and we stayed and chatted with the couple for a while longer before heading back to our car to see what else the Lamar Valley had in store for us.

We soon came upon a small traffic jam of cars pulled over on the shoulder of the main road. This is usually a VERY good sign for anyone hoping to spot wildlife… but what kind of animal was stopping traffic at this particular moment? We scanned the scrub ahead of us and saw a GRIZZLY BEAR!!! Not a bear’s shadow on a far-off hillside through a scope. No, this was an actual bear, easily visible from our car (safety first!), making his way towards the road in the snowy grass. We watched, transfixed by his lumbering gait, and reveled in our good fortune as he moved diagonally past our car before crossing the road right between the stopped cars ahead of us. Before we knew it he was out of sight and the magical moment was over.

Satisfied that we had checked every animal off of our wildlife wishlist, Matt and I headed south to see the last landmark of the trip, Tower Fall. After the massive Upper and Lower Falls of the Yellowstone I have to admit that the 132-foot Tower Fall was a little underwhelming. But the drive there was easy and we were able to stop at several gorgeous overlooks on our way.

After Tower Fall it was time to say goodbye to Yellowstone National Park and head up to Bozeman, Montana for our flight home. On our way out of the park we stopped in Gardiner for our fourth and final meal at Wonderland Cafe, then followed the beautiful Yellowstone River north to Livingston before turning west towards Bozeman. We spent the night in Bozeman, took an 8:22 flight to Denver the next morning, and we were back home with Piper by dinnertime on Tuesday.

Planning your own trip to Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks? There are TONS of resources out there (not to mention guided tours!), but I found the following to be most helpful when planning our trip:

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