Where the Wild Things Really Are: The Top Wildlife Tours

Yellowstone: America's Wildlife Headquarters
  |  Gorp.com

Yellowstone Park is the richest wildlife preserve in the Lower 48. In its 2.2 million acres of geysers, meadowlands, and mountains are found all of North America's great wildlife species: deer, moose, elk, bears, and buffalo. The sheer numbers of animals in Yellowstone are impressive—30,000 elk, 2,100 bison, an estimated 200 grizzlies, and countless other smaller species. Though the summer crowds almost overwhelm the park's major tourist attractions, if you're prepared to venture into Yellowstone's 3,500 square miles of backcountry, it's surprisingly easy to escape the crowds.
Hiking the backcountry is the best way to view Yellowstone's animals. With 1,210 miles of trails, the park offers endless options for travelers on foot. At the top of any day-hiker's list is a walk through the Hayden Valley, Yellowstone's garden, and home to its largest bison herds. The day-hiking on the Mary Mountain Trail is equally scenic. A good overnight excursion is the Pebble Creek Trail, which starts off a mile or so from the northeast entrance. Here you will find large groups of elk, moose, and buffalo, while black and grizzly bears may be observed as well. For a longer trip, take five days to walk the length of the Thorofare Trail. From a trailhead on East Entrance Road, it winds along the shore of Yellowstone Lake, providing good views of eagles and ospreys, and possibly bears.

Practically Speaking
Yellowstone is a high-altitude wilderness, and conditions can be fairly inclement as late as June. The best time to hike the backcountry is August and September. The rivers and streams will be much lower, the bug count is down, and the weather will be more hospitable. Because of the altitude, snow flurries are possible any time of year, so always bring warm clothes and a good tent, no matter what the weather forecast.
In the summertime it's hard to justify the cost of a commercial tour when you can easily see most of the park's wildlife on your own. However, come winter, many of the main roads within the park are closed, so it makes sense to go with a guide. While examining your options, consider taking a guided photo safari, which will allow for an up-close and personal exposure to Yellowstone's varied wildlife.

Paul McMenamin is the author, editor, and photo director of the original Ultimate Adventure Sourcebook.

Published: 30 Jan 2001 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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