The Snow-Covered Serengeti: Winter Wildlife in Yellowstone

Covered in frost and oblivious to a distant herd of camera-wielding tourists, a 2,000-pound bison lumbers across snow-covered Yellowstone's Hayden Valley. To the northeast, a pack of gray wolves trots through Lamar Valley's soft powder as an elk cruises along the distant ridgeline.... Such scenes have inspired Yellowstone's reputation as North America's Serengeti, and the 35,000 elk, 2,500 bison, 400 grizzlies, and 290 different bird species that call America's first national park home bolster this distinction. With animals in such abundance, hordes of wildlife enthusiasts understandably flock to the park year round. However, for those willing to layer up, Yellowstone's backcountry in winter provides an untrammeled land rife with wildlife superimposed atop a hushed, snow-white backdrop—conditions that make most animals that much easier to spot.

The park contains the largest concentration of free-roaming wildlife in the lower 48 states, and includes bighorn sheep, bald and golden eagles, grizzlies, mule deer, coyotes, and bison. Yellowstone is also one of the best places to spot the renowned gray wolf. First eradicated in 1929 as part of a federally sponsored effort to rid the park of predators, gray wolves were reintroduced—amidst considerable controversy—to Yellowstone in January 1995. The debates have since quieted, and packs of wolves can be seen during the winter months hunting through the Lamar Valley in the northeastern section of the park. Grizzlies populate this section of the park as well, and can also be seen in Dunraven Pass, Mount Washburn, and along the banks of the Yellowstone River. Hayden Valley, located just south of Canyon Village, is a haven for bison, pronghorn antelope, and the magnificent trumpeter swan. White pelicans flock to the Yellowstone River, and bald-eagle enthusiasts should plan an early morning trip to the Madison River for a glimpse of North America's indigenous talisman.

Winter conditions naturally bring the expected hardships, but local outfitters offer myriad ways to explore the snow-covered landscape—dog sledding, Nordic skiing, snow-shoe trekking, and horse-drawn sleigh riding—that will deliver you into remote and peaceful swathes of Yellowstone. Guides can assist in tracking elusive wolf packs and help you target prime animal congregation points. If you go it alone, know that the park has strict regulations for approaching animals in the wild; visitors should never come within 100 yards of bears and 25 yards of other wildlife. Human disruption can threaten the delicate habitats of these animals.

Published: 28 Aug 2002 | Last Updated: 3 Dec 2012
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


Sign up to Away's Travel Insider

Preview newsletter »