The sun was too low for pictures as a grizzly bear charged aggressively up and down a 100-yard length of the river in the middle of Lamar Valley, trying to find a bison calf that looked weak enough to be dinner.
Our van was well away from the action, in a row of at least 50 cars crammed into impromptu parking spots along the side of the road taking in the spectacle. It was the cherry on top of an amazing day of wildlife viewing in the valley that included wolves, coyotes, elk, a moose, a river otter, and bison. The only big game creatures that disappointed us were the homo sapiens that couldn’t adjust to being in a wild place with wild animals.
The road through Lamar Valley is the only road in Yellowstone that is open to traffic year-round. It enters the park in the town of Gardiner, MT, continues through Mammoth Hot Springs, and terminates in Cooke City, Montana. It’s the only access road to Cooke City in the winter months after the Bear Tooth Highway has closed, and the only vehicle access to wildlife viewing in Yellowstone from December through April.
In order to have a safe and enjoyable experience viewing wildlife in the valley, here are a few things to keep in mind.
1. Obey the bison
It is common to find yourself driving down the road and then suddenly surrounded by a bison herd moving through same path. It is one of the great things about this part of the park. Pack your patience, enjoy the experience and don’t try to push your van through the herd.
The whole mystic of being surrounded by bison comes apart as soon as someone decides to honk, pass cars in the middle of the herd, or “hurry” the creatures along. Whether you are going to be late to dinner or not, enjoy the show. Give the bison the right of way, take pictures from inside your van, and cherish the experience of being so close to one of the park’s main attractions.
2. Take advantage of your van
Wildlife viewing is a game of patience. It is not uncommon to come across a group of “spectators” with their spotting scopes and binoculars camped out for hours at a time along the side of the road, waiting for a pack of wolves to finish their afternoon nap before they become more active. This is where you can take big advantage of your van set-up and enjoy the downtime waiting more than the average folks with their cars and trucks.
3. Sleep at Slough Creek
The best wildlife viewing times are almost always the early morning or late evening hours. It is not uncommon to see wildlife during other parts of the day in the valley, but it is most common during these times.
The campground at Slough Creek is a great launching point for early morning adventures. If you are fortunate, one of the wolf packs will have a den near the turn-off to the campground and you will have some of the best viewing in the world less than five minutes from your camp. You could also get the full experience of laying awake at night listening for the wolves to howl.
For many, the wildlife viewing in Lamar Valley is a bucket list experience that turns into a tradition. The economic impact of wildlife viewing in the park is estimated in the billions of dollars per year, which means that you will almost always be there with a lot of other people.
Unlike most, you will be set up to really enjoy the wildlife from the comfort of your van. Just remember, obey the bison and enjoy the experience.