Wild at Heart
Catch the Natural Splendor of Yellowstone
When it comes to wildlife watching in Yellowstone National Park, timing, location, and a little luck all come into play. But, on any given day, at any time of year, it helps to be in the company of someone who knos where to look.“My goal is to have a three-dog day— coyote, wolf,and fox,” Karoline Sleichter announces as she slides behind the wheel of one of Yellowstone National Park’s 1937 yellow touring buses.Sleichter is leading a Wake Up to Wildlife tour, and despite the early call — 6:30 a.m. — she is upbeat about potential sightings as her eager passengers climb into a classic 13-passenger rig. The restored vehicle boasts a new chassis and modern engine but retains its historic character and original panoramic rolldown windows, high-riding seats and roof that can be retracted on warm, sunny days.Even before the vehicle exits Mammoth Hot Springs village near the park’s north entrance, Sleichter hits the brakes and directs attention to a female elk guiding her baby up a hill.Minutes later, “Coyote at nine o’clock!” Sleichter says. Heads turn in unison. “Oohs” and “aahs” follow.
A Treasured Wonderland
Yellowstone National Park, home to half the world’s active geysers, covers nearly 3,500 square miles in the northwest corner of Wyoming (3 percent of the park is in Montana, and 1 percent sits in Idaho). The wonderland forms the core of one of the largest, nearly intact temperate-zone ecosystems on earth. Here, abundant and diverse wildlife play their part in one of Mother Nature’s most spectacular shows.Today, our cheerful guide is piloting the vehicle toward the Lamar Valley, a wildlife-rich area in the park’s northeast corner. Expanding beyond the Lamar River, it is often called “America’s Serengeti” for its large and easy-to view populations of large animals.In these parts, bison are particularly plentiful, spurring a heads-up from Sleichter. “I am not going to stop for every bison we see,” she announces. “Some people get so excited when they spot their first one, and you have to tell them, ‘There’ll be, like, 80 more.’”Other large mammals, notably bear and moose, are high on most visitors’ wish lists. Wolves, which were reintroduced into Yellowstone in 1995 after a 70-year absence, are a huge draw. Close to 100 wolves in 10 packs live in the park. And Sleichter knows where to look for them.“Our priority is to go to this wolf den to see if we can spot anything. It’s supposed to have five pups in it,” she says, pulling off to the side of the road, where a cadre of serious wildlife watchers lean into high-powered spotting scopes. If the wolves are home, the regular spotters are not giving the high sign.
The bus moves out of the valley, climbing into spruce and fir forests. In the distance, the rugged peaks, still snowcapped in late spring, create an epic backdrop.As Sleichter maneuvers into a cliff-side viewing spot, she explains that there are two basic strategies for wildlife watching in America’s first national park. One is to drive until you see a clot of cars (otherwise known as a bear jam) pulled over to the side of the road — a sure sign there’s a sighting. Or you can find a pullout, get out of the car, linger, and be on the lookout.Here, she advises, gesturing outward, mountain goats are known to dwell. Trying to spot them from afar is a “Where’s Waldo?” exercise, but it doesn’t take long for Sleichter’s trained eye to zero in on a mother and baby, their dainty hooves moving deftly over the rocky terrain.
Come winter, Sleichter’s favorite season in Yellowstone, the full-time resident trades her yellow touring bus for a specially outfitted snowcoach, capable of shuttling visitors between the park’s Old Faithful Snow Lodge and Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel.“I work summers so I can work winters,” she says. “I don’t think you can match the beauty.”Yes, the temperatures plummet. But so do the visitation levels.In winter, Yellowstone National Park morphs into a picturesque wonderland, complete with snowy woods, ice pellets of geyser rain, frozen waterfalls,and abundant animals. The blanketed backdrop makes it easy to spot animal tracks as well as the animals themselves.Moreover, some of the best geyser-viewing opportunities are in the height of winter, when the spare landscape provides the sort of contrast that makes thermal features even more dramatic.
Those visitors who brave the cold are rewarded with winter’s brand of experiential riches.While the bears hibernate, bison, elk, mule deer, moose, wolves,and coyotes roam the park. Seeking refuge from the harsh winter conditions in the high country, animals move into the valleys and can be spotted foraging for food in the open meadows closer to the roads.The contrast between the wolves’ thick gray or black coats and the snow-covered meadows and hillsides make spotting wolves more possible.Bison, with icicles dangling from their thick coats, huddle near Old Faithful, obtaining warmth from the geysers, mud pots and steam vents. They seem to be intentionally posing for photographers. Nearby, trumpeter swans frequent the Firehole River, and bobcats may be spotted along the mighty Yellowstone or scrambling up a tree.The sharp-eyed observer may spot some of the park’s resident owl species in the woods of the northern range. On any given day, at any time of year, the wild beauty of Yellowstone is both thrilling and peaceful, a reassuring salve for residents of this time sensitive world.And no doubt Karoline Sleichter would agree with the words of naturalist Henry David Thoreau: “We simply need that wild country available to us, even if we never do more than drive to its edge and look in. For it can be a means of reassuring ourselves of our sanity as creatures, a part of the geography of hope.”
How to Explore
With nine unique lodging options, including the renowned Lake Yellowstone Hotel, Yellowstone National Park Lodges allows you to have the ultimate park experience. Staying in the park is the best way for visitors to experience all it has to offer; once the day-visitors leave, Yellowstone remains for the in-park overnight guests alone. Yellowstone National Park Lodges also offers tours and activities guided by Certified Interpretive Guides that help create memorable and engaging experiences. Visit YellowstoneNationalParkLodges.com for more information.For more travel experiences to Beautiful Places on Earth™ available from Xanterra Travel Collection and its affiliated properties, visit xanterra.com/explore.