Yellowstone has so many animals you don’t even really need to hire a guide to find them, says one expert. But you will have to put some time and work into it.
“You don’t need a guide,” says Al Nash, parks spokesman. “But you probably need to spend more than one day.” Nash says the biggest mistake wildlife watchers make in Yellowstone is not giving themselves enough time. The park is bigger than you think and the animals aren’t going to always cooperate with a tight schedule.
The animals themselves have an elaborate schedule and sometimes seasonal territories. Lamar Valley is traditionally where wolf watchers go, but their pack size and territories are in constant motion. Earlier this year National Geographic had a package on the area’s Wolf Wars and featured a map of the local packs. Based on 2008 data, the biggest was Gibbons peak in the southeast. Just last week the last of the park’s famous Druid pack that hung around Lamar was shot dead on a ranch in Montana.
“A lot of people say they saw wolves,” but really only saw coyotes, he says. The coyotes here are size XL. “The wolf is a much larger animal. Think of a German Shepherd on steroids.”
Nash says, just check with a visitor center about what’s been seen where in the last few days. Badgers, big cats and moose are all pretty hard to spot, no matter how hard you try or whether you have a guide. The animals are always going to be after the easiest meal. Early in the season–until the end of June–he says bears are down low in valleys. Later on they move upwards, to Dunraven Pass or Sylvan Pass.
Nash carries bear spray any time he isn’t on a boardwalk. Nash says they’ve considered, but never tried out, renting out bear spray. The canisters can run about $40-$50. The TSA, which bans five ounce bottles of hair conditioner, is predictably down on bear spray–even in checked luggage. The TSA blog says you can check your bear spray–but only as long as it’s less than four ounces. The one I have is 9.2 ounces and I don’t think I’ve seen any dainty four ounce cannisters out there. The same post mentions you can bizarrely check a gun, bow, or even a spear gun or gas cannister, but not bear spray. Nash says you may be able to ship it to your hotel. Udap says you can only ship their bear spray via UPS ground and plenty of stores near Yellowstone sell it.
The guides and tours can be expensive, but one of the things they’ll have on hand is bear spray. Another thing you may want to consider to bring your guide cost down is if they break up their fees by including strangers. You and your spouse may not want to spend the day with another couple. But some will group people together to share the fee and some won’t. I found in my earlier chart of guides that Ana’s Grand Excursions will.
For most animals you need to stay back 25 yards, but for big ones, it’s a whole football field, he warns. “It doesn’t matter if they don’t seem to be paying attention to you. They’re wild animals. The biggest issue is people get too close,” he says. “If you get really hurt, it’s a long way to the hospital.”
See our Guide to Yellowstone Guides
Where to Go See Wildlife Out West