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Yellowstone: How to See Bears

3 grizzlies

Grizzly family walks

“Where can I find a bear?” is supposedly the most common question asked of Yellowstone rangers. For decades this has been bear central. Back in the day, rangers set out garbage on bear-viewing stages. Now all food waste is sealed in steel and rangers would like to keep people far from bears–while paradoxically allowing us to enjoy the park.

The rangers want to keep people from bears not because humans are bears’ favorite snack. It’s more that bears make crowds of people do stupid things. In just a few shoulder season days I saw plenty cars stopped in the road and more than a few people chasing a grizzly down the road by foot and car. All the advice about bear spray and staying back 100 yards is forgotten when a handsome bear lumbers by.

Yellowstone has two bear species. Black bears are smaller, more docile and often have a lighter muzzle. And they’re usually black, but can come in rust to brown. Grizzlies (also called brown bears) are huge, more aggressive and have a big shoulder hump and superlong claws. So naturally, that’s the one Americans want to see. You can see black bears anywhere–or at least in 40 states, the Bear Center says. Yellowstone is one of a handful of pockets of grizzlies left in the lower 48–with the rest up on the remote Canadian border, the Grizzly Bear Outreach Project shows.


Grizzly Grins

Bears hardly ever attack people. (Though, while we were there, one did fatally maul botanist Erwin Frank Evert, 70, seven miles east of the park. Researchers claim that didn’t have anything to do with the bear being caught in a culvert trap, collared and released hours before. Yeah, just a coincidence.)

Bears prefer to eat deer, berries, moths, trout and various greens. When bears do attack people, it’s usually because they’re protecting a cub or a carcass. Or are starving, surprised or used to people food. Those are things you can’t tell on sight, so don’t go out alone looking for a bear in the back country. (Rangers recommend a minimum of 3 or 4 for backcountry outings). If we get there again, I may try to go on a backcountry hike with the Bear Man of Yellowstone to see the bears more naturally.

There were bear warning signs all over–some just saying bears were active, others telling you to keep out. But we never saw a bear from the trail. I only saw one hiker actually carry a bear bell, which is used to make sound so the bears know you’re coming. I didn’t see anybody with bear spray; since we couldn’t check ours in luggage, we just carried a small mace. I also never saw any hint of anyone trying to feed them.

Where to Go to See Bears

Where to See Wildlife Out West

Even though it’s not all that adventurous, the most reliable way to see a bear is by driving the northeast roads of Yellowstone around dusk and dawn. That’s what many of the guided tours are: a ride from Canyon up to Roosevelt and over through the Lamar Valley. Below Canyon and east of Roosevelt are pretty lively, too. Animals are constantly moving, on the make for food. In mid-June, the strip around Dunnraven Pass worked best for us.

The tips we got from rangers were of a grizzly right by Old Faithful and a mother with four cubs at Swan Lake Flat, which could be more accurately named Dead Tree Trail. We never saw any of them.

So we just drove along the road at dusk and dawn between Canyon Lodge and Roosevelt. We didn’t even get to the famous Lamar Valley, before we found great animal watching. Our first night looking we saw a grizzly mom and two cubs chewing grass and what looked like bones on a hillside overlooking the road near Dunnraven Pass. Then next afternoon we saw a different grizzly near there. This one walked along a ridge over the road, then slid down in some remnant snow and walked off down the road. At this point I turned around, but she had a bizarre entourage of people hanging out of slow-moving cars and on-foot photographers.

Cars follow Grizzly

Cars follow Grizzly

I didn’t have the pleasure of spotting “my own” bear, but I did get to see a lot just by sticking around. A black bear in a field one early morning near Dunnraven had attracted a bear jam by the time we saw them. But people got bored and wet and cold, so they left. I pretty much don’t have anything better to do than watch a bear or otter. It was down to us and a German tourist when we got a great show: this yearling bear met up with a sibling and their mother–who was one of the light-colored or cinammon black bears that at first seems like a grizzly.

Then there were three individual black bears we saw that I didn’t bother with tracking, either because I thought they were too far away or the site was too overcrowded already. The downside of cruising around for bear is that it all becomes a little tawdry and unnatural when you’ve got vans of tourists spilling out to get a quick picture.

Cinnamon Bear

Cinnamon Bear: Looks like a grizzly, but is really a black bear

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1 comment to Yellowstone: How to See Bears

  • I saw my first (and still only) bears last summer on the British Columbia coast – a mother black bear and her baby. The mother crossed the road and the baby was separated by a line of cars heading for the ferry. Cars stopped and waited, and the little guy hustled across to mama. We also heard a bear in the woods further up the coast near a fresh pile of scat. We did not investigate. It was thrilling to see – and hear – these large, beautiful mammals.