While Old Faithful is probably the most famous icon of Yellowstone National Park, its wildlife is equally impressive. For starters, Yellowstone is home to the largest concentration of mammals in the Lower 48. Plus, there are more than 60 different types of mammals living in the park! Add to that birds, amphibians, reptiles and more and you can see why Yellowstone is a favorite for wildlife lovers.
In fact, our favorite part of the time we spent in Yellowstone was seeing so much wildlife, and such variety. Even better, a lot of Yellowstone’s wildlife encounters can happen from the comfort of your car right alongside the road (or in it, as luck might have it) while you’re driving from one destination to the next.
If you’re wondering how you and your kids can best see wildlife while you’re there, here are some of our tips for viewing Yellowstone animals with kids:
Put Safety First
Not every visitor to Yellowstone is practicing the best wildlife watching behavior. Don’t simply follow the lead of others. Instead, know how to keep both your family and the animals safe.
- Keep a safe distance from all wildlife. Federal regulations require you to stay at least 100 yards away from bears and wolves, and at least 25 yards away from all other wild animals, such as bison, elk, bighorn sheep, deer, moose and coyotes. Since kids might not understand how far these distances are, be sure to talk about it (with some practice viewing, too) before you’re out exploring.
- Drive cautiously. Unless otherwise posted, top speed in the park is 45 mph. You need to maintain a safe stopping distance should you unexpectedly encounter animals on the road.
- Use turnouts. Stopping in the middle of the road when you see an animal just isn’t safe. Use a roadside pullout, then turn off your engine.
- Never approach, surround, crowd, or disrupt an animal’s path of movement. If an animal begins to head in your direction, move to keep the appropriate distance.
- Talk quietly. Yes, this is a tough one for kids. But it’s important not to disturb wildlife. If your kids are having a hard time staying quiet, move further away or watch from inside your car.
Know when and where to look for animals.
Early morning and evening hours are when animals are easiest to spot. During these times, they tend to be feeding, often in wide open areas right alongside the road. We happened upon several bison and a grizzly bear just as the sun was setting one evening.
As for where to see Yellowstone animals, it varies with the weather, season and behavior of the animals. You can check in at the park’s Visitor’s Centers for detailed information once you arrive. The park also has a handy map showing the most likely places to see the big mammals. But remember: You might see these and other animals in other places in the park, or you might not see any at all. The point is to have fun in your quest. After all, looking for Yellowstone animals is like being on a safari!
Keep it fun!
While adults might have considerable patience when it comes to viewing animals in the wild, kids might need a little more encouragement. We were given a Wildlife Identification Game when we entered the park that was a big help. It lists many of the more common birds and mammals you might spot during your visit. Add up points for each animal sighted to see how many points you and your family members collect during your stay.
Getting to use special equipment often gets kids excited, too. Although there really isn’t much needed to view animals in Yellowstone, a good pair of binoculars come in handy. It’s fun for kids to be able to take pictures, too. Even better? A telephoto lens on your camera for a chance to see close up the animals off in the distance.
Families might enjoy attending a ranger-led program about wildlife. There are also some fun wildlife-themed activities available online that will help kids get excited about seeing Yellowstone animals, including a Yellowstone Animal Alphabet Book and animal coloring pages.
Consider taking a wildlife tour.
You can see a lot of Yellowstone’s wildlife from the comfort and safety of your own car. But if you’re interested in venturing a bit further out into the park with the expertise of a guide, consider a wildlife tour.
We took an evening bus tour of Lamar Valley, the single best spot in Yellowstone for watching wild animals. We were able to spend 4 hours with a very knowledgeable guide who knew far better than us not just where to go, but where certain types of animals had been spotted recently. During our excursion, we saw bighorn sheep, two nesting birds (an osprey and a bald eagle), bears, a huge herd of bison and a coyote. And we learned a ton!
* Post originally appeared on GoExploreNature.com.
Planning a trip to Yellowstone? Get our Yellowstone and Grand Teton guidebook for families.