Buffalo may steal the spotlight in Yellowstone, but wolves hold their own as superstars, drawing countless passionate wolf enthusiasts to the park each year.
According to Amanda Hagerty, the Director of Education at Yellowstone Forever, a nonprofit organization partnering with Yellowstone National Park, “Wolf watching is addictive.” She describes a memorable experience of observing wolves nap for almost an hour during the winter season. Hagerty shares, “They were lying on their sides, peacefully snoozing on the hillside, without a care in the world.”
To cater to the legions of wolf enthusiasts like Hagerty, Yellowstone National Park Lodges and Yellowstone Forever present in-depth wolf- and wildlife-watching trips within the park. With a mix of luck, persistence, and patience, visitors can increase their chances of spotting these elusive creatures.
Tours Offered by Yellowstone National Park Lodges
- Wake up to Wildlife: Embark on a 4.5-hour early-morning tour of the wolf-rich Lamar Valley, where you can witness wolves and other megafauna grazing or hunting on the open hillsides.
- Evening Wildlife Encounters: Join a 4.5-hour search for wildlife in the Tower-Roosevelt area, which may conclude in the Lamar Valley.
- Madison Wildlife Excursion: Enjoy a winter tour along the 7-mile corridor that runs parallel to the Madison River, located west of Madison Junction.
Lodging & Learning Packages offered by Yellowstone Forever from Mammoth Hot Springs hotel
Yellowstone Forever offers three 5-day, 4-night packages. These packages include lodging, transportation, food, and a knowledgeable field guide from Yellowstone Forever. Each package is designed to provide optimal opportunities for “prime” wolf watching in every season:
- Fall Wolf and Elk Discovery Package
- Spring Wolf and Bear Discovery Package
- Winter Wolf Discovery Package
Reintroducing wolves to their once-extinct habitats has been one of the most successful wildlife restoration stories. In the early 1900s, wolves were hunted to extinction in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem and the American West. However, in 1995, efforts were made to reintroduce the species. Fourteen wolves captured in Canada were brought to Yellowstone National Park’s Lamar Valley that year. Another 17 Canadian wolves were released in Yellowstone the following year, while a similar number were released in central Idaho wilderness areas.
The plan was for five years of reintroductions to establish a wolf population in Yellowstone. Surprisingly, the wolves became self-sustaining after only two years. By 2000, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s goal of 450 wolves and 45 breeding pairs in Montana, Wyoming, and Idaho had been achieved.
Today, it is estimated that over 3,300 wolves reside in Wyoming, Idaho, Montana, Washington, and Oregon. Yellowstone’s Lamar Valley is renowned as one of the world’s best locations for observing these canines in their natural habitat. Ronan Donovan, a National Geographic photographer who spent months photographing wolves in Yellowstone, describes the Lamar Valley as an ideal spot due to the abundance of wolf prey, such as elk and bison, and the open landscape that allows viewers to spot wolves from miles away without disturbing their behavior.
John Wallingford, an experienced Yellowstone tour guide since 2004, shares that when guests on the Wake up to Wildlife Tour see wolves, they often react with awe, wonder, or a sense of sublimity. Witnessing wolves, according to Wallingford, creates a profound connection that transcends our perception of ourselves and reveals our role within the larger picture.
It’s important to note that wolves are wild animals, and sightings are not guaranteed. Wallingford prepares visitors on his tours by explaining that finding wolves is akin to predicting a flash of lightning. He can guide visitors to areas where wolves are frequently observed, but the exact location of sightings remains uncertain.
Guides from Yellowstone National Park Lodges and Yellowstone Forever stay updated with the latest reports on wolf sightings. They also communicate with each other via radios, sharing information about any pack sightings.
Spotting wolves independently is also possible. If there are visible wolves from the road between Mammoth and the northeast entrance at Cooke City, a crowd tends to gather. If you notice people on the roadside, it’s perfectly acceptable to pull over and politely ask what they are looking at. Wolf watchers are usually friendly, but it’s courteous to have your own pair of binoculars. Many enthusiasts even bring high-powered spotting scopes mounted on tripods for optimal viewing. If you have a day dedicated to wolf watching, driving slowly between Tower Junction and Cooke City is your best chance to encounter them.
Peter Goodman, a Yellowstone guide, has often spotted the Junction Butte and Wapiti Lake wolf packs. He shares that the Wapitis are frequently sighted on the road between Mammoth and Old Faithful. As a resident of Gardiner, located just outside the park’s northern entrance, Goodman spends his days off searching for wolves in the Lamar Valley. He recalls a recent spring where the pack’s den was visible from the road, giving him the opportunity to watch the pups grow.
For the highest chances of seeing wolves in Yellowstone, winter is the ideal time to visit. Although the park is more challenging to access during this season, buried under an average of 10 feet of snow, it offers the best opportunities to observe these magnificent creatures. Goodman explains that winter is their season, as wolves are built for harsh winter conditions and are most active during this time. In contrast, summer is too hot for them, causing them to be mainly active at night and seek shade to rest during the day. During winter, wolves are actively hunting and visible during daylight hours.
Hagerty from Yellowstone Forever describes the Lamar Valley during winter as a wonderland. The vast valley covered in a blanket of snow provides a rare opportunity to witness wolves going about their daily lives. It is an experience that she describes as both special and surreal.
Goodman adds, “Most people who come to Yellowstone in the winter want to see a wolf. When they do, I see their excitement light up. They often express disbelief, and even though I’ve seen many wolves myself, I share the same excitement. I am grateful to live and work in a place where such extraordinary encounters are possible.”
Renowned National Geographic photographer Ronan Donovan, whose Wolves exhibit is on display at the National Museum of Wildlife Art in Jackson, offers advice for photographing wolves in Yellowstone. He emphasizes that it can be challenging due to the difficult landscape to navigate and the shy nature of wolves. Donovan suggests setting realistic expectations and shares his personal experience of spending a year capturing images of wolves in Yellowstone. He mentions that all the published images were taken during a two-week period when everything aligned perfectly.
As it is illegal to approach wolves closer than 100 yards in Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks, Donovan recommends heading out early in the morning before sunrise. Take the time to stop, listen, and try to hear howls. Use binoculars or a spotting scope to scan the landscape. If time is limited and feasible, consider hiring a wildlife guide who possesses knowledge of the local wolf packs’ behavior and patterns. If hiring a guide isn’t an option and you find yourself in Yellowstone, there are often people along the roads with spotting scopes who are more than willing to answer questions and share information about recent wolf sightings.
Written by: Dina Mishev
Dina Mishev is the editor in chief of Jackson Hole magazine. 20221208