The First Thing You See In Yellowstone

The sun is coming out. If you are like me, you are looking forward to some time out in the sun, perhaps on a beach or in the mountains. I recommend going to Yellowstone National Park, the most awe-inspiring vacation spot I have visited to date.

At Yellowstone, there are seemingly endless herds of bison and elk, geysers spewing overheated water from deep underground, serene and steamy pools of vibrant color, and wilderness hikes with gorgeous beaches, rocks, and waterfalls. The biggest question about Yellowstone is, “What should I do first?”

Where Should I Start?

Yellowstone is such a large park that it can be easy to feel intimidated deciding what to do first. Should you start by viewing the geyser basins? Maybe you should try to find some bears with spotting scopes, or perhaps you would be better off trying one of the hikes or touring the gift shops and the lake area. When wondering what to do first, I always think, “What did I see first?” Chances are, the first thing you saw in Yellowstone was a bison or an elk. You might even have seen a bear on your way into the park. Whether they realize it or not, the first thing most people can do is view wildlife.

You can see two birds sitting on this bison, helping to keep it clean. This is a common sight in Yellowstone. Photo by Kate Standish.

What if you didn’t see some wildlife going into the park? Where should you go to see it? The short answer is everywhere. However, if that were the only answer, this article would be very short. The long answer is that it depends on what else you are interested in and how much time and effort you want to put in.

Hayden and Lamar Valley

The most accessible spots to find large amounts of bison are Hayden Valley and Lamar Valley. When I visited, the biggest bison herds were in Lamar Valley, but I have heard many people say that they found large herds of bison in Hayden Valley. When driving through these areas, you can see enormous bison herds at the right time of year.

You don’t exactly need to stop to see bison here, though it isn’t uncommon for them to stop you. It is common to see bison walking down the middle of the road or along the side of it here. I recommend going at the speed limit or under because of the fantastic views you will miss. Low speeds are also necessary because you never know when you will round a curve in a narrow road and suddenly find a giant bison in front of you.

This mother was helping her calf across the road. At one point, she charged at the calf to get the uncertain calf to cross faster. Photo by Kate Standish.

For these bison, roads are an everyday part of life. They can be seen herding shy new calves across the road, and if you try to pass one in a vehicle, they will often speed up to run beside you! It can be entertaining to see from the safety of your vehicle, and it’s well worth the patience.

Road Blocks

While bison are incredible and rare to see, they can inevitably cause a hazard to drivers. When you find yourself in a situation where there is a bison on the road, there are a few things you might want to keep in mind.

Not a Petting Zoo

The first behavior is getting out of one’s car. In a park without fences or other physical barriers keeping visitors separate from wildlife, it can be easy to forget that they are, in fact, wild animals. Bison are herbivores, but that does not mean they aren’t aggressive. You should show respect and proper caution by staying in your vehicle and not getting within 25 yards of the bison if you are outside your car. There will be signs around the park explaining the distance you must keep away from different animals.

This picture was taken just moments before the bison calf on the left licked the car it is standing beside. It reacted in a rather surprised manner, not seeming to like the taste of the vehicle. Photo by Kate Standish.

Cars Shall Not Pass

The second behavior is trying to pass buffalo. This might seem like a good idea if you are in a rush or if you don’t want to block the traffic behind you. When passing bison, the issue that comes up is that they typically speed up to match your car’s pace. Instead of passing them, you’ll end up driving beside them down the wrong side of the road. This is a dangerous situation on high mountain roads with blind curves. The safest thing to do is to follow behind them, patiently waiting for them to get off the road.

Wolves and Bears: The Distant Wildlife

If you are interested in seeing wolves and bears, Hayden and Lamar Valley are great places to view them. While bears can be seen close to the road, wolves are generally only seen through spotting scopes. Bears have also been seen near campsites, so make sure to secure your trash. In the past, bears have been known to break into cars and tents to get to the food. The campgrounds and picnic areas have strict rules regarding garbage disposal to keep both the visitors and the bears safe.


Wolves are easier to see through spotting scopes or high-quality camera lenses. During their first trip to Yellowstone National Park, my mother and father were fortunate enough to see the Druid pack attempting to take down an elk in the far distance. Through their camera lens, they watched for hours in the dim evening light as the wolves hunted tirelessly for the doe. Eventually, she escaped with her life, and the Druid pack went hungry that night.


You’ll often see bears in the distance, as well as close up. Sometimes, you’ll see tours going through with a guide, allowing others to see bears with their spotting scopes. If you see a large number of cars pulled over on the side of the road, with a ranger’s patrol car, somebody has probably seen a bear. Remember that while grizzly bears are the most dangerous, you don’t want to get too close to a bear. You can often see them right from your car as they wander down the road in search of food.

A black bear can be seen from a small distance here. Note that the photographer appears much closer than they are due to the zoom on the lens. Photo by Kate Standish.

You will see both black bears and grizzly bears in Yellowstone National Park. If you see a bear close to the road, it will be a black bear in most cases. Grizzly bears are distinguishable not because of their color but by the humps on their backs, which the more visibly black bears don’t have.

Geyser Basins

You may be surprised to find that there is much wildlife in the geyser basins themselves. If you are interested in seeing small numbers of elk from a relatively close distance, geyser basins are one place you can go. You will often see elk or bison, as well as smaller animals on the walkways and near the hot springs. It can be difficult to maintain a safe distance from elk and bison, but you can get closer to the smaller animals like ground squirrels and least chipmunks. Sometimes the least chipmunks will even pose for you!

This is a least chipmunk, called least because of their tiny size. This photo was taken with almost no zoom, from about 3-4 feet away from the chipmunk. Photo by Kate Standish.

If you already planned to see hot springs and are more interested in seeing elk nearby than in seeing the larger herds of bison, this is a good place to look. A bison wallowing beside a hot spring or an elk rubbing its antlers on the bleached trees can make an incredible photo.

The photographer was further away than it seems, using the zoom from several walkways over to capture this closeup of an elk in a geyser basin. Photo by Kate Standish.

Remember to exercise caution, even with a fence between you and the animals, and stay on the paths so as not to damage the fragile ground around the hot springs.

The Smaller Creatures: The Lake Area

What if you like birdwatching? While Yellowstone has many larger animals such as bison that are not seen in many other places, it also has an abundance of smaller wildlife. Besides the least chipmunks, which can be seen along roadways, trails, and geyser basins, there are many birds and smaller creatures. You can find a variety of critters near picnic areas, in wet areas such as Pelican Creek, and in the Lake Area.

Other Creatures to See Along the Way

Yellowstone is home to many creatures, such as bison, elk, deer, bighorn sheep, foxes, pelicans, ducks, black bears, grizzly bears, chipmunks, ground squirrels, and many others. While places in this article are good spots to see wildlife, you can see it throughout the park. It is not uncommon to see vehicles stopped on the side of the road because somebody saw an animal. Just remember to pull your car over so everybody can see!

A fox runs across a field. This photograph was taken by the side of the road. Photo by Kate Standish.

Follow us to read our other articles on Yellowstone, Wyoming, and other vacation spots!

See the National Park Service’s website for more details on the park, and please leave a comment to let me know which aspects or areas of the park you would like to hear about next. Feel free to leave questions or anecdotes from your own experiences in the comments, as well.

Credit for all photos goes to Kate Standish, the photographer. If you use any of these photos, please link them back to the blog.