One of the major draws for anyone visiting a National Park or just taking a walk in their local wilderness is the lure of wildlife. It’s hard to beat Yellowstone NP for the ample viewing opportunities of animals in their natural habitat. When a friend, Skip, and I headed to the park nature viewing wasn’t #1 on our list, but it was certainly near the top. We were not disappointed.
As I mentioned in an earlier post, we were thrilled to see two bald eagles in just our first few miles through the gates. Our first day of backpacking included spotting a nest of ospreys, and yet another bald eagle sighting. During our drive from Canyon Village to Bridge Bay, we were entertained by numerous bison lining the road through Hayden Valley, some even backing up traffic as they lingered in the middle of the blacktop. We were excited by these sites, but we wanted more: grizzlies and wolves were at the top of our “Most Wanted” list.
As we set up our tents yet again, we chatted with our neighbors for the night. The family of four had made the long drive from Indiana, and their teenaged daughter was hoping to catch a glimpse of a grizzly. I’m not sure Mom and Dad shared her enthusiasm. We ate dinner and hopped back in the truck to retrace the miles back to Hayden Valley. Skip had go the low-down on where to set up for prime animal spotting. A ranger at Fishing Bridge area gave him some solid advice (along with a map) and we were amped… it was time to see some bear!
The ranger’s advice would soon pay off. We pulled over in the southern edge of Hayden Valley and hiked up a small hill. Our first class view of the meadows revealed a large herd of elk and more bison on the hillsides. We knew there was more waiting for us. A few miles north we noticed a couple cars parked in a turn out. We pulled off and jumped out, binoculars in hand. A quarter mile away a large herd of bison milled about in the valley. We scanned the ridges for any sign of the elusive bears. Nothing. Suddenly, the bison began to stampede down the hillside towards us. Between us and them lay the wide, lazy waters of the Yellowstone River. “Don’t worry,” I told Skip, “they won’t cross the river.” It turns out I am not an expert on wildlife, and the bison plunged into the water and crossed it without second thought. They surged up the hillside towards us, and charged into the road. Traffic came to a standstill.
“He’s charging!” We heard the shout and looked up to see a huge bison coming straight at us. My heart was pounding and I almost jumped into the open door of the minivan next to me. “Shut the door!” shouted the youngest of the kids in the back… I complied. We ended up using the van as a shield, and the big bison stormed by us to join the others. What a rush!
My breathing soon restored to normal, we began asking the folks around us if anyone had seen a bear. “Oh sure, just go up to the next parking area. They spotted a grizzly and some wolves.” We were off in a flash… was it too good to be true? We drove just a quarter mile to the next spot where the gawking crowds assured us we found the right place. A stroke of luck gave us an empty parking space in the front row. Skip struck up a conversation with an older gentlemen next to us.
“Grizzlies, eh? Well, just take a look through my scope.” We peered through the high power eyepiece and the quest was fulfilled. A huge male grizzly bear filled the viewing area. Even though he was a mile in the distance, the scope allowed us to see the finest details: his eyes, his big snout, and the pink tongue that was lazily cleaning his paws. My first grizzly! It was a gratifying feeling to have seen this beast in his natural habitat. Just as we pulled away from the scope, we heard excited voices saying their was another bear to the south. Sure enough, we turned our gaze to the hillside, and there among some bison was another grizz! This one was close enough to see with our hand held binos. He wasn’t as big as the first, but he was far more active. The bear would approach the bison, and in turn they would scamper a few feet further away. I was surprised to see that the bison were a good size larger than this grizzly; he must have been a young one.
The only downer was when we learned that the wolves were already gone. Our friend with the scope told us that four adults used the meadow as a rendezvous point every night around 6pm. Had we been an hour earlier we would have seen them meeting up before the hunt began. We were told there was a wolf pup relaxing in the valley, but the little guy never showed face in the time we were there. It was exciting to know that the wolves were patrolling the meadows just a few miles out of site.
After watching the bears for a bit longer, we called it a night. Dusk was giving way to dark and we didn’t want to share the valley with the grizzlies when the lights went out. When we returned to our camp, the neighbors were excited. Turns out they had taken a short hike and spotted a grizzly just a couple dozen feet in the distance. Their daughter couldn’t hide her smile, and she excitedly described the bear to us. Dad laughed as he showed us his picture: a shaky image that could hardly do the bear justice. We had all gotten a taste a the park’s most famous wildlife; hard to believe it was just 10 miles away from where we had picnic tables and flushing toilets. The wilderness here is truly alive and well.