Yellowstone National Park’s most iconic attraction is of course the historically reliable Old Faithful, but in reality, most visitors also come hoping to see some of the park’s extraordinary wildlife. Obviously, seeing anything comes down to a lot of luck and patience, but nowhere in all of Yellowstone is lady luck more on your side than in Hayden Valley. If the great bison are on your list, you’re practically guaranteed to see them.
With a safari feel, a trip to Yellowstone National Park isn’t complete without an evening of wildlife watching in the scenic Hayden Valley.
As you travel throughout Yellowstone, you’ll notice around 80% of the park covered in a thick forest of Lodgepole pines. This makes the vast open grasslands of Hayden Valley unique as a prime grazing area for many of the park’s wildlife.
In the warm glow of dawn and dusk, the rolling hills along the valley awaken with wildlife. These are your best times of day to catch the most animals and the most activity.
- Bison: It’s common to see herds cooling off in the river, grazing in the fields, and often, spotting them is as simple as watching them cross the road. For those wondering, buffalo are completely different animals native to Africa and Asia. So, unlike the song, this is not where the buffalo roam.
- Elk: Often found grazing in the fields.
- Bear: Yellowstone has both grizzly and black bears. Bears are most active in the park in spring to early summer, though they can be seen year-round. You’ll normally spot them close to the tree line.
- Wolf: These shy folks are one of the most elusive creatures of the park. If you spot one, consider yourself lucky. Out of our four nights in the park, we spent three of our evenings in Hayden Valley. Of course, on the one night we didn’t, a ranger told us both a grizzly and wolf were spotted in Hayden Valley. So, you never know.
- Bird Watching: Hayden Valley is a popular spot for watching birds of prey, like hawks and eagles. It’s also a good place to find North America’s largest, heaviest native bird, the Trumpeter Swan.
Where the Wild Things Live
Tip for Seeing Bison in Hayden Valley
Bison clearly rule Hayden Valley. You’ll likely see them any time of day, but if you’re looking for a bit more activity stick to dawn and dusk.
It’s tempting to stop and wait around at the first viewpoint you find. However, in our five-and-a-half days in Yellowstone, we never, not once, made it all the way through Hayden Valley without getting stuck in a bison traffic jam.
In other words, if you want to see the bison up-close, keep going until you find the traffic jam. Trust us, it’s there.
What to Bring to Hayden Valley
Camera phones are not going to get you the amazing wildlife photos you see on social media. You’ll need a camera with a much bigger sensor and a much bigger lens for that. However, if you only want a closer view, then it’s worth investing in a good pair of binoculars or even a spotting scope. Other than bison, most animals stay too far away for the naked eye.
- I paired my Nikon full frame camera with my 80-400 mm NIKKOR lens. The portability and reach of this lens worked well for most situations in Yellowstone.
- We also brought along our Celestron Binoculars 8 x 42 to scan the tree line.
- If you do a lot of wildlife viewing and you’re looking for something with a lot more distance, check out the Celestron Ultima 80 20-60x Zoom Spotting Scope.
There's Always a Catch - Hayden Valley Traffic
Bison seem to live with the motto, “I do what I want.” Not only will you find these 2,000 lb. beasts crossing the road without a care in the world, often they just take up the whole road.
Rangers patrol the area regularly and do their best to move these guys along (yes, it’s almost always the bulls). Nonetheless, it’s the tourist that cause the most headaches.
Along the road are several strategic pull off areas. Most aren’t even that far from each other. Yet, for some reason, onlookers constantly stop in the road. Some only quickly stop to grab a photo, while others literally park. Please have a little common sense and respect for others.
On the other side of things, traffic jams are inevitable in Hayden Valley and it’s not always a selfish tourist. The best tip we can give you is to plan extra time in your journey and have some patience.
Story time: The Bull vs The Ram
Would you ever want to hit a bison with your vehicle? I presume not.
As a large herd of bison couldn’t decide which side of the road was best, we found ourselves stuck behind a large RV for almost 30-minutes. The other side of the road was just as stuck as us.
Suddenly, the other side cleared. The front car slowly slipped away from the large bull that had been blocking them and the three cars behind ducked into the pull off to watch the action.
The fourth vehicle, clearly annoyed by now, decided this was his time to escape. With a squeal of the tires, he slammed the accelerator.
Waving our arms frantically, we desperately tried to get his attention. We knew he couldn’t see the huge bison crossing the road between us and the RV in front.
No exaggeration, the truck missed hitting the bison at around 40 mph by inches. INCHES! Luckily, the bison saw the truck at the last second and actually jumped backwards. I didn’t even know that was possible! Even luckier for us, the bull didn’t take his anxiety out on our car. Whew!
Animal Safety in Hayden Valley
You know all those insane news articles and online videos of tourists posing with bison only to end up spending the rest of their vacation in the hospital? Yup, most of those stories come out of Hayden Valley. Not that Hayden Valley is a dangerous place; thousands of people visit every day in summer with no incidents.
We understand it’s easy to get excited and therefore careless. It’s also easy to forget these are wild animals, especially when they look so cute and gentle. But they are wild, and you definitely don’t want your 15-minutes of fame to center around an animal attack.
A few tips for your safety:
- Always be aware of your surroundings. It’s common for bison to roam in and around vehicles. We saw a few people get out of their cars, not realizing a 2,000 lb. beast was just behind them.
- Don’t approach the wildlife. The park requires you to stay at least 100 yards from bears and wolves, and 25 yards from bison, elk, and other animals.
- Never feed the wildlife. Feeding the animals puts their life in danger, and yours. Plus, Yellowstone is home to some seriously chunky and brazen chipmunks and squirrels. Did you know, according to the NPS, squirrel bites are one of the most common injuries in National Parks!
Where to Stay for Yellowstone National Park
- We stayed in the park, at the Lake Yellowstone Hotel, for our first three nights. Sitting right on Lake Yellowstone, we couldn’t have asked for a better location; Hayden Valley sits right between Lake Yellowstone Hotel and Canyon Lodge. Though the accommodation is expensive, the nearest town outside of the park is over an hour away, so it comes down to time vs money. Despite the price, the park’s hotels book out quickly.
- The next nearest town to Hayden Valley is West Yellowstone. On our forth night exploring Yellowstone, we stayed at Yellowstone Park Hotel, which we felt was a good choice. The rooms were clean, and the location was excellent for something outside of the park.
- The town of Cody is a good choice for exploring the east side of Yellowstone. Before entering Yellowstone, we stayed at the Cody Legacy Inn & Suites. We really enjoyed this hotel as we felt it had a lot of character.
Books on Yellowstone
- Guidebook: We picked up the Lonely Planet Travel Guide for Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks. Since we visited both parks on this trip, we felt it was good value.
- Photography & Guide Book: Whether you’re into photography or not, the book Photographing Yellowstone National Park: Where to Find Perfect Shots and How to Take Them (The Photographer’s Guide) makes a great guidebook if you want to be at the right place, at the right time.
- Hike Finder: With detailed descriptions, Best Easy Day Hikes Yellowstone National Park makes picking the best hike for you easy.