15 November 2013
It’s an iconic place, as iconic in America as Disneyland and sweet apple pie. Yellowstone is a rite of passage for many American families and one for the bucket-list for any wildlife enthused traveller. In the midst of Wyoming you’ll find 2.2 million acres of Yellowstone National Park, an additional 310,000 in the magnificent Grand Tetons and endless National Forest, yet statistics show that most will speed through the area in a day or two. Wildlife is so abundant they still manage to spot bison, elk, pronghorn and the occasional black bear and that is without leaving their SUV. However, unbuckle your seat-belts and get off-the-beaten path and the rewards are endless. With only 3% of the park developed, it’s the back-country where the bounty of wildlife is hiding.
Flying into Jackson Hole to stay at the sublime Amangani, I met with the experienced guide and founder of Jackson Wildlife Safaris, Jason Williams, to discuss how guests can optimise their time in the Greater Yellowstone area and to find out what exciting programs we could put together for Scott Dunn guests. In general, spring and fall are the best times for viewing as animals hide from the heat of summer; they have thick coats, and the sun shines off them attracting predators. Yet this is the most popular time to visit. Greater Yellowstone gets 3 million visitors a year, with 2 million arriving June to August. In these months, hiring a guide with knowledge of the behaviour and habitats of the wildlife is vital. There are over 1,000 miles of trails to explore, and the guides know the back-country even by plush SUV and can get you off the main roads quickly. They know the patterns and share recent sightings of the big animals – namely bears, wolves and water-loving moose.
Four-thirty in the afternoon my Amangani guide arrives for a sunset wildlife safari in the Tetons. My guide is a biologist come expert on animal behaviour – a treasure-trove of facts on evolution. It’s September and the park’s bears are in a feeding frenzy in preparation for hibernation. Feeding becomes a full time occupation and therefore if you know the feeding grounds, you find the bears. We set off in the swish SUV complete with binoculars and tripods for viewing. My guide had seen bear earlier in the day, and so we set off to their feeding ground. We walk and then we wait, and wait, but this isn’t a zoo and the bears remain elusive.
There is stormy weather coming north from Colorado – over the mountain tops lightening illuminates the sky adding to the dramatic scenery of Teton peaks. My guide asks me what I want to see, I start with a heard of bison, we drive off road into the back-country and we’re surrounded. Then over the scented sage bush a male pronghorn antelope bounces, soon followed by his harem. It’s thrilling, like watching Impala run on an African game drive.
It’s this time of day that Moose come out of their wallowing in the willow bush – temperatures cool and their shiny coats are less obvious to predators. Off the aptly named Moose Junction there are some impressive camera’s set-up on tripods. Jackson is a mecca for wildlife photographers and artists with the impressive National Wildlife Museum located overlooking the Elk Refuge on the outskirts of town. Photographers come from all over the world to get the perfect shot. We stop and a magnificent male bull and his female graze on the willow bush.
My guide’s been away hunting for a couple of weeks and he knows the location of a wolf den up on the mountainside. To see wolves in Yellowstone you need a combination of information and luck. As the sun sets, we hike up the hill to set up the tri-pod. As the heavens open I am sure that a black coated wolf pup darts through the willow bush across the valley but we have to retreat to the shade of a tree while the rain passes. To see wolves, you need to be focussed and dedicate a few days to the pursuit. To spot them close up, a guide in the Lamar Valley known as the ‘Serengeti of North America’ is a must and Scott Dunn are working with a superb wildlife company to offer our guests a 3-day programme dedicated to spotting wolves and grizzlies in this area.
Another day and another adventure in Jackson Hole as I head north into Yellowstone National Park, this time with a guide from Jackson Hole Wildlife Safaris. Jenny is a bubbly former Bear Manager Ranger in Teton National Park, and a trained Naturalist. Our aim is to see the highlights of Yellowstone in a day – from bubbling mud pools and roaring steam vents, to the azure waters of the Norris Basin to the famous cone geyser, Old Faithful’s, impressive show, although far longer in the park is recommended to experience its wildlife, hiking and geological wonders.
Old Faithful is a must-see for any Yellowstone first timer and Jenny timed our visit perfectly with her insider ranger knowledge. After Old Faithful blasts off to his crowd of admirers, we drive up to the Yellowstone River and Falls which have to be one the most magical parts of the park – especially when a rainbow arches over the canyon making the rock shine gold.
Yellowstone River with a magical rainbow
Old Faithful cone geyser
Next, it’s the Hayden Valley, a mecca for bison and grazing herds of longhorn antelope. For the wolves and the grizzlies, you need to spend more time further north in the park in the Lamar Valley where you’ll reap the benefits of patience to see the big ones. Driving back south through the park the earth is alive with bubbling sulphur caldrons and hot springs. We continually stop to admire the earth’s activity – there’s a true sense of being a top a super volcano.
Despite this excitement, I did feel that my trip to Yellowstone would not be complete without seeing an elusive Yogi Bear. We drive back through the park to Jackson Hole, light fading to dusk but Jenny still encourages me to keep my eyes peeled in search of movement among the forest that might indicate a bear. The car comes to a sudden halt. ‘Oh this might be a bear jam’ Jenny says. ‘What’s a bear Jam?’ It’s one of these – we follow a steady stream of SUVs, slowly passing a handsome black bear gently picking huckleberries on the side of the road. The bear causes traffic to slow to a near on halt to admire and photograph him – the rangers wave us on to keep the traffic moving and to remind passers-by that this black bear is probably not as friendly as Yogi or Boo-Boo bear.
The not quite-so-Yogi bear!