The animals of Yellowstone and thermal springs almost got missed on this trip. Yellowstone is not even on our itinerary. But the beauty of having very few planned stops pays off and we decide to go at the last minute.
First, we have to decide how to get there. While Dale spent a lot of time as a child camping and fishing in the Park, I have never been. With 5 entrances in 3 different states, where do you start?
The 06 Legacy
But let’s back up a bit. When we decide at the last minute to visit, on a weekend no less, I know one person who might be able to help. Our goal is to see the legendary wolves.
I text Karol Miller, the founder of The 06 Legacy, an amazing nonprofit advocating for gray wolves. Karol has been very supportive of our efforts to bring more awareness to red wolves.
Within an hour, she is working on putting us in touch with several partners who will be in the Park over the weekend. Our first contact is Beth Phillips who advises we should immediately try & rent a viewing scope. And we should stay in Gardiner, near the North Entrance. Ok, we are making progress! And thank you Karol!
Renting a viewing scope is challenging at the last minute
Beth advises us to call Optics Yellowstone in Gardiner, the best place to rent a viewing scope. So we dial up Optics Yellowstone and talk to Melba. And boy does she know her scopes. We are so impressed with her knowledge & enthusiasm about seeing wildlife through a powerful lens.
Of course, Melba is sold out for the weekend but she’ll call us if someone returns one early. In the meantime, we have connected with Jack Daniels (that’s his name!) for a rendevous in the park at 5:30 am Sat morning. He graciously agrees to let us share his scope which turns out to be huge!
We follow Jack for an hour through the park to Lamar Valley where the Junction Butte wolf pack lives. It is pitch black dark and there are elk in the road which makes driving the RV challenging! Plus it is 23 degrees outside so we wear every warm garment we have.
And then we hear the wolves howling. What an awesome sound! As the dawn breaks, we begin to see wolf pups playing through Jack’s scope. We learn why a scope is so critical. You can barely see the wolves through binoculars and certainly not with your naked eyes. They are probably a mile away but you can clearly see them through the spotting scope. What a thrilling moment.
The wolves of Lamar Valley
There are currently 24 wolves in the Junction Butte pack, down from 27 just a month ago. Montana recently passed new hunting regulations where if a wolf steps foot out of the Park boundaries they can be shot.
And not only can they be shot, but they can also be snared, baited, hunted at night with lights and the hunters are paid a bounty of up to $1,000 for each wolf. Three young female wolves (2 pups and a yearling) were killed by hunters in Sept 2021.
It is so draconian, even the Superintendent of Yellowstone has weighed in saying “These wolves are part of our balanced ecosystem here,” they said, “and represent one of the special parts of the park that draw visitors from around the globe.”
We will have to wait & see what happens but at least US Fish & Wildlife is reconsidering adding gray wolves back to the Endangered Species list. Hopefully, it will not too late for this pack. And to learn more about these incredible apex predators, read our blog Gray Wolves.
We score a scope to see the animals of Yellowstone better
Melba calls & she has found us a scope for Sun. If we meet her Sat afternoon, she will give us a lesson. And maybe even have a case for our cell phone to take pictures from the viewing scope. We learn each phone model has a specific case needed. Luckily she has the right one. The scope gods are looking after us. Score!
Dale spends the afternoon practicing using the scope at our RV site. It is definitely a skill that takes lots of work to master.
We see wolves for a second day!
We meet Beth at 5:30 Sun morning to make the hour drive back out to Lamar Valley. Having the RV is great as we have hot coffee, a bathroom and warmth!
And the wolves don’t disappoint. We watch as they make their way across the entire valley. And Beth helps us find them using our very own rented spotting scope. We are in heaven.
What other animals of Yellowstone might we see?
We certainly didn’t expect to see Trumpeter swans but they thrive year-round near Yellowstone’s thermal springs. And they’re huge!
Weighing almost 25 pounds, with a wingspan of 6 feet, they are our largest native waterfowl. And actually the largest waterfowl in the world. Pretty cool!
You can tell them apart from other swans by their jet black beak, compared to a nonnative mute swan with an orange beak. The baby cygnets (such a fun word) can swim within a day of hatching but don’t fly until 3-4 months old. Again, we would never have gotten a good view at them without our trusty scope.
We also see pronghorns, elk & bison. Oh, and 2 coyotes
Seeing the wolves in Yellowstone was a life long dream come true for us. But we want to see some other parts of the Park, so we say goodby to Beth and make our way toward the Hot Springs. On the way, we come across a herd of pronghorn. I didn’t realize they are the fastest land animal in the Western Hemisphere, clocking in at 55 miles per hour. Wow.
Then there are the coyotes, elk & bison. We watch 2 coyotes through our scope. Someone stops to ask what we are doing. When we tell them watching two cool coyotes, they shrug and say “ah, just coyotes”. Well, they are cool to us!
The elk are everywhere you look in the town of Mammoth which is inside the Park. They are lying in the main square, standing in the street and just hanging around.
Hot Springs in Yellowstone, our last stop
As we are driving towards the Park exit, we see a sign for Hot Springs and decide to check it out. Apparently, Old Faithful is not the only place you can see thermal springs.
The springs look like huge salt mines with steaming pools of water everywhere. The Park has done a great job of building a boardwalk system around the area so you can safely get up close. And to learn all about the geological features of the hot springs, check out this informative article Where do acid-sulfate springs come from & why are they important?
After a long walk, we decide to call it a day as we need to get laundry done before we head west in the morning. The afternoon temperature is a pleasant 70 after the chilly morning.
Meanwhile back at the RV Park
We are staying at Rocky Mountain RV Park in Gardiner, Montana which is perfect as we are about 4 blocks from the North Park entrance. I had really mixed feelings about visiting Montana with their new wolf laws. Maybe we should boycott the state in protest?
But I quickly realized there are lots of folks in Montana who are trying to help the wolves and other wildlife. Like Melba. They have to make a living and if we avoid their state, we are hurting them. So we ate at restaurants that were pro-wolf and supported businesses that are working to save & protect the wolves. A win-win if you ask me and an important life lesson.
Back in the dog play area at Rocky Mountain, Gibbs sees lots of elk around our RV and ignores all of them. On our way into town, Dale also comes head to head with one. All in a day at Yellowstone!
Tomorrow we head to Washington and the Olympic Peninsula. And while we are sorry to leave Yellowstone, we saw our wolves!