When it comes to wildlife viewing in Yellowstone National Park, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better place than Lamar Valley. Elk, bison, deer, pronghorn, wolves, coyotes, and grizzlies make their homes in this expansive valley, plus occasional sightings of bobcats, cougars, and red foxes. Some of the largest wild herds of bison and elk in North America are found in an area called the Northern Range, which includes Lamar Valley.
Because Lamar is the superstar for wildlife (Hayden Valley is first runner-up), and because I’m sort of chicken about meeting a grizzly in the wild, my husband Dean and I booked the Lamar Valley Safari Hike with Yellowstone Hiking Guides.
Here are my favorite experiences from our hike in the spectacular Lamar Valley.
1. Meeting The Yellowstone ‘Greeter’
Our delightful day began with the warm and wooly appearance of a large male bison as we entered Yellowstone. Later, we learned about a dozen “loner males” that stroll around the park roads like they own the place. It’s awesome, but given their size, it’s also a bit unnerving when one lumbers past your car.
2. Enjoying The Peaceful Valley
Our September 8 morning was an unseasonably cold 15 degrees, with snow on the ground. I wouldn’t take it on the hike, but I was glad I had my long down coat. We drove to the Lamar River Trailhead, our meeting point for the 8 a.m. hike.
We got there early and had time to soak it in. From the trailhead, we gazed out over the valley, completely serene in the new-fallen snow. Geese swam on Soda Butte Creek and ascended in flight. The lingering moon was showing off, peeking out from deep gray clouds to make itself known. All of this. This is why we get up early, even on vacation.
3. Stepping Over The Footbridge
I walked down to the creek (being ever mindful that this is grizzly country) to take photos of the area and footbridge. Everything looked fresh and beautiful with that dusting of snow.
4. Meeting Our Fellow Adventurers
As we waited for our guide, we met John and Michelle from Florida, who would hike with us. The temp must have felt exceedingly cold to them! A third couple was a no-show.
Pro Tip: 14 people is the max on this hike. It’s not recommended for anyone with back problems, heart problems, or any serious medical conditions (requires a “moderate” fitness level). Per the gear list, we brought hiking poles and a backpack to carry at least two 32-ounce bottles of water per person.
5. Learning From Our Knowledgeable Guide
Our hiking guide, Josh, explained some easy ground rules. The tour was 6 to 7 hours, and we would hike 6 to 7 miles up and down the valley, stopping when we saw wildlife, with lunch at mid-day. He said the four of us would set the pace, because he can do this hike as fast or as slow as his guests want to do it.
Josh has been co-leading and leading tours in this valley since he was 10 (his parents owned the company before him), and he knew the valley. Exactly what you want in a guide!
Initially, we followed a hiking path, but soon, Josh took us off the beaten path. He said we were taking “the buffalo trail.” We’re in Lamar; why not see the valley like bison do? Love it.
6. Watching A Wolf Pack
About half an hour in, Josh pointed out a wolf pack munching on a bison carcass, far across the valley. He suggested we put our backpacks on the ground and sit on them, knees up, so we could steady our binoculars on our knees for better viewing. Josh told us about wolf packs in Yellowstone and a loner wolf, aptly nicknamed Splinter.
From afar, the feeding wolves looked like one big black blob. Once we knew what it was, we could make out individual wolves with the naked eye. We counted 10 wolves in the pack and watched until they finished feeding and headed into the woods.
7. Gazing At The Grazing Bison Herd
We saw a bison herd, tiny specs against Lamar’s grandeur. As we stopped to watch them, I counted 100 bison of all sizes, old and young.
We also saw a few straggler bison taking their own sweet time catching up with the herd. At one point, we walked between where they were standing and the rest of the herd. Josh stopped to see where the straggler bison wanted to go and changed our route to accommodate them. He always had the right understanding and respect for wildlife.
Pro Tip: National Park Service guidelines say to stay at least 100 yards from bears and wolves, and at least 25 yards away from all other animals, including bison and elk. With a guide, I never worried about any of this and could fully enjoy the experience.
8. Appreciating The Scenery, Vegetation, And Birds
Lamar Valley has many faces. Much of it is grand, wide-open spaces, rimmed in mountains. We saw a patch of trees (cottonwoods?) that looked like they belonged in my home state of Minnesota, and more typically western vegetation like lodgepole pines and sagebrush. The snow continued to melt as temps were rising.
We saw mountain bluebirds and several bald eagles perched in trees. When asked about grizzlies, Josh said in fall, bears stay in the high meadows, so we looked for them midway up the mountains where it looked brown and grassy. (We didn’t see any.)
9. Munching Lunch At The Riverbank
About halfway through the hike, Josh led us down “the Fisherman’s Trail,” an informal, rustic trail that was rather steep and took us to the Lamar River banks.
There, we sat on large rocks and ate lunch and chatted. By this time, the heaviest layers of outerwear were in our backpacks.
10. Respecting The Bison That Wouldn’t Budge
After lunch, we started the 3-mile hike back. We saw another bison herd and Josh stopped short when he saw a big male bison laying in the area we were going to hike through. He said this male was a watchman for the herd.
At Josh’s direction, we bunched up close together and stepped forward. We were still a considerable distance from the bison, but he was watching us. Our action meant the five of us (collectively) are big and wanted to come the bison’s way, so he should move (bison psychology).
As we waited, Josh asked us who we thought was the boss of the herd. How about this guy? The guard and protector? Nope. Josh said it’s the matriarch, the wise grandmother of the herd!
When the bunch-up strategy proved ineffective, Josh told us to stay while he moved slightly closer to the big bison. He stood his ground, but the bison just looked at him, unmoved, unmotivated, unbudging.
In the middle of the stare-off, another big male bison strolled up toward his buddy, and now we had two big male bison watching us. Josh returned to us and said he’d lead us back another way. The joy of going with a guide!
11. Hiking Through A Unique Basin
We hiked down a slope and through the outskirts of a natural basin. It looked like an unremarkable land depression to me, but Josh told us expectant elk and bison come here to give birth. There were clear lines of sight from the bottom of the basin; anything that intended harm could be easily seen. Thanks to Josh, we had more insight about what this was — another benefit of touring with a guide!
12. Treasuring The Hike Out
On the hike out, we went an entirely different way (thanks to Mr. Non-Budging Bison). Things were fresh and verdant from the freshly melted snow. We spotted a coyote and an elk as we hiked.
13. Hearing The Rushing Waters
When we returned to the footbridge, the snow and reflections of the morning were gone. Near this spot, the creek merged with the Lamar River and was flowing rapidly, and two fly fishermen were trying their luck. It was 51 degrees and beautiful.
The Lamar Valley has been called “America’s Serengeti” for its large, easily visible herds and packs of animals. I can see why.
The truth is, I liked every experience of this hike. They were all my favorites. It’s a wonderful thing to have the time, health, and money to travel, and when you can spend 6.5 hours guided through one of the most spectacular wildlife valleys in the country, it’s sure to make you glad to be alive… and grateful.