Catching Sight of Yellowstone’s Wolves

Make the most of your wolf-watching adventures in Yellowstone National Park with our tour and viewing tips information. The experience may just help you discover your inner wildness.

Forget Paris Hilton, Britney Spears and Brad Pitt. If you want to see some real celebrities, plan a Yellowstone National Park vacation, where you’ll find some of the most famous wolves in the world—animals whose beauty, grace and fierceness epitomize the wild.

Running With the Wolves

On a recent winter trip to Yellowstone, the nippy temperatures were a small price to pay for some of the most amazing outdoor experiences I’ve ever had. For example, one morning we were parked by the side of a road, watching a coyote perched on a nearby hill. Suddenly the animal took off running and our tour guide, Shauna Baron, got excited as well. “That may be a sign that wolves are approaching,” she said.

Sure enough, within a minute, four black wolves emerged from the shadows of the forest, running at full speed. They stopped as they came into the sunlight, ears cocked and noses lifted. The sight of them made the hair on the back of my neck rise—an instinctual response to these animals that have been so celebrated, and so feared, for millennia.

A few moments later the howling started, not from the wolves in front of us but from the forest behind them. Loud, piercing howls echoed across the valley, the sound indescribably wild. 

“The older members of the pack are probably warning these wolves not to get too close to the road,” Baron said, keeping her voice low so as not to disturb the wolves that have far sharper hearing than humans.

The animals paced the hill in front of us for a few minutes, edgy and alert. And then in a moment they were gone, racing away as quickly as they had come. Those of us who had been privileged to see them so close let out a collective breath of amazement. The past moments had made our Yellowstone vacation worthwhile.

Wolf Tours

Though any visitor to Yellowstone has the chance to see these animals in the wild, the best viewing is in the winter. To maximize your chances of seeing wolves in Yellowstone, sign up for a guided program offered through the non-profit Yellowstone Association Institute. The four-night Winter Wolf Discovery program, for example, is offered from January through early March. Other wolf-themed programs are held throughout the year. You can also sign up for private guided tours.

On my recent trip, our tour group included 10 people who had traveled to the park from all around the country. Each day we set out in a mini-bus to go wildlife watching with Baron, who has many years of experience studying and interacting with the Yellowstone wolves. Along the way we saw other animal species as well, from bison and elk to golden eagles. Baron also gave us a comprehensive introduction to the ecology, geology and history of Yellowstone Park, including the controversy that surrounded the re-introduction of wolves to the park in 1995. Each night we stayed at the comfortable Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel, one of two park lodges open all winter. 

More than 250,000 people have seen wolves in Yellowstone since they were re-introduced, according to Park sources. Today about 125 wolves live in the park, most in packs that frequent the Lamar Valley, an area rich in elk, the wolves’ primary food source.

We learned that wolves have had a wide range of positive effects on the ecosystem here, from healthier elk herds to more food for grizzly bears that feed on the elk carcasses left by wolves. The wolves are also a tremendous draw for visitors who bring an estimated $35 million in tourist dollars to the Yellowstone area each year.

“The re-introduction of wolves to Yellowstone was controversial, but by almost everyone’s admission, it’s been a tremendous success,” said Baron. “Thanks to their return, Yellowstone has the most intact wilderness ecosystem in the lower forty-eight states.”

Part of the fun of a wolf-watching program is getting a glimpse into the park’s animal soap opera. The dynamics are more Sopranos than As the World Turns, with frequent fights between members of competing groups. Within individual packs, however, wolves are extraordinarily loyal and affectionate. 

“We’re learning so much about wolf behavior that we didn’t know before,” said Baron. “Captive wolf populations—which had been our primary source of knowledge—are very different from those in the wild.”

For those of us who participated in the program, our worlds are a little bit different after looking in the eyes of wolves. Like many others, we found that something in their wildness draws forth a certain wildness in us. 

Destinations: Yellowstone National Park

Themes: Outdoor Adventures

Activities: Sightseeing