Whether you overland, hike, camp or all of the above, the Lamar Valley of Yellowstone National Park should be on every persons to do list.
The Lamar Valley is a melting pot of countless species of flora and fauna. Grizzly bears, wolves, black bears, pronghorn, elk, bison, deer, otters, osprey, bald eagles and coyotes are just a few of the species you might find along the highway as you drive through the heart of this legendary valley of Yellowstone National Park.
Located between Tower Junction and the Northeast Entrance at Cooke City Montana, the wildlife viewing actually starts the instant you turn onto the highway at Tower Junction / Roosevelt. Within a mile, you’ll cross the Yellowstone River, and that’s when “the games begin!” And one of the great things about the Lamar Road is that it’s open all year long. The total length of the road between Tower Junction / Roosevelt and the Northeast Entrance is 29 miles.
The Lamar Valley in Yellowstone National Park is not on the Grand Loop, but if you like viewing wildlife, it’s definitely a side trip worth your while. And please keep in mind that during different times of the year, viewing will vary. That being said the beauty of the Lamar Valley is that you really never know what you’ll come across, it is like being on an African Safari.
Perhaps we are just extreme nature nerds but unlike most people who enter Yellowstone National Park through Grand Teton National Park we for the most part skipped all the obvious attractions and bee lined straight to the Lamar Valley as soon as we could. Four days into our 9 day #FLtoYellowstone expedition we knew that in order to have a chance of seeing Grizzly Bear & Wolves, we need to be willing and ready to dedicate most of our days in Yellowstone National Park to the Lamar Valley. We came to the conclusion that Old Faithful was likely not going anywhere and that our priority should be on experiencing wildlife first hand. As we drove with minimal sleep, fueled by a natural high of adrenaline and adventure we decided to see Yellowstone Falls and then get as close to the northern end of the park as we could before nightfall which landed us in Mammoth Hot Springs. Exhausted yet amped every dream we had that night were essentially reruns of every National Geographic special we had ever seen on wolves in the wild. We woke up prepared for hikes, driving and a ton of wildlife viewing throughout the northern end of the park.
That morning we packed up the truck and refueled and headed straight for the iconic valley and to our surprise the loyal local and visiting wolf watchers were already sprinkled throughout the park with expensive lenses and spotting scopes. It seemed as though they slept there the whole night. We set our UHF/VHF radio in our rig to the channel used by wolf biologist and photographers and listened in on any activity that came through the radio as we drove across the north end of the park stopping only to photograph wildlife. Sure enough we heard chatter on the air and rushed to get to the spots where sighting were being made. No matter our speed and preparedness we seemed to always be a step behind but the amount of other wildlife kept us motivated. Hours of photographing Black bear, elk and bison ate up most of our day and we were still exhausted from having only one nights good rest in 3-4 days. So with energy low and our batteries and SD cards full it was time for a data dump and quick nap in Cooke City so that we would be back in the Lamar Valley as dusk settled in.
This proved to be the best decision we made the entire trip. We rolled into the Lamar Valley, windows down, listening for howls and sure enough we pulled over as soon as we heard them. As we waited other wolf watchers began to pull over next to us and whip out there premium level equipment and in less than an hour we were surrounded by over 20 photographers all waiting for the howls to get closer. Two hours went by waiting and our finger tips were sticking to our cameras but we were determined. This was 90% of the reason we embarked on this journey believe or not and the setting was perfect it was just a matter of waiting. Three hours later and the howling had stopped for over an hour. The thought that perhaps we were in the wrong spot after all began to creep in and in that moment the unexpected occurred.
Less than 20 feet away from our group passed three large wolves right through our line of vehicles right by where we were standing and headed right to where our lenses were pointing. It could not have worked out better. Naturally we all stumbled on our tripods and tripped over each other to get our cameras ready but the feeling of accomplishment was unparalleled. It was like graduating college and high school twenty times at once. From that moment on it was like Mother Nature had blessed us because for the next two days we got to follow the wolves and see them time and time again as they marauded the Lamar Valley doing what wolves do.
Additional Helpful Info:
There are three “sections” of the 29 mile road between Roosevelt and Cooke City. The first section is the expanse between the Yellowstone River Bridge and the Lamar River Bridge. Wildlife viewing is fantastic throughout this entire section. In fact, we feel at times it’s as action packed as the actual Lamar Valley. We have seen a ton of grizzlies and wolves in this fun section of the Lamar Road. The Yellowstone Picnic Area and Slough Creek Campground are located here.
The photo to the right is of a “Bear Jam” on the Yellowstone Bridge just below the Yellowstone Picnic Area. “Bear Jams” on this road are quite common.
The second section is the actual Lamar Valley. This extremely wide valley was carved out by glaciers during the last ice age about 10,000 years ago, and this is where some great wildlife viewing can take place, depending on the time of year. There are several large pullouts for you to take in the view. You’ll also see the historic Lamar Buffalo Ranch, which is on the National Register of Historic Places.
The third “section” of the road begins when Soda Butte Creek enters the Lamar River. There is still excellent wildlife viewing as the road leaves the Lamar Valley and follows Soda Butte Creek all the way northward to Cooke City, Montana. Along the road you’ll see the amazing Soda Creek Butte, Pebble Creek Campground and Ice Box Canyon. This is a gorgeous drive because of the towering mountains that will begin to surround you as you get closer to the Northeast Entrance of Yellowstone National Park.
Winter In Yellowstone
For information on Winter in Yellowstone, click here.
The Lamar Valley in Yellowstone National Park is full of buffalo, and during the spring of the year they have their calves known as “Red Dogs”. These calves are really cute and fun to watch as they scamper and play.