Yellowstone National Park is a pretty special place to visit at the best of times. Covering almost 9,000 square kilometres of dense woodland, technicolour lakes, and some very dramatic geysers, the park seemingly ticks all the boxes of what a nature-lover might want in a park.
Until you consider the wildlife. Namely, the 100 or so wolves living within.
We’re taught from a young age to fear wolves: they’ll impersonate your sick gran and eat you; they’ll huff and they’ll puff and they’ll blow your house in (and eat you); or they’ll dress up as your mum (who happens to be a goat), trick you into opening the front door, and then – yep – eat you (along with your six goat brothers and sisters). But this negative reputation is largely unfounded; wolves – having been hunted almost to extinction – can’t stand humans, and will do just about anything to remain hidden from view.
Yellowstone is one of the best places in the world to spot wolves, and lovers of all things lupine/fairy tale/Duran Duran have the opportunity to do this on a wolf tracking excursion in the national park.
But what exactly is wolf tracking?
We chatted to Intrepid’s US Operations Manager Ben Collier about what a wolf tracking excursion is all about, and what travellers can expect.
“Wolf tracking is more like a safari or game drive, where the aim of the game is spotting a wolf. You’ll go out into the park with a guide, whose expert knowledge of Yellowstone and its 100-or-so wolves (along with the CB radio they use to communicate with other guides and rangers), will increase your chances of seeing a wolf in the wild,” Ben tells me.
What happens on a wolf tracking excursion?
“Wolves are most active around dawn and dusk, so be prepared for an early start (like, 4-5am). After meeting your expert wildlife guide, you’ll head out into the park with your group in search of the elusive creatures, and other interesting wildlife.
“When your guide thinks they have the spot, optic scopes are set up to try to get the best view of the animal. You may need to hike a little way for the best vantage spot, and patience is most definitely required, as there can be a lot of waiting around. Your guide will provide you with insights into the park’s history, geology, flora and fauna throughout the day.”
How many wolves are you likely to see?
“Even with an experienced tracker, spotting wolves can be tricky. But as they’re pack animals, if you see one, you may be lucky enough to see multiple wolves all at once, playing together, eating, or looking after the young cubs.”
When’s the best time of year to spot wolves in the wild?
“The wolves stay relatively hidden during summer, and are at their most active during the colder winter months.”
What other animals will you see?
“The park is FULL of incredible creatures, so if you don’t spot a wolf it’s highly likely you’ll see something else! Grizzly and black bear, moose, elk, bison, pronghorn antelope, red fox, coyotes, rocky mountain goats, bighorn sheep, river otters, mountain lions (very rare!) and a large variety of bird life live within Yellowstone National Park.”
Could you skip the guide and just head out into the park on your own?
“You could, but your chances of spotting a wolf without a guide are very unlikely. Yellowstone is larger than the entire metropolitan area surrounding London, and is heavily forested, covered in mountains and is largely inaccessible by vehicle. Wolves are also very savvy when it comes to avoiding humans, and they’ll smell you long before you have a hope of glimpsing them.
“The guides and rangers in Yellowstone all work together, so if one group has a lucky encounter, they’ll share their location with everyone else. Plus, the spotting scopes the guides use are prohibitively expensive; something the average wildlife lover probably doesn’t have in their backpack.
“I’ve been lucky enough to see a wolf up close with the naked eye, but it was a rare sighting. And by close, I mean about 30 metres away. I once had a guide show me a wolf four miles away. Four miles!”
What’s it like seeing a wolf in the wild?
“Seeing a wolf in the wild is like looking through a window into the past, before civilisation had tamed the majority of the North American continent. There’s no animal that embodies the spirit of the American wilderness more than a grey wolf. Wolves were the apex predator that civilisation replaced across North America and Europe; they were almost driven to extinction in the USA in the early 1900s, and have only recently started recovering their numbers. Wolves were reintroduced into Yellowstone in the mid-90s, which has led not only to the resurgence of wolf populations in the park, but an increase in beaver colonies as well.
Sounds like a fun day!
“It is! Wolf tracking is one of our most popular activities. After a day spent in the outdoors, seeing wildlife and learning about Yellowstone, our groups are invigorated and inspired. And usually pretty tired as well. We did get up at 4am, after all.”
Interested in spending a day in the great outdoors on a wolf-tracking excursion? Join us on our 10-day Mt Rushmore to Yellowstone small group adventure, or our 11-day Rockies, Yellowstone & Mt Rushmore tour.
Feature image by Agnieszka Bacal via Shutterstock. All other images by Ben Collier.