Top Ten Wildlife Viewing and Photography Locations in the Intermountain West
How Can You Pick a Favorite?
There are so many great wildlife viewing venues picking my top ten has been a real challenge. I took into account the variety and abundance of wildlife, particularly big game, proximity to my home in central Utah, the inherent beauty of the area, and the availability of good camping facilities.
With these considerations in mind, here is my top ten list.
All photos shown were taken by me and the videos filmed by my son Michael.
1. Yellowstone/Grand Teton
Because of the distance from my home I combine these two National Parks and always visit both when I make the trip. These two parks are without doubt the best locations to see large numbers of a wide variety of animals at close range.
The most abundant and visible animal at Yellowstone is the bison. These big shaggy beasts can be seen, often within feet of the main roadways, anywhere in the central and northern park of the park. The best place to see them is the Hayden Valley.
The rut, or breeding season is an exciting time to see the bison. Running from July through September, the rut will find massive bull (male) bison competing for the attention of the cows (females). There will be a lot of posturing and bellowing with an occasional short but intense fight. Remember that bison are big, strong, fast and dangerous. Never get closer than 50 yards or if they are closer to the road than that, keep your vehicle between you and the bison.
Another great time to be in the park is between March and June when the calves are born. Respect the maternal instincts of the cows and never get close to the baby bison.
Rutting Bison Filmed by My Son Michael
The rocky mountain elk is probably the second most visible animal at Yellowstone. If the bison is the symbol of the American west, The elk holds the honor of being the symbol of the American wilderness.
The regal bull elk with his impressive antlers is an awe inspiring sight and the eery bugle of a rutting bull can send shivers down your spine.
The best places to see elk are the Hayden Valley and northward into the Mammoth area. Again, the rut, between late August and mid September, is an exciting time to see the fights between the magnificent bulls.
Getting up close and personal with a grizzly is both dangerous and challenging. In order to avoid confrontations between these big bears and park visitors, park officials will often temporarily close areas where grizzlies have been recently seen.
Still the opportunity is there and can happen at any time. On our last trip to Yellowstone my son and I drove from our campsite near Yellowstone lake to the north east corner of the park in the Lamar Valley looking for bear and wolves. When we got back to our camp we discovered that we were three minutes too late to see a grizzly sow and two cubs walk through the campground no more than 30 yards from our trailer.
Park rules recommend that visitors get no closer than 100 yards to bears or wolves.
This Young Grizzly Feeds on a Carcass on the Shore of the Yellowstone River
Like the grizzly, wolves can bee seen at any time and in any part of the park. The most visible pack is most likely to be seen in the Lamar Valley. Morning and evening are the best times to see wolves and if they are visible from the road there will usually be a lot of cars pulled over and spotting scopes set up.
The spring months are a good time to see both bears and wolves. The abundance of young elk and bison makes it easier for them to find food and they will congregate around the herds looking for an easy meal.
Moose can be harder to find in Yellowstone, but this is where Grand Teton shines. The best place to see these homely critters is aptly named Moose Junction. The bridge over the Snake River provides a wonderful viewing platform to watch moose feeding on willow leaves.
Other Critters You're Likely to See in Yellowstone/Grand Teton Parks
Lucky visitors might also see mule deer, black bear, mountain goats, bighorn sheep, pronghorn, and coyotes.
2. Antelope Island State Park
Located in the Great Salt Lake across the causeway west of Syracuse, Utah this island is home to a captive variety of wildlife. As with Yellowstone, the main attraction is the herd of about 700 bison that make the island their home.
Other wildlife that are commonly seen include pronghorns coyotes and some huge mule deer bucks.
Animals can often be seen from the roads and are easily photographed during all times of the year. The island is often plagued by tiny biting gnats called no-see-ums by many park visitors in the late spring and early summer. To avoid the gnats plan your visit before May or after June.
3. Custer State Park, South Dakota
This is a long drive from Utah, but the abundance of wildlife, the opportunity for me to see some critters I'd never seen before and the plethora if other fun sights to see put this park among my favorites.
You can expect to see bison, pronghorn and whitetail deer.
4. The Book Cliffs
Located in central Utah near the Colorado border the Book Cliffs are home to good populations of mule deer, elk, black bear and a recently introduced herd of bison. Extensive oil and gas exploration in the area provides good road access and shows that wildlife can coexist with energy exploration.
My favorite time to visit the Books is in mid November during the mule deer rut when it's common to see hundreds of deer in a day.
You can also expect to see wild turkeys, coyotes and, if you're lucky, some horned toads.
Book Cliff Bucks
5. Arches/Canyonlands National Parks
Both of these parks are located in southeastern Utah. They are home to some of the most magnificent rock formations in the world as well as desert bighorn sheep. one of my favorite photos was taken in Canyonlands. We were looking for bighorns and came across a coyote that actually got a little too close for comfort.
6. Henry Mountains
The Henry Mountains are an isolated range of rugged mountains north of Lake Powell in south central Utah. These mountains are known the world over for producing some of the biggest mule deer bucks. They are also home to a free ranging bison herd.
The Henrys are deceptively big and you can't appreciate how wild they are until you've had the opportunity to visit and enjoy this mountain range.
Henry Mountain Bucks
7. Sunnyside Canyon (East of Sunnyside, Utah)
This is a unique area to view Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep. A group of about 25 bighorn rams spend a good part of the summer in the rocky hillsides at the mouth of the canyon, just minutes away from the small town of Sunnyside.
These rams can be seen most mornings and evenings just off the roadway. The rams will usually remain in the area until early fall when they move south in search of ewes in preparation for the breeding season.
8. Paunsaugunt Plateau
Just the name of this plateau is fun enough to say that it's worth visiting. Located between Bryce Canyon National Park and heading south toward Kanab, Utah this is another area famous for monster mule deer.
We like to visit the north park of the Paunsaugunt in late August when the bucks' antlers are still in velvet. In November we hit the southern end looking for rutting bucks.
There are also pronghorns in the area and some pristine camping spots.
9. Willard Peak
Located between the towns of Willard and Mantua in northern Utah, these forbidding cliffs are home to one of the herds of mountain goats that make Utah their home. A dirt road from Mantua takes you to an incredible overlook where you can see all the way to Nevada. At the overlook is a trailhead that takes you south toward Ben Lomond Peak.
The canyon heads along this trail are the rocky home of the goats. Last time we went to Willard Peak we saw a nice bull moose on the way in, as well as several blue grouse.
10. Parker Mountain
This high desert plateau is located south of Loa, Utah. Home to one of the most prolific pronghorn herds in the nation, this is a fun area to camp and watch wildlife. Herds of these speedy goats are scattered across the plateau. During the winter months the Utah DIvision of Wildlife will use helicopters and wild horse traps to catch pronghorns to be transplanted to other habitat across the intermountain west.
This is a good place to see pronghorns, coyotes, deer and sage grouse.