Best Places to See Bears in Yellowstone

If you are wondering where to see bears in Yellowstone, I wrote this article just for you. As I am writing this post, the date is Thursday, June 10, 2021. I recently completed a two-week photography trip to Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks.

Before you read any further, you will see some pictures of bears in this article. These pictures are from my personal collection. I don’t approach close to bears, period. All of my bear watching is done from long distances using binoculars, and my pictures are taken with telephoto lenses from distances well in excess of 200 yards.

It often happens that, upon returning home from a trip to Yellowstone, friends and family will ask two questions: First, “Did you see any bears,” and second, “Did you get any good pictures?” Well, it’s been happening again this year. So, I decided I would write a blog post on this topic.

Bear Management Areas in Yellowstone National Park (Map courtesy of NPS.gov)

I have spotted one or more bears on almost every trip to Yellowstone (and Grand Teton) national parks, since 2004. Referring to the map above, one of the first bears I spotted was a Black Bear sow with two cubs, in Area “E” of the map. This is quite near Mammoth Hot Springs, in an area called “Blacktail.” We were driving along the northern road between Mammoth Junction and Tower-Roosevelt Junction. I cannot call this area a hot spot, though, because that spotting happened over 15 years ago, and I haven’t seen a bear in that area since.

My next spotting (2005) was also a one-time event that happened near West Thumb, along Highway 191, just past West Thumb Junction as we were driving north toward Old Faithful Junction in the vicinity of Duck Lake See Area”N” on the map). There was then, and still is, a lot of ‘deadfall’ timber on a hillside. A large Grizzly Bear was turning over fallen logs, looking for grubs to eat. This eventually became a particularly dangerous encounter, as a high number of visitors stopped soon after we spotted the bear. At one point the bear became irritated and tried to leave the area to cross Highway 191 and continue on down to Duck Lake on the other side of the road. There were so many people out of their cars that the bear didn’t know how to get through the parked cars and gawking visitors. Luckily, it ended without incident and the bear managed to get across the road.

A large Grizzly Bear encounters a large number of visitors and parked cars, just wants to cross road (telephoto lens from over 100 yards)

Another time, I was hiking with a couple of friends in a very remote back-country area known as the ‘Bechler’ region (see the lower left corner of the map). Walking into a thickly forested area, we came across an old Forest Service cabin that appeared to be occupied, because we could see smoke coming from a chimney. A short time later and maybe a half mile down the trail, we saw a dark shadowy figure in the distance, off to the left side of trail. We all immediately stopped until we could make out what was there. Suddenly, a very large Grizzly Bear stepped into a clearing where we could get a good look. I pulled out a digital camera and got off a couple of shots. At that point, we decided to head back to the Forest Service cabin we had seen earlier. We knocked, and a ranger came to the door. “We just saw a large Grizzly, and we thought we should report it to you.”

“I doubt it was a grizzly,” the ranger told us, “we don’t get them down here.” At that point, I pulled out my camera and showed the picture to the ranger.

“Hmmm. I think you just saw a great big Grizzly! I will have to report this… the Chief will be surprised to know we have one of them here.”

Each of these events were one-time events. Please don’t go looking in these areas with high expectations of finding a bear… but, you could. Next, I’ll share the story of a very light colored Grizzly Bear that we have seen on several trips over a period of 4-5 years.

Spirit Bear (left) and Mom, seen in the same place over multiple years (telephoto lens from 500 yards)

We came to call her ‘Spirit Bear,’ because of her coloring, which was nearly white. Staying very close to her Mom, a very large sow, she looked to be 1 ½ to 2 years old. The first time we saw her was in the Fall of 2016. Speaking with a few ‘locals’ over the years since then, some call her ‘Snow.’ Frankly, although most people refer to the bear as female, no one has been certain. We found her along the Southeast Entrance Road just before the turn-off to Lake Butte Overlook as you drive toward Cody, WY (see area J1 on the map).

Spirit Bear in 2018, in the same place, but this time without Mom (telephoto lens from 300+ yards)

We returned again in the Fall of 2018, and once again our Spirit Bear was in the same exact spot. And, then we returned again in 2021, but we were disappointed that our ‘Spirit Bear’ did not show up. There could be a couple of good reasons for her absence: For starters, our trip in 2021 was a very early Spring trip and some bears were still in hibernation. Second, she may have found a mate by now, and moved to maintain family ties.

I’ll close this out with some safety information about bear-spotting in Yellowstone. You will read in various places that 100 yards is the minimum distance to keep between you and the nearest bear. That sounds really scary to me – these are huge and very fast predators! I stay far enough away that I need a telephoto lens to photograph them, and a pair of binoculars to see them well.

I also have a concern about bear spray. Please don’t think it works like mosquito repellant. When I read the instructions on the bear spray can, I notice a picture showing how to use it – the can only sprays a short distance! If you get yourself into a pickle, so deep that you reach for your bear spray, you better get right with God right then! Bear spray might be great as a last resort, but my hope is to never get myself into a ‘last resort’ situation.

Just keep it simple… stay far enough away that the bear isn’t nervous, and neither are you. Use binoculars and/or telephoto lenses to get a great view and pictures. Live for another day.

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