Autumn ushers in a special time in Yellowstone National Park. Miles of sub-alpine meadows turn golden flanked by stands of brilliant yellow quaking aspens. Shorter fall days give way to longer nights, easier for stargazing at earlier hours. But most of all, the animal kingdom revs up high drama.
Bring binoculars to hone in close to wildlife while maintaining a safe distance. Likewise, for wildlife photography, tote telephoto lenses or cameras with hefty zoom capabilities.
For your fall road trip, familiarize yourself with Grand Loop Road on the park map. Starting from the west entrance to Yellowstone, you’ll be making a big clockwise circle for four days. From Madison Junction, you’ll loop to the north and then work south to West Thumb Junction before completing the loop back to the west side where you started.
If you stay in West Yellowstone, you can experience the wildlife of Madison Valley during the day, but plan to stay until late in the evening to catch more. Those who camp at Madison Campground get to hear wildlife serenades all night.
During the rut, bull elk round up harems of females in a game of seeing who can collect the most. Watch the elk antics along the Madison River between West Yellowstone and Madison Junction. Male challengers will try to cull of some females away from the herd, and the bull will assert himself by sparring with others using his antlers as weapons and bugling loud honks. At night, their bugles ring through the campground. You might also hear coyote yips and wolf howls.
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By basing yourself in Yellowstone’s north, you can catch wildlife action in Yellowstone’s high elevations. Inside the park, Roosevelt Lodge offers the closest accommodations, but closes early in September. Further afield, but within an easy distance for a day trip, Mammoth Hot Springs has a hotel and campground. Just outside park boundaries, the towns of Gardiner, Silver Gate, and Cooke City give more options. For campers, Slough Creek and Pebble Creek Campgrounds put you right in the action.
Spend your days on this fall road trip split between two zones. Broad, rich grasslands spread through Lamar Valley housing bison, wolves, bears, and a host of smaller creatures. In the Absaroka Mountains, mountain goats cling to rock walls and feed in steep meadows. In areas of meadows fringed with broken cliffs for safety, you’ll spot bighorn sheep herds.
In fall, bears begin to enter hyperphasia, a time when they ravenously bulk up to put on pounds to survive winter. After shedding their previous winter’s hair, mountain goats sport new coats of white. As bighorn sheep move into the rut, males assert their dominance with charging and loud collisions of horns. Through all the action, wolf pups who have grown since spring put their hunting skills to use.
Fall brings on migrations. While many songbirds have already departed for points south, larger mammals, such as bison, begin the move to lower elevations for winter. Until late September, base yourself at Tower Fall Campground or Canyon Campground. For hotel accommodations, Canyon Lodge usually stays open until mid-October.
Spend at least one day driving from Canyon north to Roosevelt Junction and south to Fishing Bridge to catch the migrations. Enjoy sights of migrations as elk and bison depart the slopes of Mt. Washburn. You may get caught in bison jams as the animals opt for walking down the road for easier travel en route to Lamar Valley or Mammoth Hot Springs. You may also see them swimming the Yellowstone River through Hayden Valley as they move toward Old Faithful.
Finish your loop by shifting sights to geothermal activity. One one day, take in three stops. South of Hayden Valley, Mud Volcano belches and gurgles. At West Thumb Geyser Basin, colorful hot pools flank the shore of Lake Yellowstone. Last but not least, a stop at Old Faithful provides a finale with the famed geyser shooting off at regular intervals. If you have time, you can walk around the Upper Geyser Basin to take in more action. Finish your fall road trip with a stay in the historic Old Faithful Inn.