Yellowstone Bears

Yellowstone Bears

I’m surprised at how many bears I saw at close range during this first week of June. I didn’t expect any real bear encounters here. I thought they’d all be binocular or spotting scope distance away.

On my first morning out, a private guide pointed out two grizzly bears high on a ridge above the snow in Lamar Valley. They were specks even with binoculars. His clients, looking through a spotting scope, were thrilled. Their first wild bears!

Yellowstone National Park BearsGrizzly bear specks

Black Bear

Later in the afternoon, on my way back over Dunraven Pass, I encountered a minor bear jam. There was ample shoulder room for me to pull off and park. A cinnamon-colored black bear was grazing along parallel to the road. She appeared oblivious to the crowds of people watching her. I suspect she’s quite used to the paparazzi. I sat on a rock and waited as she headed in my direction. It was a sustained close encounter.Yellowstone Bears

Yellowstone Bears The profile of this bear – the way the nose makes a straight line to the forehead – is characteristic of black bears. Grizzles have a bit of a dip in their forehead.
Yellowstone Bears Black bears routinely climb trees, so their muscling is prominent in their rump. Grizzlies are diggers, so their muscling is prominent in their shoulders. This is a black bear.

Phantom Lake Bear

Along the road from Tower to Mammoth, a black bear grazed near Phantom Lake. Only a few cars were on the road, with no place to pull off and a ranger gently keeping people moving. This bear also stoically ignored the attention he drew.Yellowstone bears

Grizzly Bear?

Early the following day, just past the high bridge over the Gardner River, a young grizzly bear was intensely focused on investigating something in a rotten log about 50 feet uphill from the road. There are not many cars at this hour, but they are all stopped on the road. After five minutes or so, I was able to creep forward, grab a quick picture through the passenger window, and move along.

Yellowstone Bears This bear appears to have the dished face of a young grizzly. But those big bears say black bear. Grizzlies have small round ears. I’m on the fence on this one.

Black Bear Cubs

Midafternoon in the harsh light, I watched a cinnamon black bear with two spring cubs in the Elk Creek meadow. The sow was feasting on sedges while the kids romped and played. They were far off, but still fun to watch!

Cub up a Tree

On the last afternoon, as I descended into Mammoth from Norris, I glimpsed a black bear steeply downhill at a hairpin curve. No people were around, and a small parking lot was just 100 feet ahead. I parked and hurried up along the road in time to see the bear’s butt disappear into the trees. I noticed a family down the slope on a trail looking towards the bear. I hiked down through the brush to where they stood. A grandma, mom & dad, and two young kids said they saw a cub or two with the sow. I pulled out my binoculars and found a tiny spring cub draped across some high branches. The sow was lying behind the base of the same tree. I shared my binoculars and helped the family to see that the little black blob on the trunk was an adorable little cub. After everyone got a good look, we all departed. These bears seemed distressed by our presence.Yellowstone National Park bearsAfter dinner in Gardiner, I took one last trip into the park. The Phantom Lake bear was hanging around on the hillside above the water.Yellowstone Black Bear

Playful Cubs

My destination was the Elk Creek meadow. I wanted a better look at that black bear family. As I rounded the bend, I saw that rangers had moved the traffic management cones to block off one of only two pullouts here. Cars were leaving, so there was plenty of room for me to stop. A bystander told me I’d just missed the sow and cubs in the meadow. They had moved off to the far hillside but the cubs were still visible – playing in the treetops! It was like Cirque de Soleil.

While the Yellowstone bears didn’t provide stellar photography opportunities, they did provide the viewing and experience of behavior and personality that feeds my soul. An unexpected delight!

If you’re interested in purchasing or licensing any images you see here, please email me at SNewenham at, and I’ll make it happen.

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