Grand Teton National Park

How to spot amazing wildlife without even leaving your car: a lazy man’s guide to Jackson Hole wildlife spotting

In my experience, the month of May is the best-kept secret for Jackson Hole wildlife spotting. Come June and July, warmer weather and increased traffic through the parks pushes many animals further up into the mountains. May is an ideal month to find animals if you know where to look. Bison, elk, deer, moose, antelope, and bighorn sheep are all plentiful during this time, and the determined spotter can even find the occasional bear or mountain lion. I spend a lot of time exploring the various roads in Jackson Hole and Grant Teton National Park and my determination to cover as much ground as I can in the smallest amount of time possible has made me basically one of the world’s foremost experts in Jackson Hole wildlife road spotting. For your benefit, I’ve compiled this this handy guide so you can know where to go to spot cool animals pretty much without even having to roll down the car window.

For best results, go early morning or late evening–I do most of my spotting between about 6 and 9 PM. Many animals are out and about in the hours right after sunrise and right before sunset.With one exception, all of these pictures were taken in May or early June and all of them were taken from the road and within 20 miles of Flat Creek Inn. Forgive the amateur photography–these pictures were all taken on my iPhone, in some cases through the window of a moving car. Without further ado, I present to you the lazy man’s guide to wildlife road spotting in Jackson Hole.

Bison
Best place to see them: the meadows on Mormon Row, between Blacktail Butte and the town of Kelly. There’s usually a resident herd of a few hundred bison hanging out within a few miles of the Mormon Barn. Driving north on Highway 89, turn right at the Gros Ventre (pronounced GROW-VONT) junction and follow it 5 miles until you come to a turnoff on the left side with a sign saying Mormon Row. This will take you down a dirt road behind Blacktail Butte. This road, which eventually leads to the famous Mormon Barn, is the most reliable place I’ve found to see bison. Keep your eyes on the right side of the road, looking out at the meadows to the east.

Bison only live in pretty places.

Bison only live in pretty places.

Moose
My favorite place to find moose is actually on the way to the bison-spotting area. After turning right from Highway 89 at Gros Ventre Junction, you’ll pass some campgrounds on the right for about a mile before the road moves alongside the Gros Ventre River for several miles. Keep your eyes on the river (assuming you’ve got someone else keeping their eyes on the road). The moose like to chill in the bushes and tall grass right next to the water.

MOOSEN!

MOOSEN!

Elk, Deer and Antelope
I’ve grouped elk, deer, and antelope together because I generally find them in the same areas. All are fairly common throughout Jackson Hole, but I’ve had particularly good luck finding them on the Teton Park Road leading into Grand Teton National Park. Drive north on Highway 89, turn left at Moose Junction and follow the road into the park. From the point that you pass park headquarters, you have miles of prime spotting ground ahead of you. The deer seem to stay near the trees on the left (west) while the antelope prefer the open sage brush on the right (west). Elk are found equally in both areas.

This guy was kind enough to stop and smile for my camera. Thank you dear.

This guy was kind enough to stop and smile for my camera. Thank you dear.

Bighorn Sheep
There are several good places to see bighorn sheep in the area, but I have yet to find anywhere that rivals the Elk Refuge Road. This is very easy to get to and has a high chance of yielding bighorn sheep sightings, particularly during bad weather. On windy, snowy, or rainy days, hundreds of bighorn sheep take shelter behind the butte that runs along the Elk Refuge Road. Starting at the Elkhorn Arches in Jackson, follow the main street, Broadway, east through town until it comes to an end. The Elk Refuge Road begins on the left where Broadway ends. Follow it about 1.5 miles until you’re behind the butte. At this point, just keep your eyes on the hills on either side of you and you have an excellent chance of spotting lone sheep and groups of up to several dozen at a time.

Note the elk photobomb at the top of the picture.

Note the elk photobomb at the top of the picture.

Bear
Bears are a little more rare, but you can find both black bears and grizzly bears frequenting the lower lakes of the Tetons (Taggart Lake, String Lake, Jenny Lake, and Phelps Lake), as well as up Gros Ventre Road near Slide Lake. For a pretty drive and a chance of seeing a bear, enter the park through Moose Junction, and follow the road about twenty minutes until you reach the North Jenny Lake Junction. Turn left and you’re on the scenic Jenny Lake loop which winds around the edge of Jenny and String Lakes, coming back out at the Teton Park Road. Be careful when spotting for bears– be smart and keep a safe distance.

Objects in picture are closer than they appear.

Objects in picture are closer than they appear.

Mountain Lion
Mountain lions are some of the rarest of all, but I’ve seen them on the Gros Ventre Road across from Slide Lake. Turn right at the Gros Ventre Junction and follow it past Kelly. One mile past Kelly is a road on your right going into the hills. Follow it another five miles or so through some of the most incredibly scenery you’ve ever seen and you’ll arrive at Slide Lake. Mountain lions occasionally come down from the hills to the lake; watching in the early morning or late evening will give you the best shot. If you see one, stay in your car.

I know it's about the quality of the famous Bigfoot picture, but I promise this one's real.

I know it’s about the quality of the famous Bigfoot picture, but I promise this one’s real.

4 responses to “How to spot amazing wildlife without even leaving your car: a lazy man’s guide to Jackson Hole wildlife spotting”

  1. Paloma Altemeier says:

    Super. Danke für all diese Informationen. Ich komme das dritte Mal nach Jackson Hole und habe bisher noch keine Tiersichtungen dort gehabt. Jetzt weiß ich, wo ich suchen muß und hoffe auf Moose und Bears und Bighornschaf. Danke nochmal.

  2. Ed says:

    Hi, and thank you so much for this article. We visit the national parks strictly for wildlife viewing and photography, so your directions and references are amazing and very much appreciated. I ALWAYS find it very helpful to communicate with someone who either lives or frequently visits and shares the same interests in any area we are looking to vacation in. Typically, NO ONE knows more than people like your self. My wife and I, as well as our 23 and 25 year old sons, all nature lovers, are going to book time at the inn in the May 18-23rd time frame. That seemed to be a perfect time, based upon your experiences. The only concern I had, though, was whether we would be subject to road closures at that time. I know Grand Teton and Yellowstone close various roads during winter and re-open them late spring/early summer. Would you by chance have any information about this? Also, would you have anything to add regarding specific areas to target/check on for any additional wildlife based upon your most recent experience since the time you wrote this article? Several animals we have never seen in any of our previous visits are the wolf and the mountain lion. I was excited to see your reference to mountain lion sightings. Would you have anything to add, either pertaining to mountain lions or wolves, or even moose, which are always great to see as well.
    Again, thank you so much for your time and sharing of knowledge. I assure you we are the type of visitors that appreciate it immensely, and we will spend many hours each day we are there just searching. As you know it is truly one of the very best experiences. I look forward very much to hearing from you. Ed

    • Connor Kunz says:

      Ed–

      Great questions. I don’t think you’ll have to deal with many road closures at that time. The only potential one I can think of is that part of the Gros Ventre Road is closed until mid-May, but it’s a fairly remote section that’s closed off (further than anything I mention in this article), and I think most years it’s open by the 28th anyway.

      As far as seeing wolves and mountain lions: I should preface by saying that while there are areas that will put you in a more likely position to see them, both of them are rare sightings even for dedicated local wildlife spotters. That said, here’s what I would do:
      -drive the Gros Ventre Road as far as you can in the early morning and evening, as close to sunset and sundown as you can. Even if the closure I mentioned above is in effect, you’ll be able to drive as far as Crystal Creek, which puts you more than a mile past where I saw the mountain lions and in areas where wolves are known to be concentrated. You’re more likely to see mountain lions around Slide Lake and wolves around the Red Hills.
      -follow #jacksonhole and #gtnp closely on Instagram in the days before to be aware if there have been any repeat sightings of animals. Sometimes predators will find a carcass and hang out around it for several days. When they do, you’ll generally see posts about it on Instagram from the dedicated community of wildlife spotters. You may have seen the recent article about a mountain lion that was visible from the Maverik parking lot from an entire day. This was a surprising sighting as the lion was in an area a lot of us never would have expected. This particular lion doesn’t seem to be shy and I think it’s very possible that it’s seen again; hence I would just try to stay informed as far as what’s been seen recently.

      This goes without saying, but if you do find any such animals, be smart and follow rules/ wildlife etiquette. Stay quiet, be courteous to other spotters, and be mindful of where you park.

      Hope that helps! Best of luck.

  3. Scott says:

    Great article and beautiful country I have always wanted to go this area. There is nothing like being able to see animals in nature, thank you for the tips on how to do just that. Looking forward to visiting soon!

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