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Sunset in Lamar Valley

Battle of the Yellowstone Wildlife Valleys: Hayden Valley vs. Lamar Valley

What is the best place to see wildlife in Yellowstone?

If you ask this question to someone who knows and loves Yellowstone well, chances are you will be directed to either Hayden or Lamar Valley. Lamar Valley is in the northeastern part of the park; we’ll define it as the ecosystem along the stretch of road between Pebble Creek Campground to Tower Junction. Hayden Valley is in the central interior of the park; we’ll define it as the ecosystem along the stretch of road from Canyon Village to Fishing Bridge. Both are beautiful and rich in wildlife, but here’s a playful look at a showdown between these world-renowned wildlife valleys. Which valley are you rooting for?

Grizzly Bears

Grizzly and wrestling cubsBoth Hayden Valley and Lamar Valley are equally good places to find grizzly bears.  They both are rich in food bears like – grasses (in spring), roots, and animal carcasses.  Sometimes you may get lucky with a close-up bear, but a spotting scope can be very helpful in observing bears further from the road. In springtime look for bears following the melting edge of the snow, looking for gopher caches and young grass; in summer and fall, the best chance of seeing a bear is to get lucky with a recent bison or elk carcass. Check out this video of a grizzly and wolf fighting over a carcass in Lamar Valley! Winner: Tie Score: Hayden Valley 1, Lamar Valley 1

Wolves

While both Lamar and Hayden Valleys are usually home to a resident wolf pack – as of spring 2020, it is the Junction Butte for Lamar Valley and Wapiti Lake pack for Hayden Valley – in recent years, Lamar Valley has been consistently better for wolf watching.  This is partially due to the fact that Hayden Valley is larger than Lamar Valley and more undulating, so only portions of it are visible from the road; in Lamar Valley and the surrounding area, the majority of the land can be seen from one viewpoint or another.  Wolves are more likely than bears to avoid the road and a spotting scope is highly recommended. Winner: Lamar Valley Score: Hayden Valley 1, Lamar Valley 2

Birds

Cranes in Hayden Valley
Cranes in Hayden Valley
Hayden Valley’s lush Yellowstone river edges are home to a wide variety of shorebirds, waterfowl, and other birdlife.  It’s also the best place to see raptors migrating in August and September, and the forest edges on the north and south edge of the valley are some of the most consistent roadside places to see the elusive Great Grey Owl.  Lamar Valley is drier, though is often home to several raptor nests that are popular amongst photographers and wildlife viewers.  For bird photography, Lamar has a slight edge over Hayden during nesting season, but for the real bird-nerds, head to Hayden Valley. Winner: Hayden Valley Score: Hayden Valley 2, Lamar Valley 2

Bison

Both Hayden Valley and Lamar Valley are great places to view bison, particularly in the summer rut that runs from mid June to mid September.  They can also be home to some epic bison jams as the lust-ridden bulls keep vehicle traffic at a standstill for hours on end.  The northern bison herd is larger than the central herd and has been increasing over the last decade.  For sheer year-round numbers and just a teasing hint at the rich bison-covered plains seen by Lewis and Clark, the win goes to Lamar. Winner: Lamar Valley Score: Hayden Valley 2, Lamar Valley 3

Elk

Elk in Lamar Valley
Elk in Lamar Valley
In the past, Lamar would have easily won this category with thousands of elk wintering along the river in the valley.  But with the reintroduction of the wolf, elk prefer to stay up higher where it is harder for wolves to find and catch them.  While there are absolutely no elk in Hayden Valley in winter due to deep snow levels, visitors are more likely to see elk up close in Hayden Valley in the warmer months.  Get there by dawn from mid-September to mid-October to hear the bugling of bull elk resonate on the rolling hillsides.   Winner: Hayden Valley Score: Hayden Valley 3, Lamar Valley 3

Moose

This is an easy sweep for Lamar Valley.  There is almost no moose food in Hayden Valley – no willows or cottonwoods along the river, no aspens on the hillside.  Lamar Valley has seen an increase in moose sightings over the last decade as the deciduous trees and shrubs grow back after decades of overbrowsing by overpopulated elk.  Moose are one of the most heat-sensitive animals in the Park, so look for moose early in the morning or on cold rainy days. Winner: Lamar Valley Score: Hayden Valley 3, Lamar Valley 4

Other Hooved Animals

Another easy win for Lamar Valley, which is home to bighorn sheep, pronghorn (in the snow-free months), deer, and the non-native mountain goat.  Deer are seen on the edges of Hayden Valley, but massive surrounding forests make it inaccessible for the annual pronghorn migration and it is not mountainous enough for bighorn sheep or mountain goats.   Winner: Lamar Valley Score: Hayden Valley 3, Lamar Valley 5

Namesake

Ferdinand V. Hayden on horseback
Ferdinand V. Hayden, 1871
Though previously called Secluded Valley by mountain men like Osbourne Russel, Lamar comes from the rather magnificently named Lucius Quintus Cincinnatus Lamar, who was Secretary of the Interior about fifteen years after Yellowstone became a National Park. Hayden gets its name from Ferdinand Hayden: surgeon, geologist, and leader of the first federal scientific expedition into Yellowstone in 1871, just one year before it became a National Park in 1872. Interestingly enough, the two men both served in the Civil War, but on opposing sides – so perhaps the battle between the two valleys goes deeper than we thought!  Lamar was a lieutenant colonel on the Confederate side and Hayden was an army surgeon and medical officer for the Union side.  Both have horrible track records on racial matters: Lamar was a vocal white supremicist who fiercely opposed black voting rights, and Hayden advocated that Native Americans either end their way of life and submit to federal control, or be exterminated. But on the other hand, without Hayden’s expedition leadership, thorough field notes, and later advocacy for the protection of the Park, Yellowstone might not have even become a protected, wild National Park as we know it today. The win goes to Hayden, with misgivings. Winner: Hayden Valley Score: Hayden Valley 4, Lamar Valley 5

Accessibility/Traffic: 

The road to Lamar Valley is plowed year round for access to the small communities of Silver Gate and Cooke City; the road through Hayden Valley is closed to wheeled vehicles from the beginning of November to roughly mid-April. In the snow-free months, Hayden Valley is on the main tourist loop and sees much more midday vehicle traffic and tour buses than Lamar Valley, which is comparatively quieter on a spur road from the main loop.  On the other hand, from mid-December to early March, you can get Hayden Valley to yourself for hours via snowcoach or snowmobile. The win goes to Lamar for year-round vehicle access and less summer daytime traffic. Winner: Lamar Valley Score: Hayden Valley 4, Lamar Valley 6 Ding ding ding!  We have a winner, with Lamar Valley taking the prize! It was a close call for much of the battle, but Lamar Valley pulled ahead towards the end. In all seriousness, both valleys have unique characters and beauty. Our guides like to spend time looking for wildlife in both valleys during multiday wildlife tours, and have many stories to tell of incredible wildlife encounters over the years. No matter which valley you spend time in, you have a chance to see some epic wildlife.

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