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Our March Madness Picks: Hayden Valley vs Lamar Valley

Which wildlife-rich valley will win the showdown?

During college basketball’s March Madness, you can always expect the unexpected. Which underdog team will beat the favorite? Which newcomer will lead the tournament in scoring? Here in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, the Madness takes on a meaning of its own. Often, crowds of people flock to Yellowstone National Park hoping they can expect the unexpected– a Moose nibbling an Aspen tree for an early morning breakfast or a Grizzly out on an early evening stroll. Two of the top contenders to win the best wildlife viewing in Yellowstone are Hayden Valley and Lamar Valley.  Both are beautiful and rich in wildlife, so what happens when these two Valleys tip-off in a quest to see who will emerge victoriously? Well, it’s Madness, baby! 

Meet the Teams

  • Lamar Valley is in the northeastern section 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.

Meet the Players

Grizzly Bears

Both 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.

Advantage: Tie

Photo: Suzanne Daniel

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.

Advantage: Lamar Valley


Birds

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.

Advantage: Hayden Valley

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 advantage goes to Lamar.

Advantage: Lamar Valley

Elk

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.  

Advantage: Hayden Valley

Photo: Suzanne Daniel

Moose

This is an easy win 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 over browsing 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.

Advantage: Lamar Valley

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.  

Advantage: Lamar Valley

Photo: Suzanne Daniel

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 snow coach or snowmobile. The advantage goes to Lamar for year-round vehicle access and less summer daytime traffic.

Advantage: Lamar Valley

Winner: 

Our analysis of the Valleys leads us to pick Lamar Valley as the winner! This matchup seems almost too close to call, but Lamar Valley will cut down the nets this year. Both valleys have unique characters and beauty, and our guides like to spend time looking for wildlife in both valleys during multi day wildlife tours. They have many stories to tell of incredible wildlife encounters with these team players over the years! No matter which valley you spend time in, you have a chance to see some epic wildlife, which makes you the true winner!

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