Yellowstone National Park Bears: Guide For Families

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So your family is headed to Yellowstone? AMAZING.

And you have some questions about the Yellowstone Park bears? What a wise parent you are to be prepared!

Let me just say right off the bat, if your question is simply, “are there bears in Yellowstone Park?” The answer is…YES!

If your question is simply, “are there bears in Yellowstone National Park?” the simple answer is…YES.

– Heather Thibodeau

telescope set up in Lamar Valley, Yellowstone National Park to spot wolvesPin

In this article, we’ll dive into all you need to know about Yellowstone park bears, which are represented by two species: grizzly bears and black bears.

We’ll also discuss essential bear safety tips to ensure both the bears and park visitors, like your family, can coexist peacefully.

Yellowstone National Park, a sprawling wilderness stretching over 3,000 square miles across three western U.S. states, is famous for its geothermal wonders, stunning landscapes, and incredible wildlife. Among the most iconic and awe-inspiring of Yellowstone’s inhabitants are its bears.

And I’ll tell you a secret. Having been to many of our nation’s incredible national parks, to me, there are none that quite compare to Yellowstone NP. So get ready. You’re preparing your family for the trip of a lifetime!

family in front of West Yellowstone entrance sign at Yellowstone NPPin
Welcome to Yellowstone, America’s oldest national park! Here’s our clan in front of the West Yellowstone entrance sign of the park

Meet the Yellowstone National Park Bears

Grizzly Bears

The grizzly bear, also known as the brown bear due to its characteristic “grizzled” brown fur, is a magnificent creature. This species is larger and heavier than the black bear.

This bear is the beneficiary of a pretty terrible scientific name, if you ask me…”Ursus Arctos horribilis”. Yes, we should respect these guys and give them plenty of space, but calling them “horribilis” is perhaps going a bit far!

Grizzly bears are known for their (sometimes) aggressive behavior, and have been listed as a threatened species by the US federal government as part of the endangered species act since 1975.

two grizzlies wrestling at the Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center in West YellowstonePin
The Grizzly & Wolf Discovery Center in West Yellowstone is a great (and safe) place to see grizzlies up close! All the bears in this facility are rescue animals.

Yellowstone National Park has an estimated grizzly population of 150 to 200 grizzly bears, with approximately 1,063 living in the greater Yellowstone ecosystem. Like the park, this greater Yellowstone area includes parts of Montana, Wyoming, and Idaho.

It spans 11 mountain ranges (such as the Tetons and Grand Teton National Park), includes nearby towns (such as popular West Yellowstone), other public lands adjacent to the park such as Custer Gallatin National Park, as well as lands belonging to local indigenous tribes.

Grizzly bears can be distinguished by their larger size and a notable hump of muscle above their shoulders. They also have a concave facial profile.

Males typically weigh between 400 and 700 pounds, while females range from 200 to 400 pounds. Despite their hefty build, grizzly bears are surprisingly agile and can run up to 40 miles per hour!

Male adult grizzly at the Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center in West YellowstonePin
One of the adult male grizzlies at the West Yellowstone Grizzly & Wolf Discovery Center

Black Bears

Black bears (whose fancy scientific name is Ursus Americanus) are generally smaller than grizzlies. Male black bears in Yellowstone average between 215-315 lbs. according to the NPS, and females range from about 135-200 lbs.

Black bears may appear less aggressive. However, it’s crucial to remember that all bears, regardless of species, are potentially dangerous. Remember, the term “mama bear” didn’t start by chance!

Black bear cubs at Bear Country USA in South Dakota – why am I sharing pictures of bears OUTSIDE of Yellowstone? Because it’s hard to get a great snap of a wild bear at Yellowstone…if I’m close enough to get an amazing picture, I’m too close!

Black Bear or Grizzly? How to Spot the Differences

It’s actually harder than many think to distinguish between black bears and grizzlies. But here are some good (and not so good) indicators to remember.

Color (🚫 Not Reliable)

Color, unfortunately, is not a very reliable indicator. Despite these wild animals being called “black” and “brown” bears, the color of both species can vary greatly.

While many Yellowstone grizzly bears are brown in color, the can range in color from blonde (yes, blonde!) to black.

Similarly only an estimated half of Yellowstone’s “black” bears are actually black! These guys may also be blonde, brown, and my personal favorite…cinnamon!

Size (🚫 Not Reliable)

Yes, grizzlies are known for being larger animals. And if you placed 2 adult males, one brown, and one black bear side by side, the grizzly will most likely be larger.

But, just like color, size of these animals widely varies, and a female grizzly may be very similar in size to a male brown bear.

typical bad tourist picture of Yellowstone National Park bears! This one is a black bear seen near the Tower-Roosevelt area, a black bear "hot spot"Pin
Don’t expect to get amazing photos of bears inside national parks…frankly, if you’re close enough to get a great picture, you either have an amazing camera lens, or you’re WAY too close! We spotted this guy in the Tower-Roosevelt area of the park

Tracks and Claws (Somewhat Reliable, but Not Super Useful)

Though interesting, understanding the differences in tracks, and especially claws is not particularly helpful. Hopefully you’ll never be close enough to either type of these bears to assess their claws!

But there are some notable differences here. Grizzlies are diggers. They LOVE to dig, and their claws reflect that!

Brown bears have very long claws, which they use like a shovel to look for food sources like grubs, roots, and grasses.

In contrast, black bears have much shorter claws which are adaptive for climbing (though both types of bear can climb) as well as digging through rotten logs and limbs in order to find yummy snacks.

boy holding his hand up against the grizzly bear footprint inside the Mammoth Hot Springs Museum and Visitor Center in Yellowstone National ParkPin
Hudson holding his hand against the paw print of a grizzly inside the Mammoth Hot Springs museum. The paw print of a black bear is below so that you can appreciate the difference in size.

As far as tracks are concerned, if you are on a hiking trail and stumble across bear tracks…first of all…make some noise and be on alert. Surprising a bear is recipe for a bad day.

And though it may be cool to see some black bear or grizzly bear tracks in the park (hopefully old tracks from a bear that’s no longer anywhere close to you) it’s actually not super easy to tell the difference between the two types.

Yes, a grizzly bear’s prints should reveal long claws, and could be “larger” but without seeing both kinds of tracks side by side, it’s pretty tough for a novice to determine the correct source of the tracks.

Face and Ears (More Reliable)

Black bears are known for “straight” facial profiles, while grizzly snouts are more “concave”. A grizzly’s face can also looks fuzzier, whereas the black bears’ hair has a more combed 😉 appearance.

Ears can be a simpler indicator. Black bears are known for larger, pointier ears that have the appearance of a “U” while a grizzly has proportionally shorter, more rounded ears that resemble a “C”.

Male adult grizzly at the Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center in West YellowstonePin
Another rescued adult male grizzly at the West Yellowstone Grizzly & Wolf Discovery Center – you can get a good look at his typical grizzly face and ears

Humps and Rumps (More Reliable)

Personally, I’ve always had trouble looking at pictures, even on a screen, and seeing the difference between facial features of these two types of bears. To me the simplest way to try and tell the difference between these bears is something my family learned during ranger talks in Yellowstone.

Humps and rumps.

A grizzly bear is known for their camel-esque shoulder “hump” between the shoulder blades. It’s a prominent feature that’s pretty simple to spot.

What is the hump? Muscles! Since grizzlies are big diggers, their shoulder and upper back muscles are very strong and developed. Black bears do not have this feature. Their shoulder area is pretty flat and nondescript.

Black bears are known for their “rumps”. Their rear quarters are higher than their shoulders, giving them the appearance of having a big booty.

Number of Bears (Most Reliable)

When it comes to Yellowstone bears, probably the best way to decide which type of bear you’ve spotted is simply statistics.

In Yellowstone, there are roughly twice as many black bears as grizzly bears. So your odds of seeing a black bear are much higher!

black bear in a meadowPin
black bear in a meadow

Food Sources

Yellowstone National Park provides a rich environment for grizzly and black bears to sustain themselves. These bears have developed a range of dietary preferences to ensure their survival in this wilderness.

Grizzly Bear Diet

Grizzly bears are considered omnivores, which means they have a broad diet, ranging from plants to animals, depending on what’s available and in season. Grizzlies have a few unique adaptations that influence their food choices.

Grizzly bears are known to consume at least 266 species of food items in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. Their diet varies throughout the year, reflecting the seasonal availability of different natural foods.

  • Spring: As they emerge from hibernation in late March to early May, the Yellowstone grizzly bears favorite food source has historically been native cutthroat trout, which used to live in large populations in the park. However, the cutthroat population has struggled in recent years due to the introduction and proliferation of a non-native species of fish, forcing grizzlies to change their feeding habits. They now primarily feed on ungulates, such as elk, bison, and other animals. They often consume carrion, which includes winter-killed animals or elk calves killed by predators. During this time, they also dig up caches made by pocket gophers and enjoy grasses and sedges.
  • Summer: From June through August, grizzlies continue to consume grasses, sedges, and various plant species. This includes thistle, biscuitroot, fireweed, and army cutworm moths. They may also scavenge the remains of elk carcasses, especially on the shores of Yellowstone Lake.
  • Fall: Whitebark pine nuts become a significant part of a grizzly bear’s diet during September and October, provided there’s an abundant seed crop. However, whitebark pine is not a consistent source of food, as it does not produce seeds every year. In the years when these pine nuts are not produced, grizzlies eat roots, berries, clover, in insects.

Black Bear Diet

Black bears, like grizzlies, are omnivores, but they have some differences in their dietary preferences.

Black bears tend to consume more plants and less meat compared to grizzly bears.

This is partly due to differences in their physical adaptations. Black bears have shorter, curved claws, which are better suited for climbing trees than for digging. As a result, their diet is less focused on digging up roots and rodents.

  • Summer: Similar to grizzly bears, black bears in Yellowstone enjoy a diverse diet during the summer months, including plant foods like grasses, sedges, berries, and insects. They may also scavenge carcasses and feed on spawning cutthroat trout.
  • Fall: In the fall, both grizzly and black bears seek out high-energy foods like berries and nuts. While whitebark pine nuts are crucial for grizzlies, black bears rely more on berries like huckleberries and other fruits, including apples and pears when available.

Best Time of Day to Spot Yellowstone National Park Bears

Both bear species in Yellowstone are “crepuscular”, meaning, they are most active at dusk and dawn (side note: be sure to teach your kids that awesome SAT word…it may come in handy some day).

However, black bears can be more diurnal depending on their circumstances (meaning most active during the day), which is another reason beyond their larger population they are more likely to be spotted in the park.

Best Places to See Bears in Yellowstone National Park

For both species of bears, the best places to spot them are in the Hayden Valley, Lamar Valley, on the north slopes of Mt. Washburn, and from Fishing Bridge to the East Entrance.

In the spring, keep an eye out for grizzly bears around Yellowstone Lake, Fishing Bridge, Hayden Valley, Lamar Valley, Swan Lake Flats, and the East Entrance.

spotting wolves in Yellowstone National Park with big telescopes in Lamar ValleyPin
Knowing where to be (this was in Lamar Valley), what time to be there (dawn and dusk) and having a telescope handy will help increase your family’s chances of spotting wild bears.

During mid-summer, grizzly bears often frequent the meadows between Tower-Roosevelt and Canyon and in the Hayden and Lamar valleys.

Black bears are most commonly observed in open spaces within or near forested areas. The areas between Mammoth Hot Springs, Tower, and the Northeast Entrance are often good locations for spotting black bears.

Pro Tip: Both the Yellowstone Forever Institute and Xanterra offer excellent tours in Yellowstone with expert naturalists. If you want the best odds of spotting some of Yellowstones’ most elusive residents, scheduling a tour and going with the pros is a great idea.

Heather Thibodeau
Yellowstone National Park sign in at the Gardiner, Montana entrancePin
Yellowstone NPS sign in Gardiner (north) entrance of the park

Yellowstone National Park Bear Safety: Keeping Bears and Visitors Safe

Park Regulations

Yellowstone national park service has strict regulations to protect visitors and the bear population. These regulations are essential for ensuring the safety and well-being of all park inhabitants. Here are some critical rules to follow:

  1. Maintain a Safe Distance: It is mandatory to stay at least 100 yards away from bears. Approaching or crowding bears can stress them and lead to aggressive behavior.
  2. No Feeding: Feeding any wildlife, including bears, is against the law in the park. Bears that become food-conditioned can pose a significant threat to people and other animals.
  3. Report Conflicts: If you encounter a bear or witness any conflict with bears, report it immediately to a park ranger or dial 911.
  4. Stay Alert: Remember that no matter where you are in Yellowstone National Park, you’re in bear habitat, so remain vigilant at all times.
  5. Respect Closures: Be aware of bear management closures and respect them. These closures are in place to protect both bears and visitors.

Bear Encounters: What to Do if Approached by a Bear

When you’re in Yellowstone, it’s important to know how to react if you encounter a bear. Your safety and the bear’s well-being depend on it. Here’s what to do in various situations:

  • At a Distance: If you spot a bear in the distance, do your best to remain out of its sight and downwind. If it notices you, retreat slowly and leave the area without panicking or making sudden movements.
  • Surprise Encounters: If a bear makes noise, slaps the ground, or snaps its teeth, it’s warning you that you’re too close. Slowly back away, but never run, as running may trigger the bear’s chase instinct. Remember that they can run 40 miles per hour- You can’t outrun a bear!
  • Curious Bears: A bear that approaches slowly with its head up and ears erect is curious about you. If this happens, gather your belongings, especially food, and move to the safety of a car or building. Do not run. If retreat is not an option, get in a group and make noise. If you have bear spray, wait until the bear is 20-30 feet away before deploying it.

Charging Bears

If a bear charges you, the advice is different depending on what the purpose of the charge is and which species of bear it is.

Bluff Charges

Bluff charges are meant to scare or intimidate you. When a bear is bluff charging, it will have it’s head lifted and will puff itself up to appear bigger. Bears often retreat after a bluff charge.

If you see a bear bluff charging, slowly back away while waving your arms and speaking in a calm voice. Hold your ground and stay calm.

mom and two boys hiking to the lookout for the Grand Prismatic Springs in Yellowstone National ParkPin
Sticking to well-traveled paths (like this one heading to the Grand Prismatic lookout point), staying with a group, making noise and carrying bear spray are some of the best ways to prevent an unfortunate encounter with Yellowstone national park bears.

Aggressive Charges

A bear is aggressively charging if it opens its mouth wide, clacks its teeth, or pounds its paws into the ground. It will have its head down and its ears pointed back. This is when it is important to notice the species of bear you’ve encountered.

  • Black bear- If a black bear charges you, fight back using any available weapon. These attacks will continue until the bear is scared away, overpowered, injured, or killed, so don’t stop.
  • Grizzly bear- If a grizzle bear aggressively charges you, play dead. Do not fight back. Drop to the ground and play dead by lying on your stomach, clasping your hands over the back of your neck. Stay still and silent until you’re sure the bear has left.

*For more details on how to handle bear attacks, read this article from the NPS.

Bear Safety Tips in the Wilderness

Whether you’re camping or hiking in Yellowstone, follow these safety tips to reduce the risk of bear encounters:

Camping

  • Have bear spray at all times
  • Keep a clean camp by storing all food, garbage, or smelly items in bear boxes.
  • After every meal, pick up food scraps and garbage from the ground.
  • Sleep at least 100 yards from where you cook, eat, and store food.
  • Don’t sleep in clothes worn while cooking and eating.
  • Scatter dishwater at least 100 feet from your tent site.
  • Remove food scraps and garbage from fire pits.
  • Never camp in areas with obvious bear evidence.

If you do not have access to a bear box, hang not only food and garbage but also canned beverages, lip balm, sunscreen, bug spray, lotions, toothpaste, medications, clothes worn while cooking, and unwashed utensils on food poles.

Food poles are provided at the backcountry campsite. You will also need at least 35 feet of rope to hang these items the recommended 10 feet above the ground and 4 feet away from tree trunks.

glamping tent at West Yellowstone Under Canvas propertyPin
Glamping tent in West Yellowstone – to prevent unwanted bear guests, do NOT bring food of any kind inside your tent!

Hiking

  • Make noise while hiking to alert bears to your presence.
  • Carry bear spray (one can per person) and know how to use it.
  • Avoid bringing smelly foods on your hikes.
  • Do not hike alone (according to park ranger Harlan Kredit, to date a bear has never attacked a group of three or more hikers, nor has there been an attack involving a family with children – likely because of noise!)

By adhering to these safety guidelines and respecting Yellowstone’s bear regulations, you can help ensure a safe and unforgettable visit to this unique national park.

Remember, the magic of Yellowstone National Park bears lies in their wildness and their natural behavior. To protect them and yourself, follow these rules and cherish the opportunity to witness these magnificent creatures in their natural habitat.

Thibodeau family of National Parks Mom in Yellowstone National Park, near the Lost Creek Trail in Tower-Roosevelt area of the parkPin

Digging Deeper

Pin this Yellowstone National Park bears article for later! And if you find it useful, leave a comment on the pin! That helps others decide whether they’d like to read this information as well.

Yellowstone Bears: What to Know Before You Go - grid with various pictures in and around Yellowstone NP with bears and families looking for bearsPin
happy trails, heatherPin
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About Heather Thibodeau

Heather Thibodeau is the founder and mom behind nationalparksmom.com.

She and her husband Dave (AKA Tib) are on a mission to travel to as many US national parks with their three kids in tow as they possibly can, doing their best to keep the little ones out in nature and off of screens in an increasingly digital world.

Heather has earned degrees in biology & chemistry from Virginia Tech (Go Hokies), and holds master's and doctorate degrees in physical therapy from Duke University (Go Blue Devils).

Heather is also the creative force behind The Heathered Nest where she shares her love of all things DIY and home decor.

Her work has been featured in Better Homes and Gardens, House Beautiful, Good Housekeeping, This Old House, Today.com, The Washington Post, Boston Globe, and more.

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