In the fall, one of America’s most spectacular wildlife viewing opportunities begins at Yellowstone National Park. As the park’s summer crowds dwindle, Yellowstone’s elk rut gets underway. Imagine huge-antlered elk striding the streets of Mammoth Hot Springs. Imagine the thrill of photographing snorting, antlers-clashing bull elks in their natural environment along the Madison River.
Early fall in Yellowstone National Park
In late August, Yellowstone’s older bulls begin bugling to establish their dominance and attract female elk. By mid-September, the height of the rut, younger bulls also are bugling, and most young bulls have been driven out of the herds by the dominant bulls. However, age is not the determining factor of dominance; it’s the strongest and most aggressive bulls, regardless of age, who control access to the females in estrus and pass on their powerful genes. The struggle to determine that breeding access is one of nature’s great tapestries.
Elk in the town streets
Stay at the lodge in the Mammoth Hot Springs location near Yellowstone’s north entrance, and you’ll be assured of suburban views of elk. A harem of cow elk, who frequent the grassy, front lawns and meadows of Mammoth Hot Springs, attract large bulls, who aggressively compete for dominance. In fact, there will be times when the big bull(s) and the harem stop traffic, and the park warns that every year, several vehicles are damaged by a territorial bull elk, who aggressively charges a car. Park staff and volunteers patrol the town, not to corral the elk, but rather to caution visitors to stay at least 25 yards away from the elk. For the month of September, Mammoth Hot Springs belongs to its wild elk herd.
Elk in wild meadows
To view of the elk in their natural environment, the Madison River between the Madison junction and the West Entrance is a good place to spot elk. World class photographers travel to Yellowstone National Park at this season, and many magazine pictures of magnificent elk bulls are taken along the Madison River and its wide meadows.
View the slideshow accompanying this article to experience the excitement of elk on the streets and lawns of Mammoth Hot Springs, stopping traffic in Yellowstone, and in the wild, natural beauty of the Madison River area. The images were taken during a mid-September to end of September trip, scheduled to optimize elk rut viewing and photographic opportunities.
Autumn in Yellowstone
Fall is a magic season for photographers and wildlife viewers. The elks’ rich, thick coats are prime in anticipation of winter, the racks on the bull elk are huge and freshly cleaned of their velvet, the bugling announces the locations of bulls, and breeding interactions create exciting scenes. In addition to filming elk along the Madison River and in Mammoth Hot Springs’ meadows, streets, and parade ground site, travel to Gardiner right outside the park’s north entrance. And, don’t miss travel into the Lamar and Hayden Valley, to Canyon and Gibbon Meadow areas, and to the geyser basins around Old Faithful. You’ll increase opportunities to see moose, bison, coyote, pronghorn antelope, big horn sheep, mule deer, marmots, ravens, and Clark’s nutcrackers. If you’re lucky, wolves, grizzly bears, black bears, great gray owls, and trumpeter swans might be encountered. And, of course, you’ll be able to photograph Yellowstone’s geothermal areas and geysers, its lakes, meadows, and aspens, and its magnificent mountains, all in their colorful, autumn glory.
Access and accommodations
Although Yellowstone National Park is open every day of the year, not all facilities or all entrances remain open all year, and all roads and entries are subject to closures due to weather conditions. By late September, some facilities will have closed. Specific opening and closing dates for the park’s facilities, its roads, and a park map are online. Mammoth Hot Springs, right in Yellowstone National Park and near its North Entrance, has both hotel accommodations and cabins. A list of all Yellowstone Park’s lodging and booking options are available online. Additionally, the park supplies a list of “gateway lodgings,” for travelers, who prefer town facilities, but want to be near the park. Gardiner is a small town with lodging and food service facilities close to the North Entrance.
A world class wildlife viewing and photography spectacle
Yellowstone National Park is magnificent and huge, so travel in its fall season during the elk rut brings focus to its vast opportunities. Hearing a bull elk’s bugle, starting deep and low, rising to the pitch of a high whistle, and dropping to a series of guttural grunts, ring out of the wild, morning mist is a sensory experience to cherish. To watch a big, mature bull with impressive antlers as wide as five feet battle challengers is breathtaking and unforgettable. Nature’s power and raw beauty mark the elk rut in Yellowstone National Park as one of America’s most astounding and memorable spectacles.
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