Yellowstone has two kinds of bears: grizzly bears and black bears. Grizzlies are brown bears, larger than black bears. Grizzly bears have longer claws and can’t climb trees like black bears can. Both can run faster than humans.
We had three notable bear sightings during our week in Yellowstone NP. The first was a pair of black bear cubs just south of Tower Junction. Another person saw the mother and three cubs and gave us directions, but we only saw these two. We saw the bear in the above photo as we drove by, with a ranger hurrying us along. We pulled over at the next turnout and saw the second cub.
Two days later we ran into the same helpful guy, and he helped us see another bear. We were driving through the Lamar Valley, when we saw a lot of parked cars and tripods. We saw the guy who had helped us with the black bears, so we went over and talked to him. He was watching four coyote pups playing up the hill through his spotting scope and taking photos with his 500 mm prime lens. By the time I got set up, the pups disappeared behind the rock.
As the guy was packing up to leave, he asked folks across the road what they were looking at, and they said a grizzly bear. As usual, we couldn’t spot it with our binoculars despite everyone’s directions on where to look, so the guy took his spotting scope back out from his truck and set it up so we could see the grizzly bear. Then we saw the grizzly bear lumbering up a distant ridge! This is where we learned that a spotting scope can transform a puzzled “where?” experience to the “aha!” of seeing the behavior of wildlife. Here’s an uncropped photo of the ridge at 400 mm.
Here’s a photo cropped to 1024 pixels from over 5000 pixels. The bear is a dark blob in a gap between the trees, near the ridgetop.
Here the bear is on the ridge line, on the left. Compare the two photos to see that the bear has moved. Everyone said that this is a grizzly bear. I couldn’t tell, but it had to a big bear to see at this distance.
On our last day in Yellowstone, we saw this black bear cub just south of the Upper Terraces near Mammoth. Note that black bears aren’t always black; they can have brown or cinnamon coats.
Below, the sun came out for a bit. I like this next photo, with the sun behind the bear, highlighting its back, head, and paw. I take no credit for the backlight — I simply walked closer to the bear, keeping my back to the road with cars and people, in case the momma bear discovered us. The sun came out from the clouds behind the bear, and I took the shot.
The cub tried to ignore the crowd of people taking pictures. Everyone stayed on this side of the trees. But if the cub or its mother, who never appeared, had charged us, it would have been a mess. The photo below was taken at 100 mm, to show the folks closer than me. The other photos of this bear were at 400 mm without a tripod, and some of the photos are cropped. Occasionally I can get a sharp image without a tripod, but the rate of keepers is much higher when I use a tripod.
We planned to hike in both national parks, but we stayed to well-traveled trails because of concerns about bears. The local couple we talked with at Schwabacher’s Landing carried several cans of bear spray, and they cautioned us about hiking too far away from everyone else. They’ve had to use bear spray. The Colorado guy who helped us in Lamar Valley also carried bear spray. Years ago, he and his brother were fishing when a black bear kept approaching them, perhaps after the trout they had caught. His brother threw rocks at the bears, and the bear finally backed off after getting hit by a good-sized rock. So two sets of regulars to the parks both carry bear spray based on their personal experience with bears. A can of bear spray costs $50 and can’t be taken on US flights, so we didn’t buy any and therefore stayed away from trails with bears.
For folks who want to see bears in Yellowstone, go before mid-June, when the weather warms up and the bears in their bearskin coats head for the cooler high country. We heard this from the ranger who told us about the osprey nest and from the Colorado guy, who has visited Yellowstone dozens of times.