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Yellowstone's Lamar Valley

Slough Creek is a world renowned fly-fishing hotspot accessed from the Lamar Valley
Slough Creek is a world renowned fly-fishing hotspot accessed from the Lamar Valley
Soda Butte Creek, Lamar Valley, Yellowstone National Park
Soda Butte Creek a tributary to the Lamar River, Cook City and Silvergate Montana are at the head of this valley in the distant  mountains.

In Yellowstone’s quiet northeastern corner a valley suddenly emerges from hiding, as if the surrounding peaks and ridges finally consent to share the secret paradise. Just after you enter the park from the northeast, you'll cut between 10,928-foot Abiathar Peak and the 10,404-foot Barronette Peak. You'll pass the extinct geothermal cone called Soda Butte as well as the two nicest campgrounds in the park, Pebble Creek and Slough Creek. The Lamar Valley of Yellowstone Park is a primeval scene. It is now complete with wolves, as well as grizzly and black bears, coyotes, cougar, even wolverine, thousands of elk, pronghorn antelope, bighorn sheep, and perhaps 500 bison. The best time to see wildlife is in the early morning or late evening. Lamar Valley has the largest concentration of grizzlies in the park, and with a little patience and much luck, you may see one.

A Black Wolf of the Druid Pack dines on elk dinner., Lamar Valley, Yellowstone National Park
A Black Wolf of the Druid Pack dines on elk dinner.

Bison and elk graze contentedly on the plentiful grass, and bald eagles and other raptors soar overhead scanning for prey. The music of the wolf, once described by Aldo Leopold as an “outburst of wild defiant sorrow,” often accompanies this pastoral scene. This idyllic setting caught the attention of an early mountain man, Osborne Russell, who deemed it “The Secluded Valley.”

On the 28th (July 1834) we crossed the mountain in a westerly direction through the thick pines and fallen timber, about twelve miles, and encamped in a small prairie about a mile in circumference. Through this valley ran a small stream in a northerly direction, which all agreed in believing to be a branch of the Yellowstone. 29th-We descended the stream about fifteen miles through the dense forest and at length came to a beautiful valley about eight miles long and three or four wide, surrounded by dark, and lofty mountains. The stream, after running through the center in a northwesterly direction, rushed down a tremendous canyon of basaltic rock apparently just wide enough to admit its waters. The banks of the stream in the valley were low and skirted in many places with beautiful cottonwood groves. Here, we found a few Snake Indians comprising six men, seven women, and eight or ten children, who were the only inhabitants of the lonely and secluded spot.

Sunrise over Slough Creek, Lamar Valley, Yellowstone National Park
Sunrise over Slough Creek

- Osborne Russell, Journal of a Trapper, 1921 exerpt ~

… at length came to beautiful valley about 8 Mls. Long and 3 or 4 wide surrounded by dark and lofty mountains…the banks of the steam in the valley were low and skirted in many places by beautiful Cotton wood groves. Here we found a few Snake (Shoshone) Indians, comprising 6 men, 7 women and 8 or 10 children who were the only inhabitants of this lonely and secluded spot. They were all neatly clothed in dressed deer and Sheep skins of the best quality and seemed to be perfectly contented and happy…Their personal property consisted of  one old butcher knife nearly worn to the back two old shattered fusees which had long since become useless for want of ammunition, a Small Stone pot and about 30 dogs on which they carried their skins, clothing, provisions etc on their hunting excursions. They were well armed with bows and arrows  pointed with obsidian the bows were beautifully wrought from Sheep, Buffaloe and Elk horns secured with Deer and Elk sinews and ornamented with porcupine quills and generally about 3 feet long…They said there had been a great many beaver on the branches of this stream but they had killed nearly all of them and being ignorant of the value of fur and singed it off with fire in order to drip the meat more conveniently…. We stopped at this place and for my own part I almost wished I could spend the remainder of my days in a place like this where happiness and contentment seemed to reign in wild romantic splendor surrounded by majestic battlements which seemed to support the heavens and shut out all hostile intruders. 


Today, visitors to Yellowstone’s Lamar Valley can delight in “ the wild romantic scenery” that has remained relatively unchanged since Russell first viewed it in 1835. Lamar Valley also boasts a remarkable story behind its scenery: it has been the site of two of the most significant wildlife conservation projects of our time: the recovery of the American Bison and it is ground central of wolf reintroduction to the northern Rockies.

Pronghorn antelope, Lamar Valley, Yellowstone National Park
A Lamar Valley Pronghorn

The Lamar River, the genesis of the Valley of the same name starts as a trickle in the Absaroka Mountain Range, on the eastern edge of the park, and flows northwest through the northeast corner of the park. It is joined by many tributary streams, including Soda Butte Creek and Slough Creek and joined the Yellowstone near Tower Junction, just below the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. The Lamar is a broad mountain valley in the northeast corner of Yellowstone National Park. It generally runs from east to west, with the Absaroka Mountains of Montana on its north side and Specimen Ridge forming the south side. It is the heart of what is called the Park's "northern range."

There is a short canyon divides the upper and lower lobes of the valley the "Lamar Canyon." The Lamar Valley is a broad mountain valley carved out by glaciers during the last ice age. Evidence can be seen as a wide, U-shaped valley that is strewn with glacial moraine boulders that were carried and deposited by moving ice from the Beartooth Range. The marshy ponds are also remnants of the glacial period. As the land becomes drier, these ponds will fill in with silt and rocks and eventually become meadows and a source of food for elk, pronghorn, and bison.

The Lamar Valley and Northeast Entrance host none of the hydrothermal features for which Yellowstone is famous. Yet, it is a mistake to skip this swath of Yellowstone National Park. Here are three reasons why. 1. The 29-mile Northeast Entrance Road is the most scenic of Yellowstone's five access drives. 2. The Lamar River and Soda Butte Creek are top fly fishing waters. 3. Lamar Valley, a broad, u-shaped glacial valley - is the best place to watch wildlife in Yellowstone National Park, especially grizzly bears and wolves. Three locations in the valley--Soda Butte, Crystal Creek and Rose Creek were the sites for the 1995 re-introduction of wolves into Yellowstone.

Wolf Watching

Grey wolf, Lamar Valley, Yellowstone National Park
A grey wolf of the Lamar Pack

Yellowstone visitors have long enjoyed the Lamar Valley, but since the reintroduction of wolves it has become a famous place to watch wolves. A dedicated cadre of wolf watchers know every swale and clump of trees and have given informal names to many these landmarks. Many of these wolf watchers spend a whole summer or more staked out on vantage points watching wolf packs, and loners roam the valley and know everyone by name or number.

Wolf watchers gather in the Lamar to view the spectacle that unfolds before them almost daily. Like beads on a string, small knots of cars collect along the makeshift pullouts carved out of the sage along the paved road when the wolves either visible or anticipated. Most but not all of the Lamar Valley’s wolf watchers are happy to let people view the wolves through their $2,000 spotting scopes as well as share wolf information with park visitors. Wolf watchers are easy to find just drive up and down the valley until you see multiple spotting scopes on a premonitory atop well worn paths through the sage and just go up and ask what they have found, except upon ocasion, most find them willing to share their passion. If you don’t wish to approach the wolf watchers there is always the main wolf dude whose job is to find wolves for visitors with radio telemetry and to teach visitors about the wolves. As of 2013 he drove a yellow Nissan Xterra. He also will locate the wolves in his spotting scope for you.

Reintroduction of the gray wolf to Yellowstone National Park created an opportunity to recreationally view wolf that was unanticipated both in terms of frequency and popularity. Interviews of visitors to gain insight into the wolf watching experience have divined that the Lamar Valley offers visitors an engaging wolf viewing experience opportunity that may be by anticipation, emotional involvement, drama, and mystery.

The main wolf-watching activities in the park occur here during early-morning and late-evening hours year-round.


Photographers, Bear Jam, Yellowstone
There isn't much for solitude after critters are found within photographic range are found in Yellowstone Park

The Lamar Valley is mostly sagebrush and grass, and much of the stage that the wildlife drama is played out on is easily visible. Although the Lamar Valley is chucked full of wildlife, it is often to far away to photograph in a satisfactory way. Of course the bison, pronghorn, and elk are cooperative enough but the prize subjects, wolves, and grizzlies are more difficult and require much tenacity and luck.

Luck favors the prepared and dedicated so those who are willing to put in the time greatly increase their luck. Giant multi-thousand dollar lenses are a great asset for photographing in the Lamar Valley, but I still manage some decent shots with much less.

The most productive part of the Lamar for the photographer is what is known as the Little America and Junction Butte area on the western side of the valley as the south side of the river to the trees is a narrower section of the valley; therefore, the animals you find will be closer than other parts of the valley. The Junction Butte and Yellowstone Picnic areas seem to be a crossroad where many animals pass through on their way to elsewhere and is a heavy wildlife corridor. Another area to watch is the region east of Trout Lake Trailhead.  Here again the valley is narrow so wolves or grizzlies traveling through will be much closer then in the vast steppe of the Lamar.

Boy fly-fishing Soda Butte Creek, Yellowstone National Park
Cody Hunter lands a fish in Soda Butte Creek

Photographers Beware, when approaching wildlife keep your distance as the wolf watchers are watching you also and are quick to radio perceived misbehavior of photographers to the authorities. The most frequent visitors to Yellowstone are the wildlife photographers and the wolf watchers, each have a dichotomy of purpose. The photographers must get within range to produce detail of subject in a photo. Wolf watchers are happy to watch wolves from miles away, because of their $2,000+ spotting scopes and don’t feel the need to get close. Don't find yourself between a wolf watcher and a wolf!


The Upper Lamar River is another tremendous cutthroat fishery. The main river along with tributaries such as Cache, Miller, and Cold creeks fish very well with dry flies for 12"-18" cutthroats. The Lamar River and its tributaries receive much fishing pressure, due to both its spectacular scenery and quality fishing and because the river is easily accessible by road. Generally, the Lamar ranges from between 25-200 yards away from the road, allowing easy access, and hiking down to the river is easy.


Osborne Russell can say it better that I: "There is something in the wild and romantic scenery of this valley which I cannot nor will I, attempt to describe but the impressions made upon my mind while gazing from a high eminence on the surrounding landscape one evening as the sun was gently gliding behind the western mountain and casting its gigantic shadows across the vale was such as time can never efface from my memory, but as I am neither Poet, Painter, or Romance writer I must content myself to be what I am - a humble journalist and leave this beautiful Vale in obscurity until visited by some more skillful admirer of the beauties of nature who may chance to stroll this way at some future period."

Lamar Valley Names
Lamar Valley landmark names

Wildlife-Yellowstone - Images by Daryl Hunter

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