Spotting wildlife is high on the list of things a visitor to Jackson Hole wants to do. Whether it’s moose, bison, bear, elk, or a bald eagle, seeing one or more of these wild animals in their native habitat is exciting and memorable.
One of the best ways to view wildlife in Grand Teton National Park is with an experienced and trained nature guide, and perhaps the best time to take a tour is at the start of your vacation. Jackson Hole’s oldest safari provider is Teton Science Schools’ Wildlife Expeditions.
Wildlife Expeditions is Jackson Hole’s original wildlife tour operator, offering private half-, full- and multi-day excursions in Jackson Hole, Grand Teton and Yellowstone national parks as well as the Bridger-Teton National Forest.
The more than 20-year-old outfitter is part of Teton Science Schools, a nonprofit organization founded in 1967 that aims to connect people, nature and place through education, science and stewardship. Wildlife Expeditions—the only nonprofit tour provider in the valley—strives to replicate the science school's mission. Proceeds from wildlife tours go right back into Teton Science School's programs as well as scholarships.
The tours offered are both fun and educational.
Trips include the use of binoculars and spotting scopes, professional field guidebooks for adults and kids and an interactive specimen kit containing antlers, horns, animal pelts and skulls, and more.
The most popular tours are the four-hour sunrise and sunset offerings, when the animals tend to be more active, and the light on the Tetons and the horizon makes for spectacular photo opportunities.
One of the animals visitors say they would like to see are wolves. Spotting wolves out on the National Elk Refuge is not easy with the naked eye, says Sarah Ernst, wildlife biologist with Wildlife Expeditions.
“They are actually some of the easiest animals to pick out against the snow, but not always out on the expanse of the refuge,” Ernst said recently during a morning tour.
The spotting scope Ernst set up in the parking lot of the National Museum of Wildlife Art—which looks out on the refuge—zoomed in across the snow-covered refuge as the frozen frost of morning lingered low in the sky. One pack of five wolves, some black and some grey, was slowly making its way across the ridge of Miller Butte.
No sooner had the wolves disappeared over the butte than another six were spotted taking up the rear, their long legs moving effortlessly through the deep snow toward the top of the hill.
Debbie Lewis, of Orlando, Florida, one of the visitors on tour, said she had never seen wolves in all of the years she has been coming from the south to take these wildlife tours with Teton Science Schools.
“This is amazing,” she said. “I have been coming up here for four years and have never seen one.”
Trained Biologists as Guides
The experienced naturalists who guide these interpretive tours are men and women with bachelor's—and in some cases, master's—degrees in biology, zoology, wildlife conservation and environmental sciences, among others.
The biologists are passionate about educating their guests about the Greater Yellowstone area's landscape, its wildlife and how it all comes together.
Their goal is also to make sure you get the most out of your wildlife tour. The Wildlife Discovery Expedition, an eight-hour tour, allows for a little less vehicle time and more time spent outside, looking at animals and birds in their native habitat with both the naked eye and through the scopes.
Beyond seeing wildlife, the naturalists will also discuss what political issues are going on regarding animals in the wild as well as conservation issues.
Even after they’re familiar with Jackson Hole, visitors to our valley swear by the guided expeditions.
“I keep doing the Teton Science Schools tours because I like the passion the biologists and tour guides have about the animals, the ecosystem and the history here,” Lewis said. “I never tire of their knowledge and stories.”
Types of tours offered: Half-day sunrise and sunset, and full-day expeditions in both Grand Teton and Yellowstone national parks and the Jackson Hole area
Costs: $800 (up to 4 guests) for a private four-hour half-day to $1,200 (up to 9 guests) for full-day
What's included: Complimentary pick-up and drop-off at your hotel; free snacks, hot and cold beverages; personal binoculars; high-powered spotting scopes; maps, field guides and naturalist packets for kids; souvenir water bottle
What to wear: Layers, closed-toe shoes. In winter, warm boots, hats and gloves are suggested.
Into the Wild in State-of-the-Art Vans
Wildlife Expeditions’ custom, safari-style vans feature three roof hatches and large sliding side windows for safe, ethical and unobstructed wildlife viewing. There is room inside the van for a maximum of just seven passengers—this allows for an intimate experience with the biologists.
And everybody gets his or her own window seat!
Also on board are complimentary coffee, tea, hot cocoa, soft drinks and snacks.
Families with younger kids are encouraged to take the sunset tours, especially in summer when the days may already be filled with other activities. In winter, when you might want to take a day off from the slopes, an all-day Yellowstone tour via snowcoach is a special treat.
People interested in more in-depth wildlife discovery will find that a full-day trip allows the guide the flexibility to visit other ends of the valley and—depending upon the time of year—different parts of Grand Teton National Park.
“I would say my three tips for watching wildlife in the winter are these: No. 1, dress warmly; No. 2, have good optics; and No. 3, be patient,” Ernst says.
“Keep watching the wildlife and wait for something to happen. Something wonderful almost always does.”
Wildlife Expeditions offers complimentary pick-up and drop-off at your hotel in Jackson or out in Teton Village. Arrangements can also be made to meet at the Home Ranch public parking lot in downtown Jackson off the Town Square.
Tour prices start at $139 per person for half-day tours and $235 for full-day expeditions. For information and to book a tour, call 877-404-6626, or visit wildlifeexpeditions.org.