Wolves are making a comeback. Here’s where to see them

Grab your binoculars and track thriving populations in Yellowstone, Denali, and beyond.

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A timber wolf peers through the forest in Denali National Park, Alaska, one of the best places in the United States to see wolves in the wild.

You might say that National Geographic Explorer Doug Smith is obsessed with wolves. After all, he’s spent his entire career studying them. A wildlife biologist, he leads the Wolf Restoration project in Yellowstone National Park, trekking on foot, riding horseback, and leaping from helicopters to research and protect these native canines.

Though several scientists argue the animal’s recovery is not yet complete, gray wolves are no longer considered endangered in some states, and a 40-year conservation effort has seen their numbers boom—meaning there’s no better time to encounter them in their native habitats.

“The wolf is the poster child of wilderness,” says Smith. “When you see one in the wild, it awakens the senses and everything feels right.” Here are a few of his favorite places to spot them in the United States.

Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks

If you explore these majestic landscapes for three or four days, “you’ll be rewarded with more than just a glimpse,” Smith says. For the best wolf sightings, visit in summer or midwinter and search during the early morning. In Yellowstone, look for packs living in the Lamar Valley, Hayden Valley, and Blacktail Deer Plateau. In Grand Teton, head to Willow Flats. (Learn how the Yellowstone we don’t see is a struggle for life and death.)

Trip tips: Drive the Great Loop Road to pass through Lamar Valley for a chance to glimpse its local wolf pack, then head southwest to the Mount Washburn Trail, a six-mile loop to a fire lookout tower that provides a sweeping, 10,000-foot vantage point over Yellowstone. Book well in advance at Old Faithful Inn (May-October) to experience the national historic landmark for yourself. At Grand Teton, be on the lookout for other wildlife from beavers to bison, then make your way to Jackson Lake to fish, sail, water ski, and windsurf.

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Making Strides

Gray wolves (Canis lupus) run through fresh snow in Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming. The gray wolf was nearly poisoned to extinction in the contiguous U.S., but conservation efforts have grown the population to about 5,500 wolves.

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Lanky

The maned wolf’s long legs let it see over the tall grasses of central South America. Its pungent urine—which smells like marijuana—acts as a territorial warning. Despite its name, the maned wolf is only distantly related to modern wolves and foxes.

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Going Solo

A lone gray wolf checks out bison to see if there is an easy meal. Generally, a mature wolf will leave its original pack once it reaches one to two years of age.

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We Are Family

As this 2002 National Geographic cover hints, wolves and Malteses have more in common than you might first expect. All dogs descend from domesticated wolves, a breeding process that likely began more than 27,000 years ago.

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Northern Alight

An alpha male Arctic wolf bounds across the ice flows off of Canada’s Ellesmere Island. The Arctic wolf has a shorter muzzle and smaller ears than its southern relatives, which reduces the loss of body heat.

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You Can’t Sit With Us

A captive gray wolf snarls while defending a deer carcass. A single wolf can eat up to nine kilograms (20 pounds) of meat in a single sitting.

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Teamwork

A wolf pack isolates a bison cow on a thin layer of snow atop a frozen creek. Wolf packs are most successful in taking on bison when they have at least 12 to 13 wolves. Wolves typically prey on the young, old, sick, and injured bison.

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Family Traits

A black and gray wolf walk side by side. According to a 2009 study, black wolves got their distinctive dark fur by breeding with domestic dogs that accompanied humans to North America.

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Beachcombers

Coastal wolves on the shores of British Columbia’s outer islands have diets that vary with the tide; their meals range from barnacles to whale carcasses that wash ashore. For more, check out this month’s National Geographic Magazine.

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Last of Their Kind?

Native to the country’s highlands, the Ethiopian wolf (Canis simensis), which is technically a jackal, is the world’s most endangered canid. Only six fragmented populations remain, the largest of which consists of about 300 individuals.

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On the Road Again

Gray wolves of the Malberg wolf pack near Ely, Minnesota walk on atop a frozen lake. The average wolf travels 25 to 32 kilometers (15 to 20 miles) per day in pursuit of food—and can run up to 70 km/hr (43 mph).

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Pup Squeak

When wolf pups (like this one on Canada’s Ellesmere Island) are born, they are deaf and blind. Pups don’t gain control of their hind legs until they’re three weeks old, forcing them to crawl in the meantime.  

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Denali National Park & Preserve

In this remote Alaskan wilderness—at 6.1 million acres, one of the largest national parks in the U.S.—expect fewer people and more wolves. Drivers on the Denali Park Road frequently report sightings. If you spot wolves, don’t give chase. “They’ll run away,” Smith says, “and it ruins the moment for everyone.” If you’re on foot, scout river banks for clues such as paw prints. Bring binoculars or a spotting scope to zoom in on the action. (Here’s how to do wildlife tourism right.)

Trip tips: Visit in summer, when Denali Park Road is open. You can drive the first 15 miles, then hop on a shuttle or tour bus. After a day of hiking, stay the night at Wonder Lake Campground for commanding views of Denali itself, at 20,310 feet North America’s tallest peak. Pack insect repellent to ward off the persistent mosquitoes and be sure to make use of the bear-safe food lockers available in the campground.

Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness

Bundle up if you go in winter, the prime time to see wolves in this pristine part of Minnesota. Try a sled dog excursion and follow wolf tracks in the snow. During late summer, book a guided canoe trip and you may be treated to the rare sound of wolf pups learning to howl. The presence of wolves, Smith says, gives the area that “wild, north woods feeling.”

Trip tips: As its name suggests, the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness is best seen from the water. Reserve the required permits to enter and overnight, then strike off on your own or book a guided canoe tour. Motorboats are mostly banned in this massive, glacier-carved backcountry. In the winter, trade the boat for a dogsled, a pair of skis, or snowshoes to traverse the serene expanse.

A version of this article appeared in the December 2018/January 2019 issue of National Geographic Traveler.
Kitson Jazynka is a frequent contributor to National Geographic Traveler magazine. Follow her on Twitter @KitsonJ.
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