Viewing Buffalo

Buffalo mesmerize visitors from around the world. Encountering a large herd gives people a snapshot of a historic scene once common on the Great Plains. From vehicles or on foot, we can capture the gaze of a massive bull, watch “red dogs”- calves- frolic, and admire tough animals rhythmically sweeping snow with their large heads to graze in winter.

Bull, American Prairie Reserve, photo ©Monica Van der Vieren

Find a map with buffalo viewing locations here.

But before you go, pack your common sense with your camera. Buffalo are wild animals. They are well-armed grazers that developed highly protective behavior over thousands of years. They are also far more athletic than you might think from your first observations.  Until you have seen a buffalo jump 6 feet straight in the air, or 7 feet across a ditch, you may think they are slow, sleepy animals.

Have fun, take great pictures, stay safe!

Your best bet for a rewarding, safe experience is to get yourself some buffalo knowledge. Wes Olson, a long time Park Warden, artist, and writer, published the excellent Portraits of the Bison to help you decipher who’s who in a herd, and to stay safe.  Johanne Janelle’s stunning photographs round out this book and the more portable Field Guide to the Plains Bison.

Olson illustrates the most important way to stay safe around buffalo:  respect their space.  Here he demonstrates the “bison bubble”, a flexible safety zone each animal perceives.

Images of book covers and “bison bubble” courtesy of Wes Olson and Johanne Janelle. All rights reserved by Wes Olson.

Olson points out that those buffalo safety zones can change moment to moment.  They are a lot like us: you might want to be around people in one setting, but shy away after you’ve been in an argument or someone insults you on a crowded bus or train.

Buffalo tails tell you when you’re too close.  Caprock Canyons Park Superintendent Donald Beard tells you to watch for the tail to rise in a question mark. The point of no return is when it flips straight up- watch out, and good luck getting out in one piece.

A raised tail means “charge or discharge”.  In this case, it was discharge (poop). American Prairie Reserve, photo ©Monica Van der Vieren

You want to give buffalo space so you can catch them just being buffalo, naturally. Your pictures and memories will be a lot better!


Sentinel Meadows Trail, Yellowstone National Park, photo ©Monica Van der Vieren

When you are hiking, watch for lone bulls that like to rest in shady campsites in the heat of the day.  If you find one in your campsite, sit quietly at a distance or go do something else; the bull will move away on his own. You may also stumble across “stealth bison” barely visible resting below a short rise in the landscape.

Sentinel Meadows Trail, Yellowstone National Park, photo ©Monica Van der Vieren

Driving is especially tricky when herds cross the roads.  Buffalo may seem to enjoy creating “bison jams” but the road is a continuation of their territory, and you are visiting it.  Stay in your car and use good judgement. If you are traveling on a road they use, drive cautiously dusk and dawn:  buffalo are killed on the road every year, and you really don’t want to whack into an animal that large.

YNPBisonJamStay in your car! Buffalo may approach you, and no matter how tempting it is for all of us, it’s not safe to get out for a photo when large, nervous animals are passing by.

Better your car than you.  Yellowstone National Park, photo ©Monica Van der Vieren


Custer State Park conducts an annual roundup viewed by thousands of people. Utah State Parks and Recreation invites people to join an annual roundup of the Antelope Island herd, on a camp chair or horseback.

Watch a great video on the annual bison roundup at Zapata Ranch, a partnership between The Nature Conservancy and Ranchlands, LLC.  This film festival favorite illustrates the risks and rewards of life on a working ranch with a strong conservation ethic.

Most of all, enjoy.  Listening to the rumble and roar of a herd and watching buffalo in a natural landscape is a great reminder of all that’s right with the world.

Yes, we turned around and backed out.  These animals move a lot faster than you think, so don’t try to beat them when they move toward your trail. Yellowstone National Park, photo ©Monica Van der Vieren