Once a month, we’ll feature a wildlife hotspot. We want to aid you with getting ‘the shot’ in order to help rekindle your love for nature, to enable you to become inspired by wildlife and to equip you to become an advocate for a wilder world at home.
This month’s focus:
If you visit Yellowstone National Park in early July and only visit one wildlife hotspot, make it Trout Lake.
The small lake found just east of Lamar Valley and a short hike north of the Northeast Entrance Road, before Pebble Creek Campground, offers what is often thought of as the single best location for river otter photography in the world.
Otters have made this lake home for years and while they can be seen year round, they are especially visible during late June and early July when the trout move up the inlet on the north shore of the lake to spawn.
Jill and I have had the privilege of photographing the otters over the past four years, getting to know specific individuals, their habits and their home. We’ve watched one female otter go to extraordinary lengths to raise a paraplegic pup, along with its able-bodied sibling.
We’ve watched another female lose two pups, yet beat the odds to raise the third, a runt, from the same litter to adulthood.
We’ve photographed otters fishing…
We’ve captured them playing…
As our friend Sam Parks always says, if you don’t love watching otters, you don’t have a pulse (or a heart).
Though we’ve seen otters elsewhere, what makes Trout Lake so special is the consistency of the sightings and the proximity of the trail to the habitat they use.
The short hike to the lake is steep and difficult, but well-worth the effort. Once you reach the lake, the trail levels out and circumnavigates the shoreline.
Given it is an area popular with fishers, hikers and photographers, the otters have become accustomed to people and so long as no one crosses the line, otters will tolerate our presence.
Traditional early mornings and late evenings don’t seem to work for otter viewing. Though we’ve seen them at sunrise and sunset, we’ve had far more luck in the late morning and late afternoon.
If they are not visible? Be patient. Otters have den sites that vary year-to-year scattered around the lakeshore. More often than not, if the otters aren’t out, they’re having a nap inside one of the dens.
While the inlet at the north end of Trout Lake is a favourite fishing location for otters in past years, the large downed log on the east shore is one of the better locations to wait for the animals to show up, as is the log that sits closely next to the south shore, two-thirds of the way along the trail from where you enter the lake by the bridge over the waterfall.
In both cases, otters have been known to nap in the open or even dive for fish and consume them on the logs.
And Trout Lake isn’t just great for otters. We’ve had luck with frogs, muskrat and snakes.
We had one of our better badger encounters on the trail to Trout Lake and bison and deer are common, along with many species of waterfowl.
But bears – both grizzly and black – are also seen frequently, so travel to the lake in a group and be sure to carry bear spray. Though we’ve never had an issue, we’ve never gone unprepared either.
If you don’t mind flies and a short hike, Trout Lake can be a peaceful setting as any to spend the day. And if you do put in the time, you’re almost guaranteed to see the otters.
Location: Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming
Accessibility: .33 mile hike from the Northeast Entrance Rd, near Pebble Creek Campground
Photographic Focus: River Otter
Best Time: All Day
Season: Late June-Early July
– When the trout begin to spawn, the otters are more easily spotted and, as such, while they can be found at Trout Lake all year long, late June to early July offers the best photographic opportunities, especially for pups.
– Though we have photographed otters all day, we have had the best luck between the ours of 10am-1pm and 3pm-6pm – and we have no idea why, as early mornings and late in the evenings would make more sense. So take this bit of information with a grain of salt.
– Talk to people as you hike up the trail and walk around the lake to see if otters have been seen recently – and keep an eye out for fresh scat, recently consumed fish, and wet footprints, all of which suggest recent activity.
– If you fail to find otters at Trout Lake, take the short, unmarked hike to neighbouring Buck Lake, using the trail immediately to the east of the bridge over the inlet creek and then staying right at junctions as the trail moves uphill. We have frequently found otters in Buck Lake hunting salamanders.
– Without any real warning, the otters – especially a female with pups – will abruptly leave Trout Lake and move down to the Soda Butte and Lamar Rivers after the trout have finished spawning. Usually the otters disappear for good around July 15th, give or take.
– While we haven’t visited the lake in the winter, we hear there are excellent opportunities for otter sightings during the snowy season.