Grand American Adventures Official Blog

Our Latest Tales and Trails

Getting caught in a Bison Jam in Yellowstone

Posted on 25-Feb-2015

When most people book a Grand American Adventures tour, they are looking to leave behind the grind of their everyday lives, and escape to the wild National Parks of North America.

The Parks offer a refuge for city dwellers where wildness and silence are abundant, and the stressors of their everyday lives float away like a weight off their shoulders. These are the times where holidays become relaxing and restorative for the mind body and soul. The thoughts of work, emails, sirens and traffic jams leave the mind for a brief time on a holiday and this is the destination most travellers seek.

But in Yellowstone National Park, traffic jams are an everyday occurrence. Lines of cars sometimes a mile long come to a halt in the beautiful valleys, often having to turn off their engines as they wait. But it is not pedestrians crossing the road, or a saturation of intersections with rush hour commuters that create these jams. It is something all together different, something much more majestic and wild. These backups of park visitors are often welcomed, and a unique experience in themselves. So what causes these congested roads and delayed arrivals? Bison. Tens or hundreds, or even thousands of bison commonly walk, stand, or even lay down in the roads. They are Bison Jams.


Bison Jam_ Yellowstone National Park


The American Bison is a commonly spotted resident of Yellowstone, with a population approaching 5,000 animals. They live in two major herds, in the Northern Range, and Hayden Valley. During different times of the year, the herds fracture into smaller family groups, with the mothers staying together with their calves, and the bulls roaming individually or in small herds called bachelor groups.

As the seasons change from summer to fall (mid-August into September) the family groups of cows and calves come together as they ready for winter, and the bachelor groups, and dominant bulls follow. The males enter the rut, and begin their less than romantic courting rituals looking for mates to continue their bloodline. It is this time of year that the Bison Jams in Yellowstone reach their peak.

The herds are large (usually numbering in the high-hundreds or even up to a thousand animals together) and the bulls are fueled by a testosterone driven urge to procreate. Like the cowboys who used to hunt these beasts, they round up potential mates with an intense focus on the cows. Rarely do they take notice of their surroundings, whether its an open meadow, a thick forest, park road, or even visitor center parking lot. It is left up to the humans to avoid the animals.


Bison Jam in Yellowstone National Park


The official park policy is that approaching or disturbing ANY wild animal at any time is strictly prohibited. This rule is in place for both the safety of the animal and the visitor, and also to keep the wild animals we all hope to see, wild. But the rule also has an unintended consequence. Bison Jams. When the bison take to the road, whether alone, or by the thousands, we must wait for them to move along, at their own pace and direction.

As if their large herd sizes aren’t enough to cause traffic complications in the park, Bison also have two other characteristics that add to their constant disruption of efficient travel through the park. The first is the size of these creatures. As a member of the buffalo family the largest of the Bison in the park can weigh up to 2000lbs.

They commonly stand almost 6ft tall at the shoulders, and with heads like a battering ram and capable of speeds of up to 30mph they command respect from hikers and motorist alike. The second trait is my personal favorite. They are totally indifferent to humans. This does not mean they are safe to approach, or to be taken lightly, but as they roam the rolling meadows of Yellowstone they move with no thought given to human establishment. I have personally seen Bison walk through crowded parking lots and through lines of traffic as if the cars and trucks of all sizes were just another part of the wild Yellowstone landscape.

Bison Jams are an everyday occurrence at Yellowstone National Park, and although they create delayed traffic, lost time and a safety hazard to the inattentive driver, these traffic jams are unique, wild and welcomed by me, and my travelers, as our thoughts of rush hours, emails and work stresses fade away, as we sit in our own wonderful traffic jam somewhere in Yellowstone National Park.



Our Yellowstone Wildlife Walk tour is a great way to experience these magnificent beasts and plenty more incredible wildlife, and let's not forget the stunning Yellowstone scenery.


See our Yellowstone Wildlife Walk


Topics: National Parks, Tour Leaders, Wildlife, USA Northwest