Bear attack! How not to panic on your Yellowstone vacation

A grizzly bear attacked hikers at Yellowstone National Park this week, killing a man and injuring his wife.  The incident is being described as the “first” deadly bear attack in the park in 25 years, but bear encounters are not new to the Yellowstone region. Last summer, a man was killed by a bear just outside of the park limits. I’m experiencing a sense of déjà vu, since I camped at Yellowstone right after last year’s mauling. This is how I coped with the threat of a bear attack.

Yellowstone National Park - Bear Country Sign

Ominous signs refer to Yellowstone National Park as "bear country."

I survived Yellowstone in the summer of 2010.

Ordinarily, this would be nothing to boast about. But this summer season was punctuated by a deadly bear attack just outside of the park, a trio of escaped convicts on the run, and a record number of visitors in July.

The triple threat of bears, convicts and crowds did not diminished the appeal of this iconic American destination. But it added to the excitement of visiting a national park known for its untouched landscape, wild animals and implicit dangers.

Yellowstone National Park is beautiful– and deadly.

When bears attack

When my husband and I chose to honeymoon in Yellowstone National Park we knew it would be an adventure. We weren’t interested in the standard honeymoon– Caribbean beaches, Tahitian luxury or Italian villas. We’d already traveled around the world (literally) and were ready to explore the US.

Besides, what could be more exotic to a couple of New Yorkers than camping in the woods without cell phone or Internet service and possibly being eaten by a grizzly bear?

Yellowstone National Park

My husband Jake and I set off for Yellowstone after our Manhattan wedding.

In fact, bears were on my mind when I arrived in Yellowstone on August 2.

A few days earlier, on July 28, a family of grizzly bears killed a man and injured two others at a campsite just north of Yellowstone National Park. The victims had been camping at Gallatin National Forest in Montana and were asleep in their tents when the attacks occurred. A few days later, the mother bear was caught and euthanized. Her cubs (who reportedly fed on the victim) were sent to a zoo.

According to news reports, the victims had taken proper steps to prevent bear encounters, like leaving all food outside of their tents.

While deadly bear attacks are not common in Yellowstone, this incident had me on high alert. My fears were not assuaged by the signs posted all over Yellowstone, warning of wildlife attacks.

I quickly drafted a will before setting off on a hike with my husband, who was eager to enter "bear country."

Confusing instructions

I poured over the bear literature provided at the Yellowstone entry gate. The official newspaper, Yellowstone Today, warns visitors to stay 100 yards away from bears and advises hikers to “make loud noises, shout or sing” on trails.

If a bear charges you, the National Park Service recommends standing your ground. And if the bear physically attacks you? Don’t run or climb a tree. You’re supposed to crouch down into the fetal position and protect your neck.

Of course, there are different rules for brown and black bears, and none of the park rangers seemed to agree on the usefulness of bear spray.

My head was throbbing as I tried to sort out the instructions. I was pretty sure that if I did encounter a bear, I would have no idea how to react. And I certainly wouldn’t stay calm if a half-ton beast started to charge me.

When you're scared of a bear attack, camping at Yellowstone counts as an adventure activity!

Hiking in bear country

When Jake (my fearless husband) insisted on hiking in “bear country” on our first day in Yellowstone, I was apprehensive. I pointed out that the Riddle Lake Hike was a in a “bear management area,” according to the hiking trails brochure.

In a clever move, Jake suggested we drive to the trail head and then I could decide whether or not to go on the hike. When we arrived at the parking area I was reassured to see a half dozen cars and a family with small children. If these parents can risk their kids’ lives on a hike, I rationalized, then how could I stay behind?

Still, I insisted on jabbering loudly about bears and celebrity gossip during the entire walk. I occasionally broke into a Lady Gaga song, much to Jake’s embarrassment.

I must have succeeded at annoying the wildlife with my chatter since we did not see any large mammals (excluding a few heartland tourists) and made it to the beautiful lake without incident.

I didn't run into any bears on our hike to this Yellowstone lake.

Close encounter

As it turned out, we didn’t see any bears during our four nights in Yellowstone. However, I did have a close encounter with a bear skin at the Shoshone National Forest information center, just outside of Yellowstone.

A friendly volunteer, Dave Leslie, 78, greeted us in the parking lot and invited us to pose for photos holding a grizzly pelt. He draped it across my torso and positioned the sharp claws against my throat.

We kept expecting Dave to ask for a tip or at least a donation, but after taking our photo he bid us goodbye with a handshake and scurried over to the next group of tourists.

Shoshone National Forest bear attack

No bears?!

After worrying about bears for the better part of a week, I was actually a bit disappointed we didn’t spot any bears on our Yellowstone trip. It would have been great to see a live grizzly– from a distance, of course.


For more information on this destination, visit the Yellowstone National Park website and read our Insider’s guide to visiting Wyoming, the Cowboy State.

Note: This article first appeared in the author’s NY Destinations column on

About Leslie Koch

I'm a New Yorker with a passion for travel and art. I founded after returning from a year-long backpacking trip around the world. Find me on Twitter at @leslietravel.