By AFAR Editors
May 21, 2022
Photo by Bram Reusen/Shutterstock
Located in North Dakota's badlands, Theodore Roosevelt National Park protects the state's natural beauty and serves as a living memorial to the 26th president.
You don’t need to leave the country to have a wildlife experience of a lifetime.
With nearly 3,000 different types of native animal species in the United States and 18,000 types of plants, it’s one of the world’s most ecologically rich countries—in fact, it’s recognized by the World Conservation Monitoring Center as one of 17 mega-diverse nations. From Maine’s rocky shores to the green rain forests of Washington, there’s much to see and do right here at home—no long-haul plane ticket or safari lodge reservation required.
There’s perhaps no better way to see America’s scenic landscapes than by visiting a national park. Created in 1916 by Woodrow Wilson with the signing of the “Organic Act,” the National Park Service, or NPS, has been hailed as one of the most democratic things the U.S. government has created and has been imitated all around the world. The NPS currently oversees 423 parks and monuments on a grand total of 85 million acres of land—all preserved “for the enjoyment of future generations.”
But in many places in the U.S., you don’t even need a park pass to see wildlife. Take Austin’s famous bats or San Francisco’s cherry-headed parrots, for example—sometimes wild animals live in the same urban spaces we do. While there are countless unparalleled experiences to choose from, ranging from urban to remote, AFAR’s nature-loving editors have picked 10 of their favorite places to see wildlife in the United States. Peruse our list, then grab your binoculars and a sun hat for your next adventure in the great outdoors.
Why go: An idyllic Pacific Northwest getaway with unparalleled quietude
Nearest city: Seattle, Washington
Animals of interest: Western screech-owls, bald eagles, gray whales, and black bears
Olympic National Park encompasses nearly 1 million acres, three distinct ecosystems, and what is arguably the quietest place in the United States. It’s no surprise then that some of the world’s most magnificent animal species live here. Wildlife lovers can listen for the hoot of several types of owls (including the adorable northern pygmy-owl) in the temperate Hoh Rain Forest, whale watch along the peninsula’s western coast, and give a wide berth to passing black bears in the Olympic Mountains. Seattle is a two-hour drive away from the park’s northeast corner, and it is an easy jumping off point. Most people who want to spend a few days or more in the park can road-trip along the highway that loops around the peninsula, staying in the park’s main gateway towns: Port Angeles, Hoodsport, and Forks. For a more historic stay, book one of the longstanding lodges—Kalaloch, Lake Crescent, and Lake Quinault are all charming and comfortable options.
Bird lovers, you’ll have a field day here: The park offers more than 300 species, including bald eagles. (Look for them at beaches like Shi Shi, Second, and Third.) Looking for larger, land-based creatures? Beavers, black bears, and Roosevelt elk also call Olympic National Park home. Prefer water? In November and December, visitors to the Quinault River are likely to see sockeye salmon spawning. And, of course, there are whales: The park is situated along the Whale Trail. While there are multiple times of year to catch a glimpse, May is the best month to see both orcas and migrating gray whales. —Aislyn Greene
Why go: See the largest urban bat colony in the world
Nearest city: Austin, Texas
Animal of interest: Mexican free-tailed bats
Austin is famous for its breakfast tacos and thriving music scene, but perhaps the city should also be known for having one of the most unusual tourist attractions—a sunset bat show. From late March through the early months of fall, an estimated 1.5 million Mexican free-tailed bats make a temporary home underneath the Congress Avenue Bridge, which leads right to the pink granite steps of the Texas Capitol. During their stay, the bats raise an average of 750,000 pups each year.
However, the bats weren’t always so welcome in Austin—locals used to think the flying mammals were responsible for spreading disease, and the city attempted to control the population. After years of organizations like Bat Conservation International advocating for all the good bats can do, such as controlling the local mosquito population (music to any Texan’s ears), people started flocking to the bridge each night to watch the bats take flight.
The bats are most active around twilight, when the colony begins waking up for their nightly insect feast. You can snag a spot on the banks of Ladybird Lake (also known as Town Lake to longtime Austinites) at the Statesman Bat Observation Center—the viewing area is free, parking is not—or simply wait on Congress Avenue’s sidewalk. The bats usually tend to fly east down the river, so keep your eyes peeled and your ears attuned to the sounds of thousands of wings and screeches. —Mae Hamilton
Why go: It’s called “North America’s Galápagos” for a reason
Nearest city: Ventura, California
Animals of interest: Long-beaked common dolphins, sea lions, pilot whales, and several species of birds
Some 2,000 species of animals and plants live on the eight land masses that comprise the Channel Islands, and 145 of those are endemic. The islands, and the waters that surround them and separate them from the mainland, are teeming with marine and mammal life—and by contrast very few humans.
Take an Island Packers ferry to Santa Rosa Island from Ventura, a harbor and seaside city an hour north of Los Angeles, for a day of sea cave kayaking. While crossing over, it’s common to see pods of dolphins surrounding the ferry. Spend the morning paddling along the shores of Santa Rosa Island accompanied by sea lions and brown pelicans (which once faced extinction but now thrive thanks to abundant kelp forests). Expert guides from the Santa Barbara Adventure Company can point out all manner of hidden creatures.
There’s plenty more to do on the islands, including hiking, snorkeling, swimming, and exploring tide pools. There’s no real permanent infrastructure or lodgings, so you pack in and pack out and visit for the day or camp for a night or two. It’s just a few miles from the mainland but a world away. —Tim Chester
Why go: Pure wilderness a short drive from Denver
Nearest city: Denver, Colorado
Animals of interest: Bison, elk, white-tailed deer, bald eagles, prairie dogs
With its herds of bison, prairie dogs, elk, and more, it’s hard to believe that Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge, one of the largest wildlife refuges in the nation, is just a 10-mile drive from downtown Denver. And with over 280 species of birds, including songbirds, waterfowl, and raptors, the 15,000-acre park is a birder’s paradise. Spring is arguably the best time to visit the park when migrating birds make their way back to Denver’s foothills and black-footed ferret kits are making their first forays into the big world from their burrows. Best of all, it’s free to visit.
An 11-mile Wildlife Drive runs through the refuge (consider listening to the park’s podcast while you’re at it) so visitors don’t even have to leave the comfort of their car during their visit. Those who’d rather experience the prairie landscape up close have 20 miles of easy hiking trails to choose from, and bikes are permitted on some of them—two hours is more than enough time to experience the refuge’s hikes and auto tour. And since Denver is nearby, perhaps grab a latte before heading out before dawn to see the park’s 150 bison—truly a sight to see when the grasslands are gloriously bathed in the Rocky Mountains’ golden light. —Chloe Arrojado
Why go: Bask in the splendor of coastal Maine and see the Milky Way at night
Nearest town: Bar Harbor, Maine
Animals of interest: Bobcats, beavers, and peregrine falcons
Acadia National Park, one of the oldest in the national park system, is the oldest park east of the Mississippi River. Comprising 47,000 picturesque acres, Acadia is sometimes referred to as the “Crown Jewel of the North Atlantic Coast.” Though the park is centered around Mount Desert Island, which is connected to the mainland via state route 3, several other islands are also part of Acadia, including the remote Isle Au Haut, which you can reach from the mainland via a ferry that leaves from Stonington a few times a day.
As you trek along Acadia’s 158 miles of hiking trails, be on the lookout for native East Coast animals like minks, red foxes, and beavers. Some of the most exciting creatures to see are the peregrine falcons, the fastest birds in the world (they can reach speeds of up to 186 miles per hour). Prior to 1936, the falcons used to nest regularly in Acadia, but due to deleterious human activity, including nest robbing, trapping, and pesticide contamination, scientists believed they had all but disappeared. After years of park reintroduction efforts, a pair of peregrine falcons finally nested in 1991. Since then, a total of 160 chicks have hatched in Acadia. Keep binoculars at the ready for a blur of feathers swooping by. —Mae Hamilton
Why go: Wide-open spaces, wild horses, scenic byways, and more than 100 miles of trails
Nearest city: Medora, North Dakota
Animals of interest: Bison, elk, free-roaming horses
The 26th president of the United States said many things in his life, but to North Dakotans, it was Theodore Roosevelt’s veneration of the state that stands out the most. “If it had not been for the years spent in North Dakota and what I learned there, I would not have been president of the United States,” he said. Roosevelt was particularly influenced by land he invested in and owned near Medora, which would later be expanded, named in his honor, and made a national park in 1978.
Today, bison, the largest mammals in North America, roam freely within the park, as do bands of free-moving horses. (Theodore Roosevelt National Park is one of the few national parks where they can be observed in the wild.) Add to the list some striking geological mounds, golden prairie grasses, and views of the snaking Little Missouri River, and you’ve got a national park like no other—and no, that’s not just North Dakota pride talking. —Katherine LaGrave
Why go: An easy hike along O‘ahu’s sparkling coastline
Nearest city: Honolulu, Hawai’i
Animals of interest: Frigatebirds, tropicbirds, and humpback whales
Maui may get the lion’s share of attention as the best Hawaiian island to see whales, but don’t knock O‘ahu for whale watching before you try it. Take the leisurely drive from Honolulu up Highway 72 (where you’ll also pass the Halona Blowhole and likely have to pick your jaw off the floor of the car while soaking in the coastline’s beauty) and try to snag a parking spot at the Makapu‘u Point Lighthouse Trailhead.
The trail is just a 2.5-mile round-trip journey and takes about an hour to complete. As you plod along, you’ll likely see white-breasted frigatebirds winging overhead and shimmering tide pools far below—be sure to pause at the landing that offers up a glorious view of the nearby Koko Head Crater. But, of course, the most exciting thing visitors could possibly see on their hike is a breaching humpback whale. The ocean between O‘ahu and Maui is warm, shallow, and free from predators like killer whales, making it an ideal nursery for calves and mothers. Book a trip to the islands anytime from November through May, which is calving season, for the best chances of seeing a humpback. Since the trail is sited along the coast, the path is almost entirely unshaded, so pack a hat and slather on some ecofriendly sunscreen. —Mae Hamilton
Why go: Hiking, biking, and panoramic views of the Bay Area from the 3,849-foot summit
Nearest city: San Francisco, California
Animals of interest: Tarantulas, sea lions, and cherry-headed parrots
San Francisco has some famous wildlife residents that call the city home. For starters, there are the Pier 39 sea lions, whose population can grow up to 900 each winter. Over on Telegraph Hill, a wild flock of cherry-headed conures (aka cherry-headed parrots) that took up residence in the 1980s have had documentaries and books dedicated to them.
And sited 40 miles outside of the city, Mount Diablo State Park is home to peregrine falcons, quails, and bobcats. As summer turns to fall, aspiring entomologists will want to head into the park to witness tarantula mating season. Though typically these extra-large arachnids live underground, in September, adult males can be found crawling along the roads and hiking trails around the Mitchell Canyon area of the park in search of a female in her burrow. Their leg span can reach up to 11 inches, but don’t be creeped out: They’re surprisingly gentle creatures and are not poisonous to humans. —Lyndsey Matthews
Why go: The most abundant population of brown bears in the wild
Nearest town: King Salmon, Alaska
Animals of interest: Brown bears and sockeye salmon
It takes an hour flight from Anchorage to the town of King Salmon—and then a 45-minute water taxi from there—to reach Katmai National Park and Preserve. But it’s worth the trek to see one of nature’s great dramas unfold.
Brooks Falls, a six-foot-tall waterfall within the preserve, is where hundreds of thousands of sockeye salmon meet their fates every year from the months of June through September. It’s the final hurdle of their battle to return to the spawning grounds where they hatched and the completion of their life cycle.
The fish fight their way upstream, hurl themselves over the cascade, and follow their internal homing devices to the exact spot where they were born to lay (or fertilize) their own eggs. Or, if they’re unlucky, one of the roughly 2,200 hungry brown bears that call the park home will snatch them midflight and make a meal of them.
There are three bear-viewing areas, situated atop raised platforms, within the park. One is spine-tinglingly close to the action of Brooks Falls (where an estimated 300 sockeye salmon attempt the jump every minute in peak season). The other two are further downstream, where sows (female bears) and cubs are more common. —Bailey Berg
Why go: Spelunk the longest cave system in the world
Nearest town: Park City, Kentucky
Animals of interest: Kentucky cave shrimp, sheepnose mussels, eyeless cave fish, and Rafinesque big-eared bats
Cave ecosystems are considered to be among the most fragile environments on the planet. Animals that live in caves, known as troglobites, are adapted to survive in a place with stable temperatures year round and in partial to total darkness. Beneath the sprawling pastures, rolling hills, and tranquil river valleys of Kentucky, the state has a cave system that’s believed to be the longest in the world, with close to 6,000 miles of chambers—only 400 of which have been explored.
About 130 wildlife species call the subterranean world beneath Mammoth Cave National Park home—70 are classified as threatened or endangered. During a tour of the cave, visitors might see critters such as the Indiana bat, eyeless Kentucky cave shrimp (once thought to be extinct), and several kinds of freshwater mussels—all of which are very sensitive to any environmental change. After you’re done hiking through the underground pathways of Mammoth Cave, consider hanging around at the park above ground. The 52,830-acre mixed-deciduous and coniferous forest is considered one of the most biodiverse in the nation, where white-tailed deer, eastern gray squirrels, and black bears roam the sylvan landscapes among 1,300 species of plants, including 80 kinds of trees. —Mae Hamilton
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