From tracking wolves in Yellowstone to kayaking with manatees in the Everglades, the USA is home to some of the world’s most iconic wildlife. Celebrate the US National Park Service turning 100 with a face-to-snout encounter using our expert guide to where’s best to see the Big 15…
Best place to see: Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming
Also spot: Bison • Wild horses • Elk • Brown bears • Bighorn sheep
Wolf pack in snowy field
Grey wolves were absent from Yellowstone for 70 years, the victim of a hunting policy in the 1920s that saw its native packs decimated by farmers defending their livestock. They were reintroduced, somewhat controversially, in 1995, and today some 100 wiry-limbed grey wolves stalk the park limits – just listen for their spine-tingling howls!
Roadside sightings are fairly common, but Yellowstone’s Lamar Valley is the closest thing to a guarantee. Packs roam here most of the year and ‘wolf watchers’ will usually share their gossip. Dawn and dusk are the best spotting times. Also try Little America, across from Slough Creek, or further south in Hayden Valley where Grizzly Overlook affords a fine stakeout. If you are not put off by the temperature (as low as -11ºC), go in winter – packs migrate north in search of elk but the snow makes them far easier to spot.
Getting there: Flights from Salt Lake City to West Yellowstone Airport run June-Sept. A summer Salt Lake Express airport shuttle service runs from Idaho Falls to West Yellowstone (3km from the park, takes around 3 hours). Online forum yellowstonereports.com has up-to-date info on Yellowstone packs. Wolf-spotting tours are useful if you’re short on time.
When to go: Year-round
Where else? The wolves of Michigan’s Isle Royale National Park are famous, but sadly just two remain. However, there are reports that more could be introduced to the park this year.
Best place to see: San Juan Island National Historical Park, Washington
Also spot: Orcas • Porpoises • Peregrine falcons • Ospreys • Golden eagles
There are few more iconic American sights than that of a bald eagle in flight, its white head glinting in the cold light. The San Juan Islands play host to over 125 nesting pairs – one of the highest densities anywhere in the lower 48 States. Many are year-round residents, patrolling the island’s shorelines preying on salmon or looming over the prairies looking for rabbits, affording plenty of spotting opportunities.
There are around 300 different species of birdlife on San Juan. Bald eagles tend to settle in the far north and north-west but breeding pairs can be seen nesting within the National Historical Park at American Camp, an old US army base dating back to Revolution days set in the more-southerly of the Park’s split sites. That section of the park’s north-east coastline is also the site of Griffin Bay, which offers a good chance of spotting hunting eagles via kayak tours.
The waters around San Juan Islands are some of the best places in the world to share a wave with an orca (best spotted from May–September). Kayak or boat the archipelago’s 170 islands and isles (many uninhabited), spotting orcas, porpoises, humpbacks and eagles along the way.
Elsewhere, pay a visit to San Juan Island’s Lime Kiln Point State Park, one of few whalewatching parks in the US. Or for something more energetic, rent a bike and explore Orcas Island, where the tough peddle up Mount Constitution (734m) is well worth it for the view from the top.
Getting there: San Juan Airlines fly daily from Bellingham International Airport to San Juan island’s Friday Harbor, just 8km from the park. Island Washington State Ferries also carry passengers daily from Anacortes to Friday Harbor.
When to go: Year-round
Where else? Hike the marshes and swamps of Cuyahoga Valley National Park, Ohio, where bald eagles are commonly sighted overhead.
Best place to see: Everglades National Park, Florida
Also spot: Mainland USA’s only crocodiles • The endangered Florida panther • Alligators • Giant Burmese pythons • Flamingos
The gentle West Indian manatee summers in the freshwaters of Florida’s Everglades, grazing the shallows of the Gulf Coast for up to eight hours a day. With around 6,000 left in US waters, these doe-eyed sea cows moved off the ‘endangered’ list this year but remain a treasured sight for visitors.
Manatees are slow-moving and love the shallows – look for their noses when they come up to breathe. For a wild encounter, boat or kayak the Wilderness Waterway, a 160km liquid funnel beginning at the park’s Everglades City docks that launches you among Florida’s ‘Ten Thousand Islands’. Paddle deep into mangrove-studded creeks where manatees (not to mention crocs, ’gators and turtles) roam away from the crowded visitor centres.
The park is loaded with water trails. Try kayaking out from Cape Sable, the southernmost point of mainland USA, and beach-hopping the staccato white sands of coastal Florida. On land, drive the Tamiami Trail to Big Cypress National Preserve where swamp walks bring wading birds, crocs and even – if you’re incredibly lucky – the rare Florida panther within sight. Alternatively, take the ferry west to Dry Tortugas National Park and try to spot the five different kinds of sea turtle who call the area home.
Getting there: Everglades City Visitor Centre is a 130km drive from Miami, 8km south of Highway 41 (Tamiami Trail).
When to go: March–November
Where else? Florida’s Biscayne National Park is another summer manatee haven, and offers great diving among its coral reefs and wrecks.
Best place to see: Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming
Also spot: Brown bears • Elk • Bighorn sheep • Grey wolves
When American pioneers first pushed west, they did so with bellies full of bison meat. Numbers of the beasts never really recovered; however, where once there were fewer than 325 bison in Yellowstone, 4,000 now roam unfenced – the largest wild herds in the US. Go in early May to witness wobbly-legged newborn calves, while July brings the horn-thwacks of rutting season.
During spring, the northern herd calve in the park’s north-east Lamar Valley, with the central herd further south in Hayden Valley (also good for spotting grizzlies at dawn and dusk). Winter sees both head into the far north of the park for the warmer geyser basins. You will have fewer rival spotters then, but temperatures (as low as -11ºC) can be difficult.
Old Faithful draws visitors here by the thousands but a dawn raid spares the bustle – leaving time for early-morning wolf spotting. Over 2,000km of trails stretch Yellowstone, with the 11km Upper Yosemite Falls loop one of the more stunning (and strenuous), with fine views from the top. Alternatively, plenty of wildlife-watching walks with Yellowstone Association offer an insight into the eco-system of the park.
Getting there: See Grey Wolves for details on getting to Yellowstone. Take a good pair of binoculars with you.
When to go: Year-round; best in May and July
Where else? Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota has a pair of bison herds roaming in the hundreds across the north and south of the park.
Best place to see: Olympic National Park, Washington
Also spot: Black bears • Harbour seals • Grey whales (migratory) • Olympic marmot • Olympic chipmunk
Amid the glacial streams and sub-alpine meadows of Washington’s vast Pacific Coast park roam the largest (around 5,000) wild herd of Roosevelt elk in the USA. With pale-brown bodies and dark heads, they tend to be bigger than other varieties. Spy them in the Hoh Valley year-round, grazing the ferns of the lowland rainforest in small herds.
Walks among the Olympic’s Hoh Rainforest (on the park’s west side) afford further opportunities for encounters. Easier hikes stretch from the visitor centre, but to get deeper into the forest take the Hoh River Trail and walk alongside fast-flowing waters to Glacier Meadows (28km), spying elk on the way up to the dramatic Blue Glacier.
March to May sees the annual migration of grey whales, with good views from Kalaloch Beach. For scenery, drive to blustery Hurricane Ridge (open for skiing in winter) or walk the 27km South Coast Wilderness Trail, pitstopping on Washington’s wild shores. Afterwards, take it easy in Sol Duc hot springs or head to Lake Quinault to rent a kayak and drift its limpid blue waters surrounded by towering conifers.
The basics: Drive from Olympia (250km) or Port Angeles (140km) to Hoh Rainforest Visitor Center. Its campground is open year-round, with accommodation in the nearby town of Forks (50km) also available.
When to go: Year-round; calving season May–June, rutting season September–October
Where else? Yellowstone National Park’s vast (up to 20,000) North American elk herds are best seen in May and June when the calves are born, or during rutting season (Sep-Oct) as the males fight it out among themselves.
Best place to see: Katmai National Park & Preserve, Alaska
Also spot: Beluga whales • Orcas • Otters • Caribou • Wolverines
Every year, thousands of salmon migrate to Alaska to spawn. For Katmai NP’s 2,200 native brown bears (Alaska’s largest coastal grizzlies), it’s the last big feed before hibernation, and here they jostle for the best fishing positions, trying (and often failing) to catch their slippery prey in an unforgettable sight.
Many visitors fly to Katmai’s Brooks Camp along the Brooks River, which has three bear-viewing platforms within a 1.9km walk. The most popular lies at Brooks Falls where you can watch bears fumbling sockeye salmon as they leap up the ledge. Away from the masses, try trips to the park’s fringes, with Hallo Bay best in June and Moraine Creek and Geographic Harbor good in August.
Among the volcanoes, glaciers and sapphire lakes of Katmai stretch vast tracts of nature. Tours kayaking the 129km Savonoski Loop that circles Brooks Camp offer great views of bears fishing. On land, treks into the ‘Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes’ (37km by bus from Brooks Camp), the 64 sq km relic of a devastating 1912 eruption, make for a tough but rewarding hike, with the option to camp overnight.
Getting there: KatmaiAir operate return flights from Anchorage and King Salmon to Brooks Camp. Flights, tours and pricier lodge accommodation can be reserved at concessionaire katmailand.com. Alaska Hallo Bay Bear Camp run tours from Homer to Hallo Bay.
When to go: June–September; Brooks river: July (salmon run) & September (salmon spawning season)
Where else? Grizzlies are a common sight along the trails of Glacier NP in Montana. Around Many Glacier is a regular stomping ground for bear-spotters, as is the route over the Canadian border to Waterton (look for cars stopped by the roadside).
Best place to see: Badlands National Park, South Dakota
Also spot: Bison • Bighorn sheep • Pronghorns • Beavers • Burrowing owls
While a large chunk of the Badlands is taken up with a 160km wall of tortured-looking, gully-pocked pinnacles, the rest is wild prairie. Under these dusty plains sprawl huge ‘towns’ of black-tailed prairie dogs (so-named because of their tiny bark, despite being rodents) – the meerkats of the US.
Prairie dogs burrow to escape hot summers, cold winters and high winds – which is all the time here. Drive the 40km of gravel that is Sage Creek Rim Road and you’ll pass Roberts Prairie Dog Town. This former homestead has one of the largest black-tailed prairie dog colonies in the US. Smaller ‘towns’ can also be glimpsed in the fields of grazing bison en route.
Badlands has a lot of walks, but most are rather truncated. The longest is Castle Trail, a 16km round-trip past crumbling mudstone towers. For views, drive to Pine Ridge Indian Reservation where a dirt track leads off County Road 589 across white alkali flats to Sheep Mountain Table.
From there, unmarked trails offer more intense routes. A 140km drive also takes you to Mount Rushmore, if you’re in the mood to tick off an icon.
Getting there: There are regular flights and Greyhound buses from South Dakota’s Sioux Falls and Pierre to Rapid City, where transport can be rented to complete the 112km drive to Badlands.
When to go: Year-round
Where else? Unlike the thriving black-tails, Bryce Canyon National Park’s Utah prairie dogs (reddish-brown with white-tipped tails) are a threatened species. Drive the park’s northern side and stop to see them scurry in the meadows.
Best place to see: Denali National Park & Preserve, Alaska
Also spot: Moose • Brown bears • Dall sheep • Wolves • Bald eagles
In the early 1980s the borders of Denali NP were expanded to encompass its roaming caribou. Today, some 3,000 tread its icy tundra and taiga year-round in the shadow of North America’s highest peak, Mount Denali (6,190m, formerly known as Mount McKinley). Usually spotted in small groups (5-10), the caribou head to the far north of the Park Road during winter, so time your visit well to see these stunning beasts.
You won’t spot much within the first 40km of the park; after that, it’s partly potluck. However, try taking the bus to Polychrome Pass where wolves have often been seen hunting caribou against a backdrop of multi-coloured mountains. Further on, caribou trails weave the pass from the top of Stony Hill Overlook, which affords good views of the land below.
Denali is densely packed with trails – albeit unmanaged in most places. Thorofare Pass is a good place to spot brown bears in early summer, while dall sheep scatter the trail up Igloo Mountain. From September onwards, try dogsledding with a guide, or visit the kennels in summer. Backcountry passes can also be applied for to cycle the length of the park road, camping along the way.
Getting there: A railroad links Denali to Anchorage. The park’s sole road extends nearly 150km but is mostly accessed by bus. Shuttles, tour buses and accommodation can be booked in advance through park concessionaire reservedenali.com.
When to go: Year-round; best from March–September
Where else? Grab an air taxi from Kobuk Valley National Park’s HQ in Kotzebue to access Alaska’s remote northern wilderness. Watch 300,000 Western Arctic caribou migrate across the dunes every April/May and September/October, with flightseeing trips your best bet to catch this amazing spectacle.
Best place to see: Big Bend National Park, Texas
Also spot: Mountain lions • Black bears • Coyotes • Tarantulas • Colima warblers
Known for its vivid birdlife, the canyons and woodlands of the Chisos Mountains thrum with a recorded 15 species of hummingbird. Summer brings the larger Lucifer, magnificent and blue-throated varieties – common to Mexico and Central America – but you can still see birds near the river as late as early winter.
Look out for mountain sage in bloom (July–September) – hummingbirds flock to its sweet red flowers. Try following the Outer Mountain Loop trail deep into the Chisos foothills (to Blue Creek) to see purple-throated Lucifers in spring; they move higher up in summer, when you can spot them along the Window Trail. The most commonly sighted bird, the broadtail, can be found in Laguna Meadows (take the trail from Blue Creek) all summer. But larger blue-throats and magnificents are rarely seen below 2,000m, which means a hike to upper Boot or Pine canyons.
Elsewhere in the park, rafting the Rio Grande is one of the great American adventures: drift along two-day river rides to Santa Elena, or further on to the lower canyon (130km). For a challenging hike, take the South Rim Trail, a tough 22km trek (best done over two days) that hugs the southern lid of the Chisos Mountains and has fine views. Lastly, Odessa is well worth an extended side-trip to see its 167m-wide meteor crater.
Getting there: Take lots of water and a good field guide. Big Bend is pretty remote; the closest bus (Greyhound) or train (AMTRAK) connection to San Antonio or Odessa is in Alpine, a 160km drive away, where transport can be rented. Campsites and lodges are available to stay within the park.
When to go: April–September (best in August)
Where else? Anna’s hummingbirds (known for their twisting acrobatics) can be spotted in Arizona’s Saguaro National Park year-round.
Best place to see: Great Smoky Mountains NP, North Carolina & Tennessee
Also spot: Elk • White-tailed deer • Coyotes • Salamanders • Fireflies
In the Great Smoky Mountains NP, black bears grow up to 225kg and, with roughly 1,500 bears padding the forests here, there’s roughly one per square kilometre, which is as exciting as it is mildly intimidating. They spend their time foraging to build up fat reserves for the long winter sleep, and to spot one is always a breathtaking moment.
As stumbling across black bears on park trails is common, you’ll need to keep making noise while you walk – no one likes surprises, least of all bears. Some wander near campsites in search of food, but open areas are the best (and safest) places for sightings. Cataloochee Valley, where the park’s vast elk herds roam, and the 18km road around Cades Cove affords the best chance. Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail also sees the odd bear wandering nearby.
If you visit in early June, the park’s Elkmont viewing area sees amazing evening displays (for two weeks) as firefly mating season begins. For hikers, the tricky 13km Ramsey Cascades Trail leads to the area’s biggest falls – look out for salamanders along the way, the park is home to some 30 species. Elsewhere, the testing Alum Cave Trail ascends the summit of the 2,132m-high Mount Le Conte, offering some of the best views in the park.
Getting there: Regional flights connect with North Carolina’s Asheville Regional Airport (97km) and Tennessee’s McGee-Tyson Airport (72km), where transport can be hired.
When to go: May–September
Where else? In Rocky Mountain NP, the black bear is king. Bears here tend to stick to the backwoods, occasionally venturing into campsites for an easy feed, so keep an eye out.
Best place to see: Channel Islands National Park, California
Also spot: Dall’s porpoise • Risso’s dolphin • Blue, grey and humpback whales • Plus some 70,000 California sea lions and 5,000 northern fur seals
The Channel Islands are home to the USA’s largest population of northern elephant seals, so named for the bull’s trunk-like snout. Around 50,000 gather on the islands to form vast, noisy rookeries as the males lollop the sands defending their ‘harems’ with blubbery zeal in a truly amazing performance.
After two years closed to visitors thanks to unexploded ordinance, San Miguel Island reopened to escorted tours in May. Boats docking at San Miguel’s Cuyler Harbor can spy the odd seal on the beach. The main colony, however, is a 12km hike through ghostly caliche forest (tree-like points of calcified rock) to the sands of Point Bennett where the rumble of thousands of seals and sea lions builds to a chaotic crescendo.
While there, try kayaking the 100-plus sea caves around the Santa Cruz Islands, or snorkelling the kelp forests of Scorpion Marine Reserve alongside curious seals. Book in advance for whalewatching trips and spot grey (Dec-Apr) or humpback and blue whales (May-Sep) in the crystal waters.
Getting there: The park’s visitor centre is found in Ventura Harbor, Ventura, 50km from Santa Barbara. Access to San Miguel is limited. Contact park concessionaire Island Packers to organise tours and boat access to this or Santa Rosa Island, where elephant seals can also be spotted.
When to go: Year-round; Dec–Mar breeding and pupping season
Where else? Head to California’s Point Reyes National Seashore, 50km north of San Francisco, for northern elephant seal breeding season, where Chimney’s Rock affords some great views of the chaos.
Best place to see: Glacier Bay National Park & Preserve, Alaska
Also spot: Orcas (June-July) • Bald eagles • Harbour porpoises • Sea lions • Brown bears
Humpback whales return to Glacier Bay each summer for one reason – to feast.
Having spent winter fasting in the southern waters of Mexico, you can watch around 240 of the majestic mammals gorge on schools of sardines, herring and krill, swallowing them in great cavernous mouthfuls.
Boat tours with park rangers leave Bartlett Cove and head up the western arm of the bay toward John Hopkins Inlet, with whales usually spotted in the southern bay area. Alternatively, walk the shore around Gustavus campsite and you can sometimes spy them from the land.
Kayak is the best way to explore Glacier Bay’s primeval landscape. Paddle out from Bartlett Cove to see coastal tidewater glaciers pitch into the ice-blue sea or camp on the far-flung beaches of the Beardslee Islands. On land, try the 10km off-trail hike from Bartlett Cove to Point Gustavus, fording forests that trill with birdsong and meadows full of summer wildflowers.
Getting there: Alaska Airlines flies daily from Juneau to Gustavus, where a shuttle can run visitors to Bartlett Cove (park HQ). Lodge accommodation, kayak hire and whale tours can be reserved from the park concessionaire.
When to go: June–September
Where else? Off the coast of Washington’s San Juan National Historical Park are some of the best whalewatching waters in the US, with trips around the islands ideal for spotting orcas and humpbacks.
Best place to see: Kenai Fjords NP, Alaska
Also spot: Horned puffins • Orcas • Fin, sei, minke and grey whales
Sea otters are some of the most uniquely adapted species on Earth. Lacking the blubber of other sea mammals, they rely on dense fur (for which they were nearly hunted to extinction) to trap warm air close to their skin – and they’re adorable. Spot them in the coastal swells off Southeast Alaska, diving for shellfish and languidly grooming in its shallow waters.
The sea otters closest to shore tend to be used to boats, whereas those further out simply dive when you get too close. Consequently, Seward’s small boat harbour is a good spot to linger, as otters often drift into the entrance area between the jetties. Larger ‘rafts’ of otters (up to five at a time) can also be spotted frolicking north of Caines Head or off Homer Spit.
Elsewhere, tick off whales and orcas on cruises around the park’s fjords and Resurrection Bay. On land: the day hike up to Harding Ice Field (drive to Exit Glacier and start from there) is a tough but worthy 13km ascent to witness a white alien canvas that once carpeted much of Alaska. Or trek the stunning 8km Caines Head coastal trail – widely considered one of the most beautiful walks in this wild state.
Getting there: Trains and buses run regularly from Anchorage to Seward (Park HQ). The road into Exit Glacier, off Seward highway, opens from May to September. You can also charter flights from Seward directly into the park during summer, but boat tours from either Homer or Seward are the best way to get around.
When to go: Year-round; best March–September
Where else? Alaska’s Glacier Bay NP is also a good place to find sea otters – an estimated 3,000 inhabit its shore waters and kelp forests.
Best place to see: Joshua Tree NP, California
Also spot: Golden eagles • Roadrunners • Desert tortoises • California tree frogs • Bighorn sheep
Coyotes are increasingly common throughout North America, but that doesn’t make them any less remarkable, and hearing their howls (a high quavering moan) though the thin canvas of a tent at night is enough to bring shivers. They hunt alone and in packs, but can often be seen scavenging close to the campsites at Joshua Tree.
Coyotes live on a diet of rodents and rabbits, hunting in the cooler hours of dawn and dusk. They also scavenge, and plenty can be seen and heard around Jumbo Rocks Campsite, howling into the night. Away from the camps, head to the Ryan Ranch (follow the 4.8km Ryan Mountain Trail), where the ruins of an old homestead and small cemetery play host to plenty of stray coyotes.
Elsewhere, wander the park’s eponymous spiky yuccas in spring when they bloom delicate white-green flowers. Around 50km of walking and horse trails also vein the desert; try the route up Mastodon Peak (4.8km), passing oases and old mines en route to some fine views. The park’s remote location and lack of any light pollution also means stargazing here is incredible, particularly in Cottonwood, Pinto Basin and Keys View. Go in summer and trace the Milky Way across an inky-black night sky.
Getting there: The park is a few hours’ drive from Los Angeles (225km), San Diego (280km) and Las Vegas (346km) via Interstate 10 or California Highway 62. Or take a regional flight to Palm Springs Airport (80km from the park) where transportation is available to hire.
When to go: Year-round
Where else? You can spot coyotes practically everywhere in Arizona’s Grand Canyon National Park, whether on the rims, deep in its gullies or around the campsites.
Best place to see: Isle Royale National Park, Michigan
Also spot: Loons• Grebes• Red squirrels • Beavers • Grey wolves
For a big animal, Isle Royale’s moose can be tricky to spot; they don’t herd and move almost silently, frequently surprising hikers. So the longer you stay, the better your chances of seeing one of the 1,300 that remain in the park. For day-trekkers, the Lookout Louise Trail (opposite Tobin Harbor) is easily accessed by foot, kayak or ferry and follows a 1.6km route past Hidden Lake, which has a salt lick that often draws moose. For those prepared to camp, the 64km Greenstone Ridge Trail hugs the spine of the island from Windigo to Rock Harbor and offers the best chance of stumbling across one on a four-day hike.
Ferries from Copper Harbor to the northeast Rock Harbor and southeast Windigo drop off visitors for day hikes (avoid peak summer to escape blackfly and mosquito swarms). Kayak and boat tours of the 450 smaller islands surrounding Isle Royale also afford great views, navigating secret beaches, playful otters and even the odd swimming moose.
The basics: Boats to the north-east of the island leave from Michigan’s Copper Harbor and Houghton harbours, and to the south-east from Minnesota’s Grand Portage. Non-camping accommodation is available at Rock Harbor Lodge.