My 20 favorite wildlife encounters in the U.S.

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You don’t have to take an African safari to see a lot of cool wildlife. In the past five years while traveling around the U.S., I’ve seen a number of critters, large and small. No wolverines or mountain goats yet, but otherwise my wildlife wishlist is nearly fulfilled.

Since most of my animal sightings took place within national parks, it makes sense to wrap up National Parks Month here on the blog with this look at these wildlife memories. And I’m not counting zoos, of course. Natural habitats only!

20 Snake orgy in Cuyahoga
During a quiet hike in Ohio’s quiet Cuyahoga National Park, I spotted four snakes hiding among the leaves. Three were getting really frisky with each other, while the other was content to sit and watch. Freaky!

three-snakes

19 Coyotes in Los Angeles
Despite being serenaded by the howling of a pack of coyotes in Death Valley National Park, I never saw the creatures there. It took a visit to one of the largest cities in the world to finally lay eyes on them. While driving through Griffith Park in Los Angeles one night, I saw a pair of coyotes scramble across the road. The glimpse was fleeting, but it allowed me to check another beast off my must-see list.

18 Lizards in White Sands
Wildlife is hard to come by at White Sands National Monument, which features sparse tree cover, a few shrubs, and white sand for as far as the eye can see. But I managed to find one of the park’s few animals – the bleached earless lizard. He’s white with an aqua-colored tail. Can you see him hiding in these dead branches?

bleached earless lizard white sands

17 Bald and golden eagles in Alaska
Bald eagles were a common sight throughout Alaska, especially when I ventured down to Seward. A lot of baldies were sitting near the road high in the trees. Though not as iconic, golden eagles are actually a much more fearsome predator. They’ve been known to attack and kill foxes and even wolves. I was lucky enough to see a few goldies from a distance in Denali.

eagles

16 Begging burros in South Dakota
Normally it’s not cool to feed wildlife, because then they might become dependent on humans and forget how to hunt on their own. But that ship sailed years ago for the “begging burros” of Custer State Park. They hang around the main park road and wait for visitors to hand-feed them crackers in what has become something of a tradition. And they are not too proud to stick their heads inside your vehicle.

begging burros

15 Elk in Redwood National Park
I suppose seeing a herd of about 20 elk in Redwood National Park isn’t necessarily the most exciting wildlife story. They were just grazing in a clearing off Route 101. But the incident holds fond memories for me since it was the first big animal sighting of my 2009 summer road trip.

elk male yard

14 Marmots in Rocky Mountain Park
If you drive above 12,000 feet in Rock Mountain National Park, you may find yourself at the Forest Canyon Overlook. That’s a great place to watch a bunch of marmots running around. They’re adorable when they run around on the rocks. You can’t miss them – just listen for the constant meeping.

marmot parking lot

13 Elephant seals in California
The Children’s Pool beach in La Jolla provided my first opportunity to see large marine mammals in their element. A group of elephant seals has hung out there for years. During my visit most of them sat around on the beach, but a few energetic souls swam out into the water.

la jolla seals

12 Prairie dogs in the Badlands
Prairie dogs are among the cutest little critters. These fellas were all over the Badlands. On random hikes, I had to be careful to avoid the prairie dog holes. It was fun watching them from a distance, but every time I got close, they would all scurry underground, except for one lookout dog who stayed on top sending out audio signals to the other animals. This poor prairie dog has a huge pile of bison excrement next to his house.

badlands prairie dog

11 English goat in West Virginia
My most mysterious wildlife sighting came while driving through some back roads in rural West Virginia. Two bizarre deer-like animals with stripes on their faces ran across the street in front of my van. I could not figure out what they were, but thanks to some alert readers, I discovered they were English goats, either from a nearby farm or living feral in the woods. I’m happy I could at least snap a hurried pic of the goats running behind a guardrail.

english goat

10 Bison at Custer State Park
As amazing as Yellowstone National Park can be for seeing bison, Custer State Park in South Dakota is even better. Especially around the Peter Norbeck Visitor Center, where hundreds of bison often congregate. This was quite a sight.

bison norbeck visitor center

9 Moose in Alaska
At long last, my first moose sighting came at the welcome center in Denali National Park, where a female moose drank from a puddle right in the parking lot. The rest of the week resulted in a few more moose sightings, including a couple in the high grass right off the road.

moose alaska

8 The bridge bats of Austin
The Ann Richards Congress Avenue Bridge is the place to be on summer evenings in the wild, wacky city of Austin, Texas. That’s where thousands of bats emerge at sundown and fly off into the night, while tourists on the bridge and in boats below watch the action. Mexican free-tailed bats kept coming for a solid 20 minutes.

Austin bats

7 Wolves at Yellowstone
Wolf sightings at Yellowstone are much rarer than sightings of bear and elk, so I had no expectation of seeing any wolves. But I happened upon a prime wolf-watching spot east of Roosevelt Lodge near the park’s northeast entrance. Several Yellowstone regulars were using telescopes to watch wolves feast on a dead buffalo. Before long, two of the wolves ran through the field and across some streams, close enough for all of us to witness with the naked eye. In the distant photo, there’s one crossing the stream and one on the shore.

yellowstone wolves

6 Dall and bighorn sheep
For years, I had an obsession with bighorn sheep. Finally, in the Badlands of South Dakota, I spied about a dozen sheep from close range, including some mothers with babies. In Alaska a year later, I got an even more extreme close up of some Dall sheep when they crossed the street right in front of our shuttle bus. So close you can see the folds on his face!

dall sheep close

5 Feeding a deer in West Virginia
The one might not technically be “wildlife” since the animal in question was human-friendly, but the story is too good to leave off the list. A blind, orphaned baby deer was living in my friend’s yard in West Virginia, and his family took care of her and fed her. She would eat grapes right from people’s hands. They named her Beeper, and she grew up to have a nice life, eventually giving birth to a couple sets of babies.

me feeding deer

4 Killer whales in Alaska
Seeing Shamu in a tank can’t compare with seeing real killer whales swimming in the wild. My orca sighting took place on a whale-watching cruise between Seward and Kenai Fjords National Park in Alaska. Not only did we see orcas, but we saw a very special pod, an endangered family that has been struggling to reproduce for years. It was touching to see them splashing around and playing as a family.

Orca whale in water

3 Alligators in the Everglades
Gators! No story about national park wildlife would be complete without an alligator sighting in the Everglades. I saw several from close range near the Anhinga Trail. There were four or five gators in the vicinity, and they barely moved. They looked so cool that I wanted to walk up and pet them. Fortunately, I resisted this urge.

everglades gator

2 Grizzly bear in Yellowstone
My long-awaited bear sighting was extremely dramatic. During a hike towards Mt. Washburn, I was alone, it was late in the afternoon, and I did not have bear spray – three big violations of common sense safety protocol. And when I hit a patch of thick forest with grizzly claw marks slashed into the tree trunks, I became overwhelmed with fear and nearly turned back. But I pushed ahead and was rewarded with the sight of a grizzly on the hill, about 100 yards away. It was a thrilling sight even though I didn’t dare to move any closer. I finally had my own bear story to match those of my friends!

grizzly bear washburn yellowstone

1 California condor at the Grand Canyon
In 2009 I visited the North Rim of the Grand Canyon and saw a massive California condor sitting on a rock just 15 feet away. The vultures have a 10-foot wing span, the largest of any bird in North America, as well as scary-looking claws. You would not want to make one of these beasts angry.

At the time, just over 300 condors existed in the world, and nearly half of those were in captivity, so this was an incredibly rare wild sighting of a critically-endangered species. The ranger said they never get this close to people, and he was concerned about its behavior. It was gone 20 minutes later when I walked past the area again. Some follow-up research (easy to do, since the condor was marked with an “A7” tag on its wing) revealed that this condor was one of three that had behavioral issues and was later captured and sent to Boise, Idaho to live in captivity for its own safety.

The good news is that the number of condors is on the rise. There were only 23 California condors left in the world in 1982, and that number had grown to 405 at last count, so hopefully as they become more common, other visitors will have the opportunity experience condor sightings of their own.

California condor Grand Canyon

What has been your favorite wildlife experience?

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About Scott Shetler

Scott is a Chicago-based journalist and blogger who seeks out quirky sights and awesome destinations throughout North America and beyond.

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