Places to See Animals: My 28 Favorite Wildlife Encounters in the U.S. and Canada!

You don’t have to take an African overland safari to see a lot of cool wildlife. In the past ten years while traveling around the U.S. and Canada, I’ve seen a number of critters, large and small, including sharks, polar bears, alligators, grizzly bears, prairie dogs, and more.

No wolverines or mountain lions yet, but otherwise my wildlife wishlist is nearly fulfilled!

The best places to see animals in the wild are national parks. Most of my top 28 list comes from national park visits. So let’s wrap up National Parks Month here on the blog with this look at these wildlife memories.

For this post, I’m not counting zoos, of course. Nor am I counting sanctuaries like Chimp Haven. Natural habitats only!

I would love to hear about your favorite places to see animals too. Leave a comment with your coolest wildlife experience!

Places To See Animals: My Top 28 List

28 Pikas in Alaska and Washington

Pikas are tiny, mouse-like critters that live in rocky hillsides of high-elevation areas, usually above 8000 feet.

In Alaska’s Denali National Park, I saw a big fat pika sitting on a rock as our bus drove past. You don’t see pikas often, so this was a very cool sight!


I’ve seen several more pikas during hikes around the Seattle area, but none were as plump as that one in Alaska. Usually, it’s easier to hear pikas than to see them, since they let out a cute little shrieking noise.

27 Snake Party in Cuyahoga, Ohio

During a quiet hike in Ohio’s quiet Cuyahoga Valley National Park, I spotted four snakes hiding among the leaves.


Three were getting frisky with each other, while the other was content to sit and watch. Freaky!

26 Bleached Earless Lizards in White Sands, New Mexico

Wildlife is hard to come by at White Sands National Park, which features sparse tree cover, a few shrubs, and white sand for as far as the eye can see.

bleached earless lizard white sands

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 his blue tail hiding in these dead branches?

25 Porcupine in Katmai National Park

I’d never seen a porcupine until last year, when I journeyed to Katmai National Park in Alaska. I stayed at Brooks Camp, near the waterfall where all the brown bears hang out.

porcupine katmai national park

A ranger told me that a few porcupines lived right around the visitor center. Lo and behold, we saw two scampering around at dusk one evening. It was fun to see them in person.

24 Elk in Redwood National Park

Seeing a herd of about 20 elk in Redwood National Park was a fun wildlife sighting for me, since I had never seen elk before that. They were just grazing in a clearing off Route 101.

elk male yard

The elk wasn’t moving much. But the incident holds fond memories for me since it was the first big animal sighting of my summer road trip.

23 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.

begging burros

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.

22 Marmots in Rocky Mountain Park

Rocky Mountain National Park is one of the best places to see animals in the U.S. If you drive above 12,000 feet, you may find yourself at the Forest Canyon Overlook.

places to see animals - marmot parking lot

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.

I later saw dozens of marmots while hiking in Mount Rainier National Park as well. And they were equally unbothered by humans! They would stand and munch on wildflowers next to the trail while I walked past!

21 Elephant Seals in La Jolla, 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.

la jolla seals

During my visit most of them sat around on the beach, but a few energetic souls swam out into the water.

20 English Goat in West Virginia

The “back roads of rural West Virginia” may not come to mind when thinking of places to see animals in the U.S. But my most mysterious wildlife sighting happened in that very location.

Two bizarre-looking, deer-like animals with stripes on their faces ran across the street in front of my van.

english goat

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 was able to snap a hurried pic of a goat (middle of photo) running behind a guardrail.

19 Adorable Island Foxes in the Channel Islands

Channel Islands National Park, a series of small islands off the coast of California, is home to a unique animal – the island fox. These foxes are tiny. 

santa cruz island fox

At about one foot long and four pounds, they are the same size as housecats. They wander around campgrounds looking for food. They don’t particularly bother people, but they don’t really avoid them either.

I saw a ton of these critters while camping and hiking on Santa Cruz Island.

These foxes were once endangered but are now thriving, thanks to the return of bald eagles, which scared away the golden eagles that had previously been eating these foxes.

18 Wild Horses at Roosevelt National Park

North Dakota’s Theodore Roosevelt National Park has lots of fun wildlife, including bison, prairie dogs, wild turkeys, rattlesnakes, and elk. But the wild horses are the most unique animals.

wild horses trnp - places to see animals

A few small groups of wild horses still live in the park, and you can often see them when driving around Scenic Loop Drive. I saw close to 15 horses during my visit!

17 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.

badlands prairie dog

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.

16 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

15 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.

moose alaska
Alaska is one of the best places to see animals like this majestic moose!

The rest of the week resulted in a few more moose sightings, including a couple in the high grass right off the road. The wildlife of Denali was pretty epic in general.

14 Beluga whales in Alaska

Another sweet Alaska wildlife sighting came from the seat of a bush plane. While flying from Anchorage down to Lake Clark National Park, we flew over a few spots where various rivers meet the Cook Inlet.

At the aptly-named Beluga River, our pilot spotted three beluga whales in the water. They appeared as tiny white spots in the muddy water, right along the shore. See that white speck below:

beluga whale

I had missed the chance to see belugas in Churchill, Manitoba, so unexpectedly seeing a few in Alaska was a great thrill, even if it was from 5,000 feet above!

13 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.

Austin bats

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.

12 Lynx in Alaska’s Katmai National Park

I never thought I’d see a lynx, the northern wild cat with the pointy ears. They mostly live in cold areas in Canada and Alaska.

Sure enough, on a ride to the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes in Katmai National Park in Alaska, a lynx ran across the gravel road in front of our bus.

It quickly ran into the woods, so I didn’t get a good picture. It’s somewhere in these trees and shrubs:

lynx katmai

Though I didn’t get a pic to commemorate the sighting, this was still one of my coolest wildlife sightings in my national park travels.

11 Bald Eagles At Voyageurs National Park

When I visited Voyageurs NP in northern Minnesota, I got to see 10 bald eagles on a single ferry ride! This symbol of America is extremely common on the lakes of the park.

I also saw several bald eagles throughout my Alaska road trip, especially when I ventured down to Seward. A lot of baldies were sitting near the road high in the trees.

bald eagles - places to see animals - voyageurs

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.

Since moving to Seattle, I’ve seen another five bald eagles. Just the other day, one flew directly overheard while I was jogging in Seward Park. Seeing these magnificent creatures never gets old!

The Top 10: My Coolest Wildlife Experiences

10 Dall and Bighorn Sheep in Alaska

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.

dall sheep - best places to see animals in the USA

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 wrinkles on his face!

9 Rattlesnakes in Roosevelt National Park

Before my day in Roosevelt NP, I had never seen a rattlesnake in the wild. By day’s end, I had seen three! One from the safety of my car, and two right on the trail while hiking.

rattlesnake roosevelt

You have to watch your step in this park! The snakes were all massive, and seeing them in person was a thrill.

8 Sharks in Hawaii

When I visited Oahu, I was able see sharks in the Pacific Ocean swimming around our boat! Of course, this was part of a shark diving experience, so the sharks were not unexpected.

oahu sharks

We lowered into a steel cage, where we could snorkel and watch a few sharks swimming all around the boat.

Bonus animal encounter: On the way out to see the sharks, I even saw a humpback whale! Hawaii is definitely one of the best places to see animals in the wild in the USA.

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.

yellowstone wolves

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.

6 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.

Orca whale in water

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.

5 Alligators in the Everglades, Florida

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.

everglades gator

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.

4 Mountain Goats in Glacier National Park

For years, mountain goats were the one large animal that had eluded me. In the lower 48 states, you can only find them in the mountains of Washington, Idaho and Montana.

Hidden Lake Trail in Montana’s Glacier National Park is one of the best places to see these animals in the country. The first time I hiked there, I saw nothing.

two mountain goats montana

But I returned a few years later, determined to see goats in Glacier NP. This time, luck was on my side!

I saw more than 20 goats, many of which were just a few feet away from the trail as I walked past!

3 Grizzly Bear in Yellowstone

My long-awaited grizzly bear sighting was extremely dramatic. During a hike to Mt. Washburn, I was alone, it was late in the day, 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.

grizzly bear washburn yellowstone

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!

2 California Condor at the Grand Canyon

When I visited the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, I 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.

California condor Grand Canyon

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 537 at last count.

So hopefully as they become more common, other visitors will have the opportunity experience condor sightings of their own.

1 Polar Bears in Churchill, Manitoba, Canada

Churchill is known as one of the only places in North America to see polar bears in the wild. So of course I had to visit!

I took two “polar bear safari” tours on land rover vehicles that visit the snowy tundra regions outside the city.

During those two days, I saw around a dozen polar bears sleeping or walking around. Some were from very close range, and some were mothers with cubs. What an incredible life experience!

best places to see animals - polar bears

I also saw one polar bear hanging out in the forest just outside the city limits. There’s a reason they tell Churchill visitors to never leave the house alone!

Wildlife Encounters: Closing

That’s my list! For more wildlife tales, see Becky the Traveller’s great roundup of blogger wildlife experiences around the world.

Update: I did end up going on an African safari and seeing an incredible amount of wildlife there too. Check out my top Africa wildlife sightings! Or click to read about my encounter with sloths in Panama.

What has been your favorite wildlife experience? Let us know your favorite places to see animals!