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 25 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. 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 25 List
25 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.
24 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!
23 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.
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?
22 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.
21 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.
The incident holds fond memories for me since it was the first big animal sighting of my summer road trip.
20 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.
19 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.
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!
18 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.
During my visit most of them sat around on the beach, but a few energetic souls swam out into the water.
17 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.
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.
16 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.
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!
15 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.
14 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.
13 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.
12 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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
Note: 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!
What has been your favorite wildlife experience? Let us know your favorite places to see animals!