Experiencing wildlife in the United States is especially magical. Not only is the nation made up of incredibly diverse landscapes and environments, but the way these spaces historically have been preserved allows ecosystems to flourish.
Today we reap those benefits, both as members of these communities and as visitors to wild spaces filled with incredible North American species. From dinosaur-like alligators to magnificent birdlife, the US is full of wildlife experiences you will never forget. And with public lands at risk, the time to see the wild animals is now. Here are some of our favorite wildlife experiences.
Track wild wolves at Yellowstone
Where: Yellowstone National Park
If the US has anything close to an African safari, it’s found in Yellowstone National Park. Historic fauna like bison, mountain goats and cougars roam this valley, but no animal sighting quite matches up to that of the wolf.
Hunting almost removed wolves from the United States entirely, but a reintroduction program in the 1990s returned them to Yellowstone, making it the single best place in the country to see them roaming free.
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Although they are visible during the summer, the winter provides exceptional viewing prospects, as wolves and their prey tend to congregate in the Lamar Valley. Plus, the white snow creates a contrasting background that makes wolves easier to spot, especially given that they are typically far from the roads. If you don’t know where to look, the folks at Wolf Tracker are some of the most skilled guides in the area.
Witness the sandhill crane migration in Nebraska
Where: Kearney, Nebraska
When: Late February to early April
The sandhill crane migration is not only a bird lover’s dream come true, it’s also considered one of the most remarkable migrations of any kind on the planet.
Between February and April, some 600,000 cranes congregate along a limited stretch of the Platte River in Nebraska before continuing their journey north. You can take a guided tour or find a spot at a public viewing area to enjoy the annual spectacle. Bring some binoculars, a camera and get to know fellow bird lovers there for the once-in-a-lifetime experience.
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Get up close to alligators in Florida
Where: Everglades National Park, Florida
With its uniquely subtropical weather and accompanying wildlife, Florida could be a country unto itself. One of the many reasons visitors flock to this marshy peninsula is to explore the Everglades, particularly its living dinosaurs: the American alligators.
These intimidating predators freely roam the area, making them simple to spot with or without a guide. Some tours will take you out onto the water to search known hiding holes, but even perusing the boardwalks will likely reveal a good number of alligators. Although it’s impressive to watch them eat, it’s important not to feed them so they won't become conditioned to seek out humans as a food source.
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Go on safari with Alaska’s animals
Where: Katmai and Denali National Parks
When: Late summer/early autumn
Perhaps the greatest treasure trove of wildlife in the US isn’t even on the mainland, it’s out in the expansive wilderness of Alaska. This relatively untouched state is a major draw for animal lovers, who can witness brown bears, moose, running salmon, orcas, coastal wolves and so many more.
Numerous tours exist for safari purposes, or for spotting specific species, but anyone visiting in late summer and early autumn – between the bears' hibernation periods – will undoubtedly be inundated with opportunities, whether it's in Katmai National Park to the south or Denali National Park further north. It isn't even entirely necessary to visit a national park to see the fauna here – yet another reason why Alaska offers some of the best wildlife viewing, not just in the US, but in the world.
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Watch humpback whales in Hawaii
Where: Hawaii, especially Maui
When: October to March, peaking in February
Every winter, another incredible migration brings tourists from across the globe to Hawaii, but the island of Maui in particular. Humpback whales winter in these warm waters, congregating in huge numbers and providing ample opportunity to see these gentle giants at play.
There are no shortage of tours available to witness them splashing about for yourself, though it’s encouraged to seek an option that respects the whales’ space and natural behaviors. The best part is that the whales are in Hawaii to breed and raise their calves, so it’s one of the few places where witnessing a baby whale is nearly guaranteed.
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See the elephant seals in California
Where: Point Reyes National Seashore, California
When: December through March
Elephant seals, with their wonky noses and brutal fights, are one of the more interesting species that call the United States home. They’re found on many California beaches, most notably at Point Reyes National Seashore in Marin County, where they congregate throughout the year, though their greatest numbers are found between December and March.
Drakes Beach is the best place to spot them, though it's occasionally closed to protect the animals' safety, so be sure to check the website when planning a trip. There is a parking lot at this beach, but the shuttle system is imposed when seal numbers are excessive. As with any wild animal, never approach these marine behemoths, the males of which are known to be fierce fighters.
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