Watching elephants roaming the grasslands of Kenya’s Maasai Mara nature reserve, spotting lions in South Africa’s Kruger National Park, stargazing from a remote lodge in Namibia—for many, an African safari is a once-in-a-lifetime, bucket-list adventure. As new variants delay safari trips abroad, some safari tour operators turn to destinations closer to home.

After COVID hit, and many countries' borders shuttered (including those in Africa) Elizabeth Gordon, co-founder and CEO of Extraordinary Journeys, decided to draw on her intimate knowledge of New Mexico to plan epic, once-in-a-lifetime adventures in the US.  She made North America a bookable experience on her itineraries that had focused on Africa, Antarctica and India. Born and raised in Kenya, her mother and co-founder, Marcia Gordon, is originally from New Mexico, and much of her family still lives in the southwestern state. For Gordon, the two locales share similarities.

“New Mexico is so wild, you don’t have as many people and it’s not touristy,” she says. “A lot of the scenery is similar – Africa is desert, or has cool formations. It always makes me laugh because when I’m in New Mexico, I feel like it's not the United States. It’s just something different.”

A long exposure showing star trails over a desert landscape at night
New Mexico's otherworldly landscapes can be found in places like Gila National Forest ©Alan Dyer/Stocktrek Images/Getty Images

“If you wanted to go to Patagonia, why don't you see the Tetons this year?” Gordon says. “There are other alternatives – is everything you’re looking for abroad actually right here?”

Below, find the best US safaris that transport you to the depths of this country's stunning national parks, mountain ranges and other iconic terrains.

The rustic, natural wonders of New Mexico

The award-winning luxury travel company specializes in custom, off-the-beaten-path African safaris, so it’s no surprise that while borders were closed, Extraordinary Journeys applied those same planning sensibilities to its newly-offered US destinations. Touting its new domestic safaris, the company’s website notes, “Even though we might be itching to stamp our passports, now is time for a great reminder that our own country has some of the most diverse, isolated, dramatic and beautiful terrains in the world.”

Wild Horses at Shiprock, New Mexico
Wild horses roam free in Shiprock, New Mexico © David Toussaint / Getty

Those terrains include the American Southwest, with an 8-night itinerary spent exploring New Mexico’s natural wonders. Highlights include traversing Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks and Bandelier national monuments, and Taos Pueblo, a Unesco World Heritage Site. The trip concludes with three nights at Vermejo, the Ted Turner-owned, 550,000-acre wildlife reserve in Northern New Mexico, where guests get a front-row seat to see herds of bison, prairie dogs, elk, deer, wild turkeys and horses.

Yellowstone and Jacksonhole: Glamping in the Old West

In the first half of a 6-night adventure in the Rocky Mountain region, travelers stay in a private luxury camp in Yellowstone, where they can see bears, wolves, otters, moose, and elk while on hikes and privately-guided geyser tours. The second half of the trip is set in Jackson Hole, exploring Grand Teton from a home base at the Amangani resort. From the secluded luxury property, guests take a guided wildlife safari through the region’s majestic terrain, and look for moose, bears, coyotes, elk, wolves and mountain lions.

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A bear sighting at Yellowstone National Park
It's pretty likely that if you're spending a day at Yellowstone National Park you're going to see a bear © Whitney Shefte / The Washington Post / Getty Images

A wintery Yellowstone retreat

The tour operator known for its tailor-made trips recently added a roster of US tours – several with wildlife-viewing highlights.

“Our travelers still want to get out and explore, perhaps now more than ever,” says Audley’s Head of Sales and Service, Marc Dolman. “We’re privileged to have access to these beautiful wilderness areas, scenic drives, mountains and rivers right in our backyard, and we’ve been working diligently to do them justice, by creating a selective portfolio of stand-out excursions and accommodations that promise to create travel memories, like any of our trips abroad.”

Bison looking at the camera in a beautiful landscape
Bison in the Lamar Valley, northeastern corner of Yellowstone National Park ©Mark Read / Lonely Planet

The company’s Yellowstone in the Winter package fosters those memories with excursions like the tour of Grand Teton National Park at sunrise, where travelers can use a scope to scan for herds of elk and moose, bald eagles and sometimes, coyotes.

Day four of the 13-day trip takes the small group to snowy Yellowstone National Park to explore the terrain, including Old Faithful, via snowshoe or cross country ski. The guide-led snow coach ride spotlights otters, bald eagles, and wolves among the frozen waterfalls and misty geysers, while a sunrise trek through the Lamar Valley showcases an area dense with wildlife like moose, coyotes, bighorn sheep and bison.

Over breakfast of fresh fruit and hot oatmeal, expert wolf-tracking guides lead an excursion to see wolves playing and feeding. Several lodging options are available, but for a more genuine safari feel, Audley works with Under Canvas, offering luxe safari tents with hot running water, organic bath products and private decks, near Yellowstone and other National Parks.

The best wildlife experiences in the USA

Lamar Valley, a bison through a car window in Yellowstone National Park
A bison in Lamar Valley, Yellowstone National Park © Cavan Images / Getty

Discover the grizzlies and wolves of Yellowstone

Natural Habitat Adventures, the world’s first carbon-neutral travel company since 2007, has organized trips with a focus on conservation, sustainability, and wildlife viewing for 35 years. Last spring, the company added the Hidden Yellowstone and Grand Teton Safari. Small groups – limited to 14 travelers, divided between two North American safari trucks – can spend the week with expert naturalist guides, discovering elk, bison, bighorn sheep, grizzlies, wolves, and more. One highlight is the serene float down Jackson Hole’s Snake River, watching for moose, beavers, osprey, and pelicans, surrounded by sweeping views of the Tetons.

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This article was first published November 2020 and updated December 2021

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