13 Best Places in the U.S. for Wildlife Viewing
Why travel halfway around the world to go on safari when our own country is teeming with beasts big and small? We spoke to park rangers from coast to coast to find America's most interesting creatures—and to get the inside scoop on where (and how) to approach them.
BLACK BEARS: GREAT SMOKY MOUNTAINS NATIONAL PARK, Tennessee and North Carolina
Spot American Black Bears in the largest protected habitat in the eastern U.S.
Straddling the border between Tennessee and North Carolina, this massive, mountain- and forest-filled national park houses the largest protected American black bear habitat in the eastern U.S. As a result, the furry mammals—which are a bit smaller and more tolerant of humans than their grizzly cousins— are the official symbol of the park. It's estimated that about 1,500 bears currently live here; that comes out to about two bears per square mile.
THE PERFECT SPOT: Black bears wander about all day long, especially in or around the edges of forests. Many hang out around the Cades Cove area, an easily accessible valley surrounded by an 11-mile loop road.
THE PHOTO TIP: Note that it's illegal to willfully approach within 150 feet, or any distance that disturbs or displaces a bear, and that violation of this federal regulation can result in fines or arrest. Bring along a telephoto lens and a tripod. Without something to steady your camera, any small movement will create a blur when shooting at such long distances.
ALLIGATORS AND CROCODILES: EVERGLADES NATIONAL PARK, Florida
The only area in the world where alligators and crocodiles coexist side-by-side
The subtropical wetlands that make up Florida’s Everglades National Park are the only environment in the world where 'gators and crocs live together in harmony, so you’ll need to learn how to tell them apart. Check the face: The alligator has a broad snout, the crocodile a narrow one. And if you can see the large fourth tooth on the bottom when the jaw is closed, you’re looking at a crocodile.
THE PERFECT SPOT: The best places to spy sunning alligators, particularly in the winter, are along the Anhinga Trail in the Royal Palm section of the park and along the Shark Valley loop off the Tamiami Trail. Plenty of crocodiles hang out in the saltwater of the Flamingo area, located near Florida Bay at the southern extreme of the park.
THE PHOTO TIP: For the best shots of either slow-moving creature, focus on the eyes. If the animal is too much in the shade for the eye to stand out—as is often the case with the darker-skinned alligator—add a flash. Remember that while the creatures might look sleepy, they can move—and snap—very quickly, so keep a healthy distance and obviously don't feed or poke them.
MOUNTAIN LIONS: BIG BEND NATIONAL PARK, Texas
The mighty, solitary mountain lion is the king of the Texas desert
The majestic mountain lion—also known as the cougar, panther, or puma regionally—is different from its African cousins in that it lacks a furry mane and a loud roar. But this fierce predator is no slouch! In this desert and mountain park in southwest Texas along the Rio Grande, the mountain lion is the definite lord of the manor—a top predator that feasts on deer, javelina, and other herbivores and keeps the whole ecosystem in check.
THE PERFECT SPOT: Mountain lions roam throughout the park, including the Chihuahuan Desert and the Chisos Mountains, where they sometimes follow hiking trails. Each year there are about 150 sightings of the elusive wild cats, most of which occur along roadways and sometimes hiking trails, often around dawn or dusk.
THE PHOTO TIP: Mountain lion sightings are rarer than sightings of the other animals on this list. If you do see one, you'll want to snap fast. Bring a high-res, auto-focus point-and-shoot—you won’t have time to be fumbling with lenses. You may have more luck snagging a photo of mountain lion tracks: Keep a look out for the distinctive four-toed paw prints which, unlike those of bears or coyotes, don't have a claw mark in front of each toe pad.
ROOSEVELT ELK: OLYMPIC NATIONAL PARK, Washington
The largest unmanaged herd of Roosevelt Elk roams this park in the Pacific Northwest
Named for Theodore Roosevelt, father of the American national parks system, the largest of the North American elk subspecies can be identified by its dark brown head and pale brown body; males also have light brown antlers. President Roosevelt actually had a direct hand in creating the Mt. Olympus National Monument in 1909 to protect the elk living on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula. The area, which officially became a national park in 1938 (under the second President Roosevelt), is a wildly diverse landscape that includes temperate rainforests, sandy beaches, and glaciers.