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.
THE PERFECT SPOT: Head to the lowland Hoh Rain Forest, on the western side of the park, where elk like to graze for ferns, shrubs, and lichens grasses.
THE PHOTO TIP: These elk tend to stay in herds of about 20, so you've got an excellent chance of getting a group shot with a wide-angle lens. If you do spot one that's alone or in a pair, those are most likely males.
PRONGHORN: WIND CAVE NATIONAL PARK, South Dakota
Indigenous pronghorn wander the South Dakota plains
Below ground, Wind Cave National Park shelters the fifth longest cave system in the world, with more than 136 miles of underground passages that have actually been mapped. Above these maze-like formations is a rich prairie ecosystem that plays home to the rare pronghorn—commonly known as the “pronghorn antelope” although it doesn’t technically classify as one. Labeled endangered in the 1920s, the pronghorn can reach speeds of up to 60 mph, making it the fastest land mammal in North America.
THE PERFECT SPOT: These beauties can be spotted all over the park, but one of the easiest places to find them is the area immediately around the Elk Mountain campground. Chances are you won’t even have to wander far from your sleeping bag to see one.
THE PHOTO TIP: Remember that pronghorn have excellent senses of hearing, smell, and sight—and run extremely quickly—so take pictures from afar. If your shutter happens to scare them into a sprint, pan your camera in time with the pronghorn while you click. This technique will often yield an interesting effect: an in-focus animal on a blurred background.
PRAIRIE DOGS: BADLANDS NATIONAL PARK, South Dakota
Check out a thriving prairie dog town out in the South Dakota Badlands
The Badlands is one of the most fossil-rich spots on the planet; its imposing layered rock formations have yielded the remains of massive ancient rhinoceroses, camels, and even dinosaurs. Now, the stars of the show are much smaller—and decidedly cuter. The highly social prairie dog lives in underground colonies, or "towns," that can include as many as 26 family members.
THE PERFECT SPOT: Prairie dogs can be spotted along the park's main loop road. Just listen for the distinctive barking warning call that gave them their canine name. A particularly populated area is Roberts Prairie Dog Town, located five miles west of the Pinnacles entrance along Sage Creek Rim Road.
THE PHOTO TIP: You may feel the urge to get up close and personal to snap that perfect prairie dog portrait—after all, they’re so furry and cuddly--but resist the impulse. These critters are extremely territorial and can deliver a painful bite if threatened.
BISON: YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK, Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho
Spot majestic bison in one of America's most iconic parks
Considered the largest land mammal in the United States, the American bison—also called the American buffalo—typically weighs in at 1,000-1,800 pounds, with some males tipping the scales at 2,000 pounds. The area now housing Yellowstone National Park is the only place in the continental U.S. where bison have continually lived since prehistoric times. Though the population dipped severely in the early-1900s, the park now has a healthy bison population that fluctuates between 2,300 and 4,500.
THE PERFECT SPOT: Bison are often on the move and are seen in different areas of the park during different seasons. Since they eat mostly grasses, like wheat grass or blue grama, look for verdant fields for the best group shot opportunities. Check out the Lamar and Hayden Valleys; spots along the Madison, Firehole, and Gibbon Rivers; and in Gibbon Meadow.
THE PHOTO TIP: Female bison give birth to one calf every year, usually in April or May, so visit in the spring if you want baby photos. Note that while bison may appear docile and slow, they can charge at up to 30 mph. Visitors are gored every year because they venture too near the animals when taking photos, so keep your distance.
BALD AND GOLDEN EAGLES: DENALI NATIONAL PARK, Alaska
Both bald and golden eagles soar through Alaska's famous Denali Park
Located in the heart of Alaska, Denali National Park contains the country’s highest point, Mount McKinley (Denali means “the high one” in the local Athabaskan language). The sprawling park is also home to two of the country’s most majestic birds of prey: the bald eagle and the no-less-striking golden eagle. Though there are more bald eagles in the northernmost state than in the lower forty-nine combined, the golden eagle is far more common here. In these parts, goldens outnumber balds by 70 percent.