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.
As many of our patriotic songs point out, the United States is home to a wide variety of natural habitats—from purple mountains to fruited plains and redwood forests, all tucked in between a couple of shining seas. Thanks to this diversity, it’s also home to a dazzling array of wildlife, many of which have found refuge in our protected national parks. Every year, close to 70 million visitors head out into the parks to revel in the scenery and try to get the perfect photos of a sleepy-eyed alligator, majestic bison, or even a mama grizzly. Here are our top animals to spot—on land, in the air, and in water—along with tips on how to best capture the moment on film.
COYOTES: ROCKY MOUNTAIN NATIONAL PARK, Colorado
The misunderstood coyote finds safe haven in these high-altitude Colorado meadows
Talk about a bad rep: Smart, resourceful, and adaptable, these wild canines have historically been the target of farmers and ranchers who view them as a threat to livestock. The campaign hasn't really worked, though, since the coyote continues to thrive in both urban and wilderness areas, especially this peak-filled park about an hour north of Boulder. Coyotes are roughly the size of dogs, so you may be tempted to get up close. Don't. Rangers have been forced to kill coyotes that have displayed threatening behavior after taking food from humans.
THE PERFECT SPOT: Though they can be spotted throughout the park, coyotes appear to prefer open meadows and pine woodlands. The aptly named Coyote Valley Trail—an easy, handicap-accessible one-mile loop along the Colorado River in Kawuneeche Valley—is a particularly rewarding spot to search for these wily animals.
THE PHOTO TIP: While active throughout the day, coyotes are best spotted here early in the morning or around sunset—the perfect lighting for flash-free photography.
ELEPHANT SEALS: CHANNEL ISLANDS NATIONAL PARK, California
The largest colonies of elephant seals gather off the coast of California
The northern elephant seal is one of four types of pinnipeds (or "fin-footed" mammals) commonly found in Southern California—others include harbor seals, northern fur seals, and California sea lions. The five isolated islands that make up this national park are home to one of the largest gatherings of these mammals on the planet, with over 50,000 northern elephant seals alone breeding here each year. These unique animals get their name from the long, almosttrunk-like protrusions on males’ faces that are used to make a low, rumbling sound during mating rituals.
THE PERFECT SPOT: You can find northern elephant seals on many beaches on Santa Rosa and San Miguel Islands, but the real seal mother lode requires a little extra work. Hiking to Point Bennett on the western tip of San Miguel Island is intense (it's a 15 mile round-trip hike trek), but well worth it. As you come over the Point's rise about halfway through, you'll spot thousands of honking elephant seals camped out on the beach.
THE PHOTO TIP: To avoid the glare that can occur when shooting around reflective surfaces like water—or the seals’ glistening, wet bodies—don’t use a flash directly on those areas. Try focusing on a darker part of the scene to prevent overexposure.
FRENCH ANGELFISH: VIRGIN ISLANDS NATIONAL PARK, St. John, Virgin Islands
Stunning, multi-colored French angelfish often swim in pairs along the park's shallow reef trails
With its striking gold-scale-flecked black body, white chin, bright yellow iris, and blue face, the French angelfish stands out in a crowd. Native to the western Atlantic, Gulf of Mexico, and Caribbean, the fish tend to hang out in pairs, usually around shallow reefs. They are among the more common residents of the Virgin Islands National Park waters, along with barracuda, blue tangs, butterflyfish, and Nassau grouper.
THE PERFECT SPOT: Virgin Islands National Park is home to some of the world's first underwater sign-marked snorkel trails, many of which are fairly shallow and ideal for beginners. For example, the self-guided trail in Trunk Bay, on the northwest shore of St. John, is in protected waters 15 feet deep or less, and is an ideal place to begin your search for the angelfish.
THE PHOTO TIP: Obviously, tip one for snorkeling photography is to use an underwater camera or protective covering. Once you've got the right equipment, snag a good shot by getting as close as possible to your fishy subject without using a zoom; this ensures you'll best capture the fish's colors and avoid lots of blue water rings. In addition, using a flash tends to illuminate any particles in the water, creating unwanted spots on the image.