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.
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.
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.
THE PERFECT SPOT: Bald eagles can be spotted on the south side of the Alaska Range, especially near water sources like lakes and streams. Golden eagles, which are migratory, can best be seen mid-March through September, before they head south for the winter. They usually build their nests on cliffs or rock outcroppings.
THE PHOTO TIP: To best capture a soaring bird in flight, use an SLR camera and set it to continuous focus. As you follow the moving object, your camera will automatically refocus on your subject. Keep clicking, and there’s a good chance one of your shots will be a winner.
MOUNTAIN GOATS: GLACIER NATIONAL PARK, Montana
The stunning (and massive) all-white mountain goat is the official symbol of this Montana park
Located on Montana’s northern border with Canada, Glacier National Park is a particularly rugged expanse of snow-capped peaks and untouched alpine meadows. With six mountains over 10,000 feet high, the area is a perfect habitat for the shaggy, white mountain goat. Weighing in at almost 300 pounds, the horned and bearded animal navigates the rocky terrain thanks to hooves that are embedded with excellent traction pads and sharp, slip-preventing dewclaws.
THE PERFECT SPOT: Some of the best spots for catching mountain goats in summer and early fall include the appropriately titled Goat Lick Overlook along U.S. Highway 2 near Essex, and Logan Pass on the famous Going-to-the-Sun Road.
THE PHOTO TIP: Photographing white objects, like mountain goats, can often lead to overexposure; too much light gets let into your camera’s sensor, making the object appear washed out. To avoid this common mistake, make sure to focus directly on the goat. On a point-and-shoot, hold down your shutter halfway, point at the white object, allow it to focus, and then snap your shot. Your backgrounds may end up appear slightly darker, but the portrait subject will look its best.
BATS: MAMMOTH CAVE NATIONAL PARK, Kentucky
A variety of now-endangered bat species have flown around this Kentucky park's dark caves and forests for millions of years
This unique national park has forests, rivers, and the world's longest discovered system of underground caves and caverns. At present, about 350 miles and five levels of below-ground passageways have been surveyed, but it's thought that there are hundreds of miles more to be explored. Naturally, these dark, damp caves and waterways are favorites of bats—gray, red, and brown varietals call the park home.
THE PERFECT SPOT: While red bats can be spotted in the forest and rarely head underground, most of the other bat species keep mainly to the caves during the day. About 12 species live in Mammoth Cave, the park's largest cavern, though they can be quite difficult to spot. Bats tend to also roost at cave entrances and in trees, so keep a look out at those spots at dusk.
THE PHOTO TIP: Since you're most likely to spot the flying creatures at dusk or after, set your camera's ISO to around 600-800 to allow in more light. If you're inside the caves—some of which have lighting— don't use a flash. Use a tripod for the best (read: non-blurry) pictures.
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