10 Places You’re Guaranteed to See Wildlife
If you ask people what they want to see most when camping, I’ll bet the majority of them will say, “wildlife,” and they don’t mean mosquitoes. Wildlife watching is an activity that not only ramps up the satisfaction factor of any outdoor experience, but observing wild animals in wild places also elevates our understanding and appreciation of the natural world.
More often than not, however, getting a good dose of wildlife is a challenge – especially during transitory camping trips where camp life and competing interests (for those of you with children in tow) consume much of our time. It takes a lot of work to get close enough to wild animals to fully enjoy their company or take a few decent photos. Fortunately, a lot of that effort can be minimized if you know where to go.
To put you into the wild zone, we’ve identified some of our nation’s top public land destinations for seeing wildlife. These locations don’t offer a mere scattering of birds and beasts, but foster and protect grand examples of wildlife in quantity and quality.
CARLSBAD CAVERNS NATIONAL PARK, NEW MEXICO
Viewable Critters: Although the caverns of Carlsbad are mandatory for all visitors (adventurous folks can even take guided “wild cave” tours – something we highly recommend), the massive bat flights that occur during the summer are the real attraction for wildlife lovers. In the evening, and again just before dawn, hundreds of thousands of Mexican free-tailed bats pour out of and into the cave entrance. The park conducts a free bat flight program between Memorial Day and the end of September, just before the evening flight. While you’re there, you might want to spend some time hiking the 33,000-plus acres of the Carlsbad Caverns Wilderness Area. Eagles, hawks, elk and the requisite rattlesnake can all be seen in this harsh, but majestic piece of the Chihuahuan Desert.
Best Times: The bats winter in Mexico, migrating south in November and returning sometime during April or May. These winged mammals can be seen throughout the summer season, but the flights are most “dense” during August and September.
Camping Availability: The only camping available in the park is of the unimproved backcountry type. Developed campgrounds can be found in the nearby towns of White’s City and Carlsbad.
Contact – Carlsbad Caverns National Park: 505/785-2232; nps.gov/cave. Carlsbad headquarters: 505/885-8884.
CRYSTAL RIVER NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE, FLORIDA
Viewable Critters: The manatees, affectionately called “sea cows” because of their slow, lumbering movements and affinity for underwater vegetation, are the star attraction here. Each winter as many as 300 manatees converge here to escape the colder Gulf waters. Guided tour boats offer a viewing experience, but for folks who enjoy kayaking or canoeing, this is a great method to watch the manatees without disturbing them. For a real close-up experience, snorkeling or diving is also permitted, but strict regulations are in place to guarantee visitors do not disturb or harass the animals, and some areas are designated sanctuaries where no access is permitted at all.
Best Times: October through March are the months when the manatees herd into the refuge.
Camping Availability: None, although camping is available at the nearby Withlacoochee State Forest: 352/754-6896.
Contact – Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge: 352/563-2088.
CUSTER STATE PARK/WIND CAVE NATIONAL PARK, SOUTH DAKOTA
Viewable Critters: Bison are the main attraction at both of these parks. Visitors can get a first-hand look at these massive creatures on Custer’s 18-mile Wildlife Loop Road, and every fall the entire herd of 1500 bison are rounded up for vaccination and branding, which is an experience in itself, and an event that is open to the public. Hiking the prairies and the hill country of the parks will also give visitors the opportunity to see resident elk, mule deer and the fleet-footed pronghorn. The elk are shy and not as easy to see, but the mulies are usually visible browsing near the headquarters of Wind Cave National Park.
Best Times: The summer months offer the best opportunity to see all of these animals in a more relaxed atmosphere. Autumn visitors will want to time their arrival to watch the buffalo roundup at the end of September.
Camping Availability: There are seven campgrounds located in Custer State Park, but none have hookups. Wind Cave National Park has the Elk Mountain Campground featuring 90 sites.
Contact – Custer State Park: 605/255-4515, custerstatepark.info. Wind Cave National Park: 605/745-4600, nps.gov/wica.
DENALI NATIONAL PARK AND PRESERVE, ALASKA
Viewable Critters: You can see most of Alaska’s large wildlife in Denali. Dall sheep raise their young and fatten up in the lower elevations during the summer. Caribou can be seen from the park road, and moose will be found in the willow thickets along the glacier-fed streams and rivers that lace the park. Grizzly bears are seen throughout the park, as are dozens of smaller mammals and birds. There are a number of relatively short hiking trails established around the Denali Park Hotel. Other than these, Denali exploration means cross-country hiking, but daylong ranger-led Discovery Hikes are available.
Best Times: For all wildlife viewing in Denali, June through September are the prime months to visit.
Camping Availability: There are seven established campgrounds in the park. Three are open to private vehicles, one is for folks traveling without vehicles, and three are accessed by shuttle bus.
Contact – Denali National Park and Preserve: 907/683-2294; nps.ogov/dena.
EVERGLADES NATIONAL PARK, FLORIDA
Viewable Critters: Think “Everglades” and toothy alligators come to mind. There are plenty of these prehistoric beasties throughout Everglades National Park but you’ll also find the American crocodile in the mangrove swamps around Florida Bay. Whitetail deer are also part of the Everglades culture, as well as the strange-looking manatees, otters and bobcats. This is also home to the endangered Florida panther. For bird watchers, the Everglades is a veritable paradise, with 350 species having been identified within the park. Wading birds such heron, ibis and egret are well represented.
Best Times: For peak bird watching, winter is the hot time to be in the Everglades. Ditto for those who enjoy watching alligators, which tend to congregate in pools or “gator holes” during this dry time of year.
Camping Availability: There are two improved campgrounds in the park open for use: Long Pine Key and Flamingo.
Contact – Everglades National Park: 305/242-7700, nps.gov/ever.
GLACIER NATIONAL PARK, MONTANA
Viewable Critters: Glacier has just about every large animal you would expect to find in the high and wild western Rockies. From the peaks to the “lower country” east and west of the Continental Divide, visitors can view elk, moose, bighorn sheep, mountain goats, grizzlies, mule deer, coyotes, mountain lions, black bear, bobcats, coyotes, wolves and even whitetail deer in the park’s mountains, meadows and river valleys. Birdwatchers can set their binoculars on golden eagles, osprey, ptarmigan and the occasional bald eagle. The main route through the park is the Going-to-the-Sun Road, which contains numerous pull-offs and overlooks that provide wildlife observation points. Sturdy adventurers can access the many trails in the park for a real wilderness wildlife- watching experience.
Best Times: The summer is the time to get the most out of the wildlife viewing opportunities, although the resident critters can be seen year-round so long as weather permits access.
Camping Availability: Glacier has 13 campgrounds with over 1000 camping sites, and a bunch of backcountry campsites for folks walking in or traveling on horseback.
Contact – Glacier National Park: 406/888-7800, nps.org/glac.
HART MOUNTAIN NATIONAL ANTELOPE REFUGE, OREGON
Viewable Critters: Antelope are found throughout the park, primarily in their favored habitat consisting of grassy plains. The best chances to watch California bighorn sheep is to hike the canyons around Hart Mountain. Other species to look out for include mule deer and sagebrush grouse.
Best Times: Spring through summer is good, but late summer and fall signals the highest concentrated groups of pronghorns.
Camping Availability: There is only one established camping facility. Hot Springs campground offers access and space for tents and smaller motor homes, but there are no hookup facilities.
Contact – Sheldon-Hart Mountain NWR Complex: 541/947-3315.
PELICAN ISLAND NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE, FLORIDA
Viewable Critters: The refuge is an important rookery for the brown pelican, which was an endangered species until being removed from the list in 1985. Although this is the bird many visitors flock here to see, the refuge is home to other species equally exciting, such as the manatee, heron, dolphin, ibis, loggerhead turtle, bald eagle, and the Arctic peregrine falcon. Access to Pelican Island is by boat.
Best Times: April and May are the best times to see large concentrations of birds, as this is the peak of the nesting period.
Camping Availability: Sebastian Inlet State Park: 321/984-4852.
Contact – Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge: 407/589-2089.
WICHITA MOUNTAINS NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE, OKLAHOMA
Viewable Critters: Since the Wichita Mountains NWR was established to protect and encourage the expansion of a bison population, this is the top wildlife attraction in the refuge. But this is also elk country, believe it or not, and “wapiti” can be seen by those folks willing to step off of the beaten path. There’s even a resident population of Texas longhorn cattle.
Best Times: Anytime is a good time to enjoy the wildlife of this refuge.
Camping Availability: Doris Campground offers the closest camping facilities, including electrical hookup. Camping is also available at nearby Lake Lawtonka.
Contact – Wichita Mountains National Wildlife Refuge: 580/429-3222.
YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK/NATIONAL ELK REFUGE, WYOMING
Viewable Critters: Yellowstone’s list of native inhabitants reads like a “who’s who” among western wildlife. Most exciting are the grizzly bears, bighorn sheep, bison, elk, black bears and moose. Smaller, but equally thrilling residents include coyotes, wolves and a handful of mountain lions (but you’ll be hard-pressed to see these elusive cats). Black bears and elk are among the more common species observed. You’ll find the black bear more easily along the northern section of the park, while elk claim almost the entire park for their summer range. For grizzlies and bighorns, the north and eastern sections are your best bets. Head southwest for an eyeful of moose.
Best Times: Summer is the ideal time to observe nearly all of Yellowstone’s creatures. If you’re in the Yellowstone area during the winter/spring months (November through April), and want to see large herds of elk, check out the National Elk Refuge located just south of Yellowstone and directly east of Jackson. This 25,000-acre parcel is the winter home to around 7500 of these animals.
Camping Availability: There are numerous campgrounds scattered throughout Yellowstone, but the pads fill up early in the morning, and reservations are recommended and often required. Call far in advance.
Contact – Yellowstone National Park visitor information: 307/344-7381. Yellowstone camping information: 307/344-7311, nps.gov/yell. National Elk Refuge: 307/733-9212.
BONUS PARK: ROCKY MOUNTAIN NATIONAL PARK, COLORADO
Viewable Critters: The high alpine park is vast and is made up of several layers, or zones of wildlife and vegetation, depending upon elevation. Large mammals to be found in Rocky Mountain National Park include elk, mule deer, bighorn sheep and black bears. Other watchable wild inhabitants are the golden eagle, red-tailed hawks, bluebirds, magpies, Stellar’s jays, white-tailed ptarmigan, hummingbirds, snowshoe hares, marmots, pikas, golden-mantled ground squirrels and rare Abert squirrels.
Best Times: The warm summer months are the best times to see wild animals in Rocky Mountain National Park. However, if you can stand the chill of autumn in the high Rockies, you’ll see, and hear, the elk in rut, and avoid the human crowds in favor of crowds of animals.
Camping Availability: There are five campgrounds with a total of 589 sites in the park: Moraine Park, Glacier Basin, Aspenglen, Longs Peak and Timber Creek. Glacier is nearest the greatest concentration of hiking trails. Timber is in the less-crowded west side of the park.
Contact – Rocky Mountain National Park: 970/586-1206, nps.gov/romo.
The parks mentioned in this roundup offer ample “naked eye” viewing, however, optical aids can help put the animals, literally, in your face. You’ll enjoy wildlife watching much more if you bring along a good pair of binoculars. Our preference is quality compact binoculars, such as those made by Nikon, Zeiss, Pentax, and Leupold. They aren’t cheap, but are high quality and materials are top-notch, plus these units are small enough to carry comfortably around your neck or in your fanny pack. For serious viewing of high-mountain species such as bighorn sheep, mountain goats and elk, high-magnification-monocular spotting scopes, mounted on small tripods, are the best bet. These can also be purchased with mounting stands that attach quickly to your car or truck window (rolled down, of course), making them great for auto touring.