TOP 10 WILDLIFE HOT SPOTS
As the morning sun peeks over the horizon, shrouds of fog wafting through your campsite transform into brilliant shafts of crimson and gold. Soaking in this perfect, picture-postcard setting, you think, “nothing could make this camping trip any more perfect!” Then, in the trees, you sense movement. It’s a dog. What’s a dog doing up here? Wait… No. It’s a wolf. As if in slow motion, the lanky canine trots through the timber. Stopping, it turns. Soul-piercing yellow eyes seem to peer right through you. Then like the fog, it evaporates into the timber.
It’s a moment indelibly etched in your mind…in your psyche. It’s the must-tell highlight of your trip to anyone that will listen. Do you want “WOW” stories of close encounters of the wild kind? Combine camping with wildlife watching or photography-a natural combination. Here are 10 sure-bet locations to put something “wild” into your camping life.
Yellowstone National Park-Wyoming
Yellowstone is North America’s Serengeti. Be prepared to see more wildlife in a day than you typically see in months…maybe in a year. Elk, bison, moose, bighorn sheep, both grizzly and black bears, antelope, whitetail and mule deer, red fox, coyote and wolves, plus abundant bird life including waterfowl. White pelicans and trumpeter swans call the Yellowstone ecosystem home. Will you see all of them? Probably not, but don’t be surprised if you do. Wildlife congregates in the Hayden Valley, the Lamar Valley (hot spot for wolves and grizzly bears) and the area around North America’s most famous geyser…Old Faithful. Yellowstone: 307/344-7381; /nps.gov/yell/ and /yellowstone-natl-park.com/.
Glacier National Park-Montana
Renowned for eye-popping scenics of glacier-carved mountains, the area also offers astonishing wildlife watching and photography. Hot spots are centered on the Logan Pass area. On the Hidden Lake Trail you’ll typically find mountain goats, hoary marmots and ptarmigan (grouse-like birds that turn colors with the seasons). Hiking the Highline Trail might mean sharing it with bighorn sheep or mountain goats. Maybe a grizzly bear! Other wildlife hot spots include the west side’s Camas Road for deer, black or grizzly bears and diverse birdlife. Visit the east side’s Many Glacier for grizzly bears, goats and sheep. Glacier: 406/888-7800;/nps.gov/glac/ or /glacier.national-park.com/.
Olympic National Park-Washington
Interested in visiting beaches, rainforests and hiking above timberline on the same day? Olympic National Park offers all that plus the wildlife inhabiting those diverse ecosystems. Blacktail deer frolic on open meadows along Hurricane Ridge (called that for a reason) as well as the Olympic marmot, unique to Washington’s Olympic Peninsula. Birds like blue grouse and Clark’s nutcracker are regularly observed in the high country. Spend time on the 57-mile Olympic Coastal Strip and you’ll see some of the most rugged and picturesque coastline in North America replete with sea lions, sea otters, bald eagles and gray whales.
A fall trip to the park (September through late October) offers one of the most unique wildlife spectacles you’ll see…the annual salmon run. Coho salmon making their pilgrimage to spawning grounds in the Soleduck and Hoko River are easily observed leaping waterfalls and darting through stream shallows. Olympic: 360/565-3130; /nps.gov/olym/ and /olympic.national-park.com/.
Rocky Mountain National Park-Colorado
As the name implies, it’s the Rocky Mountains up-close-and-personal. Elk, mule deer, moose, bighorn sheep, coyotes, black bears, cougars and dozens of smaller animals can all be on your “saw them on my camping trip” list. Trail Ridge Road, reaching an elevation of 12,183 feet, is the highest, continuous, paved road in the United States and offers unparalleled access to wildlife viewing. During summer you’ll find elk feeding in open meadows, mule deer trying to keep cool on wind swept ridges and hoary marmots sunning themselves on rocky outcroppings. Birders looking to fill in holes on their “life list” of species they’ve seen can find ptarmigan, eagles and numerous hawks among the high country vistas. The Estes Park town-site will amaze you with the number of humming birds attracted to the areas plentiful wild and domestic flowers. Rocky Mountain: 970/586-1206; /nps.gov/room/ or rocky.mountain.national-park.com/.
Great Smokey Mountain National Park-Tennessee
Want to see a wolf but can’t afford a trip out west? No guarantees, but 25 red wolves live in the Great Smokey Mountain National Park. You may not see one, but visitors seeking a wildlife extravaganza experience will find whitetail deer, black bears, raccoons, bobcats…even elk in the Smokey Mountains. Over 65 species of wildlife and 230 species of birds have been identified within park boundaries. With its cool moist climate, the park’s dense vegetation easily conceals the abundant wildlife. Premier places to see wildlife are open areas including Cataloochee and Cades Cove; you’ll find whitetail deer, black bear, raccoon and wild turkey. Great Smoky Mountain: 865/436-1200; /nps.gov/grsm/ or /great.smoky.mountains.national-park.com/.
Denali National Park-Alaska
Most park visitors have two wishes: “See the mountain” which is often obscured by weather, and “see a grizzly bear.” Lucky guests see the mountain. Even the unluckiest visitors typically see a grizzly bear and get their fill of wildlife watching. Denali is North America’s best place to see caribou, moose, dall sheep, and wolves. Birds like ptarmigan, golden eagles and tern are commonplace. Park visitors are allowed access into the park interior on shuttle buses. Shuttle drivers know where the wildlife hang out and with a bus load of eager enthusiasts all looking for critters, shuttle rides are stop and go affairs. Plan ahead and make shuttle bus reservations early. You can camp, and drive to some interior campgrounds, but access is restricted. Backcountry hiking and camping is encouraged and offers wonderful wildlife watching and photography opportunities. Denali: 907/683-2294; /nps.gov/dena/ and /denali.national-park.com/.
Baxter State Park-Maine
Moose have been called so ugly that only a mother moose could love one…but people flocking to this far northern state park typically are looking to see and ogle over the plentiful bulbous-nosed, floppy-eared critters. Summer months are best for moose viewing in the park’s numerous ponds. Black bears and whitetail deer commonly delight Baxter State visitors, as well as raccoons. The park’s diverse environment attracts avid birders looking for wood warblers, thrushes, flycatchers, game birds and several species of owls and hawks. Fall adds a mosaic of colors to the wildlife viewing stage when the plentiful, deciduous trees turn colors. Baxter: 207/723-5140; /baxterstateparkauthority.com/ or /katahdinoutdoors.com/.
Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge-New Mexico
If birding is your game, Bosque Del Apache is traveling to heaven. On the Chihuahuan Desert’s northern edge and straddling the Rio Grande River, the refuge includes wetlands, farmlands, and riparian forests. Hosting 340 species of birds, the refuge is internationally famous for sandhill cranes, snow geese and other waterfowl. During April through September, check out the Seasonal Tour Road for shorebirds and wading birds. Year-round opportunities abound for both photography and viewing on the 15-mile auto tour loop. Wildlife accustomed to visitors can be closely observed from your vehicle, which serves as the perfect blind. Bosque isn’t only about birds; don’t be surprised if you see mule deer, elk and coyotes. Bosque: 505/835-1828; /fws.gov/southwest/refuges/newmex/bosque/ and /friendsofthebosque.org/.
J.N Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge-Florida
Another birder’s paradise, Ding Darling attracts over a million visitors a year. Mid-October through April you’ll see thousands of wading, swimming and diving birds feeding on the mudflats. Expect to spot great egrets, snowy egrets, wood storks, roseate spoonbills, great and little blue herons, white and brown pelicans, various herons, and hundreds of other birds including ospreys and bald eagles. Fall and spring find migrating songbirds using the refuge as a resting place to gather food and energy essential for their remarkable flights. Alligators and other reptiles are also prevalent on the refuge.
Eight miles of trails wind through estuary and freshwater habitat, making it easy to immerse you in wildlife watching. Wildlife Drive, a 4-mile paved drive, offers numerous views of birds and animal life. It’s open 7:30 am to sunset daily except for Friday; that’s the day wildlife get a “day off from the tourists.” Ding Darling: 239/472-1100; /fws.gov/dingdarling/ and /dingdarlingsociety.org/.
Jasper-Pulaski Fish and Wildlife Area-Indiana
Jasper-Pulaski Fish and Wildlife Area’s 8062 acres offer unique opportunities to witness spectacular migrations of Canada geese and sandhill cranes. Two observation towers provide great viewing points to see thousands of migrating sandhill cranes late September through mid-December. Typically 10,000 cranes converge on the refuge in mid-November, the migration peak. Add thousands of Canadian geese to the skies and it makes this refuge a perfect, late fall wildlife spectacle to visit. Jasper-Pulaski is also home to whitetail deer, wild turkey, coyotes and other birdlife. Camping is not allowed on the refuge, but is available in the area. Jasper-Pulaski: 219/843-4841; /in.gov/dnr/fishwild/publications/jasper.htm/.