Wildlife vacations in North America - Top 12 destinations for wildlife spotting in North America

If you’re wondering why less than half of all Americans (and 60 per cent of Canadians) own a passport then all you need to do is look at the countless natural attractions they have on hand, both on the main landmass and beyond, into icy realms and paradise islands both. The North American continent accounts for the US, Canada, Mexico and Greenland, within which a diversity of culture, ecology and geology can be found. For wildlife lovers, in particular, there are many reasons to visit. Across its spectacular national parks, ranges and reserves, North America holds 457 species of mammal, 914 birds, 662 reptiles and 300 amphibians (though the 4,000 known arachnids may not be such an enticement!). Read on to discover the very best of North America with our guide to the best wildlife vacations below.

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Banff, Canada | Photo: Kalen Emsley

Wildlife Viewing Safety Guidelines

There are a number of good ground rules to follow while on nature vacations in the US, as on any wildlife-centric activity. Animals should always be treated with respect and a healthy dose of caution, maintaining a good distance between you and the animal at all times. Close encounter selfies are definitely a no-no and, instead, you should use binoculars or a zoom lens to observe from a safe distance.

It is actually illegal to touch, feed or intentionally disturb wildlife in the US. All national parks and refuges also have their own rules and regulations, so be sure to do your own research beforehand — or at the very least, read the signs at the trailhead! If you own a dog, most national parks will prefer them to stay leashed and have the proper vaccinations. When the unexpected happens and you come across a wild animal, the usual rule of thumb is to stay calm and keep still or back away slowly depending on the nature of the animal. A good way to avoid a run-in is to seal your food in airtight containers and clean up after yourself, stashing any trash in the proper receptacles (and closing bins securely after use). If, in the unlikely event you do come into physical contact with an animal, tell a park ranger. The same goes for if you see a sick or distressed animal on your travels through the park.

When driving to and from each reserve, remember that motor collisions with wildlife often have deadly consequences. Drive slowly through these areas and watch out for animals that may run into the road. If you do see an animal while driving and want to take photos, pull off the road completely to avoid other motorists.

Photo: Melina Kiefer

Photo: Alex Azabache

1. Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming, Montana and Idaho

The first national park ever created, both in the US and the world at large, Yellowstone National Park can be called the big daddy of nature reserves, spanning some 2.2 million acres across several mountain ranges, dense forest, volcanic formations, and the highest altitude lake in North America. Upon such a vast space, Yellowstone boasts what is known as ‘America’s Serengeti’, or Lamar Valley, where all manner of wildlife converges. Throughout the park, there are 67 mammal species (including bison, North American deer, coyotes, elk, mountain lion and two types of bear), with most sightings occurring at night, dawn or dusk during the spring or early summer in the Antelope Creek Meadows, Dunraven Pass, Gardiners Hole, Hayden Valley, Lamar Valley and the wet meadows. To spot smaller bears, your best bet is towards the north of the park on the road between Elk Creek and Tower Falls.

Though the warmest months have the most action, fall is often considered the best time of year to visit Yellowstone because this is when bears bulk up for winter, elks sound off their mating calls and wolves move in packs. The fall foliage is also a brilliant sight in itself, best seen on seasonal safaris held by Teton Science Schools, which pass by Yellowstone’s Grand Canyon, Old Faithful and Mammoth Hot Springs over three days.

Yellowstone National Park | Photo: David Mark

2. Alaska

Alaska is so alive with wildlife that we couldn’t choose just one park to mention. Instead, we have five. The first is Denali National Park and Wildlife Preserve, perhaps the most famous in the region for its sheer size (6 million acres) and lofty heights (reaching 20,320 feet on Mount Denali). The beauty of Denali is that no cars are permitted beyond Mile 15, meaning that the only way to traverse the 150-kilometre Denali Park Road (besides trekking, cycling and snowmobiling of course) is to take the shuttle bus safari. Keep your eyes peeled along the way for Alaska’s ‘big 5’, namely moose, grizzlies, Dall sheep and wolves, as well an additional 169 bird species and 34 other mammals in amongst grand snow-capped landscapes. Second in Alaska is the 1.9-million-acre Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge, which lies among the fjords, glaciers and mountains of Kodiak Country. The huge Kodiak bear is the main feature of this park, weighing around 1,500 pounds and standing 10 feet tall at full size. Kodiak treks and tours can last up to seven days, staying in backcountry out-camps for the duration.

Katmai National Park comes next, another great location for bear watching yet slightly difficult to reach. There are no roads leading here so aeroplane and float plane are both necessary but worth it, allowing for canoeing, hiking and wilderness camping. Two more to mention are Glacier Bay National Park and Alaska Chilkat Eagle Preserve, both unique in their offering. Glacier Bay is best for marine life watching amidst beyond the mesmerising coastline, with moose and brown bears to distract you from the orcas, minke whales, humpbacks and sea lions on the water. Chilkat meanwhile is the place for spotting bald eagles, as it is home to the largest concentration of bald eagles in Alaska, a number at its peak during the annual salmon run in July.  Summer is a good period for all the parks listed as temperatures thaw and the bears are out of hibernation.

Alaska | Photo: Mariah Krafft

Katmai National Park and Preserve | Photo: Pradeep Nayak

3. Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado

Within a day trip north of Denver, Rocky Mountain National Park is easily accessible yet none the worse for it. This Colorado colossus is home to a total of 72 mountain peaks higher than 12,000 feet and, filling the space between them, across 265,800 acres, are fir and spruce forests, alpine tundra and river-run scenes. Almost 800 kilometres of hiking trails cut through the park, providing the perfect opportunity for encounters with Native American animals such as herds of elk, mule deer, bighorn sheep, and possibly a lone mountain lion, though you’ll surely cover more ground by driving the 77-kilometre Trail Ridge Road across the Continental Divide. As well as touring by car, camping, rock climbing and cycling are also popular, especially come fall when the forest canopy rusts red and male elks announce themselves to females by bugling wildly at all times of day and night. There are plenty of wild camping spots on the Rockies where you can park up your jeep tent, but some of the easier and equally rewarding camps and trails lie along Colorado River, Sheep Lakes and other water sources, where otters, moose and coyotes cohabitate with bats, bighorns and beavers. Oh, and did we mention black bears?

Rocky Mountain National Park | Photo: Byron Johnson

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Sloping forests and dazzling waterfalls are par for the course in Glacier National Park, as are sightings of moose, bighorn sheep, white-tailed deer and mountain goat

4. Glacier National Park, Montana

While we all love a glacier as much as the next person, Montana’s Glacier National Park offers much, much more in the way of wilderness and wildlife. This UNESCO-listed park straddles the US-Canada border across a million acres. When the park was formed in 1850, 150 glaciers marked the region though now just 25 remain active. To make up for this, today’s park homes 270 species of bird and 70 species of mammal in a region carved with 760 alpine lakes. Sloping forests and dazzling waterfalls are par for the course here in Glacier National Park, as are sightings of moose, bighorn sheep, white-tailed deer and mountain goat. Rarer sightings of mountain lions, lynx, grey wolves, wolverines (sadly not of the Hugh Jackman variety) and grizzly bears (the largest population in North America) are also possible.

While the grizzlies tend to make an appearance at Garden Wall (in the Logan Pass alpine area), Goat Lick Overlook and Going-to-the-Sun Road will bring you more encounters of the goat kind, the park’s mascot animal most impressive for their cliff-scaling abilities and rock-licking stamina. As well as wildlife viewing, activities such as backpacking, cycling, fishing, boating and camping are all good choices between May and October when trails are least likely to be obstructed by snow.

Glacier National Park | Photo: Sterlinglanier Lanier

Photo: Avi Richards

5. Churchill, Canada

Crossing firmly into Canada for number five in our list of nature vacations, we arrive on the west shore of the Hudson Bay in Churchill, Manitoba. A rather epic display across 1.2 million square kilometres, the Hudson Bay is the iced-over version of Yellowstone, primed for encounters with arctic wildlife and marine mammals like nowhere else on earth. The town of Churchill itself, known as the polar bear capital of the world, is best visited in fall (October to November) to catch sight of bears migrating across the tundra into seal-hunting territory and night skies dancing in the greens, yellows and blues of the aurora. Birders meanwhile can wait until spring or summer to visit when gulls, ducks, loons and falcons take to the skies in number, while summer is beluga season when 57,000 beluga whales gather in the bay.

Multi-day bear tracking expeditions have travellers ride across the tundra in all-terrain buggies, discovering black bears, Arctic fox, caribou and wolves on land, plus walrus, dolphins and killer whales in the bay. Gliding upon the water meanwhile are whistling swan, Canada goose, and black duck. Dog sledging is a cultural activity in the region, while boat trips are the way to go for whale lovers.

Churchill, Canada | Photo: Dan Bolton

Churchill, Canada | Photo: Sridhar Chilimuri

6. Maine, US

The entire state of Maine is every wildlife lover’s dream, though Northern Maine may win out for its large population of moose. Aptly labelled Moose Country, Maine is home to some 75,000 moose which primarily inhabit the boreal forests of the Maine Highlands and Aroostook County, actively wandering around throughout the summer and fall months in search of food. Book a tour to get your best chance of moose sightings, opting for a private van or a canoe on Moosehead Lake! Competing to be the Maine event however is Acadia National Park in the south, a reserve reaching beyond the Atlantic coast and covering almost 50,000 acres of land including Mount Desert Island, Isle au Haut and the Schoodic Peninsula.

New England’s only national park, Acadia is something special, composed of forests, meadows and marshes, all edged by rugged shores. The 200 kilometres of hiking trails are yours for conquering, as are the 72-kilometre carriage roads that cut through the heart of things. The glacial peaks and pristine lake landscapes of Mount Desert Island make up the majority of the park and 40 species of mammal reside here. Find coyotes, bobcats, squirrels and porcupines alongside 338 species of bird — 23 of those warblers! Visit the Valley Cove Cliffs to spot nesting peregrine falcons or otherwise look up in the sky from August to mid-October for sightings of kestrels and hawks. In the water, more creatures await, including dolphins, seals and whales. One of the most challenging and rewarding ways to see the park is by trekking Cadillac Mountain, a peak that rewards those who scale it with panoramic views of the park and wildlife sightings everywhere.

Acadia National Park | Photo: Mick Haupt

7. The Canadian Rockies

The legend of the Rockies has us booking our tickets to Banff so we can hop on a ski lift pronto. This is one of the wonders of Lake Louise Village in Banff National Park, allowing non-hikers an expedited trip up the mountain to pass safely over grizzly bear country and arrive in wilderness. Another leisurely way to see the park is on the Rocky Mountaineer train which chugs through a diversity of alpine landscapes, hugging the mountainside as it goes and offering panoramic window seats to Canada’s best wild action. As well as grizzlies, visitors can watch out for black bears, moose, elk, deer and goats, best seen in spring, fall and even winter when the animals move to lower elevations in search of food. Birds, however, are most active in spring and summer.

Outside of Banff, the Canadian Rockies span three other national parks; Jasper, Yoho and Kootenay, with Jasper alone hosting half the grizzly population and a healthy number of black bears. Try Jasper’s Pyramid Lake, Maligne Road and Miette Hot Springs for the most likely bear sightings at dusk.

Photo: JF Brou

8. Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming

We return to the US now to visit Wyoming’s Grand Teton National Park, where all the more grizzlies, wolves and mountain lions reside. Upon 310,000 acres south of Yellowstone, Grand Teton stretches out over rugged terrain that features 70,000-foot peaks, valleys, mountain meadows and low-lying plains. One of the last remaining temperate ecosystems in the world, Grand Teton has a number of well-evolved inhabitants of the four-legged kind (including coyote, moose, bear and deer), two-legged kind (rabbit, Canada goose and all manner of birdlife) and no legs (snake, fish and incredible insects). However, the star of the show is the American bison, which, fully grown, can measure in at around 6 feet tall and 998 kilograms in weight. Sections of the park to pin on your map include Snake River for sightings of hunting osprey, and National Elk Refuge (actually just outside in Jackson Hole) for sleigh winter rides among majestic herds. Those searching for scenic views on their tour should stop at Oxbow Bend, Blacktail Ponds or Willow Flats in the early morning.

Grand Teton National Park | Photo: Vincent Ledvina

Grand Teton National Park | Photo: Pixabay

9. California, US

Perhaps more famous for its beaches and wine regions, California can even trump Hollywood with its impressive array of national parks and reserves. Of them, the Point Reyes National Seashore (just a 90-minute drive north of San Francisco) is one of more surprising places, particularly in winter when elephant seals pile up on the sand of Drake’s Beach for mating season, best seen from Elephant Seal Overlook near Chimney Rock. Alternatively if watching great slabs of meat wrestle over a female is not your thing, choose the Channel Islands National Park, otherwise known as “the Galapagos of North America”. Here, across a rugged island chain off the coast of Santa Barbara, you’ll find over 2,000 species of plant and animal, including a handful of endemic ones — notably the Channel Islands Fox, spotted skunk and island fence lizard. In the water meanwhile, there’s room for more, on a range of sizes from micro-plankton to blue whale. Take a boat tour from the mainland to learn of the regional marine life, watching the waves for common dolphins and harbour seals, as well as grey and humpback whales, plus orcas in summer.

Thirdly, it’s Klamath Basin on the California-Oregon border that has us craning our necks to spot the bald eagles that flock to the upper basin from November to March. Nerd out on the Klamath Basin Audubon Society website for information on the region and upcoming birding tour dates.

California | Photo: Carl Newton

Channel Islands | Photo: Lisha Riabinina

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Holding a trifecta of accolades — as UNESCO World Heritage Site, International Biosphere Reserve and Wetland of International Importance — the biodiversity of the Everglades cannot be overstated, hosting wetlands, waterways and forests that are crucial to much bird and marine life in the region

10. The Everglades, Florida

Land of crocodiles, alligators and republican retirees, Florida may seem a bit snappy for some. But, head to the Everglades and you’ll see an entirely different version of FL, away from the screeching of theme park rides and Tampa nightlife. Holding a trifecta of accolades — as UNESCO World Heritage Site, International Biosphere Reserve and Wetland of International Importance — the biodiversity of the Everglades cannot be overstated, hosting wetlands, waterways and forests that are crucial to much bird and marine life in the region.

If predatory reptiles do excite you, take a boat tour to view them in the marshes, swamps and brackish glades in the area, easily accessible on day trips from Miami. As well as the American crocodile, the Everglades are the last refuge for the West Indian Manatee and Florida panther alongside 33 other protected species. Come across these and more on kayaking tours, airboat trips and hikes in the park, camping on site outside of the summer months to avoid the worst of the storms and mosquitos.

The Everglades, Florida | Photo: Sterlinglanier Lanier

11. Mexico

For a different kind of America safari we journey south across the border into Mexico, choosing from a staggering range of reefs, rainforest and reserves. One top choice lies in the warm waters of the Sea of Cortez (AKA the Gulf of California) off the coast of Baja California. It’s here you can dive with some of the world’s largest mammals, such as the California grey whale which migrate here for breeding and birthing every year. Sea turtles are also big in Baja, and turtle conservation tours of the region allow visitors to do their bit while getting up close to turtles. On the southern tip of Baja California, Los Cabos is another destination to consider, this time for its swimming and snorkelling opportunities among whale sharks, which despite weighing up to 21 tons, are actually just gentle giants.

Over on the Yucatan Peninsula — home to the popular beach resorts of the Riviera Maya — Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve brings alternative vacations filled with tropical forests, mangrove systems and barrier reefs. A UNESCO site and protected area, Sian Ka’an hosts a great many rare species, including American wild cats (pumas), whales and 366 bird species. And, in the wetlands, American crocodiles — some 15 feet in length — smile welcomingly at boat tour passengers. Also on Yucatan, the Celeste Biosphere Reserve has more of the same, in addition to American flamingo and waterfowl populations. Come in winter when the flamingos and nesting sea turtles are in town, or instead opt to visit the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve. The butterflies travel all the way from eastern Canada (that’s 4,000 kilometres!) to arrive in the mountainous forests north of Mexico City, en masse, straining tree branches with their collective weight. January through March is a good time to visit the sanctuary, hiking or horseback riding to higher elevations to see the monarchs.

One last option in Mexico, especially for divers is Banco Chinchorro in Quintana Roo. Here, pristine reef encircles three small islands, housing marine sponges, stingrays, sea turtles and sea snails. Dolphins also swim in these waters and on one of the islands, there’s a reserve for the American crocodile.

Cabo, Baja California Sur | Photo: Ranae Smith

Cabo San Lucas Mexico

Photo: Gina Samarotto

12. Hawaii

So divine that the US claims it as its own, Hawaii is actually geographically, ecologically and culturally distinct from any other place in North America. Besides pro surfing beaches and volcanic excitements, Hawaiian nature and wildlife are some of the island’s main draws. On the island of Maui, you’ll find all those beaches and volcanic landscapes plus verdant valleys inhabited by endemic species. The hoary bat and the Hawaiian monk seal are the only two endemic mammals, but the Polynesians (fortunately or unfortunately depending on how you see it) brought a great number of foreign species, including the wild boar and the mongoose. In the water, find humpback whales, all types of dolphins and 300-pound sea turtles, with the latter also commonly found on the sands at Ho’okipa Beach Park. Visit between October and March for humpback sightings when they move to warmer waters to breed and raise their babies.

With little time to spare, we must choose one last stop in Hawaii. For dolphin sightings, it’s Oahu, on the west coast in particular. While viewing these creatures from afar is an option, to get up close, take an eco-friendly boat excursion and training session (from the likes of Wild Side Specialty Tours, all year round), after which you may be able to swim amongst a pod of wild spinner dolphins.

Photo: The Bored Apeventurer

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