Ever since the National Park Service was created in 1916, the organization has protected and preserved our public lands and the wildlife species that inhabit them. To this day, each of the 59 U.S. National Parks offers awe-inspiring opportunities to witness wildlife in their natural habitat.
From close encounters with grizzly bears to snorkeling alongside sea turtles, here are the country’s best parks for wildlife watching.
Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming
America’s first national park is also one of the best places for spotting wildlife. Known for its sprawling landscape and rich wilderness, Yellowstone is home to 67 different mammal species. Among the most commonly sighted are bison, elk, grizzly bears, black bears, deer, bighorn sheep, moose, coyotes, gray wolves, wolverines, mountain lions, bald eagles, and pronghorn. While Hayden Valley is the ideal place to see bison, elk, and bears, the Lamar Valley is the best place for spotting wolves.
Everglades National Park, Florida
Spanning 1.5 million acres of protected wetlands across southern Florida, the Everglades is home to alligators, crocodiles, and a host of other subtropical creatures. Since the park is where freshwater, seawater, and terrestrial ecosystems collide, you can also find flamingoes, bobcats, wading birds (such as egrets, ibises, wood storks, and herons), hawks, roseate spoonbills, endangered manatees, and Florida panthers living in the marshy habitat. Although you can explore the park by strolling along the boardwalks, you can get much closer to the park’s wildlife by boat, canoe, or kayak.
Denali National Park and Wildlife Preserve, Alaska
Alaska’s most popular park is often referred to as one of the last great wildernesses of the world. With six million acres of sanctuary for animals ranging from moose to shrews, the park is best known for its “big five:” caribou, moose, Dall sheep, wolves, and grizzly bears. Also commonly seen are lynx, wolverines, coyotes, porcupines, hoary marmots, and red foxes. From spring to fall, migratory birds from six different continents make their homes in the park, including arctic warblers, bald eagles, golden eagles, peregrine falcons, red-tailed hawks, hummingbirds, and northern hawk owls. If you want to get a closer look at the “big five,” take a bus down the 92-mile road that leads through the park for guaranteed photo ops.
Glacier National Park, Montana
If you’ve ever wanted to see a grizzly bear in the wild, Glacier is the park for you! Located on Montana’s northern border, the park boasts North America’s healthiest grizzly population. In the spring and summer, grizzlies spend their time in the valleys, lowland meadows, and aspen groves, but return to the high country to hibernate during the winter. It’s also common to spot them on the trail near Garden Wall — just remember to keep your distance!
The park’s million acres is also home to lynx, mountain lions, white-tailed deer, moose, bald and golden eagles, and mountain goats — which happen to be the official symbol of the park itself.
Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park, Big Island, Hawaii
Comprised of 323,400 acres, the Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park is home to a large number of endemic species. Because of its volcanic landscape, tropical climate, and isolated location, more than 90% of its plants and animals cannot be found anywhere else on earth. The park is best for spotting birds, including the nēnē (the state bird, which is a goose), ‘io (Hawaiian hawk), honeycreeper, and white-tailed tropic bird that nests in the walls of volcanoes. Other wildlife highlights include carnivorous caterpillars, giant Hawaiian dragonflies that have a wingspan of six inches, and hawksbill turtles.
Saguaro National Park, Arizona
Often known as a reptilian paradise, Saguaro houses desert tortoises, desert iguanas, regal horned lizards, Gila monsters, Sonoran mountain king snakes, and six species of rattlesnakes. Birds — such as roadrunners, American kestrels, Gila woodpeckers, Gambel’s quail, and hummingbirds — are also easy to spot within the park. Located in the heart of the Sonoran Desert, Saguaro is busiest during the winter months, as summer is extremely hot. Since most of the animals rest during the heat of the day, try your luck in the early evening — you might even see some coyotes, foxes, or jackrabbits!
Olympic National Park, Washington
Situated in the northwest corner of Washington, Olympic National Park offers a diverse range of ecosystems, including glacier-topped mountains, temperate rainforests, and the Pacific coastline. The park protects the largest population of Roosevelt elk in the Pacific Northwest, as well as snowshoe hares, Columbia black-tailed deer, Olympic marmots, fishers (cat-size members of the weasel family), and bright-yellow banana slugs. Near its shores, you can also spot seals, sea lions, sea otters, and migrating gray whales. Although most visitors go in the summer, December to January is the best time to have acres of wilderness (almost) to yourself.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park, TN
Most famous for its resident black bears, the 522,400-acre park is also one of the few refuges for elk and whitetail deer east of the Mississippi River. Smoky Mountain bears are most active during the early morning and late evening of the spring and summer, and can often be seen around the Cades Cove area, which is easily accessible from the 11-mile loop road. With plenty of smaller animals, 30 varieties of salamander, and hundreds of thousands of synchronous fireflies, this mountainous park is definitely known for its dazzling wildlife shows.
Acadia National Park, Maine
Spanning 47,500 acres, Acadia is located on an archipelago where the mountains meet the sea. Its wildlife is of both the arboreal and marine varieties, where red foxes, long-tailed weasels, and beavers call the forest home, and seals, porpoises, and humpback whales inhabit its coastal waters. With 338 identified bird species, Acadia is also one of the best bird-watching areas in the country — visitors are often able to spot peregrine falcons, bald eagles, herons, and a variety of seabirds.
Channel Islands National Park, California
Just off the southern coast of California, the Channel Islands are home to animals and plants that don’t exist anywhere else in the world. Known as the “Galapagos of North America,” this archipelago of five islands is best known for its elephant seals. The park is also home to sea otters, sea lions, dolphins, whales, bald eagles, and Channel Island foxes. Inside the park, guides lead hikes for bird and wildlife spotting, but if you’re up for a challenge, take the 15-mile hike to Point Bennett on the western tip of San Miguel Island to see thousands of elephant seals sprawled on the beach below.
Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve, Alaska
Whale watching is one of the top reasons to visit Glacier Bay, with migrating humpbacks arriving every summer. This picturesque national park is also home to orca and minke whales, seals, sea lions, bears, moose, eagles, and seabirds. The best way to explore the park is by kayak, tour boat, or cruise ship, as the majority of its 5,130 square miles are actually water. As you try to spot one of the swimming species, you’ll be surrounded by giant glaciers and stunning landscapes.
Katmai National Park and Preserve, Alaska
The Alaskan wilderness takes center stage at Katmai with one of nature’s most spectacular sights: brown bears catching flying salmon from streams. There are more bears than people on this peninsula, and it is one of the best places to see the animals in their natural habitat. Viewing platforms allow visitors to watch the bears, while the natural tundra landscape and craggy coastline also make for one of the best bird-watching spots in North America.
Virgin Islands National Park
Covering more than half of the island of St. John and its surrounding crystalline waters, Virgin Islands National Park boasts over 300 species of fish and marine life. The park has the world’s first underwater sign-marked snorkeling trails, and the areas are fairly shallow and perfect for beginners. A good place to start is the self-guided trail in Trunk Bay on the northwest shore of St. John, where you can swim alongside schools of tropical fish and the occasional sea turtle. You can also hike up the park’s surrounding mountains to see its vibrant birds, bats, and iguanas, or walk along the roads to catch a glimpse of wild donkeys, goats, and sheep.
Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota
Home to the biggest mammal in North America (the bison), this park lies in western North Dakota, where the Great Plains meet the rugged Badlands. A habitat for bison, elk, prairie dogs, and wild horses, the sprawling park has three sections that are linked by the Little Missouri River. On park roads, it’s common for visitors to encounter a “North Dakota traffic jam” caused by bison walking alongside vehicles. If you do get caught in bison traffic, keep your windows rolled up and remember to respect their space!
Header image by Felix Regulla.