|Bison can be found on Yellowstone National Park's Lamar Valley Trail.|
America’s national parks are known for their great vistas and fantastic rock formations, but they also preserve another treasure: wildlife.
In fact, national parks rank among the best places to see interesting and rare wildlife. Late summer marks a particularly good time for wildlife viewing at many parks as most mothers bring out their young by that time of the year.
Given the breadth of national park locations, there’s also the opportunity to see almost every kind of North American wildlife, from those that live on mountains, in marine environments, and in the tropics to those that make their homes on prairies, deserts, and in temperate forests.
Travelers can explore the “Serengeti of North America” on the Lamar Valley Trail at Wyoming’s Yellowstone National Park. Like the mountain-ringed African plain, Lamar Valley serves as home to the classic megafauna that define North America. Bison, elk, grizzlies, black bears, wolves, coyotes, eagles, osprey and more all can be found at this high elevation. Coyotes also can be seen wandering about, looking for a meal while bald eagles and osprey grace the skies. Grizzlies reside in the hilly woods, but they and the area’s other big two predators – black bears and wolf packs – prefer to remain under cover than be seen.
You can encounter an array of marine wildlife on the Beach Trail at Alaska’s Glacier Bay National Park. Low tide also provides an opportunity to see intertidal life. As the waters retreat into the ocean – and water levels here can fall 25 vertical feet, among the greatest extremes in the world – a number of animals and plants are exposed. Don’t be surprised to spot starfish and snails on the sands and grasses. On shore, a variety of sea birds gather and fly over, often nabbing exposed intertidal creatures for a meal. During those first moments of sunlight, watch for humpback whales, harbor porpoise, puffins, sea otters, and Steller sea lions, frolicking and feeding in the mouth of the bay. Bring binoculars. If lucky, you’ll also hear the blow of humpback whales.
Tropical wildlife can be safely seen from the Anhinga Trail at Florida’s Everglades National Park. The trail’s boardwalk takes you over open water where you can watch for alligators peeking out of a river, as well as turtles, herons and egrets. Winter marks the best season to see the most wildlife. A number of birds spend their time in the Everglades after migrating from a northern clime. Among those you can spot are the double breasted cormorant, great egret, great blue heron, snowy egret, tricolored heron, white ibis and woodstork. Turkey vultures congregate in the marsh during the early morning hours.
North America’s largest mammal – the bison – freely roams North Dakota’s Theodore Roosevelt National Park, and the Buckhorn Trail is an excellent place to spot them and other Great Plains wildlife. The trail includes a prairie dog town that stretches for about a mile. You’ll be able to spot them barking from their burrow entrances as they keep an eye out for predators. Hawks, coyotes and rattlesnakes are among the creatures hoping to make an unsuspecting prairie dog its dinner.
Four desert ecosystems can be found in North America, and the park closest to a major metro area offers among the best spots to see wildlife of these dry climes. Outside of Tucson, Ariz., Saguaro National Park’s Douglas Spring Trail crosses the Rincon Mountain District (Saguaro Park East), providing the chance to see coyotes, roadrunners, jackrabbits and quail. All four of those creatures thrive in the Sonoran Desert, which stretches across Arizona and northern Mexico, as well as good portions of the continent’s other three desert ecosystems.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park, though stretching across the Appalachian Mountains, offers the opportunity to see many of the animals that reside in temperate forests covering much of the continent east of the Mississippi River. The Deep Creek/Indian Falls trails in the park’s North Carolina section sports Eastern cottontail rabbit, groundhogs, river otter, and white-tailed deer. Also present but much more elusive, as they keep to themselves, are black bear, bobcat, coyote, red fox, red wolf, and wild boar.
Rob Bignell is the author of several hiking guidebooks, including the bestselling Best Sights to See at America’s National Parks.
Learn more about national park day hiking trails in my Best Sights to See at America’s National Parks guidebook.