Some of the best reasons to visit national parks are the chance to spot wildlife, including bison, elk, bear, moose, wolves, eagles, trumpeter swans and more. Plus, of course, hundreds of species of birds.
With more than 400 national parks and preserves in the National Parks System, there’s plenty of opportunity – and you should start planning now for a spring or summer visit.
Here are the best US national parks for wildlife viewing:
Lake Clark National Park and Preserve – Alaska
Bears rule in this four-million acre park, dotted with steaming volcanoes, just one hour by air from Anchorage. Overnight choices range from rustic camping opportunities, to bed and breakfasts, to all inclusive lodges offering guided excursions.
The two most popular sections are the coastline across Cook Inlet from the Kenai Peninsula and the communities of Homer, Kenai, and Soldatna.
The coastal meadows and streams have world-class Alaska brown bear viewing and fishing. And Crescent Lake, for kayaking and fishing.
Take an overnight trip organized by Silver Salmon Creek Lodge, for a multi-themed trip that includes salmon fishing and sea kayaking along with the chance to see black and brown bears in their natural enviromnent. Other wildlife to see include red fox, wolf and moose.
See the Lake Clark National Park and Preserve website for details on each.
Yellowstone National Park – Wyoming/Montana/Idaho
Sprawling over 2.2 million miles, this is one of the largest and most popular national parks. Most visitors are drawn to Old Faithful Geyser, Mammoth Hot Springs and Yellowstone Falls.
The eco-system also supports a vast variety of wildlife, including trumpeter swans, bison, bear, elk, Bighorn sheep and wolves, which were re-introduced in 1995 after becoming nearly extinct. There are nearly a dozen wolfpacks now, healthy and thriving in the protected park.
The Hayden Valley is the best place to see bison, elk and bear. The Lamar Valley is the best place for spotting wolves, seen most often at dusk and dawn.
One of the best ways to see Yellowstone’s wildlife is to sign up with the Yellowstone Association Institute, which offers courses on wildlife photography, wolf or bear tracking, or conservation efforts, and guided hiking programs. They range from one day to three weeks, and participants can bunk inside the park in comfortable, rustic cabins.
There are programs year-round, and most are family-friendly.
Read the NPS guide to safe practices for hiking in bear country
Great Smoky Mountains National Park – Tennessee/North Carolina
At 522,400 acres of misty mountains and forests, this is far from the largest park in the National Park Service system, but it is the most frequently visited.
It has one of the largest park in the largest Black Bear populations in the contiguous 48 states, plus one of the largest White-tailed deer populations east of the Mississippi River, and a large herd of majestic elk.
The bears are most often seen around the Cades Cove area, easily accessible from the 11-mile loop road. There’s also a wonderful nighttime display of fireflies, and their flashing patterns of light, around the Elkmont campground.
There are nearly 400 miles of paved and gravel roads for safe car touring, and plenty of hiking trails. View these car touring tips from NPS to know about vehicle restrictions and more.
An important part of Great Smoky Mountains National Park is what the NPS describes as the “burial landscape”.
The park is dotted with small cemeteries, essential elements of the park’s collective history when it was farmland.
Surviving headstones and informational markers providef ascinating insight into past burial customs, religious beliefs, cultural and ethnic influences, community origins and development, and landscape design principles. And they remain as some of the last tangible links to the past.
Saguaro National Park – Arizona
Named for the towering Saguaro cactus that dominate the desert landscape, some hundreds of years old, there’s also a vast array of wildlife, including coyotes, foxes, roadrunners, desert tortoises, hummingbirds and lots of reptiles, including horned lizards, and six species of rattlesnakes.
Saguaro National Park, near Tucson, also is home to Gila Monsters, one of the world’s only poisonous lizards. Always keep an ear out for the rattle or buzz of a rattlesnake’s tail.
This park is busiest in winter, thanks to cool desert temperatures. The thermometer climbs in late spring and summer, but the bonus is wildflowers and flowering cacti.
Top wildlife viewing spots include:
- A short hike on the Valley View Overlook Trail, right from the Bajada Loop to view the Avra Valley and distant mountain ranges.
- A scenic auto/bike tour around the Cactus Forest Loop Drive offering incredible views of the Rincon Mountains.
- A one mile loop hike along the Freeman Homestead Trail to learn about homesteading in the desert as well as modern Tucson.
Everglades National Park – Florida
The Everglades is a unique eco-system, where freshwater and seawater collide.
This 1.5 million park in the southern part of Florida is prime territory for alligators, crocodiles and also the premiere place in North America to see flamingos. Once popular for their feathers and eggs, they nearly disappeared, victims of hunting. But they are back in pink and fuschia profusion, prancing on spindly legs.
The NPS suggests these things to do in Everglades National Park:
- Take a short walk on the Anhinga Trail to spot abundant turtles, herons and alligators
- Climb atop Shark Valley’s 65-foot observation tower for a bird’s eye view of the glades.
- Glide over Florida Bay by tour boat or kayak for a chance to glimpse a crocodile, manatee, or dolphin.
- Watch as the sun sets over Flamingo, the southernmost point in mainland Florida.
- Explore the pinelands by bike, paddle amongst the mangroves on Nine-Mile Pond, or
- tour the historic Nike Hercules missile base.
- Join a ranger on a slough slog deep into the heart of a cypress dome.
- Find solitude on your own on a week-long canoe trip, camping along the 99-mile Wilderness Waterway.
Wildlife Viewing Ethics
Wherever you choose for your American safari, follow these wildlife viewing ethics guidelines.
They’re from the state of Alaska, but the good sense tips apply to viewing any wildlife in any national park in any state.
- Give wildlife plenty of space. Binoculars and spotting scopes allow you to view wildlife without getting too close.
- Approach wildlife slowly, quietly, and indirectly. Always give animals an avenue for retreat.
- Try to view animals without changing their behavior. Avoid using calls or devices that attract wildlife. Resist the temptation to throw rocks to see a flock fly. Remember – harassing wildlife is illegal.
- Be respectful of nesting and denning areas, rookeries, and calving grounds. Well-meaning but intrusive visitors may cause parents to flee, leaving young vulnerable to the elements or predators.
- Leave “orphaned” or sick animals alone. Young animals that appear alone usually have parents waiting nearby.
- Restrain pets or leave them at home. They may startle, chase, spread disease, or even kill wildlife.
- Let animals eat their natural foods.
- Learn to recognize signs of alarm. These are sometimes subtle. Leave if an animal shows them.
This article was published originally in 2018 and has been updated for 2022.
All photos courtesy National Park Service
ecoXplorer Evelyn Kanter is a journalist with 20+ years of experience as a newspaper and magazine writer, radio & TV news producer & reporter, and author of guidebooks and smartphone apps – all focusing on travel, automotive, the environment and your rights as a consumer.
ecoXplorer Evelyn Kanter currently serves as President of the International Motor Press Assn. (IMPA) and is a former Board Member of the Society of American Travel Writers (SATW)
Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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