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Trekking across a desert? Hacking through a rainforest? Families with kids who are wildlife enthusiasts don’t have to go to extreme lengths to see amazing animals. While travelers often focus on safaris and exotic locales, sometimes we take for granted the amazing wildlife in the natural habitats we have right here in the United States. Here are the top spots to see spectacular wild animals in North America!
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Friends treated me to an airboat ride when I visited Florida several years ago, and I had no idea what to expect (honestly, I imagined some sort of kitschy carnival experience). Imagine my surprise when we began zipping through a Florida swamp in search of alligators and other wildlife. You don’t have to go all the way down to Everglades National Park for a good chance to see alligators and other creatures; boat tours are available throughout much of the state. In addition to its famous gators, Florida’s wetlands are home to another wildlife treasure, the manatee. Visit Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge to see manatees in their natural environment (and maybe even swim with them!).
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Montana will forever hold a special place in my heart because Glacier National Park was the first place I ever saw a bear in the wild. Two bears, in fact: a curious black bear that we encountered on a trail and a mama grizzly that we saw from very far away (thank goodness!) while horseback riding. While the bighorn sheep and mountain goats we saw throughout the park are a little less famous than the black bears and grizzly bears, they are essential to the park’s beautiful, alpine feel. (Reportedly, mountain lions roam the park at night. Not sure I want to meet one of those, though.) While Glacier is often at capacity with tourists these days, you don’t have to visit the park to enjoy Montana’s beauty. Try renting a cabin just outside of the park, or book a trail ride in a nearby area.
Use this interactive guide to decide exactly where you want to stay around the park.
Okay, the California natives reading this may not believe that anyone gets excited about those California sea lions at Pier 39 in San Francisco. But I promise they are a delightful treat for kids anytime, and for adults from other parts of the country who’ve never seen the gargantuan mammals up close. The San Francisco area is also a great place to find other marine mammals as well as bird species like golden eagles. Monterey Bay is famous as a fabulous spot to go whale watching, and you may even spot a few sea otters along the coast.
Book one of the many tours available from either Viator or Get Your Guide to tailor your tour to your family’s interest! But be sure to book early because the most popular tours sell out fast in San Francisco!
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The rivers and lakes of Tennessee are a peaceful, less-flashy way to go wildlife watching. While boating or hiking along the rivers, you may catch sight of many species of birds, including bald eagles, great blue herons, and osprey. The truly lucky wildlife watcher may even spot a river otter or beaver. (Last year our family took a long hike and spied an otter diving and playing at the bottom of a cascading waterfall.) On sunny days, watch for turtles clustered together, warming themselves on logs. An afternoon cruise is one of the best ways for parents with young kids to watch for animals and birds with no strenuous exercise required. Families with teens and tweens will want to try more adventurous kayak or tubing expeditions. For budget travelers, try hiking state park trails to see wild turkeys and deer (and in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the occasional bear).
The Western Plains
Is it cheating to group all the plains together as a wonderful place to see some of America’s most notable wildlife? I don’t think so (but I might be biased since I wrote this article). While states like Wyoming, South Dakota, and Colorado all have unique features, these Great Plains states are all places you can find prairie animals like American buffalo (bison), pronghorn antelope, and prairie dogs. Yellowstone National Park is known for its variety of animals, including the gray wolves in Lamar Valley. However, the park’s popularity means it can be a hard vacation to book (it is America’s first national park, after all). If you want to avoid crowds, try lesser-known parks nearby like Grand Teton National Park or Rocky Mountain National Park. Wind Cave National Park in South Dakota is one of the only places you can see the black-footed ferret, an endangered species. Visit Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota to see American bison, mule deer, and more.
Alaska offers the chance to see animals that are difficult or impossible to see in the rest of the U.S. Visit Denali National Park to see snowshoe hares, dall sheep, trumpeter swans, or brown bears. If you’re feeling a bit unsure about navigating the chilly terrain, try one of the park’s bus tours (or just visit in the summer, when the weather is gorgeous). In the winter, don’t miss the ranger-led sled dog demonstrations, and in the summer, don a drysuit to try whitewater rafting for the chance to see grizzly bears, moose, and caribou along the river valleys! Further south, Katmai National Park offers a chance to see humpback whales.
Waterways in Washington State
Olympic National Park and the San Juan Islands near Seattle are some of the best places in the United States to see marine mammals. Orcas (a.k.a. killer whales) stay in the Pacific Northwest year-round, and you also can see otters, harbor seals, sea lions, and whales in the area. The Whale Trail lists hikes with the best vantage points for whale watching, or you can try a local boat tour.
Families don’t have to go to extreme lengths to see amazing animals. While travelers often focus on safaris and exotic locales, sometimes we take for granted the amazing wildlife we have right here in the United States.
From sea turtles in North Carolina to moose in Michigan to peregrine falcons in Maine, you can find America’s amazing animals everywhere you visit. And the best part is that you don’t have to drive deep into wilderness areas or camp in public lands. Just look up your local wildlife refuge or nearest national park and see what wonders you can discover here at home.
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