You don’t need to go on an African safari to be awed by amazing wildlife. North America is home to some of the most accessible and enjoyable places to spot species of all shapes and sizes—from a hungry grizzly hunting for salmon…to a dignified six-foot-tall male moose.
Here are five incredible wildlife destinations for you to visit in the US and Canada…
Banff and Jasper National Parks in Alberta, Canada
Known for: Grizzlies and black bears.
Wildlife viewing almost always takes you to places of stunning beauty. For proof of that, head north to Banff National Park, Canada’s first national park, located about 90 minutes west of Calgary, and Jasper National Park, 3.5 hours northwest of Calgary, in Canada’s western province of Alberta. Here, you’ll be awed by pristine vistas of snow-capped peaks and glacial-blue lakes, a landscape that dozens of wild species (53 species of mammals in Jasper alone) call home.
Depending on when you visit, it’s possible to spot grizzly bears, black bears, coyotes, wolves, wapiti (elk), moose, caribou, red foxes, bighorn sheep and mountain goats as well as majestic birds of prey such as eagles and ospreys. The most popular season is June to September. In mid-September to mid-October, there are smaller crowds but the weather is still good and there’s plenty to see. The best time to catch sight of animals is during their active feeding hours at dawn or dusk.
Banff and Jasper also are home to natural hot springs, the perfect spot to relax after the excitement of spotting a family of black bears eating berries or a massive wapiti grazing along the side of the road.
A great hotel option in Banff is the 346-room Rimrock Resort Hotel, located on Sulphur Mountain near the Upper Hot Springs (from $200/night, RimrockResort.com). While in Jasper, a top choice is the Pyramid Lake Resort (from $240/night, MPLJasper.com).
Assateague Island National Seashore in Maryland and Virginia
Known for: Wild horses.
The 37-mile-long Assateague Island—a national park located on the Atlantic Ocean and divided between the neighboring states of Maryland and Virginia—is famous for the magnificent horses that live there and run free year-round. More than 300 wild horses inhabit the barrier island’s beaches and salt marshes, and this is one of the few places in the US that visitors can easily view them. There are two main herds—a larger one in Virginia, known as the Chincoteague Ponies and managed by the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company…and another in Maryland, managed by the National Park Service. It’s an incredible sight, watching herds of ponies running free over the sand dunes, stopping only to munch on the tall grasses. And if you also happen to be a birder, you’re in luck—Assateague is home to more than 300 species, from great blue herons to Eastern screech owls. Viewing the horses is as easy as driving around the island (best time—summer months at dawn or dusk). There are no accommodations within the refuge. Access the Maryland side just south of Ocean City, where you’ll find family-friendly attractions and a wide range of hotels, including the recently renovated beachfront Hilton Suites Ocean City Oceanfront with kitchens (from $136/night, Hilton.com). The Virginia entrance is a few miles east of the town of Chincoteague, where you can enjoy a low-key ambience and stay at the 70-room Refuge Inn (from $136/night, RefugeInn.com).
Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming
Known for: Bison.
If you love wildlife, Yellowstone National Park is the destination for you. But don’t think of this as only a summer vacation. If you’re willing to be a bit intrepid—and invest in some serious cold-weather gear—you will be rewarded with the most dramatic sights by going between January and March. This is when freshly fallen snow, frozen waterfalls and steam rising from the park’s famed geysers and thermal pools give the landscape an otherworldly ambience—and the lack of crowds will allow for memorable viewing. The frost-covered bison, elk, moose, wolves and bighorn sheep look as if they’ve been lifted from an Ansel Adams photograph. Tours are led by both Yellowstone rangers and outside private tour companies and are available on specially built snow coaches, snowmobiles and even cross-country skis and snowshoes. Two great places to stay inside the park: The Mammoth Hot Springs and Cabins and the Old Faithful Snow Lodge and Cabins (from $220/night, YellowstoneNationalParkLodges.com) are open all winter, or you can opt for Hotel Terra Jackson Hole (from $386/night, HotelTerraJacksonHole.com).
California’s Central Coast
Known for: Elephant seals.
California has 840 miles of scenic coastline, but the Central Coast—stretching from Santa Barbara to Big Sur—is hands down the most breathtaking. It’s also one of the best spots in the state for spotting wildlife. Visit in January during breeding season or in the spring and summer months when as many as 17,000 elephant seals return to land to molt. They are everywhere, from the boardwalk at Hearst San Simeon State Park to the Piedras Blancas Rookery. Known for their postcard-worthy scenery, both Monterey (home to the famous 17-mile drive) and Morro Bay (where a dramatic beach offers views of volcanic Morro Rock) offer prime viewing of adorable sea otters year-round. Nearby Pismo Beach and Pacific Grove are carpeted with migrating monarch butterflies from October to February. Winter also is prime time for spotting whales, including humpbacks and Pacific grays, while late fall and winter are ideal for breaking out the binoculars to spy on thousands of migratory birds (including loons, pelicans, cormorants and peregrine falcons), making the Central Coast their winter home, especially around Morro Bay. You can see most species right from the shore—although whale-watching cruises are also available. And if you happen to be traveling with budding marine biologists in tow, don’t miss the Monterey Bay Aquarium, ranked among the top facilities in the US. The Central Coast spans 350 miles, and you can enjoy the sights along a major part of it by staying in the charming town of Cambria at oceanfront Cambria Beach Lodge (from $149/night, CambriaBeachLodge.com) and then driving to Gosby House Inn, (from $120/night, GosbyHouseInn.com), one of several historic Victorian B&Bs in Pacific Grove.
Alaska’s Glacier Bay and Misty Fjords National Monument
Known for: Moose and caribou.
Alaska is unrivaled as the last truly untamed territory in the US—663,300 square miles of old-growth forest, Arctic tundra, gleaming glaciers and white-capped bays teeming with wildlife as large and intimidating as a six-foot-tall, 1,600-pound moose and as small and skittish as the Glacier Bay water shrew, which looks like a pointy-nosed mouse. Viewing the region’s best-known species—which also include velvet-antlered caribou (reindeer), pods of black-and-white orcas (and a dozen other whale species), regal bald eagles, wily arctic foxes, black bears and scampering snowshoe hares—doesn’t even require camping gear or GPS. You can book an expedition cruise that visits Glacier Bay and Misty Fjords and is designed to seek out and safely appreciate wildlife—some species right from the deck, and others during land excursions. Alaska’s cruise season runs from late May to late September. Expedition cruise lines offer hiking and kayaking expeditions for the adventurous and small skiff exploration for passengers of all abilities.
Options: Seattle-based UnCruise Adventures, which for the past 20 years has operated small-ship cruises (no more than 90 passengers) in Alaska, offers seven-to-14-night itineraries, mostly from Juneau or Sitka. It’s known for a friendly, casual onboard vibe (rates from $3,195 per person, UnCruise.com). Norway-based Hurtigruten, which has been cruising the Arctic for decades, now has a luxurious new 530-passenger Roald Amundsen, the world’s first hybrid-engine–powered expedition ship. It will begin eight-to-18-day itineraries from Vancouver to Alaska next May (from $4,667 per person, Hurtigruten.com).