Top 10 U.S. National Parks for Wildlife
The United States was the first country back in the 1800’s to come up with the idea of protecting environmentally significant places for the future. Today, the U.S. has 59 national parks, and many offer the opportunity to find some of North America’s greatest wildlife. Below is a list of the top ten national parks where you are guaranteed to see and photograph a bounty of wildlife. To make this list, I took a few things into account:
Photo opportunities (backgrounds for wildlife, scenery, etc.)
Chances of actually finding wildlife
10) Everglades National Park, Florida
Everglades National Park is the largest tropical wilderness in the United States, making every inch of its protected habitat extremely precious. The Everglades is home to over 360 species of birds, American alligators and crocodiles, sea turtles, and around 40 species of mammal including manatees and Florida panthers. The park isn’t the easiest to get around, but the abundance of unique wildlife that cannot be found elsewhere in North America give the Everglades a spot on this list.
9) Glacier Bay National Park, Alaska
Over 3.3 million acres of coastal rainforests, mountains, icebergs, and of course, glaciers, make up this national park in Southeast Alaska. While this park is not extremely accessible outside of taking a large cruise ship, the rewards for those that go on their own terms are wonderful. Humpback and killer whales are frequent visitors to its icy waters while also being an excellent spot to view large rafts of sea otters. Onshore, one may be able to find brown and black bears, moose, mountain goat, pine martens, lynx, bald eagles, and many more species.
8) Olympic National Park, Washington
The isolated peninsula that sits across the Puget Sound from Seattle is an excellent spot to lose yourself in one of the few temperate rainforests in North America. The national park is really broken up into three distinct sections: the rainforest, mountains, and the coast.
Along the coast, you can find sea otters, seals, and passing whales as they migrate back and forth as the seasons change. In the interior of the park, elk pass through the dense rainforest making for eerie photos while deer and marmots are common sights up in the mountain meadows, especially at Hurricane Point. Black bears are fairly easy to find in the Enchanted Valley near the Quinault rainforest, especially in spring and early summer.
You may also come across mountain lions, porcupines, river otters, red foxes, and many species of birds from harlequin ducks to the endangered spotted owls.
7) Glacier National Park, Montana
Glacier National Park is home to a wide array of Rocky Mountain wildlife, including one of the largest concentrations of grizzly bear in the continental United States. The park does not have a lot of roads to drive on, so to see the wildlife you will probably need to head out on foot.
Although grizzly bears are plentiful, you are more likely to come across mountain goats, elk, bighorn sheep, and mule deer. Logan Pass has a big reputation for easy sightings of mountain goats, while the Many Glacier area is a good spot to see grizzly bears. Moose call this area of Montana home as well, so check the lakes and ponds during the early and late hours of the day to find one wading in the water. Swiftcurrent Valley and Fishercap Lake are good areas to start for moose if you are not having luck in other areas.
6) Great Smoky Mountains National Park, North Carolina/Tennessee
The Smoky Mountains do not have the profusion of big game wildlife compared to the parks in the Rockies or Alaska, but it is world famous for its black bear population. The park hosts over 1,500 black bears who make their home in the forests and hills and offer visitors a great chance to see mothers and cubs in springtime.
While black bears can be found in almost every corner of the park, the best spot, which happens to be fairly well-known these days, is Cades Cove which offers unobstructed views where bears can be seen out in the open. Expect to also come across white-tailed deer, elk, and many small forest critters, but do not expect to find an extreme amount of solitude as this park is the busiest in the U.S. with over 11 million visitors a year.
5) Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado
Lying just a couple hours outside of Denver, this parks boasts some of the most stunning scenery and wildlife in the lower 48 states. You may be able to locate many small animals here such as yellow-bellied marmots, martens, weasels, pikas and more, as well as bigger game such as Rocky Mountain elk, moose, black bear, bighorn sheep, and deer.
In fall, the sounds of the elk rut fill the air and make more spectacular photo opportunities when found near a grove of golden aspen trees. During summer, most of the wildlife moves up towards the higher elevation, which can work in your favor as there’s less foliage making it easier to spot the wildlife from further away.
4) Denali National Park, Alaska
Denali National Park is all about big things. Big landscapes, big animals, and an even bigger mountain. Under North America’s biggest peak, Denali (formerly Mt. Mckinley), the sweeping tundra and boreal forests provide a suitable habitat for many species of mammals and birds. It is not out of the ordinary to see a grizzly bear, moose, gray wolf, dall’s sheep, and caribou all in one day. Other mammal species, such as black bears, foxes, marmots, pikas, lynx, and snowshoe hares are also found here.
Denali is also home to many birds species from owls, eagles, loons, ptarmigans, grebes, gray jays, and many more make this a birders paradise. When you see any of these species dwarfed by the 20,320 foot mountain, it makes for a fantastic backdrop.
The only drawback (what some might see as a plus) is that there is only one true road in Denali and is closed to private vehicles after 15 miles. The bus system works well, but you are fairly limited unless you get off and hike or get lucky enough to win the small car lottery they hold every year.
3) Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming
Yes, the world’s first national park does not make the number one spot on my list. While Yellowstone is probably the best overall park in the United States, if not the whole world, as it offers countless sights from Old Faithful to Grand Prismatic Spring, the wildlife viewing here can get quite crowded with tourists creating road jams while park officials make people move along.
A visit to Yellowstone offers the chance to see grizzly and black bears, wolves, moose, bison, elk, bighorn sheep, and much more in their natural habitat, without the visitor having to travel thousands of miles to find them.
Every season is different in Yellowstone and the wildlife shifts their behavior and location accordingly. Expect to find many bears out and about in springtime as they emerge from their den and are in lower elevations. In summer, most of the wildlife moves to higher elevation, but predators can still be seen wandering through Hayden and Lamar Valleys at any given time. Autumn is an excellent time as the wildlife prepares for the changing season by moving back down near the roadsides, while winter gives visitors the best chance to see wolves in the Northeast section of the park.
2) Katmai National Park and Preserve, Alaska
This secluded Alaskan park is growing in popularity and that’s for a good reason: bears. A lot of bears. Katmai’s claim to fame is that it is home to the world’s largest and most concentrated population of brown bears. The bears in Katmai can be seen in really two distinct regions: along the coasts and at the Brooks Falls area. The only way to reach Katmai is by plane (most likely floatplane) or by boat, as there are no roads into the park.
The overwhelming majority of wildlife enthusiasts will visit Brooks Falls where you can watch the bears fish for salmon over a small waterfall while also getting chances to see them around the small creeks and lake shore. The remaining visitors will head to different coastal areas such as Hallo Bay, Geographic Harbor, Kukak Bay, and more. Along the coasts, the visitor can get a more intimate experience while watching a countless amount of bears roaming the sedge grass meadows and beaches under the craggy peaks of the Aleutian Range.
Explorers to Katmai may also encounter wolves, moose, red fox, bald eagles, and many more animals. If you cannot visit Katmai, Lake Clark National Park, which is next door to the Northeast, is another good option that offers similar wildlife and scenery.
1) Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming
The small cousin of Yellowstone National Park takes first prize on my list as the best national park in the United States to find and photograph wildlife. No matter what time of year you visit Jackson Hole, there is always wildlife to be found.
Twenty years ago, Yellowstone would have edged out Grand Teton, but since then, more grizzly bears and wolves have migrated into its boundaries making it easy to find these iconic predator species. Grand Teton might also be the easiest spot in the world to find the largest member of the deer family, the moose. Grand Teton is seven times smaller than Yellowstone, but the moose population in Grand Teton is 8 times higher. You can also expect to find bison, elk, bighorn sheep (especially in winter), coyotes, black bears, fox, beavers, deer, eagles, owls, and many other species.
One big draw is the background provided by the Teton range that can make any wildlife photo an award winner. The accessibility of this park is also fantastic as the town of Jackson provides plenty of lodging, dining, and shopping just 2 miles south of the park. You can choose to drive in from many directions or fly into the airport, which is the only commercial airport within a national park in the U.S. This is an easy must-visit if looking to get a lot of wildlife photos without going too far.
Banff National Park, Alberta, Canada: If only this park was in the U.S. it would've been in the list for sure! Beautiful scenery, stunning lakes, upscale towns and lodging, easy accessibility from Calgary, and a bounty of wildlife make this an amazing destination all year round. It's sister park to the North, Jasper National Park, is another good option as well.
Acadia National Park, Maine, USA: This small park along Maine's coast offers visitors the chance to see marine species as well as mammals and birds in the forested hills. In autumn, the leaves change color making this a world class destination. While wildlife is all around, it is hard to find and photograph due to the dense forests, which is why Acadia gets left off this list.
Gates of the Arctic National Park, Alaska, USA: One of America's biggest parks is also one of the least known and visited. Sitting well above the Arctic Circle in Alaska's interior, this park offers similar wildlife viewing to Denali, but it is much more difficult to get in as there are no roads or trails, which forces visitors to fly or backpack in. This park is for the hardy outdoorsman who is looking to really get away!
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Hey, I'm Chase Dekker, a wildlife and nature photographer looking to share my stories and expertise with as many people as possible. My blog gives you a glimpse into my life as a photographer - whether it be stories from my travels, or guides on how to make your own trips as successful and special as possible.
I hope to give you valuable insight on everything from travel, to animals, to photography tips and more!