American safaris: Best places to see wildlife in the United States

Story highlights

Many travelers don't realize how much of the U.S. is comprised of wild, untamed badlands

The country is home to about 3,000 wild animal species

Bears can be found in the wild in almost every state

CNN  — 

Many American travelers find themselves stunned by the richness of wildlife they observe abroad. Yet they don’t realize how much of their homeland is comprised of wild, untamed badlands full of the kinds of native fauna they name football teams after.

If you’re in the United States with European amounts of holiday time, you can be leisurely about getting around to each of America’s 3,000 or so wild animal species.

Most of us, however, must take more of a Walmart approach to checking off the nation’s wildlife if we want to get through the list before we’re 800.

You won’t see any zoos or controlled sanctuaries on this list. If you want to spot wildlife indigenous to the USA – or just want to know how to avoid them – these are the places in America where you’re likeliest to do it.

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Yosemite National Park (California)

The best way to observe an American wildcat while keeping your soft tissue intact is in a zoo or basketball arena. But there are plenty of natural big cat habitats nationwide for the adventurous, and Yosemite National Park is among the most representative.

Your chances of actually spotting one is slim, however, being that they’re solitary (often apex) predators – being unseen is kinda their thing.

So while you’re looking for them, they’re probably looking at you.

Still, they’re likeliest to appear at dawn and dusk, the most active times for their favorite foods – deer and elk for big cats, jackrabbits and rodents for the smaller guys – making any list of cat-watching locations a de facto list of those, too.

Where to find individual wildcat species

Mountain lion, Idaho County (Idaho)

Once prevalent throughout the mainland United States, the cougar (aka, panther/puma/catamount) is largely isolated to a dozen or so western states and Florida, none more imposing than those in the Idaho panhandle, according to Game & Fish magazine.

Bobcat, Kiawah Island (South Carolina)

Found in 47 states, this is America’s most common wildcat (population: 1 to 2 million and rising).

Sightings are usually rare, but on Kiawah Island, bobcats are uncommonly conspicuous.

Ocelot, Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge (Texas)

It’s believed that there are fewer than 50 remaining in the United States, all of them here.

Bonus species: The birds of the Lower Rio Grande Valley.

Jaguar, Saguaro National Park (Arizona)

Saguaro National Park outside Tucson is less an official address than a pied-à-terre for visiting jaguars from a population that’s actually just south of the U.S.-Mexico border.

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Alaska Peninsula

Brown, Kodiak and grizzly bears are really all the same species, and three neighboring parks form a veritable smorgasbear of all three.

Brown bear

From June to August, the world’s largest concentration of wild brown bears gathers at Alaska’s McNeil River State Game Sanctuary and Refuge to gorge on salmon.

Bonus species: Bald eagle, moose, caribou, arctic wolf, wolverine, red fox, harbor seal, waterfowl and various sea birds.

Grizzly bear

Right beside McNeil, some of the biggest grizzlies ever recorded have been spotted at the Katmai National Park & Preserve.

This inland subspecies is typically smaller, having farther to roam for less food than its coastal counterpart.

Bonus species: Humpback whale, orca, coyote, lynx, otter, mink, tundra hare, bat, beaver, marmot, sea lion, more than 40 fish species and 137 species of bird.

Kodiak bear

Offshore from Katmai is a bear subspecies distinguished by its island geography.

Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge is home to the world’s largest bears, which became isolated from their brethren across the bay after the last ice age.

Bonus species: Only five other mammal species are native to the island, but eight more have been introduced, including deer, goat, elk, reindeer and snowshoe hare.

Where to find other bear species

Black bear, Great Smoky Mountains National Park (North Carolina/Tennessee)

The 1,500 black bears around Cades Cove loop between spring and fall are more accustomed to audiences than the Rolling Stones.

Sunrise and sunset are the best times to catch ‘em in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Bonus species: Salamander, elk, deer, bat, coyote, wolf, raccoon, otter, bobcat, wild hog, turtle, 23 species of snake, 67 species of fish and 240 species of bird.

Polar bear, Kaktovik and Barrow (Alaska)

Tours to see these majestic maritime bears leave during the ice-free (and getting freer) period between August and October.

U.S. polar-bearing doesn’t get much more possible than this.

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There are four species of venomous snake found in the United States and they’re all found in and around Houston: rattlesnake, cottonmouth, copperhead and coral. If those don’t kill you, the petroleum emissions or rib plates eventually will.

Bonus species: Coyote, bobcat, fox, deer, alligator, armadillo, turtle, bat, hawk, owl and nearly 130 other species of bird.

Gila monster, Snow Canyon State Park (Utah)

Rare and endangered, the gila is incredibly difficult to find, but Snow Canyon State Park is one of the few places where it still exists.

April-May is the peak of its activity.

Bonus species: Desert tortoise, coyote, fox, quail, peregrin falcon, roadrunner and tree frog.

Alligator/crocodile, Southern Glades Wildlife and Environmental Area (Florida)

South Florida is the northernmost point of the crocodile’s range, making the southernmost point in the Everglades likeliest to host both. Florida is the only place where these two species coexist.

Bonus species: Florida panther, dolphin and more than 350 species of bird.

Tortoise, Red Cliffs Desert Reserve (Utah)

Consider yourself lucky if you spot one; they spend 90% of their lives underground or in shelters.

Bonus species: Gila monster, mountain lion, sidewinder, bobcat, rattlesnake, coyote, rabbit, muskrat, deer, fox and at least 50 species of bird.

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Yellowstone National Park (Wyoming)

When you think of American wildlife, these lumbering land leviathans are probably what most often come to mind, and there’s no getting around the 2,000-pound buffalo in the room that is Yellowstone, the world’s first national park.

On parade is a one-stop shop of bison, mule deer, elk, bighorn sheep, mountain goats and pronghorn antelope, forming the largest concentration of mammals in the lower 48.

Bonus species: black and grizzly bear, Canada lynx, coyote, mountain lion, salamander, spotted frog, wolverine, bull snake, rubber boa, bobcat, wolf, 148 species of bird and 3 million annual varieties of gawking tourist.

Where to find individual species

Bison, Custer State Park (South Dakota)

Reintroduced after near-extinction at the turn of the last century, 1,300 bison – possibly the world’s largest publicly-owned herd – now roam Custer State Park.

Badlands National Park, with its rams, badgers and prairie dogs, is just a two-hour drive away.

Bonus species: Pronghorn antelope, burro, mountain goat, sheep, deer, elk, wild turkey.

Deer, Interstate 80 (Nationwide)

The once-endangered white-tailed deer is now ubiquitous throughout the United States, with total numbers estimated at more than 20 million.

From San Francisco to Teaneck, New Jersey, drivers on I-80 see more of them than legal lane changes.

Caribou, Selkirk Mountains (Idaho)

Roughly two-thirds of Idaho is public land, affording ample roaming room for the last woodland reindeer herd in the lower 48.

Bonus species: Grizzly bear, lynx, wolf, moose, wolverine, elk and mountain lion.

Elk, National Elk Refuge (Wyoming)

Every winter, roughly 7,500 elk migrate to this 25,000-acre sanctuary neighboring the city of Jackson and Grand Teton National Park.

Bonus species: Mountain lion, bison, raven, wolf, deer, pronghorn antelope.

Pronghorn antelope, Red Desert (Wyoming)

Home to the largest migratory herd in the lower 48.

On a long enough timeline, a pronghorn can outrun a cheetah, which is vital to expediting the longest land migration in the continental United States.

Bonus species: Mountain lion, deer, wild horse, rabbit, prairie dog, badger and the world’s largest desert elk population.

Moose, Moose Alley (New Hampshire)

The so-called Moose Alley, the northern section of U.S. Route 3 between Pittsburg, New Hampshire, and the Canadian border, is like a year-round moose Mardi Gras.

Bonus species: Angry logging truckers.

Wild Horse, Outer Banks (North Carolina)

Technically, the Outer Banks are home to feral horses, as all truly wild horses in North America (those not descended from domesticated stock) are extinct.

But the horses on this 200-mile-long stretch of barrier islands have been bucking since the Spanish abandoned them here in the 1500s.

Bonus species: Nearly 400 varieties of bird.

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Lower Rio Grande Valley (Texas)

There are more than 800 bird species in the United States, and you can knock out more than half of them at this patchwork of parcels both private and public that represent 11 different ecosystems.

Comprised of the Laguna Atascosa, Lower Rio Grande and Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuges, this wildlife corridor hosts at least 520 species – 400 on about 2,000 acres of Santa Ana alone – including chachalacas, osprey, heron, tropical parula, spoonbills, orioles, egrets, roadrunners, kingfishers, robins, cranes, Canada geese, kites, least grebes, kiskadees, whistling ducks and raptors like the gray hawk and Aplomado falcon.

Bonus species: Ocelot (Laguna Atascosa).

Where to find other individual bird species

Bald eagle, Klamath Basin National Wildlife Refuge Complex (California)

There are more than 300 species at this migration stop for millions of birds, including America’s national animal.

Golden eagle, Morley Nelson Snake River Birds of Prey National Conservation Area (Idaho)

The golden eagle typically migrates seasonally, but approximately 30 pairs nest in this 600,000-acre park just south of Boise, year-round.

Condor, Vermilion Cliffs National Monument (Arizona)

America’s largest land bird is critically endangered, but of the 230 or so remaining in the wild, approximately one-third of them circle the Vermilion Cliffs.

Puffin, Machias Seal Island (Maine)

Machias Seal Island is one of the few puffin colonies that allows visitors during spring and summer breeding.

The United States and Canada each claim sovereignty, adding a dimension of geopolitical tension to your bird-watching.

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OK, so not all of these species actually qualify as fish, but …

[Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that “none” of the following species qualify as fish.]

Shark, New Smyrna Beach (Florida)

The state of Florida led the world in attacks last year and Volusia County, home of New Smyrna Beach, led the state.

Bonus species: Right whale, manatee, sea turtle and hundreds of species of bird.

Dolphins, Ko Olina, Oahu (Hawaii)

Hawaiian spinner dolphins feed at night and throng this spot on Oahu’s west coast by the dozens during the day.

The recent arrival of a Disney resort may apply urgency to any dolphin watching plans.

Bonus species: Whales, monk seals and green sea turtles.

Whales, Glacier Bay National Park (Alaska)

Seasonal humpbacks, grays and porpoises combine with year-round orcas for one of the richest cetacean environments in the world.

It’s like the Yellowstone of maritime mammals.

Bonus species: Grizzly bear, sea lion, lynx, mountain goats, seals, otters and 274 species of bird.


The wild wolf population in the lower 48 has grown from less than 300 just 30 years ago to more than 4,000 today, thanks to restoration efforts that began around the Great Lakes.

Gray wolf, Ely, Minnesota

The state of Minnesota has the largest gray wolf population outside of Alaska, and the northeastern part of the state – specifically Ely and the International Wolf Center – is its most densely inhabited.

Bonus species: Bald eagle, black bear, moose, beaver, loon, red fox, deer and up to 100 species of bird.

Red wolf, Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge (North Carolina)

Extinct in the wild for all intents and purposes by 1980, the reintroduction of red wolves raised in captivity has yielded a modest rebound of about 100 overall.

Bonus species: Alligator, black bear, waterfowl and more than 250 species of bird.


Children’s Pool beach (La Jolla, California)

A small, turbulent stretch of coast off La Jolla made recreational by the construction of a sea wall 80 years ago has since become a year-round haven for harbor seals and California sea lions.

Legal wrangling over use of, and access to, the beach finally rode its course recently, ensuring scores of seals bathing, lazing and spawning right beside beachgoers.

Bonus species: Fecal bacteria.

Where to find other sea mammals

Walrus, Point Lay (Alaska)

The good news is that the walruses of the Chukchi Sea – the only place in the United States to see wild walrus – have recently taken to hauling out by the thousands onto this observable tract of shoreline.

The bad news is that it’s because the sea ice they’re supposed to be floating on is melting.

Bonus species: Gray and bowhead whale, polar bear, ice seal and at least 15 species of bird.

Manatee, Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge (Florida)

The largest purported herd in the United States – not just of manatees, but also meddling guides and tourists – descends each winter on Three Sisters Springs’ 72-degree waters.

Some even stay year round. (The manatees, that is.)

Otter, Muscatatuck National Wildlife Refuge (Indiana)

Since the reintroduction of the species to the region 20 years ago, the population has rebounded.

So much, in fact, that some area landowners have received permits to trap and/or kill them.

Bonus species: Deer, quail, wood duck, rabbit, wild turkey, bald eagle and more than 280 other species of bird.


What they lack in the gargantuan, plodding mass of a longhorn or buffalo, these creatures more than make up in nightmare-dominating fright and ferocity.

Badger, Great Basin National Park (Nevada)

Ironically not concentrated most in Wisconsin (whose state university’s mascot is the badger), but rather in the largest and coldest desert in North America.

Sightings are rare, with the badger being a swifter digger than a human with a shovel.

Bonus species: Mountain lion, jackrabbit, deer, elk and pronghorn antelope.

Wolverine, Glacier National Park (Montana)

Wolverines are notoriously elusive, but may be easiest to find in the winter in magnificent Glacier National Park, when the snow cover more easily reveals their movements.

Bonus species: Grizzly bear, gray wolf, elk, lynx, wolverine, cougar, mountain goat, bighorn sheep, painted turtle and more than 260 species of bird.

Bat, Congress Avenue Bridge (Austin, Texas)

The largest bat population in the world (20 million) is actually just an hour and a half away at Bracken Cave.

But the nightly spectacle of more than a million dormant bats spontaneously diffusing from just above street level at Austin’s Congress Avenue Bridge into the sky like a fog of chunky black spray paint is the stuff lifetime phobias are made of.

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