Craving an exhilarating expedition that’ll get you face-to-face with wondrous wildlife right on their own turf? There’s no need to trek to the wilds of Africa or the Amazon (and empty out the lion’s share of your savings in the process) – these vast and great United States offer up close encounters with a wide range of exotic critters and creatures. We’ve rounded up 10 stateside safari hot spots with fantastic fauna and flora that will have you saying “boo” to the blah zoo in no time. Discover breathtaking biodiversity, from the buffalo of the Great Plains to the creepy crawlers of the Western deserts, and from the alligators in the Everglades to the grizzlies of Alaska. Planning an encounter with these amazing animals is easier than you might think – in fact, we’ve laid out here what to expect, when to go, and even where to sleep. All that’s missing is that wide-angle-lens camera, a pair of binoculars, and you!
Baxter State Park
Best for: black bears, moose, white-tailed deer, otter, and beavers
Maine’s Baxter State Park (www.baxterstateparkauthority.com), spanning some 200,000 acres, is a bona fide wilderness wonderland – don’t expect crowded picnic areas, RV hook-ups, or, even, paved roads here. Instead you’ll find ruggedly spectacular country speckled with lakes, mountains, and thick clusters of forests, all anchored by Mount Katahdin, Maine’s highest peak. A scenic stretch of the Appalachian Trail winds through the park towards Katahdin and there are some 200 miles of hiking trails, as well as remote campsites, including several lakeside spots that are only accessible by canoe.
Smart Splurge Hotel: Outside the park, on the shores of Lake Millinocket, you can rent your own log cabin, complete with a full kitchen, bathroom, shared outdoor grill, and views of Mount Katahdin. The Twin Pines Camps’ new Coveside Guest Houses (www.neoc.com), offer luxurious LEED-certified dwellings with heated floors, decks, sunrooms, gas fireplaces, and flat-screen TVs.
Great Value Hotel: The nine guestrooms and two cabins of the Katahdin Lodge (www.katahdinlodge.com) sit on 40 acres in the North Maine Woods, near Baxter Park. The lodge is no-frills rustic with simple rooms, but offers guests fun outdoor extras like a campfire ring, hiking and ATV trails, and access to Hale Pond for canoeing and fishing.
When to Go: Summer is prime time for wildlife spotting: See moose gathered around marshy ponds; white-tailed deer along the Park Tote Road that encircles the park; and come August, black bears munching raspberry patches on Center Mountain or blueberries on Traveler Mountain.
For more trip-planning information, see our Maine Travel Guide.
Channel Islands National Park
Best for: Island fox, gray whales, sea lions, seals, and dolphins
Just a short boat ride from the coast of Southern California, this park’s five small islands (an additional three islands compose the Channel Islands‘ (www.nps.gov/chis) chain, but are residentially and commercially developed) boast such biodiversity that they’ve been nicknamed “America’s Galapagos.” Home to more than 2,000 species of plant and animal life, this offshore haven is one of the most unaffected natural habitats in the country. Hike trails through untouched terrain, head to the beach to glimpse passing pods of gray whales and dolphins, and even camp out under the stars.
Smart Splurge Hotel: Situated 20 miles north of Santa Barbara, the luxury camping resort at El Capitan Canyon (www.elcapitancanyon.com) unfolds on some 300 acres of pristine Pacific coast-fronted landscapes. Wake up in one of 26 cream-colored tents on hand-woven willow beds (though cabin accommodations are also available) – boats for a day trip to the national park are within a 90-minute drive.
Great Value Lodging: Live the life of a castaway for a night and camp out (www.nps.gov/chis) on the islands (the only option for staying there overnight) – our favorite site is on Anacapa Island. Hike, snorkel, and swim during the day, and experience the island’s pristine wilderness under the night sky after the daytime tour boats depart with the masses in tow.
When to Go: While the warm climate of Southern California ensures that almost any time of year will be enjoyable, the best snorkeling, scuba diving, and whale-watching (blues and humpbacks) is toward the end of summer and the beginning of fall. Gray whales, however, can be spotted from late December through April.
For more trip-planning information, see our California Travel Guide.
Denali National Park and Preserve
Best for: grizzly bear, moose, caribou, wolf, and Dall sheep
The sprawling Denali National Park and Preserve (www.nps.gov/dena) surrounding North America’s tallest mountain peak – Mount McKinley (known as Denali, or “the Great One,” to the region’s Native people) – is a remote but can’t-miss destination that channels all the majesty of Alaska’s backcountry. Encompassing some 6 million acres, the secluded park (situated 240 miles northwest of Anchorage) is marked by tundra, glaciers, and prolific wildlife – including the so called “Big Five": grizzlies, moose, caribou, Dall sheep, and wolves. The park’s ecosystem remains much as it has for millennia due to careful stewardship. Case in point: Just one dusty service road cuts into the reserve, most of which is closed to private vehicles – visitors gain access to the wilderness terrain via a handful of coach bus tours or hop-on, hop-off park shuttles.
Smart Splurge Hotel: Inside the park’s boundaries, eco-friendly Camp Denali (www.campdenali.com) offers plush cabins near Wonder Lake. Guests’ perks include prepared organic fare, naturalist-led programs, and stunning vantage points from the only park lodge (along with neighboring sister property, the North Face Lodge) with views of Mount McKinley.
Great Value Hotel: Located about a mile from the park entrance, the popular McKinley Chalet Resort (www.denaliparkresorts.com) offers family-friendly pine-paneled, two-room mini-suites, as well as numerous other chalet-style accommodations spread throughout the cedar lodge-like buildings.
When to Go: Our favorite time to visit is in late spring, just before the bulk of the summer crowds arrive, and when animals are just coming out of hibernation or returning to the newly greened landscapes. Wildlife is most active through summer, though tourist groups are more likely to keep them at bay. Come fall, animals like moose and caribou are more robust looking after a full season of chowing down, and most will also boast majestic sets of antlers or horns.
For more trip-planning information, see our Alaska Travel Guide.
Everglades National Park
Best for: alligators, manatees, flamingos, white-tailed deer, and crocodiles
Invoke the spirit of Crocodile Dundee while scouting for the once endangered American alligator or even the elusive Florida panther in the Everglades National Park‘s (www.nps.gov/ever) some 1.5 million acres of wetlands. The largest subtropical wilderness in the country is today a protected UNESCO World Heritage Site, which strives to safeguard the flora and fauna of the eight ecosystems that unfold among its “rivers of grass” and some 10,000 islets. Bike, hike, boat, or camp and be rewarded with sightings of rare and endangered species on land, overhead, and undersea.
Smart Splurge Hotel: For the green-minded traveler who desires to protect a national park, but not necessarily sleep in it, the opulent Mandarin Oriental Miami (www.mandarinoriental.com/miami) – situated on a private, offshore islet that’s about an hour from the park’s entrance – is catering to its guests in 2009 with a 2-night Everglades volunteer package that’s inclusive of lodging, breakfast, a hybrid car rental, guided park tour, and arranged volunteer opportunities (like planting trees and cleaning trails).
Great Value Hotel: Everglade City’s historic Ivey House Bed & Breakfast (www.iveyhouse.com), in partnership with a subsidiary of North American Canoe Tours (www.evergladesadventures.com), provides its guests with a myriad of adventure options in the park, and a pleasant place to hang up your binoculars and kick up your feet after a day spent canoeing or “swamp stomping” (aka hiking the Everglades).
When to Go: Head here during the dry season from December to April to view the most wildlife, from migratory birds to congregations of animals around respective watering holes.
For more trip-planning information, see our Florida Travel Guide.
Isle Royale National Park
Best for: moose, gray wolves, loons, red fox, and pelicans
Visitors to Michigan’s Isle Royale National Park (www.nps.gov/isro) gladly trade in the mainland’s world of cell phone reception and human development for this remote, pristine island wildlife preserve (reachable only by boat or seaplane) surrounded by Lake Superior. The rich scents of spruce and pine fill the air here with a natural perfume, which indulges hikers as they ply the meandering trails that wind deep into dense forests and hug the rocky coastline. These paths reveal a rich feast of sights and sounds, from magnificent moose grazing in the distance to the haunting call of a loon or lonely gray wolf echoing across the water.
Smart Splurge Hotel: Within day-trip striking distance of the island park (reached by ferry in nearby Grand Portage, Minnesota), the rustic chic Sweetgrass Cove Guesthouse and Bodywork Studio (www.sweetgrasscove.com) is a welcome oasis after a day in the wild, serving as both a bed-and-breakfast and mini-spa, complete with an outdoor hot tub and Finnish sauna.
Great Value Lodging: Bunk down at one of some three dozen campsites (www.nps.gov/isro) maintained by the park service on Isle Royale – the Feldtmann Lake #2 site is the ultimate for moose sightings and tranquil lake vistas.
When to Go: Wildlife emerges from May through September when sunshine and food sources are plentiful – note that the park is closed from November to mid-April.
National Bison Range
Best for: bison, pronghorn antelope, black bear, bighorn sheep, and eagles
Throw on a cowboy hat and tap into your vehicle’s horsepower for a tour of the National Bison Range (www.fws.gov/bisonrange) in Montana. Located about 45 miles outside of Missoula, this 18,500-acre range was created in 1908, largely thanks to the support of Theodore Roosevelt, making it one of the oldest wildlife refuges in the country. Visitors will find home on the range some 350 to 500 bison that indeed roam where the deer and the antelope play. Stop by the visitor’s center to gather information from informed park rangers before heading down to the Red Sleep Mountain Drive, which covers 19 miles of inclining gravel road for magnificent views.
Smart Splurge Hotel: Nestled in the mountains of nearby Missoula, the Blue Mountain B&B (www.bluemountainbb.com) offers four charming guest rooms, set on 20 acres of natural wildlife habitat. Fuel up for a day on the range with a warm home-cooked breakfast, accompanied by breathtaking scenery.
Great Value Hotel: Fully embrace the wilderness in one of three teepees at Twin Creeks B&B (www.twincreeksbb.com), or, remain in the 21st century with seven Internet-ready rooms – regardless of your choice, you’ll be welcomed by freshly-baked cookies.
When to Go: The range is open year-round, but fees are charged mid-May to late October. Still, it’s a worthy trade-off for longer – and warmer – days. Catch the bison being round-up by real cowboys in early October, or check out the next generation when calves are born in April and May.
For more trip-planning information, see our Montana Travel Guide.
Best for: cheetah, zebras, lemurs, giraffes, and antelope
In the heart of California Wine Country, Safari West’s "Sonoma Serengeti" (www.safariwest.com) provides a home to over 400 exotic animals. Originally a private ranch, the nonprofit wildlife preserve opened its 400 acres to the public in 1993, and has worked diligently on educational and conservation projects. Surprisingly, the California climate (a mix of grasslands and forests) mirrors that of Africa so well that the far-off continent’s native animals, from giraffes to zebra, are able to thrive here. Ride on a rugged, open Jeep tour through the bush, and take an on-foot journey through the grounds, from "lemur island" to the open-air aviary. All safaris are guided by a naturalist, and the tours are as entertaining as they are educational.
Smart Splurge Hotel: With their canvas roof and walls offset by hardwood floors, hot showers, and hand-hewn furniture, Safari West Luxury Tents (www.safariwest.com) provide glam-camping at its finest.
Great Value Hotel: Within walking distance to the Russian River, bunk down in a cozy, exposed-wood cottage at the Creekside Inn and Resort (www.creeksideinn.com). Some of the units have been elevated so that guests can sleep high among the towering Redwoods.
When to Go: The weather’s lovely in Sonoma from spring through fall (all the way to late November). Temps drop a little in the winter – while the park’s still open, note that some animals may retreat to heated indoor enclosures.
For more trip-planning information, see our Sonoma Travel Guide.
San Juan Islands
Best for: orca whales, porpoises, seals, minke whales, and bald eagles
Indulge your Free Willy fantasies among Washington State’s San Juan Islands (www.visitsanjuans.com; Lopez, Orcas, San Juan, and Shaw Islands), celebrated for the spectacular wildlife-viewing opportunities they afford. Visitors here from mid-April through mid-October can ogle majestic pods of orca whales as they prowl the ocean for marine food sources. On land, the opportunities can be equally dazzling, with coastal congregations of seals and sea lions, as well as tranquil protected wetlands that are home to a plethora of waterfowl and sea birds.
Smart Splurge Hotel: Embedded in protected wetlands on Orcas Island, Otter’s Pond B&B’s (www.otterspond.com) French-country-style cedar house touts well-appointed rooms, a sumptuous five-course breakfast, and spacious decks with an outdoor hot tub, from which guests catch glimpses of native wildlife in the surrounding forests and ponds.
Great Value Hotel: A blend of 19th-century, antique-furnished rooms and country-chic suites with private balconies and gas fireplaces make up the Outlook Inn (www.outlookinn.com), which overlooks the tranquil expanses of the East Sound, off of Orcas Island. The best deals can be found in the European-style rooms located in the historic Main Building of the Inn.
When to Go: May through September are the best months for wildlife viewing, particularly for the star attaction: pods of orca whales.
Tucson’s Sonoran Desert
Best for: coyote, bighorn sheep, javelinas, desert tortoises, and hummingbirds
From rugged mountain ranges to wide open plains of towering Saguaro cacti, the Sonoran Desert region around Tucson provides a solid glimpse of the diverse desert habitat in southern Arizona. Just outside of the city, Saguaro National Park (www.nps.gov/sagu) offers 165 miles of trails through wilderness inhabited by black bears, Mexican spotted owls, and Arizona mountain kingsnakes, while a hundred miles northwest, the Sonoran Desert National Monument ( www.blm.gov/az) protects over 200 bird and 60 mammal species. Together, these two conservation areas comprise approximately 5,000 acres of desert wilderness – only a small, yet easily accessible, sliver of the sprawling Sonoran Desert, which covers vast regions of Arizona, California, and northwestern Mexico.
Smart Splurge Hotel: The secluded, sand-colored JW Marriott Starr Pass Tucson Resort & Spa (www.jwmarriottstarrpass.com) neighbors Saguaro National Park and opens out to a cacti forest. Hike, mountain bike, or stroll on onsite trails, or unwind at the Southwestern-influenced Hashani Spa (spa.jwmarriottstarrpass.com).
Great Value Hotel: Located at the base of the 9,000-foot Santa Catalina Mountains, the 80-acre Westward Look Resort (www.westwardlook.com) offers guests a range of guided nature and hiking excursions on the grounds, including a unique night-vision goggle tour for a nocturnal glimpse of desert wildlife.
When to Go: Mid-February to April is ideal for bird-watching amidst cactus blooms and wildflowers, as well as for daytime viewing of such desert animals as bighorn sheep, mule deer, and javelinas (who are most active from mid-October to mid-April). Skip the desert during summer, when wildlife takes cover from oppressive temperatures, which easily top out over 100 degrees.
For more trip-planning information, see our Arizona Travel Guide.
Yellowstone National Park
Best for: bears, bison, bighorn sheep, moose, and wolves
Famous for its geothermal activity, Yellowstone’s (www.nps.gov/yell) awe-inspiring entertainment isn’t only steam-spewing: the preserve is also a hotbed for wildlife activity. The park, which unfolds in parts of Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho, provides one of the most natural and uninterrupted ecosystems in the U.S. – visitors are regularly stopped in their tracks by bison herds crossing the road, black bears visible from their car windows, or by the howls of a growing gray wolf population. The park’s also conveniently close to Grand Teton National Park (www.nps.gov/grte), a preserve named for the jagged Teton Mountain Range – stunning views await.
Smart Splurge Hotel: Find true rustic luxury at the spacious villas and cabins of Jackson, Wyoming’s Spring Creek Ranch (www.springcreekranch.com). Set on a bona fide wildlife sanctuary, the hotel offers naturalist-guide-led wildlife safaris tailored to meet guests’ animal interests, as well as stunning views of the towering Tetons on the horizon (practically the same sights and terrain guests enjoy at the neighboring über-exclusive Amangani (www.aman.com) resort, for a fraction of the cost).
Great Value Hotel: The most requested hotel in Yellowstone, the log cabin-style Old Faithful Inn (www.travelyellowstone.com) is located adjacent to the Old Faithful Geyser and comes with a high-ceilinged, welcoming lobby, with a gigantic stone fireplace.
When to Go: While animals can be spotted year-round (especially at dawn and dusk), visitors during spring and early summer can spy big mammals out with their young, and are more likely to catch predators on the prowl. Predictably, though, the warmer months are more tourist-heavy.