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Top 14 U.S. National Parks for Wildlife Viewing

There are more than 60 national parks in the U.S. and as a lover of nature and animals, I’ve managed to check many of them off my list, from multiple parks in Alaska to the wetlands of the Everglades. National Parks can provide one of the best opportunities for observing wildlife as they protect both areas of natural beauty and the animals that live there. Far more exciting than seeing creatures at a zoo, there is nothing that can compare to marveling at them as they enjoy the freedom of the wild. From grizzlies in Alaska to dolphins and whales off the California coast, these national parks offer some of the country’s best wildlife experiences.

Denali National Park - Alaska Moose in Denali National Park
Credit: Moose in Denali National Park by K.C. Dermody

Denali National Park - Alaska

Denali National Park isn’t just famous for its 20,310-foot-high Mount Denali, the tallest mountain in North America – it’s renowned for its wildlife with the opportunity to see the “big five,” which includes grizzly bears, moose, Dall sheep, caribou, and wolves. It’s likely the only national park where you can marvel at all five in one day, and there are plenty of other animals here too, including 34 other mammal species and 169 species of birds. You might spot them while hiking, on an e-bike tour, on a flightseeing trip, or just driving through the park. The national park hosts the Tundra Wilderness Tour which will bring you deep into the park for some of the best sightings.

Lake Clark National Park - Alaska grizzly bears in Lake Clark National Park, Alaska
Credit: grizzly bears in Lake Clark National Park, Alaska by K.C. Dermody

Lake Clark National Park - Alaska

There are no roads to Lake Clark National Park, with its remote location making it one of the most unspoiled and least visited of the national parks, accessed by flight only from Homer, Kenai, or Anchorage. It not only offers stunning landscapes with everything from coastal forests to glaciers, but it’s also one of the best places to view grizzly bears up close. Booking a tour from Homer, one of Alaska’s most picturesque towns with a wide range of other things to do, is arguably your best option. With Scenic Bear Viewing, you’ll have an expert pilot and knowledgeable guide who will help you observe these incredible animals safely in their natural habitat for an adventure of a lifetime with professional photos included.

Glacier Bay National Park - Alaska Humpback whale tail, Glacier Bay National Park, Alaska
Credit: Humpback whale tail, Glacier Bay National Park, Alaska by Bigstock.com

Glacier Bay National Park - Alaska

Accessed only by boat or plane, Glacier Bay National Park is breathtaking, with snow-capped mountains, glistening glaciers, turquoise water, and abundant wildlife. While glaciers are a definite highlight, you’ll have the opportunity to see them and the park’s many animals by taking the Glacier Bay Boat Tour. Cruises leave from Glacier Bay Lodge in Bartlett Cove and bring the chance to see humpback and minke whales, orcas, sea lions, puffins, and bald eagles. Keep an eye out for wildlife on land too, as coastal brown bears, mountain goats, and moose can all be spotted from the catamaran.

Grand Teton National Park - Wyoming elk in Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming
Credit: elk in Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming by © Kwiktor -Dreamstime.com

Grand Teton National Park - Wyoming

Grand Teton is where you’ll find the breathtaking jagged peaks in the Teton Range, including the nearly 14,000-foot-high Grand Teton for which Grand Teton National Park was named. It’s an adventurer’s paradise with over 240 miles of trails for hiking and mountain biking, as well as opportunities to paddle a kayak or canoe on serene lakes or enjoy a float on the Snake River. No matter where you are here, you’ll want to watch for the park’s wildlife, which includes everything from bears and wolves to moose, elk, bald eagles, and even pelicans.

Channel Islands National Park - California Dolphin pod at Channel Islands National Park
Credit: Dolphin pod at Channel Islands National Park by © Caleb Lawson - Dreamstime.com

Channel Islands National Park - California

While it’s located just off the central coast of California, Channel Islands National Park is one of the state’s least visited. Known as the “Galapagos of North America,” the five islands in the archipelago are teeming with wildlife. That includes more than 2,000 animal and plant species, with three endemic mammals, the spotted skunk, deer mouse, and Channel Islands fox. On the boat ride from the mainland, visitors almost always spot common dolphins, with gray whales, humpback whales, harbor seals, and California sea lions all regularly seen too. If you’re lucky, you might see orcas, fin, or blue whales in the summer. Many visit by taking a day trip from Santa Barbara as there is no lodging or services of any kind on the island, but camping is an option on Santa Rosa and Santa Cruz islands, with potable water available.

Everglades National Park - Florida Alligator in the Florida Everglades
Credit: Alligator in the Florida Everglades by © Steve Byland | Dreamstime.com

Everglades National Park - Florida

Spread across 1.5 million acres just 27 miles from downtown Miami, Everglades National Park is renowned for its wetlands that are famously home to alligators and crocodiles, along with a myriad of wading birds and over 40 mammal species. That includes white-tailed deer that like to forage for food in the sawgrass prairie and bobcats that are occasionally seen foraging in the mangroves. You might even catch the sight of a marsh rabbit swimming, as the animals have adapted to this unique wet world. By canoeing in Snake Bight or Chokoloskee Bay, you can witness large numbers of water birds. Or travel through Big Cypress National Preserve which features a 26-mile-loop road where alligators are often spotted right next to the pavement.

Olympic National Park - Washington Roosevelt elk, Olympic National Park
Credit: Roosevelt elk, Olympic National Park by © Blanscape - Dreamstime.com

Olympic National Park - Washington

Olympic National Park is home to everything from towering mountains and wildflower-filled meadows to hot springs, waterfalls, wild coastlines, and abundant wildlife. At Hurricane Ridge, the park’s most easily accessed mountain area, you might spot black-tailed deer, mountain goats, marmots, or the elusive bobcat. The meadows are a prime viewing area for Roosevelt elk, with the park boasting the largest unmanaged herd in the Pacific Northwest. Along the coast, enjoy views of the remarkable sea stacks just offshore and the chance to spot whales, sea otters, sea lions, bald eagles, oystercatchers, and many other sea birds.

Great Smoky Mountain National Park - Tennessee American Black Bear in Great Smoky Mountain National Park
Credit: American Black Bear in Great Smoky Mountain National Park by © William Wise | Dreamstime.com

Great Smoky Mountain National Park - Tennessee

The Great Smoky Mountains encompass some of the most expansive wilderness areas in the East, with many rivers, streams, dense forests and undulating mountains. Not surprisingly, it’s home to all sorts of wildlife, including over five dozen mammals and more than 200 bird species. The most famous resident is the black bear, with the park boasting the largest protected black bear habitat east of the Mississippi, which includes some 1,500 individuals and approximately two bears per square mile.

Glacier National Park, Montana Glacier National Park, Montana
Credit: Glacier National Park, Montana by © Brizardh | Dreamstime.com

Glacier National Park, Montana

Located in northern Montana, the wilds of Glacier National Park with its dramatic mountains, lush valleys, and glacial lakes, are home to one of the few remaining grizzly bear populations in the Lower 48. A myriad of other wildlife can be spotted too, including black bears, elk, gray wolves, moose, mule deer, mountain lions, bighorn sheep, and mountain goats, the official mascot of the park. The mountain goats can often be seen lying alongside Going-to-the-Sun Road at Logan Pass.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park - North Dakota bison in Theodore Roosevelt National Park
Credit: bison in Theodore Roosevelt National Park by © Robert Philip - Dreamstime.com

Theodore Roosevelt National Park - North Dakota

Theodore Roosevelt National Park is where former President Theodore Roosevelt spent time as a naturalist, rancher, and hunter. A landscape with picturesque bluffs, ridges, and uniquely colored rock formations framed by lush prairie, it’s home to many bison. In fact, in this vast and peaceful land, the only sounds often heard are of the hoofbeats of the bison and the rush of the rivers. The bison here once numbered in the tens of millions but were nearly driven extinct by the end of the 19th century due to rampant overhunting. It was Roosevelt who saved them from extinction, and today, the park is home to about 600, while North America has over a half-million in total.

Rocky Mountain National Park - Colorado Elk in Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado
Credit: Elk in Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado by bigstock.com

Rocky Mountain National Park - Colorado

Rocky Mountain National Park is renowned for its glorious mountain peaks and sparkling gem-like lakes, along with wildlife that includes some 300 bird species and dozens of mammals. Elk might be spotted sparring and bugling, especially during their fall rutting season in the eastern side of the park near the town of Estes Park. Along the park’s 300 miles of trails, you might see elk, bighorn sheep, and moose. Up in the alpine tundra, there are lots of pikas and marmots, and near the lakes and rivers, swift white-tailed ptarmigans might be seen along with the occasional bald eagle.

Yellowstone National Park - Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho Buffalo in Yellowstone National Park
Credit: Buffalo in Yellowstone National Park by Bigstock.com

Yellowstone National Park - Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho

Other than Old Faithful, Yellowstone National Park is most famous for its wildlife as one of the best places for viewing animals in the continental U.S. with over 60 mammal species, including elk, moose, gray wolves, bears, and bison. Visitors can even join experts in photography, biology, or animal tracking for a close-up look while learning more about the park and its animals. Even if you just drive through Yellowstone, you’re pretty much guaranteed to see bison. Off the main road between Mammoth Hot Springs and Tower-Roosevelt, the unpaved Blacktail Plateau Drive is particularly notable for mule deer, pronghorn antelope, elk, and bison.

Badlands National Park - South Dakota bighorn sheep in Badlands National Park
Credit: bighorn sheep in Badlands National Park by © Timpollack - Dreamstime.com

Badlands National Park - South Dakota

The Badlands are located just east of South Dakota’s spectacular Black Hills, featuring cliffs, buttes, and multi-colored spires that are dotted throughout a labyrinth of other-worldly-like landscapes. Badlands National Park also protects a vast expanse of mixed-grass prairie where black-footed ferrets, prairie dogs, bison, and bighorn sheep roam. The bighorn sheep are often spotted navigating rocky precipes at the Pinnacles Overlook, while bison can be seen along Sage Creek Road. No matter where you are in the area, look up to spot everything from short-eared owls to golden eagles.

Kenai Fjords National Park - Seward, Alaska Orca in Kenai Fjords National Park, Alaska
Credit: Orca in Kenai Fjords National Park, Alaska by Public Domain

Kenai Fjords National Park - Seward, Alaska

Just a few miles from Seward, at the edge of the wild Kenai Peninsula, is Kenai Fjords National Park. It’s best known for its nearly 40 glaciers which flow from the massive Harding Icefield, the park’s crown jewel, with Exit Glacier accessible by road. The prime spot for wildlife watching can be found along the coast, however. One of the best ways to see the multitude of animals here is to take a wildlife-viewing boat tour from the small harbor in Seward. Throughout the summer, these cruises bring the chance to spot humpback whales, orcas, sea lions, sea otters, and more. Bald eagles can be seen nearly everywhere you look, from the skies to the branches of the trees.

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