With such diverse and delicate ecosystems, it’s no surprise that the United States has several top-notch parks, refuges and slightly off-the-beaten-track areas to spot the nation’s breathtaking wildlife and nature. These coral reefs, glaciers, woods and swamplands highlight the vast array of the country’s wildlife, including many endangered species. Visitors can see the world how Mother Nature intended and get a very practical education at these unique sites.
10. Mammoth Cave National Park, Kentucky
The world’s longest cave system, Mammoth Cave has rightly earned its name with over 400 miles of underground twists and turns that have been explored. Mammoth can also describe its abundance of 130 species, 70 of which are endangered. Much of the wildlife is is small in size but accurately reflect the otherworldly vibe. Opossums, Kentucky Cave Shrimp and white-tailed deer occupy the caves and surrounding Green River Valley. The most famous draw of all though are the several species of bat the populate the caves. There is a heavy emphasis on preservation to increase their numbers, but even in their small groups, they remain a fascinating and creepy sight. Outside the caves, the focus on preservation continues, as the river otter was recently reintroduced to the Green River.
9. Orcas Island, Washington
True to its name, Orcas Island, the largest of the San Juan Islands, is a prime location to see orca whales, but this island has much more to offer. While on a boat tour or just kayaking around, visitors are likely to see whales, seals and a cacophonous array of seabirds. Elephant seals, sea lions and dolphins make seasonal appearances. To brush off sea legs, get on a bike or horse in Moran State Park and look up to appreciate all manner of birds, from hummingbirds to owls.
8. Acadia National Park, Maine
New England’s only national park, Acadia sits along Maine’s rocky eastern coast. The meeting of sea and land, besides breathtaking views, means seeing double the wildlife. Acadia is a natural draw for birdwatchers, who can see the peregrine falcon that’s recently come back from the brink of extinction. Songbirds, herons, seabirds and harlequin ducks abound in the 53,000-acre park.Starfish, crabs and more make an appearance along the shoreline when the tide goes out, and much harder to miss are the whales, dolphins and seals splashing about off the coast of Mt. Desert Island.
7. Big Bend National Park, Texas
Situated along the Texas-Mexico border, Big Bend National Park retains a wild, rambling feel. While the 3,600 varieties of insects may only appeal to a sliver of the population, they are dwarfed literally and figuratively by regular bear and mountain lion sightings, or the chance to see a roadrunner, javelina or coyote. Bats are one of the main draws, as there are more than 20 different species, including the Mexican Long-Nosed Bat, which has only been observed in this part of the United States.
6. Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee/North Carolina
Over 1,500 black bears populate this national park, making them the unofficial symbol of this region of the Smoky Mountains. Really, though, they’re just the tip of the animal kingdom, as the park is home to over 200 varieties of birds and an impressive amount of mammals, fish and reptiles. Elk were recently reintroduced to the park in 2001, although it’s more common to spot white-tailed deer, groundhogs and some species of bat. Unexpectedly, the park is also home to 30 species of salamander, making it one of the only places on earth to have such a vast array of these critters.
5. Virgin Islands National Park, St. John
Combining a chance to jet to the Caribbean and the opportunity to swim alongside schools of fish, Virgin Islands National Park seems like a no-brainer choice for a destination. The park covers nearly 65% of the island, and of course the crystalline waters also provide snorkelers a trail along which they can see the hundreds of species of fish in action. Visitors can check out fish as they dart in and out of coral reefs or seagrass meadows and possibly see how the seascape and marine traffic shift if they visit at different times during the day. Back on land, the park is home to six native species of bat, wild donkeys and lizards and frogs of all sizes.
4. Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge, Hawaii
Waves crashing onto the ragged cliffs provide a stunning backdrop to Kilauea Point refuge, which deftly combines Hawaii’s world-famous beauty and the need to preserve it and its animal kingdom. Located on the island of Kaua’i, the refuge works to preserve and protect migratory seabirds and the native nene, or Hawaiian goose, which is also the state bird. There’s an established colony of nene, and albatross, boobies and various shorebirds often stop by for a visit. Offshore, visitors can spot monk seals in the water or catching some rays on the beaches, and endangered humpback whales and spinner dolphins will occasionally breach nearby.
3. Kenai Fjords National Park, Alaska
Alaska is full of natural treasures, not least of which is the nation’s highest mountain Mt. McKinley, in Denali National Park. But to the south of Denali lies Kenai Fjords National Park, the majority of which is only accessible by boat and contains one of the largest ice fields in the United States. Harding Icefield covers much of the inland territory, and just over half of the fjords are covered in ice. But there’s still a seemingly endless amount of wildlife in the area. In the water, sea otters, sea lions, seals, orcas and humpback whales play and hunt, while black bears, Alaskan brown bears, moose and mountain goats call the park home. The park is next to the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, where visitors can camp and those with permits can fish for salmon and trout or hunt moose and caribou.
2. Everglades National Park, Florida
It’s hard to believe that downtown Miami sits barely 45 minutes by car from the Everglades, which have achieved a near-mythical and mysterious status in popular culture, thanks to the allure of danger. Leaving the urban jungle leads straight into another one, or rather the largest subtropical wilderness in the country. Egrets, wood storks and spoonbills will please bird enthusiasts and provide a soothing counterpart to the main reason everyone comes here: it’s the only place in the world where alligators and crocodiles exist side by side. See these creatures while walking or biking through the park paths. Visitors can take tram or boat rides, or rent an airboat for a more up close and personal experience.
1. Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming
Overflowing into three states, Yellowstone is one of best things the United States has on offer. The 2.2 million acres are simply majestic, with the Old Faithful geyser, its own version of the Grand Canyon and the endless persistence to continually overcome devastating forest fires. Added to the fact that the park sits on an apocalyptic-sounding “super volcano” and the whole experience becomes transformative. And that’s not even including the 67 different mammals that call the park home. Elk, bison, grizzly and black bears, coyotes, wolverines, mountain lions and the bald eagle snap visitors to attention, realizing that the heavenly park is definitively ruled by the animal kingdom. Most controversially, gray wolves were reintroduced to the park in 1995 after a nearly 70-year absence, and it remains a point of contention among locals.