15 Great Wildlife Viewing Trips
You don't have to travel halfway across the country for great wildlife viewing. Chances are, you'll find excellent viewing just a few miles from home. Nevertheless, there are several places in the United States that stand out as world-class wildlife viewing sites. Here's a list of some of my favorites.
Alaskan Brown Bears
McNeil River State Game Sanctuary, Alaska
On the shores along Mifkik Creek and McNeil River Falls at the McNeil River State Game Sanctuary, Alaskan brown bears congregate to fish for migrating salmon. You'll see two to fifteen bears feeding here when the salmon run is on. Only ten people per day are allowed into the sanctuary to avoid disturbing the bears.
In June, viewing opportunities are at Mifkik Creek; the action moves to McNeil Falls in July and August with still more bears. Because of the extreme popularity of this viewing site, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game holds a lottery to select among hundreds of applicants.
Applications to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game must be postmarked no later than March 1 and arrive by March 15 of every year. Such a spectacular opportunity has its price: a $20 non-refundable application fee, and a user fee if you are selected ($100 for Alaska residents and $250 for nonresidents). Access to the site is by floatplane, which costs about $300 to charter. There are no facilities, so you must camp, and there is a four-mile round-trip hike to the falls. Bringing children is not recommended.
To apply for this viewing chance of a lifetime, write the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, Wildlife Division, 333 Raspberry Road, Anchorage, AK 99518-1599; phone (907) 267-2179.
Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge, Florida
The gentle, slow-moving endangered Florida manatee is a large aquatic mammal, typically ten feet long and weighing a thousand pounds. Manatees live in shallow, slow rivers, river mouths, estuaries, saltwater bays, and shallow coastal areas. In the United States, manatees have been found as far north as Virginia in summer; during winter, especially in cold weather, they congregate in warm-water discharges from power plants and warm springs, such as those found in Kings Bay, part of the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge.
In recent years, more than two hundred manatees have used the Kings Bay area as wintering grounds. The bay offers unparalleled opportunities for viewing these gentle giants. Contact Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge, 1502 Southeast Kings Bay Drive, Crystal River, FL 34429; phone (904) 563-2088.
Georgetown Viewing Site, Georgetown, Colorado
Located along Interstate 70, approximately halfway between the cities of Denver and Vail, the Georgetown Viewing Site is among the most accessible places in the nation for viewing Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep. Between 175 and 200 bighorns occupy the rocky cliffs along the north side of Clear Creek Canyon. Fall and winter are the best times to view or see them. Wildlife managers have constructed a tower shaped like a ram's horn from which people may view the sheep; the exhibit includes interpretive displays and mounted viewing scopes. Look closely; the sheep blend well with the terrain.
For more information, contact the Colorado Division of Wildlife, 6060 Broadway, Denver, CO 80216; phone (303) 297-1192. Be sure to purchase a copy of the division's Bighorn Sheep Watching guide for $3.
Rocky Mountain Elk
Horseshoe Park, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado
During September and October, bull elk bugle as a physical release and to challenge other males during the fall rut. Listening to the bugle of an elk on a clear, crisp evening in the Rocky Mountains is an experience you will never forget. Bugling usually begins an hour before sunset and starts off as a low, hollow sound, rising to a high-pitched shriek, and culminating in a series of grunts.
One of the most reliable places to hear elk bugling in the fall is Horseshoe Park in Rocky Mountain National Park. Contact Rocky Mountain National Park, Estes Park, CO 80517; phone (303) 586-1206.
Platte River, Nebraska
For about five weeks in early spring (March), more than three-quarters of the world's population of sandhill cranes gathers along the Platte River in central Nebraska. You'll see more than 500,000 of these stately birds, resting and fattening up as they migrate back to breeding grounds in the Arctic.
The local chamber of commerce sponsors a three-day program/celebration (usually during the second weekend in March) known as "Wings over the Platte." Bus tours, viewing blinds, guided field trips, seminars, workshops, and wildlife art exhibits are featured. Contact Field Supervisor, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 203 West Second Street, Grand Island, NE 68801; phone (308) 382-6468. Or contact Grand Island/Hall County Convention and Visitors Bureau at (800) 658-3178. Make hotel reservations well in advance.
California and Steller's Sea Lions
Sea Lion Caves, Oregon
Here, you will enter another world. After descending more than two hundred feet in an elevator to Sea Lion Caves on the coast of Oregon, you will find dim light, the hollow sound of waves crashing against cliffs, and the echoed barks of hundreds of Steller's sea lions (present year-round) and California sea lions (present from September to April). Sea lions swim and loaf below a cliff-top observation deck. Contact Sea Lion Caves, 91560 U.S. Highway 101, Florence, OR 97439; phone (503) 547-3111.
National Elk Refuge, Wyoming
Elk gather in one of the largest winter concentrations in the United States at the National Elk Refuge in Jackson, Wyoming. When snow comes to the high country in the region, elk migrate from high-elevation summer range to winter range in the valley. Almost 7,500 elk inhabit the area, staging America's version of an African plains scene, with thousands of animals stretched across the valley. Elk arrive in early November and return to the high country in early May.
In winter, visitors can view elk from a horse-drawn sleigh. Sleighs run from late December to March, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily. Tours operate from the National Wildlife Art Museum, three miles north of Jackson on U.S. Highway 26/191. Contact the National Elk Refuge, 675 East Broadway, P.O. Box C, Jackson, WY 83001; phone (307) 733-9212.
Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary, California
The annual wintertime migration of the endangered gray whale brings these giant cetaceans directly off the coast of Southern California. Watching a gray whale thrust its fifty-foot-long body out of the water, rotate in midair, and crash back to the ocean will make your heart pound just a little bit faster. Some of the best whale-watching takes place aboard commercial boats that offer trips. But there are also good viewing opportunities from shore at the many points in the area: Point Conception, north of Santa Barbara; Point Dume in Malibu; and Point Loma in San Diego. In Ventura Harbor, visit the Channel Islands National Park Visitor Center: you'll find a viewing tower complete with spotting scopes for watching whales. Whales can be seen from December through April. Contact Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary, 113 Harbor Way, Santa Barbara, CA 93109; phone (805) 966-7107.
For whale-watching boat trips contact the following:
- Bay Queen Harbor Cruises, 1691 Spinnaker Drive, Ventura Harbor, CA 93001; phone (805) 642-7753
- Island Packers, Inc., 1867 Spinnaker Drive, Ventura Harbor, CA 93001; phone (805) 642-1393
- Bailey's Tophat Charter, c/o Cisco's, Channel Islands Harbor, CA; phone (805) 985-8511
- Marina Sailing, 3600 South Harbor Boulevard, Channel Islands Harbor, CA; phone (805) 985-5219
Cape May, New Jersey
World-famous for its birding opportunities and ornithological research, Cape May, New Jersey, is considered one of the best birding sites in the world. From the southern tip of New Jersey, Cape May juts into Delaware Bay. Migrating birds are funneled here by geography; they stop to rest before making the eighteen-mile cross-bay flight.
More than four hundred species of birds have been recorded in the Cape May region. Large numbers of raptors (hawks, falcons, eagles) are regularly seen during fall migrations, as are songbirds (almost one hundred species). Visit the Cape May Bird Observatory, funded by the New Jersey Audubon Society, Box 3, Cape May Point, NJ 08212; phone (609) 884-2736.
J. N. "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge, Florida
Boasting almost three hundred species of birds, more than fifty species of reptiles and amphibians, and more than thirty different species of mammals, "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge is one of the most popular wildlife refuges in the nation. The refuge is located on Sanibel Island in southwest Florida. The site's five-mile, one-way auto tour offers excellent viewing. Plan to be at the observation tower at sunset in hopes of seeing roseate spoonbills flying overhead.
This refuge was named to commemorate Jay Norwood Darling, a pioneer in wildlife conservation. Darling's distinguished career included serving as head of the U.S. Biological Survey, forerunner of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. He also initiated the Duck Stamp (Migratory Bird Hunting Stamp) and was a key figure in the establishment of the National Wildlife Refuge System. He won Pulitzer Prizes in 1923 and 1942 for his satirical conservation and political cartoons. Contact J.N. Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge, 1 Wildlife Drive, Sanibel, FL 33957; phone (813) 472-1100.
Six inches long, the endangered Kirtland's warbler is considered a large warbler. After wintering in the Bahamas, this bird returns each spring to a six-county area of Michigan's northern Lower Peninsula—the only place in the world where it nests. Fewer than six hundred breeding pairs of Kirtland's warblers exist, so viewing this rare, beautiful warbler is a thrill never to be forgotten.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Michigan Department of Natural Resources provide free daily tours of warbler habitat during May and June out of Grayling, Michigan. Contact U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Ecological Services Office, 1405 South Harrison Road, Room 302, East Lansing, MI 48823; phone (517) 337-6650. The USDA Forest Service provides daily tours out of Mio, Michigan; phone (517) 826-3252 for more information. If you want to head out on your own, drive the 48-mile Jack Pine Wildlife Viewing Tour, beginning in Mio. Contact the Michigan Department of Natural Resources at (517) 826-3211.
Hawk Mountain Sanctuary, Pennsylvania
Migrating from breeding grounds in the northeastern United States and eastern Canada to wintering grounds in the southeastern United States, Mexico, and Central and South America, thousands of raptors pass over the rocky outcroppings of Hawk Mountain Sanctuary on Pennsylvania's Kittatinny Ridge during September and October. Fourteen species routinely cross this ridge along the eastern flyway, including broad-winged hawks, sharp-shinned hawks, Cooper's hawks, bald eagles, and ospreys. Hawk Mountain regulars say the best viewing is usually between September 10 and September 25. Contact Hawk Mountain Sanctuary, Route 2, Kempton, PA 19529; phone (610) 756-6961.
Mexican Free-Tailed Bats
Carlsbad Caverns National Park, New Mexico
On warm summer evenings in the Chihuahuan Desert, thousands of Mexican free-tailed bats exit in a whirling, smokelike column from the natural mouth of Carlsbad Caverns. An estimated 300,000 bats inhabit the caverns; they emerge at dusk to feed on moths and other night-flying insects, returning to the caverns before dawn. The best flights occur in late August and September, when young bats born in June join the evening ritual.
Bat Flight Amphitheater, located at the mouth of the cavern, seats up to a thousand people. Rangers give programs about the bats from Memorial Day to Labor Day prior to the evening flights. But don't expect to see bats if you visit in winter—they'll have migrated to Mexico. Contact Carlsbad Caverns National Park, 3225 National Parks Highway, Carlsbad, NM 88220; phone (505) 785-2232.
Skagit River, Washington
One of the largest concentrations of wintering bald eagles in the lower 48 states occurs at the Skagit River Bald Eagle Natural Area in northern Washington State. More than 300 bald eagles gather along the Skagit River to feed on spawned-out chum salmon, feeding along gravel bars between 7 a.m. and 11 a.m. Eagles feed here between November and early March, with peak numbers in mid-January. Contact The Nature Conservancy, Washington Field Office, 217 Pine Street, No. 1100, Seattle, WA 98101; phone (206) 343-4344. Or contact Mount Baker National Forest, 2105 Highway 20, Sedro Woolley, WA 98284; phone (360) 856-5700. Also contact Washington Department of Wildlife, Region 4, Nongame Program, 16018 Mill Creek Boulevard, Mill Creek, WA 98012; phone (206) 775-1311.
Lesser Prairie Chickens
Comanche National Grassland, Colorado
With rapid, stomping feet, dropped wings, and raised neck feathers, the male prairie chicken conducts an elaborate dance to attract females for breeding. His ancient ritual can be observed from a blind or from your vehicle in a viewing area at the Comanche National Grassland, located near Campo, Colorado.
This courtship display can be seen from early March through mid-May. Arrive before daylight, be quiet, and never walk onto the birds' dancing grounds, known as leks. The best time to see the display is between sunrise and 9 a.m.—and you must remain in your vehicle, since prairie chickens are easily disturbed. If you plan on photographing from a blind, arrive one hour before daylight. Regulations say you must remain in the blind until at least one hour after sunrise. Contact the Pike National Forest, P.O. Box 127, Springfield, CO 81073; phone (719) 523-6591. Call or write for a brochure and map. Be sure to make lodging reservations and check local road conditions before you visit.
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Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication