10 Great Vacations for Nature Lovers

Posted by Donna Heiderstadt on July 26, 2013 at 11:30:10 AM EDT | Post a Comment

Looking for a close encounter of the herd kind? These 10 destinations in the Americas deliver easy access to some of nature’s coolest wild creatures—not only in herds, but also in schools, flocks, and colonies. Here’s how to witness nature at its furry-and-feathered finest as you spy on everything from monkeys to manta rays.

Hike amid caribou in Alaska’s Denali National Park

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Being dropped off in the middle of the Alaskan tundra by helicopter or seaplane is pretty cool all on its own, but hiking close to a herd of antlered caribou pushes this in-the-wild experience into the realm of remarkable. Up to one million caribou, known as reindeer outside the Americas, graze the grasslands of Alaska, and now until mid-September is prime viewing season in Denali National Park and Preserve. Stay at 656-room Denali Princess Wilderness Lodge, located just a mile from the park’s entrance (from $199/night) or 460-room Mt. McKinley Princess Wilderness Lodge, featuring a great view of North America’s highest peak (from $149/night).

Swim with manatees in Florida’s Crystal River

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You’ll have to wait until mid-November, but if you’ve always dreamed of seeing a gentle and endangered manatee—which weighs about 1,500 pounds and looks like the improbable offspring of a seal, walrus and beaver—this hot-springs-fed river in northwest Florida provides a warm winter refuge for 350 of them. While some areas are sanctuaries and are off-limits to tourists, passive interaction during swimming and snorkeling tours is allowed in Kings Bay. Stay at the Plantation on Crystal River, a 232-acre eco-friendly resort located on the bay (from $119/night).

Watch wild horses roam the beach in North Carolina’s Outer Banks

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You’ve probably never seen horses running absolutely wild and free—but you can just by heading to the scenic beaches of North Carolina's Outer Banks. There, several herds of wild horses, descended from Spanish mustangs brought to the Carolinas five centuries ago, gallop across grassy dunes. One of the most striking herds is located on an 11-mile protected stretch just beyond Corolla and accessible with a four-wheel-drive vehicle. Stay at the newly renovated The Sanderling Resort & Spa in nearby Duck, featuring locally inspired architecture and cuisine (from $299/night).

Enjoy après ski time among bald eagles in British Columbia

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If you’re keen to accessorize with both goggles and binoculars, head for the slopes of Whistler, BC, and then schedule some après ski birding at nearby Brackendale in the Squamish River Valley, home to one of the largest winter gatherings of regal bald eagles in the world. Peak time is mid-December to mid-January and you can bundle up and get up close with an eagle-viewing float trip on the river. Stay at the Westin Resort & Spa, Whistler, offering 419 rooms with fireplaces and soaker tubs (from $202/night).

Witness baby sea turtles being released on North Padre Island

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The saying might be "Everything’s bigger in Texas," but in this case Texans delight in something pretty darn small: endangered Kemp’s Ridley Sea Turtle hatchlings heading into Gulf waters off the Padre Island National Seashore after a protected incubation. Releases, which happen mid-July through late August, are open to the public near the Malaquite Beach Visitor Center. Stay close to nature at one of five designated camping areas in the Padre Island National Seashore (from $8/night).

Snorkel and dive with giant manta rays in Hawaii

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Jumping into the nighttime waters off the volcanic coast of Kona on the Big Island, is unlike anything you’ve ever done before—especially when your guide turns on a light, attracting plankton, which attracts giant manta rays that swim above and below you like Stealth Bombers. Even snorkelers will be close enough to marvel at their gaping mouths and massive wingspans. Stay at the 509-room Sheraton Kona Resort & Spa at Keauhou Bay, newly renovated and home to Rays on the Bay, where you can spot mantas in the water as you dine (from $149/night).

Get a rise out of howler monkeys in Belize

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Is that grunt-like roar echoing through the rainforests of Belize a massive gorilla, or perhaps a stalking leopard? Nope—it’s a 15-pound howler monkey warning his friends that they have visitors. You can experience this vocal mayhem during a cruise up the Monkey River near Placencia on the country’s Caribbean coast. And along the way you may also spot sunning crocodiles and iguanas, snoozing bats, and dozens of bird species including colorful toucans. Stay at Turtle Inn, Francis Ford Coppola’a beach resort featuring Balinese-inspired cottages, two restaurants, and a spa (from $268/night).

See the buffalo roam in Yellowstone National Park

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Technically they’re bison, but an estimated 3,000 of them do indeed roam in Yellowstone National Park, tucked into the northwest corner of Wyoming and celebrated for its geysers, hot springs, and its role as America’s first national park. You can see the bison on wildlife safaris year-round, but these massive bearded mammals are extra impressive when silhouetted against the park’s white winter landscape. Stay at the newly renovated Lake Yellowstone Hotel & Cabins in summer (from $150/night) and the Old Faithful Snow Lodge & Cabins in winter (from $99/night).

Spot hummingbirds and butterflies in Costa Rica

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If things with wings are your passion, you’ll be thrilled with the display in the rainforests of Costa Rica. This friendly Central American country is home to more than 850 bird and about 1,200 butterfly species, but two of the more spectacular ones are the tiny hummingbird and the giant Blue Morpho butterfly. Stay at Peace Lodge, a cloud-forest property just one hour from San Jose that features quirky, nature-inspired décor and the adjoining La Paz Waterfall Gardens eco-park, where flitting hummingbirds and luminescent Blue Morphos are abundant—and you can enjoy them before or after the paying crowds do (from $315/night).

Spy on black bears in Great Smokey Mountains National Park

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There are many places to see the popular, pesky, and dangerous American black bear, but the Tennessee side of Great Smokey Mountains National Park seems to specialize in showing off its 1,500 four-legged residents (at about two bears per square mile). There are also deer, elk, otters, and at least 30 species of salamander—plus a dozen photogenic waterfalls, stunning sunsets, and horseback riding and hiking trails. Stay at one of the park’s seven tent-only campgrounds (from $26/night) or choose modern creature comforts at the Lodge at Buckberry Creek, a 44-room property located just outside the park and privy to frequent bear sightings (from $180/night).

Photo Credits: Caribou Courtesy of Denali National Park; Manatee Courtesy of the Plantation on Crystal River; Wild Horses Courtesy of the Corolla Wild Horse Fund; Bald Eagle Viewing Courtesy of Tourism Squamish;Padre Island Hatchings Courtesy of Padre National Seashore; Manta Rays Courtesy of Hawaii Tourism Authority (HTA)/Kirk Lee Aeder; Howler Monkey Courtesy of Turtle Inn; Bison Courtesy of Yellowstone National Park;Blue Morpho Courtesy of La Paz Waterfall Gardens; Hummingbird Courtesy of La Paz Waterfall Gardens; Black Bear Courtesy of Great Smokey Mountains National Park

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