The U.S. is home to some incredible and unique wildlife.
The United States has incredible diversity in both landscapes and natural life. From glaciers, geysers, marine ecosystems, and rich plant life that sustains incredible flora and fauna, there are so many ways to explore both nature and wildlife. Somehow most travelers tend to gravitate toward the most popular and known areas. But there are many lesser-known areas that are a wildlife lover’s delight like epic bird migrations to viewing endangered species like manatees in the wild. And the best part is that many of these places are on public lands, accessible to all.
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WHERE: Outskirts of Salt Lake City, Utah
Nothing quite brings forth the feeling of the Wild West like watching a galloping herd of wild mustangs. While there are several places in the U.S. where wild horses roam free, the outskirts of Salt Lake City in Utah is a great place to see huge herds of wild horses. Horses in all possible shades of brown set against the backdrop of the seemingly desolate Oquirrh and Wasatch Mountains is the perfect postcard moment. For many equestrian-lovers and wildlife enthusiasts, watching these mustangs gives a glimpse into the beauty of what it means to be living wild and free in the wilderness and of life on the open range.
INSIDER TIPTo find these horses, you will need your sense of adventure and a boatload of patience. Get off Highway 172, go approximately 10 miles past the pony express signpost and turn right onto the dirt road. Then you keep going until you see the herd. You can also contact the local Bureau of Land Management offices to get an update on the latest herd sightings and maps for your adventure.
WHERE: Badlands National Park and the Great Plains, South Dakota
Prairie dogs are closely related to the common ground squirrels and chipmunks, both of which live in areas around Badlands National Park and the Great Plains of the West. Prairie dogs were once a major part of the American landscape, with an estimated population of over five billion before the 1800s. But today, their original range has shrunk to only about five percent largely due to the Homesteading Act (1862) and the Dawes Act (1887). These acts allowed land settlers to use much of the prairie dogs’ habitat for agriculture, ranching, and human settlement thereby reducing the range of these animals.
Prairie dogs build their homes underground to protect against larger predators like hawks and coyotes, as well as to protect their homes from flash flooding. One unique aspect of prairie dog life is communication. You can often hear them “talking” to each other via barks, squeaks, or yips. They use this method of communication to warn each other about the dangers and predators around.
INSIDER TIPThe best place to see these animals in the wild is in the area in and around Badlands National Park and the Great Plains. Because they are so small compared to some of the larger animals in the area, they tend to get overlooked easily. Your best bet is to pull over onto one of the shoulder outlooks and just watch the landscape for any movement in the burrows.
WHERE: Alton, Illinois
Come winter, the excitement and speculation among the birding community in the Midwest starts to run high. That is because of the annual Eagle Festival held each year in January. This majestic bird, an emblem of our country is majestic in flight and while hunting its prey. Bone-chilling temperatures in Alton might not make this the first place most migrants would choose to live during early winter, but bald eagles flock to their seasonal roosts near the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers every year. This brings forth many birding and eagle enthusiasts, as well as wildlife photographers, for a chance to see and photograph this majestic bird in the wild.
The annual Eagle Festival celebrates the winter migration of the bald eagle and it takes place in the Audubon Center in West Alton, Illinois. Each year, over a thousand bald eagles migrate to the area along the Great Rivers National Scenic Byway, which is just outside St. Louis Illinois.
WHERE: Wind River Country, Wyoming
Pronghorn antelope is a species that is endemic to North America and they are considered among the fastest runners in the world. Pronghorns can be found primarily in the Central and Western parts of the U.S. In fact, Wyoming’s Wind River county is one of the best places to spot these beautiful animals. They are yet another species that thrives among the many sagebrush flats that are found in this area.
When you travel along Wyoming Scenic Byway Highway 191, you are crossing paths along one of the most important pronghorn migration routes. The pronghorns have been using this area as part of their overland migration pathways for several decades. Every winter, they travel hundreds of miles from Grand Teton National Park in Northern Wyoming to the Red Desert along the border of Colorado. The Red Desert area is a refuge for many species of wildlife, including the largest migratory herd of pronghorn.
INSIDER TIPOn a clear day, you will be able to spot pronghorn in herds along the highway. However, with their light-brown coloring they blend very easily with the landscape. Your best bet is to travel along the scenic byway in winter when they are easier to spot among the snow.
WHERE: Panama City Beach, Florida
Considered part of Florida’s last undiscovered coast, Panama City Beach is a hot spot for family-friendly fun with year-round adventures for everyone. With so many wonderful beaches, inlets, and bays, water activities of all kinds are really big in Panama City Beach. But one of the specific reasons to visit PCB, is that it is a great place to watch dolphins in the wild.
There are many different species of dolphins that call the waters of PCB home, but perhaps the most common ones you will see are bottlenose dolphins. The year-round warm gulf waters and abundant marine life make it a great place for these dolphins to live, breed, and play.
Dolphins are considered to be very intelligent and are very playful, so don’t be surprised to see them come close to your boat and put on a show. Your best bet to see these playful creatures in the wild is to rent or charter a boat and make your way towards Shell Island.
INSIDER TIPThanks to the many commercial fishing vessels as well as cargo ships along the Gulf of Mexico, you can see huge pods of dolphins that hang out close to shore feeding in the wakes of these huge boats. So just follow these boats at a safe distance, and you can usually spot a pod of dolphins in a feeding frenzy.
Bison or American Buffalo
WHERE: Custer State Park, South Dakota
Custer State Park is South Dakota’s first and largest state park. It spans over 71,000 acres all around the Black Hills area. Custer State Park is also home to one of the largest bison herds in North America and is the best place to spot these animals outside of Yellowstone National Park. Through the early 1700s and1800s, the bison were hunted to near-extinction by the white settlers. But over the past century, bison reintroduction programs—like the one in Custer State Park—have paid off. Now the herd in the park is around 1,300-1,400 strong and they are visible all year round. But springtime is super special because it brings cute baby bison into the mix.
WHERE: Gibbon, Nebraska
Those of us who have experienced any kind of animal migration event know it is an experience of a lifetime. While Nebraska might not seem a likely place to see a migration event, it is home to one of the most epic bird migrations on the continent. And sitting in a bird blind with small cutout windows with just enough space for binoculars and cameras is the best way to watch the majestic sandhill cranes during their annual migration. These cranes can be found by the millions along the Platte river in Gibbon Nebraska.
During the day, thousands of birds forage for food in the cornfields around Gibbon and at night they roost along the Platter River. Cranes are elegant in the way they dance among each other. And the moment they take flight in unison is simply breathtaking. Once you have experienced this, you might find yourself making the annual trip to Gibbon just to see them again.
INSIDER TIPThe best place to see sandhill cranes along their migration route is about 20 miles east of Kearney Nebraska along I-80 highway. And the best time to visit is around March to Mid-April, along Platte River during sunrise or just before sunset. Online registration for outdoor blinds opens in January and can be found online at Visit Kearney.
WHERE: Along the Florida Coast
Manatees are one of the most popular marine life attractions in Florida and people travel from all over the world to see them in the wild. Known as gentle sea cows, manatees roam the waters of Florida from April through October. And when the temperature drops, they head to places with fresh water where temperatures are constant year-round. Manatees need waters of around 70 degrees to survive (and thrive).
Citrus County, which is along Florida’s Gulf Coast just north of Tampa, is the world’s largest natural winter refuge for manatees. It is known among the locals as the Manatee Capital of the world. Manatees are attracted to the area because of the abundance of freshwater springs. Citrus County has many observation points to safely see these animals and it is also one of the few locations in Florida where you can legally observe manatees within the water. So, swimming with manatees is a popular activity here.
WHERE: Colorado and Idaho
The Sage Grouse is a large chicken-like bird with a spiky tail and a black belly. Because of its shape and coloring it tends to blend among the sagebrush in the wild open landscapes of Colorado and Idaho. Males are bigger than females and usually have more colorful feathers. Sage Grouse are most famous among the wildlife community for their unusual mating dance in Spring. The Sage Grouse is considered a symbol of the unique habitat of the American West and each spring they return to their original breeding grounds to mate. This dancing ritual ranks as one of the top wildlife wonders of the world. Dozens of males gather at sunrise in the wide-open to strut for females and vie for dominance and a chance to mate.
INSIDER TIPMale Sage Grouse are beautiful when they dance. They also inflate and deflate twin bright yellow throat sacs and make a strange popping sound while they strut. Try and capture the audio and video of these birds dancing. Occasionally, you might also catch them fighting each other with their wings.
Timber Wolves/Gray Wolves
WHERE: Voyageurs National Park, Minnesota
Voyageurs National Park is a remote wilderness area in Northern Minnesota just along the border to Canada. It covers an area of 318,000 acres but much of that is water and accessible by boat or kayak. It is also home to the gray wolf. There are only about 30 to 50 wolves in Voyageurs National Park as compared to the rest of Minnesota, which has nearly 3,000 gray wolves. But the smaller, water-locked area of Voyageurs National Park makes spotting wolves here a little easier as compared to the rest of the state.
Also known as the timber wolf, grey wolves are very skittish and are hard to spot. Winters are better for spotting gray wolves in Voyageurs when they are hunting or moving along the frozen shorelines of the big lakes. Wolves may also be often spotted crossing the park entrance roads.
INSIDER TIPBecause of the nature of the landscape of Voyageurs, you will need an ATV to get across the frozen lakes in winter. In spring and summer, a boat or a kayak is your best bet.