If you want to see wildlife, it’s hard to beat some of the largest, most popular parks in the country: Yellowstone, Glacier, Denali, Olympic, Great Smoky Mountains, and the Everglades are all winning choices. But what if you’ve already explored those parks and want to try something new—or just want to avoid the crowds? Here are eight less-visited parks that offer excellent and varied wildlife-watching opportunities.
1. Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota
Bison are the largest mammals in North America, weighing in at roughly a ton each, and Theodore Roosevelt National Park is one of the best places to see these distinctively American creatures. The vast and visually stunning badlands are home to hundreds of bison, as well as mule deer, elk, prairie dogs, and wild horses. Try driving the 36-mile scenic loop through the South Unit of the park to reach scenic vistas and trails. If boating is more your style, consider a paddling trip up the Little Missouri River, which connects all three units of the park and leads adventurers through wild landscapes of the Old West.
2. Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park, Hawaii
If you crave a safari to see large animals like bears and moose, Hawai’i Volcanoes is not the place for you. But if you appreciate smaller wonders like exotic fish and bats, brightly plumed birds (such as this ‘i’iwi honeycreeper), and curious insects, this park will not disappoint. The Hawaiian Archipelago are some of the most isolated islands on Earth, and the native animal species that live there began evolving in isolation 70 million years ago. From ‘u’au (Hawaiian petrels) to hawksbill turtles to the largest dragonflies in the country, the vast majority of species in the park are found only on the Hawaiian islands.
3. Isle Royale National Park, Michigan
This rugged, roadless island is the largest wilderness area in Michigan, and its wolves and moose are the stars of a famous 55-year wildlife study. Although the park’s endemic wolf population is now nearly gone due to climate change and inbreeding, the island offers opportunities to see moose, beavers, foxes, snowshoe hares, loons, osprey, bats, and other animals without the interruption of cars and other modern obstacles. Try hiking sections of the popular Greenstone Ridge Trail, the longest and highest ridge on the island (and access point for many of the campsites), to experience a cross-section of the park’s untamed habitat.
4. Saguaro National Park, Arizona
Saguaro’s two distinct districts provide habitat to a range of curious birds and beasts, such as javelinas, Gambel’s quail, coyotes, foxes, roadrunners, hummingbirds, jackrabbits, and even the long-snouted raccoon relative known as the coati. The toasty-to-sweltering temperatures also foster a surprising diversity of reptiles. From the regal horned lizard to the endangered desert tortoise to the Gila monster (shown here), numerous scaly and slithery creatures make their home in this 91,000-acre park. Most desert wildlife has adapted to avoid the blazing midday sun, so the best time to see many of these animals is at night or in the early morning.
5. Virgin Islands National Park, Virgin Islands
An underwater paradise, this Caribbean park is home to multicolored coral reefs, sea fans, sponges, rays, turtles, and 500 different types of fish. For a look at life under the ocean’s surface, explore the park’s self-guided snorkeling trails. A shallow beginner trail with signs about how to identify different types of marine life begins near the park’s famous Trunk Bay. (Get a snorkeling guide at the visitor center.) The park also offers habitat to more than a hundred kinds of birds, including warblers, plovers, hummingbirds, kingfishers, and many others; join rangers for free weekly bird walks on Friday mornings at the Francis Bay Trailhead to learn more.
6. Channel Islands National Park, California
Sometimes referred to as the “Galapagos of North America,” the Channel Islands serve as critical habitat for a variety of vulnerable and recovering animals, including the island night lizard, the threatened Scripps’s murrelet, the snowy plover, and the park’s distinctive island fox (shown here), found nowhere else in the world. It is also home to California’s only breeding colony of brown pelicans, birds that were nearly wiped out by pesticide use in the 1960s and ’70s but that have since recovered and become abundant. The nutrient-rich waters and kelp forests surrounding the park nurture a surprising diversity of marine life as well, including sea lions, dolphins, whales, and sea stars.
7. Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve, Alaska
Denali may be the classic Alaskan national park choice for wildlife viewing, but the 3.3-million-acre coastal park of Glacier Bay offers something its more famous neighbor does not: a striking mix of both land and marine animals. On shore, visitors can see black bears, wolverines, mountain goats, mink, and martens, as well a wide variety of bird life, from shorebirds and waterfowl to chickadees and puffins. In the bay, harbor seals, sea lions, porpoises, and several kinds of whale swim the clear waters. Otter fans, take note: Though the fur trade nearly eliminated sea otters in the 1800s, they have been making a comeback for decades. Park staff first observed them at Glacier Bay in 1995, and the animals have since thrived, growing from a population of five to roughly 3,000.
8. Wind Cave National Park, South Dakota
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There’s more to this park than its unique underground caves. Conservationists have used the beautiful mixed-grass prairielands above-ground as a game preserve since 1912, protecting populations of bison, elk, and pronghorn (shown here). The several hundred bison that make their home in the park today form one of the last free-roaming and genetically pure herds in the country. The pronghorn population in the park has fluctuated significantly over the last hundred years, though these spectacular animals—which have the fastest land speed of any mammal in the United States—are frequently spotted throughout the park. Wind Cave is also home to a variety of smaller and equally intriguing wildlife, including porcupines, prairie dogs, and endangered black-footed ferrets, which park staff successfully reintroduced to the area in 2007.
About the author
Jennifer Errick Managing Editor of Online Communications
Jennifer co-produces NPCA's podcast, The Secret Lives of Parks, and writes, edits and moderates online content.