You’re out for a walk in the woods. You turn a bend in the trail, and there stands a majestic deer. Or maybe there’s a bobcat, disappearing into the thicket.
When it comes to these unexpected animal sightings, even the briefest moments are awe-inspiring. That’s why wildlife-watching vacations are so popular. Not only are they great ways to escape the hustle and bustle of everyday life, they regenerate the soul.
Right here in the good old U.S. of A., there’s a dazzling array of habitats and wildlife just waiting to be enjoyed. From watching grizzly bears in Alaska to seeing manatees in Florida, here are a dozen adventures that offer some of the most amazing wildlife experiences on earth. The destinations we’ve chosen are affordable, accessible and conservation-minded.
So safe travels. And don’t forget the binoculars!
Twinkle, twinkle little firefly
Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee
Best time to visit: Late May to early June
Insider tip: Lowlight photography requires a tripod, wide aperture and high ISO setting to allow in more light.
Imagine sitting in a chair in the woods. It’s pitch black and there are hundreds of people there. But it’s quiet. Thousands of yellow-green lights flash all around and then stop simultaneously, plunging you back into darkness. The show continues for several hours. Lights on. Lights off. Lights on.
The synchronous species of fireflies (Photinus carolinus) illuminates the night for about two weeks every year near the park’s Elkmont campground. This phenomenon occurs in just a few places in the world, says park entomologist Rebecca Nichols.
It’s the firefly’s mating ritual. Males flash while flying to attract females perched near the ground. After mating, the female wiggles her abdomen into the soft earth beneath the leaf litter and lays her eggs.
Park scientists begin monitoring soil temperatures in March to estimate the timing of the next generation’s emergence. Once calculations are complete in early April, they post event dates on their website. Tickets sell out fast.
“It’s not something you expect would ever exist in the world,” says Seattle photographer Floris van Breugel, who camped about four miles into the forest with a friend. “It was like this silent disco, being surrounded by the mating dance of these little insects.”
Photographer Radim Schreiber has seen lots of fireflies at home in Iowa, but nothing like this. “There were fireflies 360 degrees around me, and I felt like I was part of them.”
On the wings of sandhill cranes and snow geese
Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, New Mexico
Best time to go: Early November to mid-February
Insider tip: Go during a full moon for silhouette shots.
Serious birders and wildlife photographers know this refuge as one of the preeminent sites to view migratory birds in the country. Nestled between the Chupadera and San Pascual mountains, the refuge encompasses a wild stretch of nearly 60,000 acres along the Rio Grande. From distant mesas, a lush ribbon of cottonwood trees and willows stands out against arid surroundings.
In late fall and early winter, the refuge transforms into an airport stopover of sorts for tens of thousands of sandhill cranes and snow geese migrating south for the winter. They feed in the surrounding fields by day and paddle the wetlands by night. In one week last November, 50,000 geese and 15,000 cranes were counted. It’s something to see them all lift from the water, as they head for breakfast.
One late November, amateur photographer Francoise Macomber drove the dirt road into the park before sunrise, her headlights revealing layer upon layer of birds on the water. The scene turned magical as the pre-dawn glow illuminated a wintry mist hanging over the wetlands. At first light, the sandhill cranes launched in breathtaking unison. Then the snow geese took flight.
“You can never be the same after feeling the breeze from the wings of these majestic creatures,” she says. “Bosque has a power. It draws you in and remains with you forever.”
Machias Seal Island has two claims to fame: It boasts one of the last manned lighthouses in North America and the largest, most southerly colony of Atlantic puffins, with 4,000-plus nesting there each summer.
Puffins are charismatic birds, with their tuxedo-colored bodies, boldly striped bills and orange legs and feet. After wintering in the open North Atlantic, they start arriving on the 20-acre island in April to nest in cracks and crevices along the rocky shoreline. The island is their historic nesting ground, says Andrew Patterson, who captains one of only two boats allowed to take visitors to the island.
Depending on the month, observers can watch newly arrived puffins looking for old nesting sites or creating new ones. Males and females rub their bills together and preen in courtship. In mid-June, eggs start to hatch. “That’s when things really ratchet up,” Patterson says. Parents fly in with herring-sized fish lined neatly in their bills before ducking into their nests.
Small groups of people can view puffins from blinds situated near nesting sites. Puffins often land on the blind’s roof or near the windows. “It’s truly one of those singular, PBS nature-type experiences,” Patterson says. “You feel like an extra in the movie.”
To the bat cave
Bracken Cave, Comal County, Texas
Best time to visit: July to August
Insider tip: Tours are free for Bat Conservation International members, with limited dates open to the public.
It is quite a sight: Twenty million bats returning home in the early morning hours, diving down from the sky at about 40 miles an hour. They make a whistling sound as they pop their wings to brake at the entrance of Bracken Cave.
Mexican free-tailed bats spend summers in the historic cave, migrating there every March from South America and Mexico. The cave is about 117 feet high and 100 feet across the floor, with up to 500 bats hanging per square foot.
The massive colony has been using the cave for about 10,000 years, says Fran Hutchins, director of Bracken Cave Preserve. Guano on the cave floor is nearly 60 feet thick and crawling with its own microsystem, including flesh-eating beetles.
The area is protected by Bat Conservation International, which offers limited tours at dusk and a few summer campouts to catch the morning fly-in. The evening emergence takes roughly four hours, as bats drop from their roost to form a flying vortex. The tornado swirls from the entrance to the tree line and then spreads into a river of flitting, flying mammals.
Outside the cave, hawks, falcons, even ground predators gather for the chance to snatch at a meal.
The bay is also smack in the middle of Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary—often referred to as the Serengeti of the Sea. The area supports large plankton blooms, which in turn support krill, anchovies and squid. The copious food attracts an abundance of animals, from whales and sea lions to dolphins, sea otters and seabirds.
Each December, gray whales begin migrating south from their feeding grounds in the Bering Sea to coastal waters in Baja, where they’ll spend calving season. Peak numbers hit Monterey around mid-January for the southward journey and mid-March as they return north with their newborns.
Humpbacks are also common from late April to December. They’re gregarious and exciting to watch, says Kathy Luis, who often goes on outings with Monterey Bay Whale Watch. She’s seen it all: Humpbacks breaching; visitors being sprayed with water from exhaled air; whales bobbing perpendicular in a feat called spy hopping.
Sometimes, whales curiously approach the boat. “Having an eye-to-eye encounter with a creature that size is mind-boggling,” she says. “Their beauty and grace, moving through the water so effortlessly. ... I never get tired of seeing them.”