Often, when we think about wildlife spotting, mental images of safaris in Africa or scuba expeditions in far-off oceans come to mind. But you don’t need to travel far to experience amazing wildlife spotting right here in the USA. The United States is home to an incredibly diverse landscape and amazing range of plant and animal life.
From glaciers to geysers to marine ecosystems, we have many amazing places to spot wildlife, and the best part is that many of these places are on public lands. In fact, the list of places to visit for wildlife spotting in America can be overwhelming. So we’ve narrowed it down for you. Here are the top 5 places to spot wildlife in America (and #2 might just surprise you):
Panama City Beach, Florida: Wild Dolphins
Considered part of Florida’s last undiscovered coast, Panama City Beach is a family-friendly beach town with lots of safe, fun, year-round adventures and activities. With so many wonderful beaches, inlets, and bays, water sports of all kinds are big in PCB. A little-known secret? Panama City Beach CB is also a wildlife spotting hub and one of the best places to spot dolphins in the wild.
There are several different species of dolphins that call the waters of PCB home. The most common to spot are bottlenose dolphins. The year-round warm gulf waters and abundant marine life make Panama City Beach a favored habitat of the bottlenose. Usually ranging from six to twelve feet long and living for as much as fifty years, these dolphins are very intelligent and playful. Don’t be surprised to see them come up close to your boat and start to put on a show! Thanks to the many commercial fishing vessels as well as cargo ships along the Gulf of Mexico, you’ll see huge pods of wild dolphins that hang out close to shore.
Wildlife spotting tip: 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.
Alton, Illinois: Bald Eagle Migration
Come winter, the excitement and speculation among the birding community in the Midwest starts to run high. That’s because January signifies the start of the annual Bald Eagle migration. There’s something about bald eagles that make even the least bird-savvy wildlife spotter take a second look, and if wildlife spotting in the US is on your bucket list, seeing a Bald Eagle should be top priority. You might not think that bone-chilling temperatures would make this the first choice for migrating birds. But Bald Eagles flock to seasonal roosts near the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers every year. Often over a thousand Bald Eagles can be found migrating to areas along the Great Rivers National Scenic Byway, just outside St. Louis, Illinois.
Wildlife spotting tip: For the ultimate bald eagle spotting experience, check out the annual Eagle Festival which takes place at the Audubon Center in West Alton, Illinois every year.
Gibbon, Nebraska: Sandhill Crane Migration
Sitting in a bird blind in a remote part of Nebraska might not be where you’d typically spend your Saturday. Tiny windows often only have enough room for a pair of binoculars and a camera. But many people say this is the easiest way to catch some of the best wildlife spotting in America. Why? Swarms of majestic Sandhill Cranes will head right past you on their annual migration down south. They’re often found by the millions along the Platte River in Gibbon, Nebraska.
By day thousands of Sandhill Cranes forage for food in the cornfields around Gibbon. At night you’ll find them roosting in the shallow Platter river, safe from coyotes. Witnessing the elegant magic of a group of cranes might just have you making the annual trip to Gibbon again and again. If it’s your first time wildlife spotting, the Rowe Sanctuary has set up many resources for the bird enthusiasts and wildlife photographers who call Gibbon home for many days every March. Online registration for an outdoor blind opens on January 21st and can be found online here.
Wildlife spotting tip: The best place to see sandhill cranes along their migration route is about 20 miles east of Kearney, Nebraska along the I-80 highway. The best time to visit? March to Mid-April. Find a spot along the Platte River during sunrise or just before sunset.
Salt Lake City, Utah: Wild Horses
Nothing quite brings forth the feelings of America’s Wild West like a herd of wild horses. And seeing wild horses with your own eyes might just be one of the best parts about wildlife spotting in the US. While there are a few places in America where wild horses truly run free, the outskirts of Salt Lake City, Utah is one of them. With a perfect Mars-like landscape, you’ll be able to spot wild horses from miles away. Set against the backdrop of the Oquirrh and Wasatch Mountains, wildlife spotting in Utah is the perfect postcard moment for the American Southwest. And it might just be one of the best places for wildlife photography in the USA.
To find wild horses on your own, you’ll need your sense of adventure and a boatload of patience. Outside of Salt Lake City, get off Highway 172 and drive about 10 miles past the pony express signpost. Turn right onto the dirt road and keep driving until you see the herd. The last time I visited this spot, the herd was about 50-60 horses with a mix of mares, stallions, and a few foals. When I drove up, they expressed some initial apprehension at my car. Then, they pretty much ignored us. I enjoyed a day watching them graze, fight, and gallop right in front of me. These wild horses gave me a glimpse into the beauty of what it means to be living wild and free in the wilderness. No rules, no restrictions– just a zest for life in the open range.
Wildlife spotting tip: Be patient! Wild horses are wild for a reason. They come and go at their own free will. So if you don’t see some right away, wait it out. You never know when these magnificent creatures are right around the corner.
Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming: Bison, Moose, & Pronghorn
Every nature buff, wildlife enthusiast, and photographer knows that Yellowstone National Park is one of the best places for wildlife spotting in America. No matter what your preferred method of adventuring is, Yellowstone takes your breath away. There’s no wonder it was America’s first National Park (and is arguably one of the best wildlife parks in USA). Being in Yellowstone is a bit like setting foot in an unreal alternate world. Colors, shapes, and textures take on a whole new meaning. Amazing and magnificent creatures roam the land and you feel like you’ve taken a step into another place in time.
The diversity of animals that call Yellowstone National Park home is almost unmatched in the United States. If you’re lucky, you’ll catch a glimpse of the famous Yellowstone wolves. If not, look out for coyotes, bears, and bison. Or, watch for an array of birds like Trumpeter swans, ospreys, falcons, and smaller mammals like beavers and squirrels. No matter where you go, you’re bound to stumble upon some of the best wildlife spotting in America.
7 Tips for ethical and safe wildlife spotting in America
These are just some of the places around the US where you can get up close and personal with wildlife. Most of these top wildlife spotting areas are on public lands and are accessible to all. But along with the privilege of wildlife spotting and seeing animals in their natural habitat comes an even bigger responsibility of ensuring the safety of the animals as well as others around you.
As such, there are some basic guidelines on how to engage with wildlife out in nature. The National Park Service has seven guiding principles when wildlife spotting on public lands.
Know before you go
Each National Park, National refuge or even public lands have their own rules and guidelines when it comes to wildlife spotting in the area. Make sure you are up to speed on the appropriate rules. This ensures the safety of the animals and humans.
Give wildlife plenty of room
Many parks have minimum distance guidelines for different animals. For example, many suggest that when you’re wildlife spotting, you remain 25 yards from most wildlife and 100 yards from predators like bears and wolves. Remember, no photograph or selfie is worth getting seriously injured.
Do not disturb
If your wildlife spotting behavior causes the animal to change its behavior, you are disturbing the animal. The best thing to do is to keep your distance and enjoy wildlife from afar.
Keep your eyes on the road
Just because you see something on the road or off to the side of the road, doesn’t mean you just stop the car right where you are. The right thing to do is to drive to a safe pullout and stop to observe and take photos.
Store your food correctly and put away trash
Feeding wildlife is always a bad idea. This makes them less afraid of humans and can cause them to approach cars and humans. Often this behavior means the animal is relocated elsewhere or worse, put down.
See something? Say something
Tell a ranger or park police if you come into physical contact with wildlife. Also, when you see people who are not following the guidelines, let them know what they can do to be a smart wildlife watcher.
The safety of the animals and your fellow travelers are more important than a selfie or a photograph. Be smart and be safe and recreate responsibly.
Are you a wildlife spotting enthusiast and if so, what are some of your favorite places for wildlife spotting here in the US?
Karthika Gupta is a culture and travel photographer, freelance writer, and podcaster who focuses on documenting stories and visual narratives around global culture, diversity and lifestyle. Follow her adventures on her site CulturallyOurs or on Instagram at @karthikagupta.