Forget the zoo. Get up close with America’s incredible animals in their stunning natural environments instead.

Some of the most incredible wildlife on the planet can be found at America’s stunning national parks, oceans and even downtown areas. Here are our 12 top picks.

1. Bald Eagles

Alaska Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve, Alaska

Each year, from October to February, anywhere from 3,000 to 4,000 bald eagles put on one of nature’s best shows at Chilkat River, situated in the 19,959-hectare Alaska Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve. The massive flocks gather to happily feast on up to 500,000 chum salmon that spawn and die.

The river flats along Haines Highway between miles 18 and 24 are prime viewing spots, and you can go on a boat ride. Even when the salmon aren’t running, you’ll still see plenty of bird action, as it’s the year-round home to about 400 bald eagles.

2. Black Bears

Yosemite National Park, California

Seeing a black bear in the wilds of Yosemite is a once-in-a-lifetime thrill. There are 300 to 500 bears, which are most active between September and November. Alternatively, you may spot one in a campground or car park cheekily foraging for leftovers – just don’t get too close!

Aside from bears, keep your eyes peeled for mule deer and peregrine falcons. There are also lots of family-friendly activities, such as cycling in Yosemite Valley and stroller-accessible walks along Mirror Lake.

3. Bison

Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming

Watching herds of bison ambling through Yellowstone National Park is a special experience. The awe-inspiring 898,300-hectare space is the only place in the USA where the almost 5,000-strong population has lived continuously since prehistoric times. The best viewing spots are the Lamar and Hayden valleys.

When observing bison at roadside pull-outs you should not leave your car – it’s therefore a good idea for families to stay overnight in the park to cut down driving time. If you visit between April and June, you may be lucky enough to see new bison, bear and elk babies.

4. Moose

Baxter State Park, Maine

Maine has the second-largest concentration of moose in the USA (second to Alaska), with a population of about 75,000. These majestic creatures are prolific in picturesque Baxter State Park, a vast 84,780-hectare expanse that is also home to Mount Katahdin, the state’s highest peak, at 1,606 metres.

The moose are most active at dusk and dawn from mid-May to July. As they prefer moving in open areas, they’re often spotted in wet areas such as Sandy Stream Pond and Tracy Pond, and along logging roads or snowmobile trails.

5. Sea Lions

Pier 39, California

No trip to San Francisco is complete without a visit to iconic Pier 39 near Fisherman’s Wharf to see the sea lion hordes. A couple of sea lions began hanging out on the floating docks after the Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989. Due to the sheltered environment and plentiful food, the numbers swelled, reaching an all-time high of 1,701 in November 2009.

Known for their playfulness and noisy barking, the best spectacles are the jostling spats between the huge males, which can reach 390 kilograms! Watching them vie for the best resting spots is pretty funny. It’s an easy family activity you can view from the wharf, then explore nearby attractions afterwards.

6. Manatees

Crystal River, Florida

Visit Florida’s Crystal River for an unforgettable encounter with one of nature’s most unusual creatures, the manatee, otherwise known as the sea cow. Crystal River, which measures 11 kilometres long, is around 72 degrees year-round.

During winter, the warm water attracts about 350 manatees and this provides a unique opportunity to view these curious, gentle giants from a kayak or boat. You can even swim with them in the turquoise water. The creatures mainly congregate at Kings Bay, the headwaters of Crystal River.

7. Mountain Lions

Big Bend National Park, Texas

If you’re up for a challenge, head to 524,405-hectare Big Bend National Park, featuring dramatic rocky landscapes, to catch a glimpse of a mountain lion or two. There are only 30,000 of these highly elusive creatures left in western USA.

Each year more than 150 sightings are reported at Big Bend, mainly along park roadways and hiking trails, but keep in mind mountain lions can be unpredictable, so caution must be taken with children around.

8. Whales

Maui, Hawaii

Between January and March, up to 10,000 North Pacific humpback whales migrate from chilly Alaskan shores to the warm waters of Hawaii. The greatest number visit the Maui coast – which makes for some of the most exhilarating whale-watching in the world. For kids and adults alike, it’s a massive thrill to hop on a boating expedition and get close to these incredible creatures, many of which are birthing.

However, if you’d rather be on dry land, Maui also has the best shoreline viewing. Highway 30 near Maalaea, the coastal area of Kihei and Paia Bay beach are excellent vantage points.

9. Coyotes

Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado

If the kids have had enough of the binoculars, spotting wily coyotes in Rocky Mountain National Park should be a breeze. The 107,500-hectare sanctuary allows coyotes to roam freely, so you’ll often see them wandering in all sorts of areas during the day.

They particularly like to feed in open meadows and are often seen just off roadside pull-out areas such as Moraine and Horseshoe park. You could also spot more critters off the Coyote Valley Trail in Kawuneeche Valley, a 1.6-kilometre round-trip hike.

10. Mountain Goats

Glacier National Park, Montana

With more than one million acres of pristine wilderness, Glacier National Park – with its towering peaks – is a stunning place. One of the most amazing drives is along the Going-to-the-Sun Road, open from mid-June to mid-September (roadwork occurs outside these months).

You’ll see spectacular scenery and shaggy-haired mountain goats – the park’s symbol – plus bighorn sheep, particularly around Logan Pass. It’s a good option if kids fancy wildlife watching but aren’t up for walking. Without stopping, the entire drive one way takes about two hours, and there are picnic and food stops along the way.

11. Roosevelt Elks

Olympic National Park, Washington

Named in honour of President Theodore Roosevelt, the 5,000 or so Roosevelt elks are the star attraction at Olympic National Park. This wildly diverse 373,400-hectare area, featuring coastline, rainforests, dry forest and alpine regions, was established by President Roosevelt in 1938 to preserve the elks.

September is a fascinating viewing time, as that’s when the massive males, complete with towering antlers, battle with each other over the females. The Hall of Mosses trail in Hoh Rain Forest is an easy 1.3-kilometre walk with elk-spotting opportunities along the way.

12. Pronghorns

Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge, Oregon

Pronghorns, which closely resemble antelopes, are North America’s fastest land animals, clocking dizzying speeds of almost 100 kilometres per hour. In 1936, Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge was created to preserve remnant herds of pronghorns.

Spanning 109,500 hectares, the area is today home to almost 2,000 of these agile creatures. There are 42 mammal species in the refuge, including bighorn sheep and mule deer, and 239 bird varieties.

Words: Fleur Michell

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