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Canyon Country

Besides the plants and animals mentioned here, you might see North American elk, mountain lion, and bobcat.

  • Coyote -- These wild dogs are midway in size between wolves and foxes. Their natural habitat is in the deserts and grasslands of the West, but when hunting killed all the wolves in the Lower 48 states, coyotes spread out and changed their behavior. They now act more like wolves, hunting in packs and going for bigger game, like deer. In the Southwest, they're more solitary, eating reptiles, rodents, insects, and fruit.
  • Jack Rabbit -- You can tell a jack rabbit by its long ears and strong back legs. This rabbit is tan and white and about 2 feet tall. Jack rabbits are active at night, and you often see them in your headlights when driving. If you're camping, keep an eye out for their eyes reflecting the light of your fire or lantern from the woods.
  • Mule Deer -- You might see elk, which are larger, but mule deer are much more common in this region. They are 4 to 6 feet long, have big ears like a mule, and have brown coats in the summer. Generally, mule deer in groups are females with offspring, while bucks travel alone.
  • Rattlesnake -- Watch out for these guys, and if you find one, just back off. Most people who get bitten step on one accidentally or are messing with the snake; it attacks an animal as large as a person only in self-defense. Rattlesnakes are dormant in the winter and come out only at night in the hot summer months. There are many kinds, including one that lives only in the Grand Canyon, but I wouldn't recommend getting close enough to check which one you're seeing.
  • Side-Blotched Lizard -- There are 3,000 kinds of lizards in the world, many of which look alike, and you often don't see them for long -- be happy just to say it was a lizard. This one is 4 to 6 inches long and is brown with spots. Like snakes and other reptiles, lizards are coldblooded. They use the environment around them to set their body temperature, hiding in the shade or basking on warm rocks to get it right.
  • Squirrels -- You might see many kinds of squirrels, but the rare Abert's squirrel is noticeable because it has tall tufts of hair that stick up behind its ears. The back is gray, with white running on the underside from the belly to the tip of the tail. It's found only in pine and juniper forests, especially on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon.

    The rare Kaibab squirrel, on the North Rim, evolved separately after the canyon formed and has an all-black body and a white tail.

In addition to the birds below, you might also spot a golden eagle or a hairy woodpecker.

  • California Condors -- These birds with wingspans that can reach 9 feet are making a comeback in canyon country, thanks to efforts by federal agencies and nonprofit groups. When not soaring on air currents, they like to perch on canyon walls.
  • Raven -- You can see the raven, a black bird like a larger version of a crow, and hear its throaty caw all over the West into Alaska. The raven is common in the stories of many American Indian cultures as a wily trickster and powerful creator. Ravens are extremely intelligent birds, able to solve problems. They eat many kinds of food, but a favorite seems to be garbage.
  • Western Bluebird -- This is a striking bird, with a bright blue back and a red breast. Males compete for nest holes, using a red breast like the robin's to show other males that they're willing to fight for their place. Look for them in open areas where there are trees for nesting.

The Rockies

In addition to the creatures here, you might want to check out the black bear, bobcat, white-tailed deer, mule deer, and rattlesnake.

  • Bighorn Sheep -- The strong bodies and huge curling horns of bighorns are unmistakable. In the fall, the males fight for the right to mate by bashing their horns together. You can hear it a mile away. At Rocky Mountain, you can often see bighorn in the late spring and early summer on Hwy. 34 at Sheep Lakes in Horseshoe Park, where they come to eat minerals they don't get enough of in their winter diet. They come to the area so predictably that the Park Service posts crossing guards on the highway. Later in the year, you can see them in alpine areas, sometimes along Trail Ridge Road or on the Crater Trail.
  • Bison (or Buffalo) -- When settlers first came to the West, 60 million bison roamed in huge herds across the plains. By 1890, excessive hunting had left fewer than 1,000 alive. Now there are more than 200,000 in North America, mostly on farms. The wild herds at Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks are unique and number a few thousand animals. Bison eat grass, often near roads where you can see them. In Yellowstone, the Hayden Valley and Lamar Valley are good spots to see them; in Grand Teton, look in the Antelope Flat area and along the Snake River. Amazingly, I saw people walking right up to bison. These animals are the size of a small truck, can run fast, and have horns that can inflict great damage. People get hurt every year.
  • Grizzly Bear -- Grizzly bears once lived in much of the United States, but they need large areas of undisturbed land. Now some biologists fear they don't have enough room left even in their last Lower 48 habitat, in the northern Rockies. Only about 500 to 600 live in the greater Yellowstone ecosystem, which includes Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks, and more live in Glacier National Park. About 30,000 live in Alaska. The best way to tell a grizzly from the smaller and more common black bear is by the hump on the grizzly's back and the black bear's straighter face profile. A grizzly's brown or blond color isn't a good guide, because blacks can be brown and grizzlies can be black. Grizzlies mostly eat roots, berries, and the like, but they are predators. Adult males weigh more than 500 pounds in this area.
  • Moose -- Moose are the largest member of the deer family, with males growing up to 1,600 pounds. They like brushy areas, willows, and swamps or shallow ponds, where they stand deep in the water and eat weeds from the bottom. They're excellent swimmers. Look for moose along the Snake River and near Jackson Lake Lodge at Grand Teton, and in the Kawuneechee Valley at Rocky Mountain. Only the males have antlers.
  • Mountain Lion -- Your chances of seeing a mountain lion are extremely slim because they're rare and appear only when they want to -- and if a mountain lion wants you to see it, then you could be in danger. They are big cats and feed on large mammals such as deer. Attacks on humans are rare but have happened, and are another good reason to keep your children near when you are hiking, especially in brush.
  • North American Elk (or Wapiti) -- These large, noble-looking deer show up all over the Rockies, spending the summer in alpine meadows and moving down for the winter. They show up at many places in all four parks; at Yellowstone you commonly see them along the road. In the winter, elk are fed at a refuge between Grand Teton National Park and the town of Jackson. At Glacier, a good place to find elk is in the roadside meadows near Saint Mary Lake. Only the males have antlers.
  • Pika -- The pika is a cute little animal that lives in rocky areas high in the mountains. Pikas grow to 8 inches long and are related to rabbits but don't have long ears. Their coat blends in with the rocks, so you'll have to look closely to see them.
  • Wolves -- Wolves once roamed throughout the United States, but as settlers colonized parts of the country, they drove out these predators. With wolves no longer part of the ecosystem, populations of their prey, such as elk and deer, ballooned unusually high and overgrazed the landscape. In 1995, in an effort to make Yellowstone's animal kingdom complete, federal agencies began a wolf recovery program. Today about 400 wolves lope through the greater Yellowstone ecosystem, preying predominantly on elk. The result is a smaller, but healthier, elk herd and a healthier landscape. The best place to spot Yellowstone's wolves is in the Lamar Valley in late spring and early summer. Some wolves can be found in Grand Teton National Park, although they're not as visible to park visitors. Glacier National Park also has a wolf population.

Besides the birds listed here, you may see some that are described in other sections, such as the raven, western bluebird, and Steller's jay.

  • Bald & Golden Eagles -- These majestic birds can have wingspans of over 7 feet; they glide in the air before swooping down and grabbing their prey. While golden eagles will grab a rabbit or other rodent in its ferocious talons, bald eagles might also pluck a fat trout from a river or lake. While the bald eagle is known for its white head and tail feathers, the golden eagle is all brown, with a lighter brown neck.
  • Hairy Woodpecker -- The hairy woodpecker is roughly the size of a robin, with black and white feathers; the male has a red spot on his head. It lives in deciduous forests (where trees have leaves). Male woodpeckers have long, hard beaks that they hammer against tree trunks to make holes. Females have shorter beaks that are better for prying. Together they dig insects out of the wood.
  • Mountain Chickadee -- This little bird looks a lot like the common black-capped chickadee but has an extra white stripe on its head, and gray sides. It is easy to find high in the mountains, hunting insects and flitting around the alpine forests.
  • Trumpeter Swan -- These huge, graceful white swans are among the largest birds in North America. They are somewhat easy to find on the lakes of Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks, but are found nowhere else except Canada and Alaska. They nearly disappeared, but conservation brought them back.

The Sierra Nevada

Besides the creatures listed here, see the jack rabbit, pika, bighorn sheep, mule deer, coyote, and rattlesnake.

  • Black Bear -- Growing to 5 or 6 feet tall, black bears are common in the Sierra. Major problems have resulted from humans living in black bear country. Careless campers and picnickers have allowed bears to get their food and garbage, and now many bears are so used to thinking of humans as sources of food that they walk right through busy campgrounds and rip open cars. Blackies normally eat berries, nuts, and plants, with an occasional squirrel thrown in. You might be able to tell a black bear from the larger brown or grizzly bear (no longer found in California) by size or color. The sure signs are that the grizzly has a raised hump over the shoulders and its nose sticks out from its face, while a black bear's back and neck slope fairly evenly, and its nose and face form a smooth profile.
  • Bobcat -- Bobcats are common in the foothills and lower Sierra, but you're very lucky if you see one. They hunt rabbits, squirrels, and other animals, often at night, hiding under logs in rocky areas to sleep. If you hear a bloodcurdling howl at night, it could be a bobcat. They're about as large as a medium-size dog, growing to 2 1/2 feet long.
  • Sierra Nevada Golden-Mantled Ground Squirrel -- These brave little guys will come right into campsites to raid picnic baskets. They have small tails and black-and-white stripes on the sides of their bodies. They look like chipmunks but are larger (the body is about 6 in. long) and don't have stripes on their heads as chipmunks do.

In addition to the birds listed here, you might see some described in other sections, such as the raven, western bluebird, mountain chickadee, golden eagle, and hairy woodpecker.

  • Steller's Jay -- This striking blue-and-black bird has a large black crest -- it's the only Western jay with a crest. Steller's jays live in Sierra pine forests and often visit campgrounds to pick up crumbs. They also live in the Rockies, the Pacific Northwest, and coastal Alaska. They bear the name of the naturalist Georg Steller, who helped discover Alaska in 1741.
  • White-Headed Woodpecker -- Common in the Yosemite Valley, these 9-inch-long birds are black except for white heads and wing patches; they're the only woodpeckers in the Sierra with white heads. They can blend in and be hard to spot until they take flight. They feed by peeling scales of bark off trees, not by hammering them like other woodpeckers.

Olympic & Sequoia National Parks

Besides those discussed below, the following can also show up in this region: bobcat, coyote, harbor seal, hermit crab, humpback whale, jack rabbit, mountain lion, mule deer, sea star or starfish, and white-tailed deer.

  • Gray Whale -- In the spring, these animals, which weigh up to 80,000 pounds, pass close to shore on their migration from winter calving grounds off western Mexico to summer feeding grounds off western Alaska. They return in late fall and winter. They don't have fins on their backs. To feed, they dive down and sift food out of the gunk from the bottom through the comb-shaped baleen in their mouths. Watching from shore is popular at the Olympic Peninsula.
  • Killer Whale (or Orca) -- These whales either travel in organized family groups called pods, feeding mostly on salmon and other fish, or are loners, prowling for prey that could include sea lions or even humpback or gray whales. On the water you'll usually see only the whales' shiny black backs and long dorsal fins. When the whale sounds (dives), the flukes of the tail appear. Like people swimming, orcas turn head down when they want to go deeper. Orcas grow up to 30 feet long.
  • Limpet -- Limpets are common in West Coast tide pools. Their shells are shaped like small, shallow cones. There are many varieties, some large enough to be used as food or decorations for Native American costumes. Most limpets eat algae, but they also can consume tiny mussels and barnacles that have just attached to rocks.
  • Sea Anemone -- These are among the most fun and bizarre animals to find in a tide pool. They look like huge flowers with thick stalks, but the flower petals really are sticky tentacles that grab and poison fish or other small animals that come too close. Any gentle contact will make an anemone quickly close up, leaving it looking like a rock. Sea anemones come in many varieties, in different sizes and colors.
  • Sea Lion -- Groups of sea lions have certain rocks called haul-outs, where they rest together, and rookeries, where they mate and give birth. Like whales, otters, and seals, they're mammals and have to hold their breath to dive deep for the fish they catch. They are larger than seals and feed on salmon and other fish that people also eat, so commercial fishing can reduce their food supply and lower the number that can live in an area.
  • Sea Otter -- Shiny otters float on their backs in groups called rafts, tying kelp around their legs to stay in place. Otters use their tummies as tables for food or to carry their babies. Unlike other marine mammals, they don't have a layer of fat to keep them warm. Instead, otters rely on their fur, which is the finest and most thickly spaced fur of any animal, and on their bodies' ability to produce heat from the huge amounts of food they eat. Otters like clams, crabs, and sea urchins, which they pick off the bottom of the ocean during long dives when they hold their breath.
  • Sea Urchin -- These animals have spines that stick out like pins from a pincushion. The spines protect the urchin and allow it to move, like a centipede's legs. They fall off when the urchin dies, leaving a delicate, beautifully etched shell. Kelp is a favorite food, although they eat almost anything, and sea otters are an important predator. Many kinds of urchins are common and interesting to find in tide pools; some have eggs that are eaten as sushi.
  • Tule Elk & Roosevelt Elk -- Tule elk like the open, grassy lands on Point Reyes National Seashore north of San Francisco. Commercial hunts killed them off during the gold rush in the 1850s, but they were brought back in the 1970s and now are easy to find in a reserve on Tomales Point, at the north end of Point Reyes. Roosevelt elk, also rare, are the largest elk. They prefer the forests of Olympic National Park, where I've seen them in the Hoh and Quinault rainforests. Both kinds of elk make a big difference in their ecosystems. Tule elk helped keep Point Reyes's grasslands from turning into bushes and forest. Roosevelt elk, which like to eat hemlock sprouts but not Sitka spruce, may help keep hemlocks from taking over the rainforest.

Besides the birds listed here, you may see some osprey, herring gull, sanderling, great blue heron, raven, hairy woodpecker, and Steller's jay.

  • Common Loon -- These large, striking birds with sharply contrasting black-and-white coloring have an unforgettable, mournful cry that is symbolic of America's outdoors. In the summer, they nest on northern lakes. They spend the winter fishing in coastal waters all over the United States.
  • Common Murre -- The size and shape of a football, these birds don't look as if they'd be able to fly, but they do. Their little wings flap like crazy as they skim over the waves. Murres live in huge colonies on rocky islands, making them very vulnerable to oil spills and climate changes. Each female has only one egg a year. They depend on having a lot of birds together on the rocks for protection, so recovery from die-offs is slow.
  • Great Horned Owl -- This big owl, found all over North America south of the Arctic, is a fierce hunter at the top of the food chain. It preys on rabbits, ducks, and even other owls, including the endangered spotted owl of the old-growth forest in the Pacific Northwest. The owl's powerful flight, hypnotic eyes, and "hoo-hoo-hoo hooooo" call even give shivers to some people.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.