Which is the best national park in the Lower 48 to view wildlife? If you've ever been to Yellowstone National Park (www.nps.gov/yell), the answer is obvious, as this park well-deserves its reputation as an open-air zoo where you can spot bison, elk, bears, wolves, coyotes, moose, and countless bird life. But it's not the only place in the National Park System where you can feel like you're on a safari.
Just to the south in Grand Teton National Park (www.nps.gov/grte) black bears often appear in late summer and early fall along the Moose-Wilson Road between Teton Village and park headquarters at Moose. Lush with vegetation bursting with succulent berries in early fall, this scenic corridor is popular with black bears determined to add a few pounds before winter sets in. When I visited this hot spot I found bruins precariously perched on limbs, stretching for berries in nearby bushes, and strolling down the road, bears so close my zoom lens stayed in its bag.
Grand Teton's other "wildlife windows" include the willow flats that moose frequent just off the back patio of the Jackson Lake Lodge, the pullout above Oxbow Bend of the Snake River where your binoculars will help you count white pelicans, osprey, mergansers, herons, and perhaps an eagle or two, and the sagebrush flats on either side of U.S. 89-191 north of Jackson where bison and pronghorn antelope often graze.
In Great Smoky Mountains National Park (www.nps.gov/grsm) many folks head to Cades Cove to admire deer, wild turkeys, and the occasional black bear that comes to raid the orchards. But a more remote spot I like for its solitude is Cataloochee. Here, just inside the park's eastern edge, you often can find elk in the fields around dawn and dusk. Kids will no doubt appreciate the Smokies for being the "salamander capital of the world," with every creek offering them an opportunity to spot one of these amphibians.
At Cape Cod National Seashore (www.nps.gov/caco) you often can spot seals just off the beach, and on occasion dolphins. Your best bet for spying sea life at Cape Cod, though, is to head out on a whale-watching cruise into the waters off Provincetown and toward Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary. I like the crews that of the Dolphin Fleet (www.whalewatch.com) as they rely on scientists actively conducting research to provide on-board interpretation of what you see.
Other hot spots for wildlife? Rocky Mountain National Park (www.nps.gov/romo) practically overflows with elk and bighorn sheep, Grand Canyon National Park (www.nps.gov/grca) is the best national park for spotting California condors, and Glacier National Park (www.nps.gov/glac) has the market cornered on mountain goats.
Those are just some of the most obvious parks with great wildlife-watching opportunities. Lesser known places include Point Reyes National Seashore (www.nps.gov/pore), where a kayak trip across Tomales Bay can encounter seals, spot bat rays under water, Tule elk on the shores, and brown pelicans overhead. Visit from December through April and you might be able to spot 2,000-5,000-pound Northern elephant seals on the seashore's beaches.
To increase your odds of seeing wildlife, get out shortly after dawn, or shortly before dusk, when the animals are more likely to be out and about. Just remember, keep your distance. Bison might look docile, but they can pack a punch. Ditto with elk, moose, and, of course, bears.
Kurt Repanshek is the author of several national park guidebooks, including National Parks With Kids. You can get a daily dose of national park news, trivia, and commentary by visiting www.nationalparkstraveler.com. This site tracks "Commentary, News, and Life in America's Parks." Along with offering travel tidbits for those visiting the national parks, the Traveler offers anecdotes, insights, and a place for park junkies to speak their minds and stay atop park-related issues.