AAA Travel Tips / 4 Epic North American Destinations for Wildlife

4 Epic North American Destinations for Wildlife

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By Samantha Brown , Host of “Samantha Brown’s Places to Love”
June 25, 2019
Jack Hanna once said, “The world is the true classroom. The most rewarding and important type of learning is through experience, seeing something with our own eyes.” That’s especially true when it comes to wildlife. Many zoos are great and all (another Hanna quote: “Zoo animals are ambassadors for their cousins in the wild”), but there’s nothing quite like seeing an animal in its habitat.
If you’re a wildlife lover, here are a few epic adventures to consider.
Bison in Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming
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Take a Safari in Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons
When I say “safari,” you probably think of Africa. However, this Swahili word simply means “journey,” and you can take one in the great North American West. Home to elk, bald eagles, moose, bison, wolves and grizzly bears, the wildlife in Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons really does rival that of Africa—it’s just a little more familiar if you’re from the USA.
A scenic drive through either of these parks will likely render close encounters with wildlife, but if you crave a hefty dose of insider information, why not book a guided tour? There are a few companies who offer highly trained guides, like Triangle X Ranch Float Trips and Grand Teton Lodge Company Wild and Scenic Rafting Trips.
Monarch butterfly migration
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Experience the Monarch Migration in Mexico
Whenever I see a monarch butterfly, I can’t help but smile. But there is something truly magical about the annual monarch migration. Each fall, millions of monarch butterflies pack their proverbial bags and head 3,000 miles south for the winter—a journey none of them has ever taken before. They wait out the cold in the mountains of southwestern Mexico. From November through March, you can explore the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve, named a UNESCO World Heritage site. Sturdy hiking shoes and a willingness to trek slowly up a mountain will reward travelers with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see millions of butterflies up close and personal.
Please note that you’ll have to register as a visitor and tour the area with a local guide. Though some companies offer day trips from Mexico City, it’s quite a haul to the butterfly colonies. Instead, you may want to spend a night or two in nearby Angangueo, a charming and historic mining town nearby. Ok, twist my arm!
Alligator sunning on a log
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Watch Birds (and Gators) in the Everglades
Everglades National Park is probably most known for its alligators, but it’s also one of the best places in America for birders. The Everglades are home to over 360 bird species. There are 16 species of wading birds, including the ibis, the wood stork (one of the quickest animals when it comes to catching prey) and the colorful roseate spoonbill. You’ll also find many unique birds of prey, like the snail kite—native to Florida and Cuba, and on the endangered species list since 1967. Of course many other animals call the park home, including manatees, bottlenose dolphins, mink, Florida panthers, grey foxes and more.
For an immersive experience, I say get on the water (but not in it)! Flamingo Everglades offers 90-minute guided boat tours in the backwaters as well as kayak, canoe, pontoon and houseboat rentals. Not a water fan? Rent a bike and explore the park’s 43 miles of paved and primitive trails, or take a ranger-led walking or driving tour offered by Everglades National Park's Flamingo Visitor Center.
Inspiration Point at Anacapa Island in California
iStockphoto.com/Ricks Moulton
Hike to a Seal Rookery in the Channel Islands
It’s not necessarily the variety of wildlife that makes this park special. Instead, its remote location has allowed certain subspecies of terrestrial animals to emerge—23 to be exact! For example, island fox and deer mouse are both endemic creatures found only on the Channel Islands.
When it comes to marine life, prepare to be amazed. You’ll often find dolphins, porpoises, gray whales, orcas and even blue whales. Winter is the best time to see gray whales; humpbacks, blue whales, orcas and fin whales are occasionally seen in the summer when they come to the channel to feed.
One of the biggest wildlife draws has to be the islands’ seals and sea lions. You’ll see these marine mammals basking on rocks throughout the area. Hardcore adventurers should consider hiking to Point Bennett. Getting there requires a 15-mile, ranger-led hike on San Miguel Island—the most remote of the five islands. Considering there are no services on the island, you must come prepared! That said, those who make the trek are rewarded with views of thousands of northern elephant seals, California sea lions, northern fur seals and harbor seals.
The islands are only accessible by park concessionaire boats (Island Packers), planes (Channel Islands Aviation) or private boats. Island Packers offer a great variety of cruise options, including a 3-hour, non-landing excursion; whale-watching trips; as well as ferry service to and from the island for campers and day-trippers.
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