When Scottish-born naturalist John Muir set out in 1867 to walk 1,600km from Louisville, Kentucky to the Gulf of Mexico, he later wrote in his book: ‘My plan was simply to push on in a general southward direction by the wildest, leafiest and least trodden way I could find’. Muir’s boundless enthusiasm for nature later saw him venturing into the high Sierra of California. Of all his worldwide travels, nowhere stoked his burning passion for wilderness more than Yosemite Valley and he fought hard to protect it from commercial exploitation.
The tenacious Scot founded The Sierra Club (now one of the largest environmental organisations in the United States) and long after his death in 1914, he is still acclaimed as ‘Father of the National Parks’.
Some of North America’s fi nest wildlife areas are found within the national parks, wildlife refuges, national forests and marine reserves of Canada and the United States – a liberal scattering of protected areas that extends from the Alaskan panhandle to the Florida Everglades. They include Yellowstone, the world’s oldest national park, established in 1872, and numerous nature reserves and sanctuaries pioneered by organisations like The Nature Conservancy and National Audubon Society.
John Muir’s spirit lives on in the wonderfully diverse and uplifting travel experiences to be had in these wild places – from paddling a canoe on the pristine lakes of Ontario’s Algonquin Provincial Park to hiking the forests and alpine meadows of Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park.
Outside of Africa, there is nowhere better than North America for close encounters with large mammals, whether it’s tracking wolves in Yellowstone, watching grizzlies forage along the kelp-strewn shores of British Columbia or glimpsing bighorn sheep clattering along a cliff in the Grand Canyon. North America still has wilderness areas big enough to support the ground-swallowing Arctic migrations of the great caribou herds, while salmon runs and herring spawnings in the Northwest Pacific sustain healthy populations of whales, bears and seabirds.
But not everything is as John Muir would have liked it. North America’s flower-rich prairie lands have all but vanished; wildernesses are threatened by mining and oil drilling, and even national parks must contend with urban encroachment, climate change, pollution and visitor pressure. Responsible wildlife travellers can do their bit to ensure the future of Muir’s legacy by treating North America’s wild places with the respect and sense of wonder they deserve.
North America: Wild Places
20 wildlife destinations in North America
Alaska’s premier national parks like Denali, Katmai and Kenai Fjords (1) mix wildlife, wilderness and wow factor. Those with a yearning for truly remote places should plan a backcountry expedition to the Gates of the Arctic National Park (2). Alternatively, travel through Southeast Alaska (3) on the state ferry system, a marine highway that extends south from Glacier Bay through the forested islands and Pacific coast of British Columbia’s Great Bear Rainforest (4). Searching for orcas in Johnstone Strait (5) is one of the main draws of Vancouver island, but don’t miss Pacific Rim National Park (6) where temperate rainforest meets the ocean. More woodland wonders can be explored in the Pacific Northwest states of Washington and Oregon where Olympic National Park (7) can be combined with visits to Mount Rainier and the North Cascades. In California, tree-lovers should head for Redwood National Park (8). In the Sierra Nevada, meanwhile, Yosemite National Park (9) epitomises the great outdoors of the western United States. National parks in the Canadian Rocky Mountains (10) include Banff, Jasper, Kootenay and Yoho – all boasting spectacular scenery and wildlife ranging from moose and beaver to wolf and brown bear. In Colorado, Rocky Mountain National Park (11) and Grand Teton National Park (12) showcase the United States’ high places with magnificent snow-capped peaks, alpine meadows, sapphire lakes and forests. Offering a lifeline to large mammals like wolf and grizzly bear, Yellowstone National Park (13) is North America’s ultimate ‘big game’ destination, while the fragile remnants of the great prairie grasslands (protected in places like Tallgrass Prairie Reserve, Oklahoma (14)) provide a safe haven for plains bison. Wildlife also makes a stand in the watery wilderness of Midwest nature reserves like Voyageurs National Park (15) where you can paddle a canoe in search of moose, black bear and bald eagle. Further north, Churchill (16) has become established as one of the world’s top wildlife destinations, with tours to see polar bear in autumn and beluga whales in summer. Eastern Canada’s natural highlights include whale watching in the Gulf of St Lawrence (17) and Bay of Fundy (18), while the Eastern United States has wild woods in the Appalachian Mountains (19) and the teeming wetlands of the Everglades (20).
Read the latest posts on North American wildlife travel
HOW TO BE A RESPONSIBLE WILDLIFE TRAVELLER
When it comes to wildlife holidays, responsible tourism is not just an option – it should be considered an intrinsic part of the whole process. When planning your wildlife holiday in North America, read these 10 steps to minimise your impact on the environment, reduce your carbon emissions and support wildlife conservation and the livelihoods of local communities.
North America: Natural Zones
Habitats of North America
Permanent ice caps smother all but the fringes of Greenland, while Baffin, Ellesmere and other islands in the Canadian Arctic shed the frigid grip of pack ice for only a few months each summer. The exposed tundra is a blanket of bogs and mosses, freckled here and there with hardy alpine flowers. Tundra extends across the northernmost reaches of Alaska and the Canadian provinces of Labrador, Nunavut and Northwest Territories. As you head south, however, the barren plains become scattered with stunted conifers – resilient outliers of the huge boreal forest that shrouds much of Canada and the Alaskan interior.
The mighty conifer forests extend southward along the western mountains of the Coast and Cascade Ranges, greening British Columbia and reaching their crowning glory in the redwood forests of California. Boreal forest also marches along the Rockies, the continental divide bulging around the stark plains and sagebrush of the Great Basin before finally crumpling near the Arizona canyonlands and deserts of New Mexico.
East of the Rocky Mountains, the Great Plains lap at the foothills. This vast expanse of native grassland once flowed through central North America, from Alberta to northern Texas, but only a few protected islands of prairie remain in a sea of agriculture. Broadleaved forests cloak the Appalachian Mountains, an ancient range that mirrors the eastern seaboard from Alabama to Newfoundland.
Sandy beaches, estuaries and rocky shores rim the Atlantic coast, culminating in the subtropical wetlands of Florida and the salt marshes of the Gulf of Mexico. To the north, the gaping maw of the St Lawrence seems to gulp at the North Atlantic, its curling 1,200km-long gullet perfectly framed in the wolf-head profile of Québec.
North America: Wildlife Travel
HOW TO PLAN A WILDLIFE TRIP
With its extensive system of parks (including Yosemite, shown here), wildlife refuges and wilderness areas, a sophisticated tourist infrastructure and almost limitless travel options, North America is a superb natural history destination. You can make your forays into the wild as simple or as challenging as you like. Take bears, for example. At one extreme you can watch them on a guided tour from the comfort of a wilderness lodge; at the other, you could plan a weeklong camping trip, hiking through grizzly country. Independent travel is straightforward in North America, but be sure to obtain any necessary permits and wilderness experience before venturing off the beaten track. Also bear in mind the heavy tourist pressure that some national parks face during busy holiday seasons – travelling in quieter months may offer more rewarding wildlife watching opportunities. By visiting national parks, you play a part in their protection. Most offer ranger-led activities – an excellent way to learn about wildlife and conservation (the US Parks Service even has a Junior Ranger Program for children). Several First Nations communities also operate tours and ecolodges, providing a unique insight into the deep-rooted links between culture and wildlife in North America.
WILD CITY: VICTORIA, BC
Three resident orca pods (comprising nearly 100 whales) cruise the Juan de Fuca and Haro Straits off the southern tip of Vancouver Island, making Victoria perfectly placed for whale-watching cruises. In fact, during the prime months of April to October, some operators boast a 100% success rate. Tours last around three hours and you can step straight from Victoria’s waterfront onto either a high-speed zodiac, jet-powered catamaran or a more sedate motor cruiser – just make sure it’s a member of the Pacific Whale Watch Association which abides by guidelines for minimising disturbance to cetaceans. If you’re lucky you’ll see orca breaching and spy-hopping. Keep your eyes peeled for Dall’s porpoise torpedoing through the waves or the more leisurely passage of a grey or humpback whale. Sea lions are almost guaranteed and it’s also worth casting an occasional glance skyward – you never know when a bald eagle might make an appearance. For a view of what lies beneath, the marine sanctuary at Ogden Point Breakwater, a few minutes from downtown Victoria, promises some of the world’s best cold-water diving. Dive sites range from 8 to 35m in depth and you’re likely to see octopus, wolf eel, harbour seal and king crab.