Big Bend
National Park
Grand Canyon
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National Park
Rocky Mountain
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Western United States: Wildlife Destinations

Big Bend National Park & Preserve

Big Bend's star species: Mountain lion • Bull snake • Great horned owl • Tarantula


Clinched in a loop of the Rio Grande, this 3,100-sq-km chunk of the Chihuahuan Desert supports a surprising diversity of plants and animals, including 60 cacti, 32 snakes, 12 owls and 75 mammals. This is mountain lion country, although you’re more likely to see black-tailed jackrabbit and the pig-like javelina, or collared peccary. Top bird ticks include Lucifer hummingbird, Mexican jay and and black-capped vireo.

Getting there West Texas, 110km south of Marathon. Nearest major airports are Midland/Odessa and El Paso.
Getting around No public transport into park.
When to go Park open year round.
Visitor centres Panther Junction Visitor Centre open daily.
Things to do Ranger activities, backpacking, hiking, cycling, Rio Grande float trips, birding, climbing.
Places to stay Campsites, Chisos Lodge (foreverresorts.com).
Further information nps.gov/bibe


Grand Canyon National Park

Grand Canyon's star species: California condor • Mountain lion • Bighorn sheep


Scan the cliffs and fir trees along the Grand Canyon’s South Rim late in the afternoon (Bright Angel Lodge is a good spot) and you may glimpse North America’s largest bird. There are just 370 California condors left in the world and around 70 are found in northern Arizona and southern Utah – a mixture of captive-bred individuals and broods raised in wild nest caves in the Grand Canyon. With a wingspan of 2.9m, these carrion feeders can soar effortlessly on thermals high above the 29km wide, 1.6km deep canyon. The South Rim is predominantly Sonoran desert scrub, inhabited by mule deer, bighorn sheep, rock squirrels and grey fox, while the North Rim lies in the Boreal zone – home to the secretive mountain lion and endemic Kaibab squirrel.

Getting there South Rim is 95km north of Williams, 128km northwest of Flagstaff. Flights serve Phoenix, Flagstaff, Las Vegas and Grand Canyon Airport. Greyhound bus and Amtrak rail stop at Flagstaff, with shuttles to Grand Canyon Village. North Rim village is 48km south of Jacob Lake, Utah and is only accessible by road.
Getting around Free shuttle bus around South Rim village and to various trailheads, including South Kaibab.
When to go South Rim all year, North Rim mid-May to mid-October.
Visitor centres South and North Rim.
Things to do Ranger activities, hiking, mule treks, river trips.
Places to stay Campsites and lodges.
Further information nps.gov/grca


Redwood National & State Parks

Redwood's star species: Coast redwood • Roosevelt elk • Pacific tree frog • Sea lion


Rising high and mighty in old-growth forest, the coast redwood (Sequoia sempervirens) is the undisputed crowd-puller of this park. However, the world’s tallest tree – exceeding 100m in height – is just one species in an extraordinarily diverse mosaic of ecosystems, ranging from forest and prairie to rockpool and beach. In a single visit, you could see everything from giant salamanders and black bears in shady forest to giant sea anemones and Steller’s sea lions along the Pacific-raked shore. Grey whales also migrate along the coast (December/January and March/April), while herds of Roosevelt elk can be seen grazing areas of prairie.

Getting there 520km north of San Francisco on Highway 101. Park headquarters is at Crescent City.
Getting around Redwood Coast Transit offers public transport.
When to go Park open year round.
Visitor centres Five centres, including Crescent City and Thomas H Kuchel Visitor Centres, open daily.
Things to do Ranger activities, backpacking, hiking, cycling, scenic drives, kayaking, horseback riding and horsepacking.
Places to stay Currently only campsites in the park.
Further information nps.gov/redw


Rocky Mountain National Park

Rocky Mountain's star species: Elk • Bighorn sheep • Moose • Marmot • Golden eagle


Boasting more than 60 peaks over 12,000ft (3,657m), Rocky Mountain National Park protects vast swathes of alpine tundra, as well as the headwaters of the Colorado River. Glacial moraines give way to meadows and lakes, while stands of ponderosa and aspen thicken to forests of spruce and fir. Although grizzly bear, grey wolf and bison are locally extinct, the park provides perfect habitat for several species of large mammal, including a summer population of over 3,000 elk (dwindling to 1,000 in winter). Standing up to 1.5m at the shoulder, bull elk rut during the autumn when they are best observed in Kawuneeche Valley, Horseshoe Park, Moraine Park and Upper Beaver Meadows. Listen for their call, or bugle – deep, resonant tones, rising to a high-pitched squeal, then dropping to a series of grunts.

Numbering around 800, bighorn sheep are most easily viewed at Sheep Lakes from May to mid-August; mule deer are common throughout the park, while moose favour willow thickets along the Colorado River in Kawuneeche Valley. Above the treeline, you’ll probably hear the whistles and squeaks of marmots and pikas before you spot the rodents busily foraging in alpine meadows. They’ll be alert for predators like mountain lion, coyote and golden eagle. Other birds in the park include Steller’s jay, prairie falcon, white-tailed ptarmigan, American dipper and broad-tailed hummingbird. Butterfly spotters won’t be disappointed either – no less than 139 species have been identified here.

Getting there Two-hour drive from Denver International Airport.
Getting around Free bus shuttles operate within the park and connect Estes Park with visitor centres and trailheads.
When to go Park open year round.
Visitor centres Beaver Meadows, Fall River and Kawuneeche (open year round), Alpine and Moraine (May-October).
Things to do Ranger activities, backpacking, hiking, cycling, fishing, climbing, Trail Ridge road tours, horse riding, skiing.
Places to stay Campsites, backcountry camping, lodges.
Further information nps.gov/romo


Yellowstone National Park

Yellowstone's star species: Brown bear • Grey wolf • American bison • Elk • Bighorn sheep

Established in 1872 as America’s first national park, Yellowstone has 3,122m Mt Washburn, a 32km-long canyon, waterfalls over 90m high and more than 300 geysers (60% of the world total). It is also big game country, supporting the largest concentration of large mammals in the lower 48 states, including bears and bison. Hayden Valley is one of the park’s prime wildlife-viewing sites. You can often see herds of bison here. Grizzly bears prey on calves during spring and early summer, while the bison rut occurs in late July and August. Coyotes are frequently spotted in the valley, while birdlife includes nesting sandhill cranes, bald eagles and white pelicans.

Yellowstone’s bison population fluctuates from 2,300 to 4,500 animals. Grizzly bears, meanwhile, number around 500, with a similar size population of black bears (preferring forested areas in the Lamar and Hayden Valleys). In contrast to the common coyote, Yellowstone’s bobcats, lynx, mountain lions, wolverines and wolves are much harder to see. Top of the menu for wolves, elk are the most abundant large mammals in the park, with some 30,000 split between seven or eight summer herds. Other native ungulates include mule deer, moose, bighorn sheep, pronghorn and white-tailed deer.

Getting there Sprawling through parts of Wyoming, Montana and Idaho, Yellowstone has several entrances. Nearest airports include Cody, Jackson, Bozeman, Billings and Idaho Falls. Buses link Bozeman and West Yellowstone.
Getting around Bus tours (including snowcoach tours in winter).
When to go Park open year round; most entrances close in November while roads are prepared for the winter season.
Visitor centres Albright (Mammoth Hot Springs), open year round; other visitor centres seasonal (Canyon, Fishing Bridge, Grant, Old faithful, West Yellowstone).
Things to do Ranger activities, hiking, cycling, fishing, horse riding, llama packing, skiing, snow-shoeing, snowmobiling.
Places to stay Campsites and lodges (xanterra.com).
Further information nps.gov/yell


Yosemite National Park

Yosemite's star wildlife: Mule deer • Black bear • Bighorn sheep • Mountain lion • Red fox


Yosemite’s waterfalls, giant granite cliffs and groves of giant sequoia are an irresistible lure to wilderness lovers. Scenic highlights include the 739m-tall Yosemite Falls and 2,695m Half Dome. While hiking the park’s trails, keep an eye out for Yosemite’s abundant wildlife, whether it’s mule deer in Yosemite Valley or Sierra Nevada bighorn sheep above the treeline. Be sure to visit the Mariposa Grove of giant sequoias and the subalpine Tuolumne Meadows (accessible around late May along Tioga Road).

Getting there Allow five hours to drive from San Francisco to Yosemite Valley. Amtrak runs a train/bus service to the valley; Greyhound serves Merced, from where transfers are available to Yosemite.
Getting around Free shuttle bus to some areas of the park.
When to go Park open year round, although some roads are closed during winter due to snow. Most waterfalls reach peak flow in May or June, running dry by August. Most wildflowers bloom in June.
Visitor centres Yosemite Valley and Tuolumne Meadows (open daily), Wawona Information Station (summer only).
Things to do Ranger activities, hiking, cycling, fishing, horse riding, rock climbing, cross-country skiing, snow shoeing.
Places to stay Campsites and lodges (xanterra.com).
Further information nps.gov/yose


Read the latest posts on North American wildlife travel

wildlife travel essentials: western united states


Major airline hubs include Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle and Denver, served by numerous airlines, such as American, British Airways  and United. Greyhound and Amtrak provide bus and rail services in the region.  


For wildlife tours in Yellowstone, try Yellowstone Safari Co. Guided hiking in Grand Canyon, Yellowstone and Rocky Mountain National Parks is available from Wildland Trekking. Green Tours features Redwood NP on its Northern California small-group trip, while WWF Tours has a wildlife trek in Big Bend NP.


Climate varies from cool summer fog along the Redwood coast to blistering heat in Big Bend NP and snow in the Rockies.

GMT-8 (Los Angeles), GMT-7 (Denver)


There are a wide range of lodges, hostels and campsites.


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Wildlife Wishlist was founded by zoologist, conservationist and award-winning travel writer and photographer William Gray. Sharing his passion for wildlife and recommendations for responsible travel, Will has spent around 30 years tracking down the world's best wildlife holiday experiences.