On the eve of the 100th anniversary of our national parks, plan to enjoy some awesome wildlife viewing
According to recent surveys, the great American vacation is on its way out. Sadly, fewer Americans are taking time off to rest, relax and rejuvenate. This fall, help preserve an American tradition and take a vacation that’s good for your psychological and physical health: wildlife viewing.
Studies have shown that watching wildlife improves your mental health by engaging your senses, encouraging mindfulness and instilling a sense of awe. Awe makes you feel more generous, humble, trusting and empathetic. It also expands your perception of your potential by connecting you to things bigger than yourself. And, thanks to a study published earlier this year in the academic journal Emotion, we now know that awe is good for our bodies, too. It has an anti-inflammatory effect, which helps to protect us from chronic disease.
So as you venture forth into the landscape, quiet your mind and focus. When you spot an animal—whether wolf, crocodile, jackrabbit or elf owl—watch it and lose yourself in the experience. Your horizons will expand and you’ll return home feeling humbled and inspired.
Where to Watch
It’s possible to watch wildlife in your own backyard or at a local wildlife sanctuary, but by making the trip to one of our amazing national parks, you can encounter rare species and “charismatic megafauna.” Here are some of the best national parks for wildlife viewing, and the animals you are likely to encounter at each. Before you go, be sure to familiarize yourself with each park’s rules and safety tips.
Everglades National Park, Florida
At approximately 2,400-square-miles, Everglades National Park is the largest subtropical wilderness preserve in the U.S., with alligators, crocodiles, egrets, flamingoes, herons, manatees, bobcats and the elusive Florida panther.
Viewing Tip: Consider renting a canoe or kayak or taking a wildlife tour on a boat.
Denali National Park and Wildlife Preserve, Alaska
With more than six million acres of wilderness, Denali is the third largest park in the U.S. Bird watchers can see bald eagles, golden eagles, red-tailed hawks, peregrine falcons, northern hawk owls, ravens, ptarmigans and other birds. Mammalian residents include black bears, grizzly bears, wolves, caribou and moose.
Viewing Tip: The National Park Service suggests viewing wildlife by bus tour. Private vehicles are only allowed into the park up to Mile 15, but buses are allowed to travel deeper into the park.
Glacier National Park, Montana
Glacier National Park offers visitors 1,584-square-miles of pristine wilderness that includes forests, lakes, meadows and mountains. It is perhaps most famous for the snow-white mountain goats that populate its alpine ecosystems. But you can also see elk, grizzly bear, black bear, gray wolf, lynx, wolverine, cougar, bald eagles, golden eagles, harlequin duck, Clark’s nutcracker, ptarmigan and more.
Viewing Tip: You’re most likely to see mountain goats on steep cliffs; and grizzly bears are often spotted on the Garden Wall Trail.
Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado
This 415-square-mile park is home to elk, bighorn sheep, moose, otters, mule deer, marmots and other mammals. Avian residents include Clark’s nutcrackers, Steller’s jays, golden eagles, prairie falcons, ptarmigans and more.
Viewing Tip: Bighorn sheep can usually be spotted at Sheep Lakes. Golden eagles can be seen along Trail Ridge Road.
Saguaro National Park, Arizona
This 143-square-mile park in the heart of the Sonoran desert is a perfect destination for reptile enthusiasts. Watch for Gila monsters, horned lizards, desert tortoises, Western coral snakes, Sonoran mountain kingsnakes, six different species of rattlesnakes and more.
Mammals include jackrabbits, javelinas, kangaroo rats, bobcats, mountain lions, black bears, coyotes, foxes and bats. Bird watchers can see the iconic roadrunner, as well as elf owls, Gila woodpeckers, ravens, Harris hawks, cactus wrens and hummingbirds.
Viewing Tip: Look for Gila woodpeckers, elf owls, screech owls, purple martins and other birds that make their homes in nest cavities inside the saguaro cactus.
Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming, Montana and Idaho
This 3,468-square-mile preserve was established in 1872 as America’s first national park. In addition to Old Faithful and other geothermal wonders (more than 10,000 geysers, hot springs, mudpots and fumaroles), visitors have a chance of seeing bald eagles, bighorn sheep, bison, black bears, coyotes, elk, grizzly bears, mountain lions, mule deer, pronghorn antelope and gray wolves.
Viewing Tip: Hayden Valley is the place to see bison, elk and grizzlies; and Lamar Valley is a good spot for wolves.
National Park Service, nps.gov
You can search parks by name, state, activity or topic.
Belinda Recio, recipient of the Humane Society’s Award for Innovation in the Study of Animals, owns True North Gallery (truenorthgallery.net) in Hamilton, MA, where she exhibits art that connects people with animals and the natural world.