North America is still a relatively unpopulated continent with many opportunities not only to experience wildlife from a distance but also to have up close and personal encounters with creatures like wolves, coyotes, mountain lions, sea otters and whales. With a little luck, you stand a good chance of seeing wildlife in each of the following locations, with the added bonus that these are some of the most gorgeous settings imaginable.
The park in the Chic-Choc mountains of Quebec hosts all that remains of a once thriving population of native caribou that roamed across Eastern Canada. I saw both moose and caribou here — the moose was standing right in the middle of the road on the morning we left, looking at us stubbornly.
About halfway down the coast of Baja California, there are several lagoons that gray whales use as a nursery to raise their calves. From January to March, you can see these whales at Scammon’s Lagoon –if you camp there at night, they come close to shore, and you can actually hear them. When I was there 20 years ago, a fisherman took people out on a rowboat, and we got close enough to touch these curious animals, who brought their babies up to take a look.
With a backcountry permit, you can camp amidst the bison that roam in this beautiful area adjacent to Badlands National Park. If you go in the summer, during their mating season, the male bison will be ornery. One charged out of a ditch at the side of the road and chased after my car, thinking the car was another bison — you have to exercise caution during any close encounter with this temperamental animal.
This Arizona wilderness area is a great place to look at the stars and see animals. The time I was there, we had the good luck to select a backcountry campsite near a den of kit foxes, and these unbelievably cute animals wandered in and around our campsite every evening. We also saw javelina, canyon warblers, and a five foot-long western diamondback rattler.
The headwaters of the Crystal River are one of the best places in Florida to see the West Indian Manatee. You can’t view the manatees up close and personal in Three Sister Springs, because of their status as protected animals, but Three Sisters Springs is a good base to learn about manatees, and you can set up a snorkeling, boat or dive tour in nearby Crystal River see these creatures in their natural setting.
Lory State Park and Horsetooth Reservoir
Both Lory State Park and the adjacent Horsetooth Reservoir, located about ten miles from Fort Collins, Colorado, have an amazing variety of wildlife. I have seen mountain lion tracks here and come with 30 feet of black bear, coyotes and deer hiking on the trails of this park and over the grassy bluffs that surround the reservoir.
Okay, this is not a wilderness area — far from it. But the Huntington Botanical Gardens, a 207 acre oasis amidst the wealthy suburbs of Pasadena, California, is one of the most beautiful places in the world to interact with wildlife. If you sit in a quiet section of the cactus garden for long enough, bands of quail will show up and walk all around you — an experience that is highly recommended.
Olympic National Park
This park near Seattle in the Pacific Northwest is the only place I’ve seen a mountain lion. We heard several lions crying outside our tent that night, and the early the next morning, we caught a glimpse of one of them. In addition to lions, Olympic National Park hosts a large herd of Roosevelt elk and is the home of the Olympic marmot, which you can see sunning itself on rocks in the mountainous regions of the park.