Animal-lovers can find much to love in America’s national parks, which showcase a spectacular array of ecosystems and the abundant wildlife to match. Mountainous regions with massive acreage attract larger mammals, while smaller parks near urban areas are home to more familiar creatures. Destinations near bodies of water have the added bonus of aquatic wildlife. And don’t forget to look upward: Birds may be challenging to catch in a photo, but they’re fascinating to observe in action.
Some species are relatively easy to locate, while others are elusive or camouflaged. Planning a dawn or dusk adventure — or visiting during the less crowded off-season — may increase the possibility of encountering an animal. Sheer luck can also be a huge factor.
In America’s most popular national parks, we’ve rounded up 45 animals that it’s worth the effort to seek out. Some are mighty (grizzly bears, desert bighorn sheep, elephant seals), while others are adorable (beavers, marmots, pikas). All belong on your bucket list. Don’t forget your binoculars — or your camera.
1. Great Smoky Mountains National Park: American Black Bears
In the most-visited national park in America, which straddles the border between North Carolina and Tennessee, most of the terrain is filled with dense, deciduous forests. This can make it difficult to spot animals, but there are plenty of open areas (such as Cataloochee, Cades Cove, and the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail) to check out the wildlife.
If you’re lucky, you may spot the impressive American black bear. Approximately 1,500 of these magnificent creatures roam at all elevations in the park. They tend to be adept tree climbers, good swimmers and (a little frighteningly!) exceptionally quick at 30 miles per hour. Don’t forget to be mindful of cubs: Like humans, parents tend to be protective of their offspring.
2. Grand Canyon National Park: Desert Bighorn Sheep:
With a total area larger than the state of Rhode Island and several major ecosystems, the Grand Canyon in Arizona boasts plenty of space for animals to roam. On canyon walls and rocky terrain, the national park’s largest native animal, the desert bighorn sheep, can often be found with its brethren, roaming in small herds. River-rafters sometimes see a few desert bighorn sheep while sailing down the Colorado River.
From a considerable distance away in the fall, one can hear male sheep crash their horns against one another as they compete for females. The sound is staggering.
3. Zion National Park: Mule Deer
Nestled in southern Utah near four other national parks, Zion National Park is home to 68 species of mammals, including the elegant mule deer, named for its unique mule-like ears. Early morning and late afternoon hikers will most likely encounter mule deer grazing in meadows or alongside quieter roadways. Even though these animals are resilient to the high temperatures, they prefer to remain in the shade during most of the day.
4. Rocky Mountain National Park: North American Elk
Head to this high-altitude park on the western Continental Divide in Colorado, and you may catch a glimpse of North American elk, which can weigh up to 1,100 pounds and stand five feet at the shoulder, taller than some humans. In the fall, during a breeding season, traffic can be bumper to bumper as revelers converge to hear (and record) the unmistakable sound of males bugling to lure their mates.
Trust us: it’s worth the traffic to experience this extraordinary ritual.
5. Yosemite National Park: Coyotes
Along the way to the famous icons of California’s Yosemite National Park, trekkers often encounter coyotes. Their shy behavior may cause them to keep their distance, but their unmistakable howls will alert you to their presence.
For a better chance of seeing coyotes and other wildlife, come during the off-season from November through April.
6. Yellowstone National Park: American Bison
Sitting on top of an active volcano, Yellowstone is the site of one of the world’s largest calderas and experiences 1,000 to 3,000 earthquakes annually. Yet despite its frequent earthquakes, this Wyoming park boasts a higher concentration of mammals than anywhere else in the lower 48 states.
Bison, the largest land-dwelling mammal in North America, have lived in the area since prehistoric times. At Yellowstone, visitors will have no problem finding one; the park has the nation’s largest bison population on public property.
7. Acadia National Park: Peregrine Falcons
As the only national park in the Northeast, it is not surprising that Acadia, in Maine, is consistently among the top 10 most-visited in America. Decades ago, Acadia reintroduced previously captive peregrine falcon chicks into the wild. The park’s successful efforts allowed the government to remove these falcons from the endangered species list. At the shoreline, you may spot this crow-sized raptor dive toward its prey in the water at more than 100 miles per hour.
8. Olympic National Park: Gray Whales
Situated on an isolated Washington state peninsula, partially blocked by mountains, Olympic National Park offers four distinct regions to explore — an alpine area, a drier eastside forest, temperate rainforest and the glorious Pacific Ocean coastline. Along the coastline, marine-life lovers can view mega gray whales, measuring between 50 and 60 feet, from whale-watching cruise boats or on the shore. The best viewing time is in late spring and summer.
9. Grand Teton National Park: Pronghorns
Sixty-one species of mammals reside in Wyoming’s Teton Range, the youngest mountain range in the Rocky Mountains.
Among the most memorable of these are pronghorns, which look like African antelope but are actually not related. As the fastest mammals in the Western Hemisphere, with a recorded speed of 60 miles per hour and a sustained speed of 30 miles per hour, they are not to be messed with. Make sure to keep your distance!
10. Glacier National Park: Mountain Goats
Stopping along the Going-to-the-Sun Road, a 50-mile road connecting the east and west sides of Glacier National Park will usually reveal wildlife sightings. As the “Crown of the Continent” — with over 700 miles of trails on more than a million acres of pristine land — the Montana park is considered one of the best places to view wildlife. It’s always best to ask park rangers for the latest sightings.
Mountain goats, Glacier’s official park symbol, frequent Logan Pass as well as areas with rocky slopes, cliffs, and lakes. Since they love to lick salt in the wild, they’ve been known to lick park railings, where humans leave behind salty sweat. (Gross, but also a fascinating example of the interplay between nature and human activity.)