Little takes us out of ourselves and the civilized anxieties that necessarily plague us like watching wildlife in its natural habitat. That fleeting sense of connection with the wild touches the creatures within us, drawing out an instinctive life that is deeply attuned to the environment around it. Over the vast width of the United States, across plains, forests, mountains and oceans, there are a huge variety of places and spaces in which to pursue such experiences. The best time to do so is usually between dawn and dusk, or during particular migrations – like the spring migrations of waterbirds, or the summer migration of grey whales – when thousands can be seen following the tug of ancient instinct.
Texas is a naturally colorful state, carpeted during spring with its own endemic wildflower, the Texas bluebonnet, and home to some of the most diverse birdlife in the country. A beautiful place to observe this wildness, which feels blessedly far from civilization, is the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, located 180 miles south of Austin on a rugged stretch of Texas coastline. Here, among 400 species, you can glimpse some of America’s rarest birds, such as reddish egrets and the whooping crane. Animal life across the refuge’s marshes, prairies, beaches and barrier islands includes sea turtles, alligators, coyotes, deers, frogs, snakes, bees and butterflies.
Between the misty mountains, lakes and redwood forests of the north, the arid deserts of the south, and its long Pacific coastline, California encompasses an immensely wide range of natural habitats. The Imperial National Wildlife Refuge, cut in half by the Colorado River, contains both swampy wetlands and the northern range of the Sonoran desert. Ducks, geese and waterbirds live among its marshland, whiptail lizards and jackrabbits inhabit its desert, while ambling between the two are the larger forms of bighorn sheep and mule deer. In the middle of the San Francisco Bay, the Don Edwards Wildlife Refuge is a sanctuary from the built-up shorelines surrounding it, containing a wide variety of bird species (shorebirds, raptors, waterfowl, wading birds), mammals, reptiles and a handful of endangered species.
An unexpectedly wild world thrives in the backyard of America’s biggest city. Flung out on the far tip of Long Island, you can find the coastal Elizabeth A Morton Wildlife Refuge, covering a peninsula fringed with sand-and-rock beaches, towering wooded bluffs, marshland and fields. This is a particularly excellent landscape for birdwatching, with osprey, terns and piping plover soaring above the land and sea. Alternatively, only 26 miles west of Manhattan’s Times Square, the wetland wilderness of the Great Swamp Wildlife Refuge is a 12-square-mile natural oasis set in the middle of suburban desert. It is ideally situated for migrating waterfowl, including widgeons, teals pintails and shovelers, and is also home to white-tailed deer, red foxes, otters, coyotes, and even the occasional black bear.
Wyoming has remained wilder than most other U.S. states. Its sagebrush plains, marshy wetlands, rocky foothills and alpine peaks are home to a wide array of bird and animal life, including several large mammal species long since driven out of most of the rest of the United States. Down in the valleys and meadows of Grand Teton National Park you can watch bison, moose and coyote amble through the long grass, while the geyser-strewn landscape of Yellowstone National Park is home to grizzly and black bears, grey wolves and lynx. And there are several other less dramatic, but still wide and wild landscapes ideal for wildlife watching, such as Seedskadee National Wildlife Refuge, with its riverine and wetland habitats sheltering trout, crayfish, eagles, swans, otters and grouse. Finally, a visit to the National Elk Refuge is essential during the winter, when the 11,000-strong Jackson Elk Herd migrate there.
Sitting directly on top of Wyoming, Montana has more animal species than any other of the 48 contiguous states. This diversity includes soft-pawed predators such as wolves, grizzlies, lynx and mountain lions; fleet-footed herbivores such as deer, antelope and mountain goats; and a broad spectrum of birdlife. Its natural landscapes are soundtracked by the beautiful song of the state bird, the meadowlark. Montana’s most spectacular habitats are ranged around the immense wilderness of Glacier National Park, a million acres of alpine peaks, lakes meadows, and glacier-carved valleys, populated by grizzlies, wolves, lynx, elk and golden eagles. The hiking trails through Custer National Forest which snake around sections of the Beartooth Mountains, offer plentiful opportunities to encounter bighorn sheep, mountain goats, black bears, cougars and bobcats. And birders should wing straight over to Ninepipes Reservoir, which hosts a great diversity of bird species
Once you break free of the states with contiguous borders, the American wilderness unfurls on a whole new scale – Alaska is over twice the size of the second largest state, Texas. One great tract of Alaskan wilderness which remains surprisingly accessible is Denali National Park, encompassing over six million acres of subarctic terrain, including the tallest peak in North America, Mount McKinley. Roaming the park’s rolling plains, spruce forest and Alpine slopes are grizzlies, moose, dall’s sheep and snowshoe hares, and if you’re exceptionally lucky you might glimpse some as you pass through the park by bus or train. But to have a chance of really observing these creatures, you’ll need to hike out into the park’s vast backcountry. If this sounds a little too challenging, Alaska has a number of wildlife centers where you can get close to its non-human inhabitants: visit the Alaska Raptor Center for birds of prey, the epically-named Fortress of the Bear for brown bear cubs, and the Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve to see eagles soaring in sublime surroundings.
Dangling off the south-eastern edge of North America, Florida’s balmy subtropical climate could hardly be more different to Alaska’s ice-capped crags. Its unique natural world reaches its most unusual, eery and unforgettable in Everglades National Park, a humid wetland wilderness situated at the very south tip of the state. Here, across cypress swamps, hardwood forests, marshland and mangroves, a variety of wildlife flourishes that is unlike anywhere else in the US. American crocodiles, Florida panthers, West Indian manatees, wood storks and white ibis are among the creatures you can encounter on boardwalk hikes over the marshland or airboat rides through the swamps. Alternatively, much of Florida’s wildlife is marine, and the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge covers 140,000 acres of beautifully untamed shoreline, inhabited by 330 species of bird, 117 species of fish, snakes, alligators, turtles and dolphins.
The landscape of rural Massachusetts has a lot less wild grandeur than many of the other locations on this list. Over the past 300 years, much of its old-growth forest has been cleared for farmland, and species such as the elk and grey wolf have become locally extinct. But with the outsourcing of the country’s food supply, many of these farms have since been abandoned, and swaths of Massachusetts countryside have been slowly returning to the wild, in the form of secondary forests and open meadowland. One highly accessible site where you can see this renewed wilderness is Great Meadows Wildlife Refuge, which has several straight-forward trails leading to a wildlife observation tower and a separate platform. From these points, you have a good chance of glimpsing some of the refuge’s 200+ bird species, including the great blue heron. Keep closer to the ground and you might see muskrats or the Blanding’s turtle. Another family friendly wildlife refuge is Pleasant Valley, with seven miles of accessible trails running through forest, meadows and wetlands. And the Massachusetts coastline can can be explored amid the rough land and open skies of Long Point Wildlife Refuge.
Arizona may bring to mind visions of the Grand Canyon snaking through arid acres of desert, but in fact the state’s landscape is far more diverse than this. Lodged between the Sonoran and Mojave deserts, for example, is the Bill Williams River which feeds into the Lower Colorado River, along which a Wildlife Refuge has been created. This refuge protects a landscape which remains very similar to that described in the journals of a group of Spanish explorers who travelled through the area in 1598: stands of cottonwood and willow trees lean over the water, grassy meadows fringe the riverbank, and rocky cliffs rise in the background. In this unique environment, visitors can see a large number of birds as well as bighorn sheep, mountain lions, mule deer and 23 species of dragonfly. In the north of Arizona, wildlife seekers can venture onto the forested slopes of the Mazatzal Wilderness Area, occupied by black bears, elk, deer and bobcats. Visitors who want to see some real desert can fill up their water bottles and head into the Kofa Wildlife Refuge, covering almost 700,000 acres of the Sonoran Desert and home to the desert tortoise, desert fox, bighorn sheep, and plentiful species of cacti.
From the old-growth forest cloaking the slopes of the Cascade Mountains to the wetlands of the Klamath Basin, Oregon’s dramatic natural world contains a wide range of habitats, home to creatures as diverse as forest-loving black bears and bare-rock-based porcupines. The state also has a long, forested Pacific coastline, which can be explored in Oswald West State Park, with its beautifully secluded sandy cove backed by basalt and sandstone cliffs. Further out in the Pacific, whale watching is a popular activity, particularly during the great grey whale migrations of January and June. More accessible is Tryon Creek State Park, located only a few minutes from downtown Portland, which is especially good for bringing children together with nature. A little further out from the city, but a lot more densely populated, the Tualatin River National Wildlife Refuge contains over 200 species of bird and 50 species of mammal.