21 Places to Safely See Wild Animals Up Close

Best Places to See Wild Animals


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Best Places to See Wild Animals

Where the Wild Things Are

When we think of where to see wildlife, we often think of national parks or even state parks. And while these publicly owned treasures are certainly a great way to gaze upon North America's wildest creatures, there are plenty of other destinations, near and far, where enthusiasts can check out animals of all species. And many of these guarantee a more immersive wildlife experience while also offering amenities that can make the trip more fun and family friendly. Here are safari parks, animal sanctuaries, wildlife centers and, yes, national and state parks and refuges in the U.S. and Canada, where you can get up close and personal with lions, tigers, bears, and much, much more.

Related: Birdwatchers Flock to These 15 Prime Spots Across America

Lee G. Simmons Conservation Park & Wildlife Safari, Ashland, Nebraska
Megan W./Yelp

Lee G. Simmons Conservation Park & Wildlife Safari | Ashland, Nebraska

This 440-acre park, which you drive through in some parts and hike through in others, is a chance to see bison, wolves, black bears, elk, deer, prairie dogs, and plenty of birds, including eagles, pelicans, and cranes. It hosts special events, such as day camps and campouts, and there's also a "hands-on corral" for kids where they can interact with pygmy goats, chickens, and a 1956 John Deere tractor. Admission ranges from $9 to $12, depending on age and military status.

Fossil Rim Wildlife Center, Glen Rose, Texas
Misty S./Yelp

Fossil Rim Wildlife Center | Glen Rose, Texas

Among the juniper trees, live oak groves, and limestone outcroppings of this north-central Texas town near the Brazos River is Fossil Rim, a more than 30-year-old organization devoted to "the preservation and procreation of threatened and endangered species." And its animal array is indeed impressive, with addax and wildebeests, an African spurred tortoise, birds such as macaws, parrots, a Japanese red-crowned crane, and — cue the awwws — even a Vietnamese pot-bellied pig. It offers guided tours, or you can drive through yourself, with prices for both ranging from around $25 to $60.

The Wilds, Cumberland, Ohio
Jennifer S./Yelp

The Wilds | Cumberland, Ohio

The Wilds calls its Open-Air Safari its "most popular experience." For $150 per person, guides will drive visitors in an open vehicle through ranges to view rhinos, giraffes, wild horses, cheetah, and other rare and endangered animals, with two stops along the way at Lake Trail and Carnivore Center. There are also specialty tours, a zipline tour and, if you stay longer than you intended — and based on reviews, you probably will — you can lodge overnight at one of three accommodations.

Lion Country Safari, Loxahatchee, Florida
SamKat P./Yelp

Lion Country Safari | Loxahatchee, Florida

This safari park near West Palm Beach isn't just about animals — it includes five theme-park-style rides, a water sprayground, dining, shopping, and even an on-site KOA. But with more than 1,000 creatures, they're definitely the main attraction. Though Lion Country clearly aims to be family-friendly entertainment, they're equally as focused on animal conservation, education, and care. Visitors can take part in special tours or guide themselves, via car or foot, through its 300 acres. Admission ranges from $37 to $49, depending on age, and annual passes are available.

Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge, Wells, Maine
Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge

Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge | Wells, Maine

This wildlife refuge, one of more than 560 in the U.S., has been recommended as one of the top in the country by both National Geographic and Audubon in the last few years. Established in 1966, it protects salt marshes and estuaries for migratory birds along 50 miles of coastline in two Maine counties, and includes other habitat areas such as coastal meadows, barrier beaches and dunes, and the rocky coast. Visitors can see piping plovers, saltmarsh sparrows, ducks, many types of shorebirds, as well as New England cottontail rabbits.

Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming and Montana

Yellowstone National Park | Wyoming and Montana

No list of places to spot wildlife is complete without America's first national park — and for good reason. It abounds in bison, and bear and wolf sightings are not uncommon. In fact, the park is home to around 400 species of mammals, birds, fish, amphibians, and reptiles. Yellowstone's two sweeping valleys, Lamar and Hayden, not only offer a break from the traffic, crowds, and ubiquitous geysers, but they're also your best bet for spotting various species of large mammal.

Red Rocks Lakes National Wildlife Refuge, Lima, Montana
USFWS Mountain Prairie

Red Rocks Lakes National Wildlife Refuge | Lima, Montana

Or, avoid the Yellowstone crowds and head straight to Red Rock Lakes, about 30 miles west of the national park. Here, you'll see many of the same species that make Yellowstone home, including wolves, bears, bull moose, elk, river otters, and more. There are also the trumpeter swans that the refuge was created to protect in 1935. Fewer than 70 were known to exist then; today it's estimated there are more than 46,000 in North America. What's the opposite of a swan dive?

Churchill River Estuary, Churchill, Manitoba
Travel Manitoba

Churchill River Estuary | Churchill, Manitoba

Seeing one beluga whale in the wild would be an incredible experience. In this area near the northeastern tip of Manitoba on the Hudson Bay, you can see thousands at once in the mid- to late summer as they gather to feed and give birth. You don't have to join a tour, but they do exist, and could put you in a kayak right next to the white whales. If you stay a little longer, you might encounter polar bears via a tundra vehicle safari in the fall.

Oregon Coast National Wildlife Refuge Complex, Oregon Coast

Oregon Coast National Wildlife Refuge Complex | Oregon Coast

A wildlife refuge "complex" is a grouping of two more refuges, and this area along 320 miles of Oregon's coast contains six. In addition to stunning scenery, visitors have the chance to peep dozens of seabird species, the Pacific Chorus Frog, sea lions, and even whales in Whale Cove near Depoe Bay. For best access — many of the refuge areas are closed to public use — head to Cape Meares. Founded to protect coastal old growth forests, it's home to bald eagles, peregrine falcons, and the penguin-like murre. Visitors who hike the Oregon Coastal Trail, which passes right through Cape Meares, could even catch a glimpse of migrating whales.

Related: 14 Budget-Friendly Places for Whale Watching on the West Coast

Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado

Rocky Mountain National Park | Colorado

Though it only gets about a half to two-thirds of the visitors that Yellowstone gets, RMNP is a must-see destination for wildlife lovers and nature photographers. The 415-square-mile park rises from 8,000 to 14,000 feet, and includes more than 300 miles of hiking trails through both alpine and sub-alpine habitats. Here you'll find around 67 mammal and more than 200 bird species, including threatened and endangered animals. Budding or amateur lepidopterists can try to spot any of the 141 confirmed butterfly species, including the Silvery Checkerspot and the Juniper Hairstreak.

Related: 20 Ways to See the World and Help Save the Planet

Global Wildlife Center, Folsom, Louisiana
Matt G./Yelp

Global Wildlife Center | Folsom, Louisiana

Head to eastern Louisiana to Global Wildlife, which claims to be the largest totally free-roaming wildlife preserve in the U.S. Its inhabitants include more than 4,000 "exotic, endangered, and threatened" animals. It offers private tours and safari wagon tours, which the preserve likens to "Africa in Louisiana." The one hour-plus tour covers 900 acres and promises to bring visitors face to face with bison, giraffes, zebras, camels, elands, and more. Tickets range from $15 to $21, and many online reviews declare the price well worth it.

Saguaro National Park, Arizona

Saguaro National Park | Arizona

Not everyone who loves wildlife loves the fur- or feather-covered kinds. Saguaro NP offers up wildlife of the decidedly more prickly, hardy, and resourceful variety. With more than 91,000 acres, this national park is home to jackrabbits, javelinas, kangaroo rats, and plenty of desert reptiles like tortoises, iguanas, regal horned lizards, Gila monsters, and — ophiophobes beware — six species of rattlesnake. Even birders have something to see here, as birds often nest inside the park's iconic cacti. Visit between October and April to avoid the intense Arizona heat.

Related: Birdwatchers Flock to These Prime Spots Across America

Animal Place, Grass Valley, California
Joanne B./Yelp

Animal Place | Grass Valley, California

Not everyone's a wild animal person, and the Animal Place is a good option for those folks. This 600-acre sanctuary rescues neglected farm animals and gives them greener pastures in which to live out their lives — or be adopted. There are self-guided tours, but they don't allow much animal interaction, so your best bet is to sign up for a guided tour that lasts two hours and lets you interact with the creatures that call this sanctuary home and learn their back stories. The Animal Place is about an hour northeast of Sacramento, and guided tour admission is $15 per person.

Great Bear Rainforest, Northern British Columbia

Great Bear Rainforest | Northern British Columbia

With 21 million acres of coastal temperate rainforest wilderness, this British Columbian "Amazon of the North" is home to a huge list of wildlife like mountain goats, wolves, cougar, sea lions and sea otters, whales, and, of course, bears. The most bucket-list experience here, though, is to try to catch a glimpse of the elusive, cream-colored Kermode bear — aka the "spirit bear" — which are actually black bears with a recessive gene. There are local guides that can help you spot one from early September into mid-October. Canadian Bucket List recommends Marven Robinson on Gribbell Island, "a man who knows these bears better than anyone." 

Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge, Kilauea, Hawaii
Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge

Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge | Kilauea, Hawaii

This wildlife refuge is where a love of both nature and tropical vacation destinations intersect. Opened in 1985, it's a wonderful place to observe seabirds like Laysan albatross, red-footed boobies, and red- and white-tailed tropicbirds. But there are opportunities for non-birders as well, as Kilauea offers chances to see spinner dolphins, humpback whales, Hawaiian monk seals, and green turtles. Once you've had your wildlife fill, you can tour the nearby, 100-year-old Daniel K. Inouye Kīlauea Point Lighthouse.

Related: The Best of Hawaii on a Budget

The Wild Animal Sanctuary, Keenesburg, Colorado

The Wild Animal Sanctuary | Keenesburg, Colorado

Located about 45 minutes northeast of Denver, The Wild Animal Sanctuary rescues captive animals that aren't meant to live in captivity — bears, tigers, wolves, lions, and other large carnivores — and brings them to its more than 10,000 acres to be rehabilitated and "given a new life free from exploitation and abuse." Visitors view the wildlife from a 1.5-mile-long elevated walkway. Visits typically last about four to six hours, say the facility's founders, so a new welcome center offers a cafe, ice cream shop, water features, and a place to cool off. Tickets are $30 for kids 3-12 and $50 for adults.

African Lion Safari, Cambridge, Ontario

African Lion Safari | Cambridge, Ontario

Canada's "Original Safari Adventure" is home to more than 1,000 free-roaming exotic birds and mammals. Animal lovers can drive through its 750 acres, a third of which "provide animals with large areas of bush, grasslands or forest in which they can interact naturally with other animals." ALS also offers safari tours, boat cruises, a scenic railway wildlife-viewing option, and a daily early-morning, game warden-led tour called "Wake Up to the Wild." Families can make it a full-day experience by visiting the water park or playgrounds before or after checking out the dozens of animals. Admission ranges from $24 to $49, depending upon age and time of year.

Everglades National Park, Florida

Everglades National Park | Florida

With around 1.5 million acres of subtropical wilderness, this park near Florida's southern tip is abundant with freshwater, seawater, and terrestrial ecosystem species. Check out crocs and gators, bobcats, dozens of wading birds including flamingos, and maybe even the more elusive manatees and Florida panthers. There are boardwalks on which to stroll, but to get even more up close and personal with south Florida's creatures, consider a guided tour, or rent a kayak, canoe, or houseboat from which to explore.

Banff National Park, Alberta

Banff National Park | Alberta

Founded in 1885, Banff is Canada's oldest national park and a World Heritage Site. It's home to bighorn sheep, elk, deer, grizzly and black bears, coyotes, fox, wolves, and more. Like other wild animal-teeming national parks, Banff has strict rules about wildlife watching, so make sure you know those before you go, both for your own safety and for the wellbeing of the animals. Banff also offers plenty of opportunity to take a break from animal-spotting with hiking, fishing, cycling, and paddling, historic caves, museums, and hot springs.

Wind Cave National Park, Custer County, South Dakota

Wind Cave National Park | Custer County, South Dakota

There are plenty of lesser-known national parks that don't get the same attention for wildlife viewing that places like Yellowstone do — the Midwest's Wind Cave is one of them. Though many visitors come here to explore the underground cave system, the park's mixed-grass prairie lands offer abundant chances for wildlife viewing, including bison, elk, pronghorn, porcupine, and 2007-introduced black-footed ferrets, which the World Wildlife Fund called one of the most endangered mammals in North America. Custer State Park is also a short drive away, and there are plenty of opportunities to see bison up close and personal from the park's Wildlife Loop Road.

Parc Omega, Montebello, Québec
Parc Omega

Parc Omega | Montebello, Québec

This drive-through park offers five habitats in which to view wildlife — meadow, forest, mountain, lake, and the boreale (or arctic) region. In addition to those, there's a lot of family-friendly entertainment going on, including bird of prey shows, canoe-building workshops, pony rides and farm animal visits. Or stroll down the First Nations Trail, an opportunity to stretch your legs while you learn about the history of 11 of Québec's indigenous peoples, check out a Native American artist's totems, and feed carrots to Parc Omega's "not-shy" deer population. There's lodging on site for multi-day visits, and admission ranges from around $16 to $41.