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Best Destinations in the U.S. for Wildlife Watching

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The United States is the world’s leading nation for wildlife tourism, according to the Global Wildlife Index. Created by the touring company True Luxury Travel, the ranking system considers factors such as wildlife biodiversity, conservation efforts and the number of national parks. The U.S. is home to an impressive 60 national parks, and numerous protective areas that are perfect for viewing a variety of wildlife.

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Here are the top places nationwide for wildlife travel:

San Juan Islands, Washington

The Pacific waters surrounding this archipelago of 172 islands, offer some of the most incredible opportunities in the world for whale watching. Orcas, also known as killer whales, can be spotted year-round, but you’re more likely to catch a glimpse of the three main pods of orcas – the “Southern Residents" – from May to September. If you’d like to spend more time exploring the area beyond San Juan, explore the Whale Trail, which includes San Juan and a string of whale-watching sites in the Pacific Northwest. Take a whale-watching cruise led by San Juan Safaris, a leading ecotourism group in the area, to spot humpbacks, minkes, gray whales, sea lions and Dall’s porpoise. 

Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Alaska

The traditional home of the Iñupiat and Gwichʼin peoples, ANWR is the largest and northernmost wildlife refuge in the U.S., and one of the most biodiverse areas on the planet. Roughly the size of South Carolina, with no roads or facilities, ANWR is as remote as it is beautiful. And while the most experienced outdoor enthusiasts visit the refuge alone, there are expertly guided tours that will allow you to safely explore.

Opportunities for wildlife viewing in ANWR are astounding. Watch as the 200,000-strong Porcupine Caribou herd migrates to the plains of ANWR during a caribou spotting tour. Experience the joy of new life, as mother caribou settle in the area every June to give birth to their calves and rear them during their first weeks. See more than 200 bird species from all 50 states and across the world migrate to the refuge to nest. View polar bears during trips that depart from Kaktovik, a small Inupiat village. In fact, ANWR is home to all three species of North American bears: black, brown and polar.

Cape May National Wildlife Refuge, New Jersey

Home to the New Jersey Audobon “World Series of Birding” – a marathon day of bird watching – Cape May is known for spectacular birding. Located on the southern tip of New Jersey, the shore and inlands are home to a plethora of hawks, warblers, shorebirds, wintering waterfowl, swallows, wrens, sparrows and spring songbirds. The annual Cape May Festival brings thousands to the area to marvel at the height of spring migration.

According to National Geographic, which lists Cape may as a “World’s Best” destination for birding, the area is perfect for birdwatching because “the narrow peninsula at Cape May acts as a bird funnel, bringing in songbirds during their spring and fall migrations.  Check the Cape May Bird Observatory page for birding tours and events. 

Denali National Park and Wildlife Preserve, Alaska

We would be remiss if we didn’t include a second Alaskan destination on this list. Rugged and wild, with many lands that have yet to be explored, Alaska has earned being called “The Last Frontier.” The state’s natural areas are unparalleled, Denali being one of the most notable. Covering six million acres in Alaska’s interior, the park provides prime viewing of arctic wildlife, against the backdrop of snow-covered Mount McKinley. Take a wildlife safari, along Denali Park Road to spot grizzly bears, moose, caribou, wolves and Dall sheep. If you’re into birding, over 150 species of migratory birds swarm the area, including hawks, golden eagles, falcon, northern hawk owls, snow geese, arctic warblers and red-tailed hawks. 

Pro tip: Sable Pass at Mile 39 on Denali Park Road is an ideal place to spot bears, wolves and caribou. You can also watch bald eagles soaring above lakes, streams and creeks on the south side of the Alaska Range.

Maui, Hawaii  

The island’s 727 miles of beautiful and varied landscapes – volcanic ridges, beaches and verdant wilds – are idyllic for wildlife watching. On a Safari tour, keep your eyes peeled for Hawaiian Monk Seal, Geckos, Manta Rays, Spiner dolphins, Humpback whales and Mongoose. The best place to spot humpback whales from January to March is the Papawai Scenic Lookout, just north of Ma‘alaea. At sunset, visit the Ho‘okipa Beach Park for views of majestic, 300-pound Hawaiian green sea turtles lounging in the sand. Kanaha Beach Park in Kahului, and Kealia Pond National Wildlife Refuge in Kihei are amazing places to spot the hundreds of species of native Hawaiian birds.  

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