There’s no time like the present to squeeze in an epic escape. While you’re at it, might as well kick things up a notch with some action-packed animal encounters. Luckily, there’s no shortage of awesome wildlife-centric trips waiting to be discovered throughout the U.S.
These adventures range from mild to wild—and no, we don’t mean heading to the closest zoo. So whether you’re trying to get away before the leaves start to change, or planning further out into the future, these animal encounters are sure to impress. From high-octane excursions to educational experiences, there’s something for every type of traveler.
The Best Animal Encounters for Wildlife Enthusiasts
1. Become an Elk Expert in the Rockies
One of the best times to visit Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park is from late August through October. Not only does the 265,000-acre park burst to life in a dazzling display of autumnal foliage, but it also coincides with mating season for the region’s massive elk population. Formally known as “the rut,” visitors can get front-row access to an Elk Rut Safari with Yellow Wood Guiding. Spend an epic evening with a personal naturalist guide learning how to interpret subtle body language cues and getting a play-by-play commentary on the rut activity. Binoculars and spotting scopes are also available to bring everything into view, and Estes Park provides the perfect basecamp to experience it all.
2. Go Whale Watching off Avila Beach
When it comes to whale watching, California is the ultimate splash zone. The Golden State offers plenty of places to spot migrating whale pods, but for a guaranteed sighting, head to San Luis Obispo County and book an intimate experience with Avila Beach Whale Watching. Group tours are limited to six people to ensure unobstructed views during the two-hour excursion. Expect to see these playful creatures tail slapping and breaching in between snacking on local anchovies. Here, the top times for a humpback while sighting is May through November.
3. Experience the Custer State Park Buffalo Roundup
Want to go where the buffalo roam? Then head over to South Dakota. Custer State Park is the perfect place to spread out and reconnect with Mother Nature. Explore the park’s 71,000 acres of wilderness, punctuated by jagged granite peaks, rolling plains, and clear mountain waters. The park is also home to one of the world’s largest publicly owned bison herds, numbering more than 1,400. The best time to see these magnificent beasts is during the annual Custer State Park Buffalo Roundup, held the last Friday of September. Visitors will experience the Earth rumble as teams of cowboys and park crews saddle up to bring in the thunderous herd.
4. Go Swimming with the Sharks
Orlando’s expansive theme parks draw throngs of tourists from all across the globe, but those in search of unforgettable animal encounters away from the crowds should plan a visit to Discovery Cove. The all-inclusive day park (which caps attendance to about 1,300 visitors per day) provides a tropical getaway fit for the whole family. Guests can interact with dolphins, flamingos, stingrays, exotic birds, and more. But the most thrilling adventure is the Shark Swim Experience. During the program, participants will gain a deeper understanding of the various shark species (including nurse, zebra, bonnethead, and blacktip reef sharks) before suiting up and swimming with more than 20 sharks. Even better, a portion of all proceeds supports the Guy Harvey Ocean Foundation, which conducts scientific research and develops educational programs aimed at conserving the marine environment.
5. Behold the Bracken Bat Flight Experience
From March to October, the largest bat colony in the world meets at Bracken Cave. The cave was purchased by Bat Conservation International in 1992 and established as the Bracken Cave Preserve—encompassing nearly 1,500 acres. Located 20 miles east of San Antonio, Texas, it’s estimated that 20 million Mexican free-tailed bats roost in the cave. Every evening, the colony takes to the skies and forms a swirling, ominous cloud. The gathering is a wonder to behold and marks the largest known concentration of mammals on Earth. Those interested in marveling at the magic of the night can visit the preserve and partake in the Bracken Bat Flight experience.
6. Track Wild Wolves in Yellowstone
There’s a reason Yellowstone National Park is known as “America’s Serengeti.” The 3,500-square-foot park is home to the largest concentration of mammals in the lower 48 states—but none are as elusive as the wolf. Those looking to find these apex predators on the hunt in their snowy natural habitat can join one of the winter Wildlife Expeditions organized by Teton Science Schools. Participants will ride in specially designed Mercedes-Benz snow coaches while expert guides explain the park’s unique geothermal features. Wolf tracking in the region is most fruitful through the winter months and peaks in February during breeding season across Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho.
7. Join a Moose Safari in Maine
Northern Maine boasts the highest moose population in the contiguous United States (it’s also the official state animal). The best way to get up close and personal with these majestic creatures is during a Moose Safari with Northwoods Outfitters. Adventurers can choose between a hiking safari tour or a water-based experience in a kayak or canoe. Trace through the dense forests and towering mountains of the Moosehead Lake region while learning from their team of experienced local guides.
8. Get a Taste of the Iditarod
If you’ve ever envisioned mushing through the frozen, isolated landscapes of Alaska, then you’re in luck. Live out your dog-sledding dreams with Black Tomato and its customizable Alaska: Experience the Iditarod itinerary. Get to know the pack of racing huskies while learning the ropes of becoming a musher. Along the way, participants will assist the race by manning crucial road crossings on the official trail and get the unique opportunity to harness up and race their own dog team. Other adrenaline-fueled Alaskan adventures on the trip include ice climbing, rafting, heli-skiing, and snowmobiling.
9. Witness the Sandhill Crane Migration
Birdwatchers are in for a treat at the Iain Nicolson Audubon Center at Rowe Sanctuary located in Gibbon, Nebraska. Each spring, an estimated 80 percent of the world’s sandhill crane population converges on Nebraska’s Platte River valley. The pit-stop is used to rest and refuel during their once-per-year migration from Mexico, Texas, and New Mexico to breeding grounds in Canada, Alaska, and Siberia. During a Guided Crane Viewing Tour, people can witness the birds perform their elaborate courting ritual, which includes wing-stretching, head-pumping, and other carefully executed dance moves. They also offer an Overnight Photography Experience for shutterbugs looking to capture images of this time-honored tradition.
10. Embark on an Educational Sea Turtle Walk
Sea Island is an idyllic escape tucked away along the southeastern coast of Georgia. Home to the Forbes Five-Star Sea Island Resort, guests can join the nature team on a Sea Turtle Dawn Patrol. Explore the full length of Sea Island’s pristine beach at sunrise while patrolling for nesting sea turtles and hatchlings making their way out to the Sargasso Sea. Not an early riser? No worries—they also offer Sea Turtle Education and Night Walks that kick off later in the evening. Learn all about the fascinating life cycle of the threatened and endangered sea turtle species that nest along this charming region of the Atlantic coast.