It’s really not all happening at the zoo. Although most Americans may see their first wild animals in a cage, the best way to observe wildlife – paws down – is in their natural habitat. And U.S. national parks are prime places to see wildlife naturally. From a safe distance, of course.
Although watching wildlife is thrilling, it can also be dangerous. Visitors to any park should familiarize themselves with Park Service rules, such as keeping a safe distance from animals and never feeding or approaching them.
Staff with Xanterra Parks & Resorts, operator of lodges, restaurants, gift shops and activities at many national and state parks, offer these examples of the wild things that park visitors can see:
Yellowstone National Park
There’s something truly humbling about watching a lumbering bison slowly searching for food during Yellowstone’s unforgiving winter. And something abundantly heartwarming about watching playful, reddish-colored bison calves amble around their mothers in the spring.
For these huge animals -- long a symbol of the spirit of the American West -- survival is the top priority year-round. During the warm months, bison revel in the abundance of the park -- nearly anything green is fair game. A bison’s priority during the fair weather is to fatten up as much as possible to prepare for the winter, when food is buried under snow.
Some 4,000 bison reside in the park today. Even in summer, visitors may see groups of frost-covered bison in the early-morning mist found throughout the Upper Geyser Basin, home to Old Faithful geyser.
The moose population in Yellowstone has been declining for the last 40 years, and the Park Service speculates the change is due to several factors, including loss of old growth forests surrounding the park and the burning of winter habitat in 1988.
Today, fewer than 500 moose make their home in Yellowstone. Weighing up to a ton and standing up to 7 feet at the shoulder, moose are solitary creatures until the autumn mating season, when both cows and bulls are quite vocal as they search for a mate. Moose can be spotted in marshy areas of meadows, lake shores and along rivers.
Trumpeter swans, the largest wild fowl in North America, get their name from their trumpet-like call. There are two trumpeter swan flocks in Yellowstone. The resident population numbers between 28 and 55 swans, and the winter population varies from 75 to 119 swans.
The elegant birds can fly up to 80 miles per hour, but they are grounded for up to two months every year -- typically in the summer -- when they molt all their feathers and are rendered flightless.
Elk are the most abundant large mammals found in Yellowstone with their numbers ranging from 15,000 to 20,000 in summer and 8,000 to 20,000 in winter. The herd on the northern range in Yellowstone is one of the two largest in the country.
Elk can often be found grazing around the Mammoth Hot Spring Hotel, and it is not uncommon to awaken to the sight of a herd lounging under the hotel windows any time of the year.
The cougar -- also known as the mountain lion – is difficult to spot in the park. It is one of the largest members of the cat family in North America, behind only the jaguar. Some 15 to 17 cougars live in Yellowstone, but they also follow the elk herds and move to lower elevations in winter.
Since they were reintroduced in the park in 1995 and 1996, wolves have become the most discussed and controversial animal in Yellowstone. With approximately 175 wolves residing in the park, they are spotted on a daily basis year-round, particularly in the Lamar Valley.
Elk are wolves’ primary source of food, but wolves have also been known to kill adult bison and moose. The best time to see wolves any season of the year is at dawn or dusk.
When spring emerges in Yellowstone, so do the bears. Lucky visitors may catch a glimpse of black bears or grizzlies after they leave their dens and immediately begin teaching their young ways to forage and hunt for food.
Visitors to Yellowstone cannot see bears from late fall until sometime in the spring when they emerge from hibernation. An estimated 500 to 650 black bears and 280 to 610 grizzly bears live in the park. Male black bears can grow up to 600 pounds and grizzlies can reach half a ton.
Yellowstone National Park is also home to a variety of other mammals such as fox, coyote, bighorn sheep and otter.
Death Valley National Park
Contrary to the dire sound of its name, Death Valley is actually a thriving natural environment situated in the Mojave and California Desert's Biosphere Reserve along the California/Nevada border. The valley is home to more than 900 species of plants, six types of fish, five types of amphibians, 36 reptiles and 51 mammals.
Coyotes run wild on the Furnace Creek Golf Course, which also hosts owls, Canada geese and an occasional bobcat. North of Furnace Creek, halfway to Scotty's Castle, one finds sand dunes that rise up to 85 feet in height. The dunes are home to desert wildlife such as kangaroo rats, lizards, coyotes and kit fox.
Also seen in the park are desert tortoises, bighorn sheep, road runners, California condors, chuckwalla, sidewinders, red-tailed hawks and some of the largest crows one has ever seen. More than 346 species of birds migrate through or live in Death Valley.
Grand Canyon National Park
There are 355 bird, 89 mammal, 47 reptile, nine amphibian and 17 fish species living in Grand Canyon National Park. Because the of the park’s large size, range of elevations and climates, the park offers widely diverse habitat, from desert to forest.
The park is home to 45 California condors. With a wingspan of up to 9½ feet, the California condor is the largest land-based bird in North America. The birds use thermal updrafts to soar and glide at up to 50 miles per hour.
Known as opportunistic scavengers, the birds feed on dead animals in the Canyon. When they are not foraging for food they can be seen perched on cliffs and tall conifers in the park. The canyon is also home to deer, elk and their chief predator, the mountain lion.
Petrified Forest National Park
This vast Arizona park offers another view of animal survival in the harsh Southwestern desert. Coyotes, pronghorn antelope, bats, jackrabbits and cottontails are just a few of the mammals that make their home among the petrified wood of the park.
Visitors may be particularly thrilled to watch a pronghorn -- the fastest mammal in North America -- race through the park’s grasslands at up to 60 miles per hour. Observers will also be delighted to catch the zigzagging leaps of the jackrabbit trying to escape from a pursuing bobcat, coyote, fox or golden eagle.
Mount Rushmore National Memorial
Although it is not known as a wildlife habitat, Mount Rushmore is home to many mammals, reptiles and amphibians. It is common to see a mountain goat nonchalantly grazing near the 60-foot-high sculptures of Presidents Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt.
Frogs and garter snakes move along the walkway beneath the sculpture. And mountain lions have been known to visit the memorial too, although the people-shy felines generally do their visiting after hours. Visitors are also likely to see mule deer and white tail deer in the park.
Zion National Park
The Southern Utah park’s rugged landscape of canyons and cliffs is home to hardy mammals, birds and amphibians. Lucky visitors may spot a desert big horn or bobcat, although it is much more common to see a fox or coyote.
In addition to these carnivores, the park is home to several species of bats, shrews, rabbits and rodents. One of the most interesting inhabitants of the park is the ring-tailed cat, which is nocturnal and often quite inquisitive around picnic tables of unsuspecting visitors.