Irene Croft Jr.
If wild critters are on your mind but Africa is too pricey for your wallet, look to America's magnificent national parks.
Kudos to our National Park Service for making it possible for visitors to have safe, close encounters with an astounding variety of homegrown wildlife.
Here are 10 top picks for exceptional wildlife experiences from the editors at www .GORP.com, an Internet portal providing comprehensive information and recommendations on our national parks. For highlights and details of each of the nearly 400 sites within the National Parks system, go to www.nps.gov/aboutus/parksindex.htm.
Channel Islands National Park, California: Known for sea lions, seals, gray whales and humpback whales. Isolated off the coast of California, the Channel Islands comprise a very different habitat from the Mainland. Here, steep cliffs, rocky beaches, pounding surf and grass-carpeted interior are home to a vast concentration of playful marine mammals and land animals. A highlight of this "Galapagos of the U.S." is a hike to Bennet Beach on San Miguel Island, where as many as 50,000 seals and sea lions congregate in one place.
Glacier Bay National Park, Alaska: Best for humpback whales, sea lions, black bears and moose. The saltwater bay that is the centerpiece of this park is chock-full of sea life, including massive, acrobatic humpbacks. With no roads or trails, kayaks and motorboats are the primary means of transport for viewing animals along the shores of the bay and the inland rivers, where bears mountain goats, Dall sheep and moose are easily spotted.
Denali National Park, Alaska: Home to Dall sheep, caribou, grizzlies and wolves. The open tundra, taiga forest and gravel bars of this spectacularly scenic park make for great wildlife viewing. Although you could take a game-spotting bus tour, most folks prefer to hike and camp in the wilderness.
Glacier National Park, Montana: Habitat for grizzlies, wolves, mountain lions, elk, deer and mountain goats. More than 730 miles of hiking trails offer countless opportunities to examine animals in the wild, up close and personal. Paddling the North and Middle Forks of the Flathead River brings you into the heart of the wilderness and offers some unique experiences, like battles among aggressive mountain goats and elk competing for position at the mineral lick.
Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming: Renowned for elk, wolves, bison and deer. In addition to natural wonders like the Old Faithful geyser and numerous hot springs, Yellowstone is home to more than 30,000 elk, 3,000 bison, 2,000 mule deer, and hundreds of grizzlies, moose, bighorn sheep and pronghorn antelope. In the past decade, the park has become home again to gray wolves, who had been exterminated and were absent from the park for more than 60 years. The best way to observe the animals in this vast ecosystem is to head before dawn to the Lamar Valley, where elk herds graze under the watchful eyes of the wolf packs who prey on them.
Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado: Teeming with bighorn sheep, mountain goats, elk and marmots. To see the handsome, graceful bighorn sheep up close and personal, you'll want to hike the Milner Pass trail to the edge of the Crater. The park's forests, large, open meadows, and Alpine tundra are home to multitudes of smaller mammals, like Rocky Mountain marmot and coyote. Larger, more elusive animals include mountain lions, bobcats and elk. Go in early fall to witness the intriguing behavior of bull elk during the mating season.
Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota: Home to bison, wild horses, deer and elk. A herd of 500 to 700 of 2,000-pound bison, the largest mammals in North America, roam in the park amid the visually stunning maze of buttes and canyons that make up the Badlands. A 36-mile scenic drive through the South Unit brings you to some riveting wildlife-watching spots, as well as to trailheads for hikes into the heart of the park. You can often catch a glimpse of wild horses from Painted Canyon Overlook. A short walk from the road takes you to Buck Hill, where elk are most often seen in the morning and evening feeding on grass. A four-day paddle trip up the Little Missouri River from the park's South Unit to the North is deemed an extraordinary means to immerse in the beauty and solitude of this wilderness.
Big Bend National Park, Texas: Features rare deer, mountain lions, beavers and turtles. This park — marked by quiet and wide open spaces — covers river, desert and mountain habitats that are home to unique animals that have adapted to the park's environmental niches. The river and the mountains are oases in the desert and are where most of Big Bend's wildlife thrive. A canoe trip along the Rio Grande will offer unique glimpses of evolution in progress.
Isle Royale National Park, Michigan: Large populations of moose and wolves. The classic North Woods forest that covers most of this isolated island in a corner of Lake Superior is home to reintroduced wolves and moose. Ranger-led cruises provide opportunities to examine wildlife along the shore of the islands. Kayakers and canoeists will get an even better view from the miles of inland waterways and can stay overnight at any of the waterside campgrounds.
Everglades National Park, Florida: Best site for alligators, crocodiles, manatees and turtles. The last remaining everglades in the world, this park in southern Florida is almost completely submerged beneath fresh and brackish water. It comprises a truly unique environment that supports rare and even bizarre animals. The 99-mile Wilderness Waterway takes you by canoe through mangrove thickets, shallow flats, and windswept bays — where you're likely to encounter an amazing variety of wildlife. This park is one of the few places in the world where alligators and crocodiles coexist. And if you'd rather bike than boat, try the Shark Valley Tram Road, a 15-mile paved path, or half-mile-long Anhinga Trail along which you'll spot a staggering display of fauna.
Irene Croft Jr. of Kailua, Kona, is a travel writer and 40-year veteran globetrotter. Her column is published in this section every other week.