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The Call of the Wild

Spot birds, bears and other beasts in these national parks,
from the southern tip of Florida to icy Alaska

By Jennifer Davoren

Vacations Magazine: The Call of the Wild
"There are no other Everglades in the world. They are, they have always been, one of the unique regions of the Earth, remote, never wholly known. Nothing anywhere else is like them." -- Marjory Stoneman Douglas, author and environmental activist

You can't see Everglades National Park by airboat.

Speed-seekers will enjoy the trip, of course. Rocketing across nearly 2,400 square miles of south Florida marshland, their hair streaming in a subtropical breeze, they might catch glimpses of tangled mangroves or startled herons taking flight. But to see this park, to truly experience the preserve Douglas described as "a river of grass," you'll have to skip the thrill ride. Instead, try a quiet approach by kayak or canoe, or perhaps a tiptoeing trek down a waterfront hiking trail.

If you want to see the heart of the Everglades, you have to meet its wildlife. And these animals are a bit on the shy side, so put some distance between yourself and those noisy airboats.

Everglades National Park protects about 350 species of birds, including herons, egrets and the roseate spoonbill, which shares its pinkish hue with the flamingo. The National Park Service offers a birding guide and sighting checklist on its Everglades website, so print out a copy and bring your binoculars when planning a hike here.

While scanning the tree line for feathered friends, be on the lookout for bats, frogs and the elusive Florida panther, too. Environmentalists estimate that fewer than 100 of these sandy-coated cats are left, so snapping a photo of one slinking through the brush would be quite a coup. In the water, you might see dolphins, manatees and both alligators and crocodiles -- in fact, the Everglades is the only spot in the world where these reptiles live side by side.

But summer heat and humidity in the Everglades can be punishing for wildlife watchers. Shadier escapes await in national parks across the country, including Virginia's Shenandoah National Park.

Here, the most common fauna sightings involve white-tailed deer and gray squirrels, while black bears, bobcats and two types of skunk ramble in the backcountry and underbrush, fleeting quarry for most camera-wielding hikers. Falcons, woodpeckers and the scarlet tanager -- a red bird with black wings native to deciduous forests like those in and around Shenandoah -- soar overhead and flit among the treetops.

Kids will love the abundance of creepy-crawlies here, from millipedes to snakes and lizards. The Shenandoah salamander is unique to this preserve, so pint-size visitors should keep an eye out for the small, dark amphibian with a telltale red to yellow stripe down its back. Moms and dads, meanwhile, can photograph the monarch butterflies that pause here during migration season to lay eggs on the abundant milkweed plant.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park straddles the Tennessee-North Carolina border. It's the largest wild, but still protected, habitat for black bears in the eastern U.S. Between 1,200 and 1,600 of these furry omnivores live in the park, about two bears for every square mile. It's their diet and sheer popularity that puts the Great Smoky population at risk; junk food and human confrontation can injure or even kill bears, so rangers keep an eye out for "panhandlers" who raid campsites and beg tourists for treats. Rules are strict in this and any other U.S. national park: No touching or feeding wild animals is permitted, since these acts present a danger to animals and humans alike.

Other Great Smoky residents include elk, reintroduced to the park in 2001 and most active at sunrise and sunset, as well as screech owls, woodpeckers and other birds. These mountains also are known as the "salamander capital of the world," with 30 species skittering through the forests.

Acadia National Park on Maine's central coast is an island refuge for human visitors as well as resident wildlife. It's a musical spot, where foxes and coyotes bark and howl from hilly clusters of pine, and bullfrogs serenade pondside picnickers. Bird-watchers are quite comfortable here, and "raptor rangers" are available to point out even the shyest species -- peregrine falcons, bald eagles and the graceful herons that build their nests on Mount Desert Island.

But Acadia's most popular birds are rarely seen onshore. Those spending more than a few hours should opt for a charter cruise off the park's rocky coastline, where flightless puffins rest and sun themselves between swims. Seagoing visitors also should keep their cameras trained on the waves for glimpses of seals, sharks and several types of whale.

Landlocked Rocky Mountain National Park, on the other hand, will keep wildlife watchers' eyes on the sky -- or the nearest clifftop, at least. Tour this Colorado hot spot in fall to see bighorn sheep butt heads over females, or wait for spring to see a new crop of lambs hopping from rock to rock. Marmots and pikas also dart among the craggy hillsides while keeping a vigil of their own -- birds of prey, including the golden eagle, swoop at dusk and dawn to pluck furry meals from their mountain burrows.

About 3,000 elk graze the park's lower altitudes in summer, so animal lovers often prowl Estes Valley's tallgrass meadows for signs of velvet antlers or white tails. (Another perk for autumn visitors: Bull elks herald the start of mating season by "bugling," and the valley echoes with their calls for potential partners.) Moose, meanwhile, strut between grassland and tree line in search of water. Shutterbugs can set up shop near a stream for the best chance of capturing these beasts on film. They also might see river otters, which were reintroduced to the park in the 1980s.

Yellowstone National Park holds geological wonders as well as wildlife. The sky-high geyser known as Old Faithful erupts like clockwork, while other lures -- from blue-green springs to bubbling mudpots -- dot the wide Yellowstone Caldera, created by a Wyoming supervolcano eruption some 640,000 years ago. But the largest concentration of wildlife in the lower 48 states is the chief attraction here -- anywhere from 2,300 to 4,500 bison roam golden prairies, and both grizzly and black bears fish local streams. Bobcats, lynx and mountain lions also can be spotted among the trees, but visitors will likely see them only through a long camera lens or binoculars.

The park's most popular residents are relatively new to the neighborhood. Gray wolves are native to Yellowstone, but packs were hunted and driven from the park in the 1920s to protect elk and deer herds. In the mid-1990s, biologists sought to restore an unbalanced ecosystem by moving 31 Canadian wolves to Roosevelt Arch, at the park's northern entrance. The pack has flourished, and some 100 wolves now howl from hidden dens.

Wolves also roam the 1 million acres of Glacier National Park, on Montana's northern border. The National Park Service estimates that 62 species of mammal reside here, including cougars, wolverines, bighorn sheep and mountain goats. The latter, a bearded, snow-white animal with spindly horns, is something of a park mascot -- some of the local herds have become so tame that they have no hesitation in approaching tourists and begging for a handout. Others perch near prime mountain outlooks, so uninterested in passing crowds that they seem to pose for photos.

With 1,500 miles of rivers and streams as well as several hundred ponds, marshes and protected wetlands, Glacier calls to fishermen. But the park's waters are icy -- which is natural for a mountain-fed preserve -- and rangers keep a close eye on limits to protect native species like the threatened bull trout. Visitors are better off spending their afternoon hiking more than 700 miles of trails that wind through Glacier's backcountry.

The 760,000 acres of Yosemite National Park, centered near California's border with Nevada, is flush with badgers, white-tailed hares and a variety of bats. But more unique species include the Pacific fisher, an endangered cousin of the weasel known for its climbing and seafood-snaring abilities. The Sierra Nevada region also is renowned for its great gray owl population, and researchers recently discovered that Yosemite is the home of a distinct subspecies of this endangered animal.

And those who prefer the slimy and scaly are in good company in Yosemite. One-third of the park's amphibians, including the Mount Lyell salamander, Sierra Nevada yellow-legged frog and Yosemite toad, aren't found anywhere else in the world. Of the 22 reptile species living here, there are 13 types of snake, eight styles of lizard and just one turtle, the olive-shelled western pond.

In southeast Alaska, Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve -- not to be confused with Montana's similarly named conservation area -- is a highlight of the Inside Passage, a popular route for cruise ships. Humpback whales spend their summers in these snow-chilled waters, while gray, minke and killer whales stretch their visitations into spring and fall. Spotted harbor seals bob among the waves and nap on ice floes. Sea otters and Dall's porpoise, a black-and-white relative of the dolphin, are rare sights, but well worth the time and effort of a shutterbug stakeout on the deck of an ocean liner or tour boat. In addition to the local wildlife, photographers might capture a calving, when a sudden crack sends an enormous chunk of glacier crashing into the sea.

Glacier Bay occupies one-fifth of its namesake park. On land, hikers might encounter moose, bears, beavers and snowshoe hares. More than 240 bird species are found here, including horned and tufted puffins.

Roughly 500 miles northwest, Denali National Park and Preserve is something of a wildlife watcher's paradise. Though 39 mammal species make their home at the base of Mount McKinley, most park visitors come in search of the "big five" -- caribou, grizzlies, moose, wolves and the curl-horned Dall sheep. The park's star attractions can be timid -- even McKinley is known to disappear behind a cloud bank for days at a time -- so many Alaska-based cruise and escorted vacation itineraries include an overnight stay in the region to guarantee animal sightings. During that time, wildlife lovers can commune with a host of creatures, from the big five down to the 1.5-gram, aptly named tiny shrew.

Spot Wildlife on a National Parks Vacation

Travel discounter Vacations To Go offers budget-friendly escorted vacations with wildlife-watching opportunities in many U.S. national parks. Contact an agent at (800) 680-2858 for more information, peruse itineraries online or consider the following possibilities.

National Parks and Canyon Country: This 13-day journey from Cosmos crosses seven states to hit Yellowstone as well as Grand Teton, Bryce Canyon, Zion and Grand Canyon national parks. More than 25 departures are available through September, and prices start at $1,439, without airfare.

Autumn Colors: Foliage fans will be drawn to this eight-day getaway from Trafalgar Tours. New England highlights include Acadia National Park in Maine, a Vermont dairy farm and Revolutionary War sites in Massachusetts. Daily departures start Sept. 19 and end Oct. 10, with prices from $1,825 per person.

In addition to land-based tours, a host of Alaskan cruises reach wildlife preserves, like Glacier Bay National Park. Cruise tours are another option, a combination of cruise ship travel and land-based touring that covers coastal as well as interior sites like Denali National Park. For more information, call (800) 338-4962 or visit Vacations To Go's Alaskan cruise department.

The information in this story was accurate at the time it was published in May/June 2011.

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