Zoos are fascinating, but if you really want to interact with wildlife, get behind the wheel and head for one of these treasures.
1. NATIONAL ELK REFUGE // JACKSON, WYO.
At this winter home to over 6000 elk—the largest such reserve in the world—visitors can ride horse-drawn sleighs among the herd. Although the reserve is open on the northern and eastern boundaries to allow the elk to migrate north in the summer, an 8-foot fence along the western and southern boundaries helps them avoid dangerous roads or heavily populated areas. A number of breaks in the fence are designed to allow elks on the outside, caught on the highway, to jump into the reserve while preventing others from jumping out into harm’s way.
2. CALIFORNIA CONDOR TOURS // BIG SUR, CALIF.
, which works to conserve endangered species in California, offers a series of intimate, exclusive tours around its 80-acre Big Sur sanctuary. You can get an up-close look at California condors, which, with wingspans reaching nearly 10 feet, are the largest flying birds in North America.
3. FITZGERALD MARINE RESERVE // MOSS BEACH, CALIF.
Located 40 minutes south of San Francisco, this Marine Protected Area is comprised of a 32-acre strip of beach, bluffs, marshes and tide pools that are home to a range of aquatic life, including sea sacs that fill themselves with water so that they don’t dry out during low tide, octopuses traveling between tide pools, and harbor seals.
4. CRYSTAL RIVER // FLORIDA
Swimming with dolphins sounds great, but if you’re looking for a wildlife encounter that moves at a slower pace, head to Crystal River, which bills itself as the manatee capital of the world. The warm waters of the Crystal River and its headwaters, Kings Bay, make it the perfect spot for manatees to spend the winter, so every year over 300 of the gentle giants flock there for the chillier months. Several local tour companies offer swimming tours to let visitors get up close and personal with these half-ton mammals.
5. MAMMOTH CAVE NATIONAL PARK // KENTUCKY
Head underground into the world’s largest known cave system. Over the system’s 400 explored miles, it’s easy to spot the 12 different species of bats that make their homes in the vast subterranean caverns. In total, there are some 130 different species that live entirely or partially in the cave, including reptiles, fish, and crustaceans, dozens of which are endangered.
6. BROOKS CAMP // KATMAI NATIONAL PARK & PRESERVE, ALASKA
Want to get some face time with a bear? This is your place. A series of viewing platforms deep within Katmai National Park allow visitors—who reach Brooks Camp via small, float-equipped aircraft—to view brown bears in their natural habitat. The park has plotted specific locations you’re more likely to see bears in different months, depending on the migration patterns of the fish that serve as their primary food.
7. INTERNATIONAL CRANE FOUNDATION // BARABOO, WISC.
The 225-acre world headquarters of ICF is home to a captive flock of around 100 cranes, including the only complete collection of all 15 crane species assembled, 11 of which are classified endangered or vulnerable. The foundation is open to the public only during the spring and summer, when there are regular tours offered.
8. TYBEE ISLAND // SAVANNAH, GA.
This barrier island off the Georgia coast is home to a 100-acre wildlife refuge and a marine science center that offers guided walks along the beach. The island sits along the Atlantic Flyway, making it a temporary stopping point for tens of thousands of migratory birds.
9. NATIONAL BISON RANGE WILDLIFE REFUGE // DIXON, MONT.
This 18,500-acre park, established by Theodore Roosevelt in 1908, is home to a herd of over 350 bison. But there's so much more to see, including big horn sheep, antelope, elk, mountain lions and several species of deer.
10. ASSATEAGUE ISLAND // MARYLAND
The entirety of Assateague Island is made up of three national or state parks, which are home to herds of feral ponies. Legend has it that the ponies descended from animals which were aboard ships that wrecked near the island, but more likely their ancestors were domestic horses that either escaped or were set free.
11. THE WILDS // CUMBERLAND, OHIO
With nearly 10,000 acres of natural, open-range habitat housing animals like cheetahs, giraffes and rhinos right in Ohio, you can take a wild safari without ever leaving the country. Tours are offered in vans, or on bikes, horseback, and zipline.