Birds, bison, and bears—here’s how to see wildlife from your car

The arrival of warmer weather is the perfect time to head out on self-guided safaris, from Florida to Wyoming.

A bighorn sheep walks along the highway retaining wall in Montana’s Glacier National Park. Many U.S. national parks have routes for wildlife viewing by car.
Photograph by Bernard Friel, Education Images/Universal Images Group/Getty Image

Throughout the United States, animals are flocking, creeping, and ambling forth in exuberant baby steps. Celebrate Earth Day and the arrival of spring with a wildlife drive close to home, and you might be surprised by all you can see.

“Most of our national wildlife refuges have wildlife drives,” says Toni Westland, supervisory refuge ranger at J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge, in Sanibel, Florida. “It’s incredible how accessible most of these refuges are, yet we’re still telling people about [them].”

Cynthia Hernandez, National Park Service (NPS) spokesperson, says that much of national park visitation was built around auto touring.

“Park roads were designed to see great landscapes, including wildlife,” she says. And while slow and quiet vehicles can be good “viewing platforms,” Hernandez says, vehicle strikes are one of the deadliest types of encounters for wildlife in parks.

It’s important to follow speed limits and be aware of creatures that may dart into the road, she says. Consider your vehicle’s emissions, too. Instead of idling while watching or waiting for a wildlife encounter, turn off the ignition.

Wildlife drives can help foster a sense of ecological literacy among children that can translate to an “Earth Day every day” ethos, says Mark Bailey, a professor at Pacific University, near Portland, Oregon.

“Long before we can ask children in classrooms to behave in an environmentally thoughtful or sustainable manner, we need to help them develop a love for the natural world,” says Bailey, who founded the Early Learning Community school.

While your backyard is as good as any place to start, venture farther afield with these eye-opening drives through U.S. swamps, prairies, and marshes.

Where the winged things are

“It doesn’t matter if you’re in Alaska or New York, everyone depends on the Alabama coast for the birds that are in your backyard,” says Greg Harber, an avid birder and volunteer with Alabama Audubon and Dauphin Island Bird Sanctuaries.

Neotropical migratory birds that have made overnight journeys of hundreds of miles from Mexico and points south arrive along the Gulf Coast to feed and rest before continuing north to nest. To spot them, Harber recommends starting on the east or west side of Mobile Bay (on Dauphin Island or near Fort Morgan, in Alabama), and traveling between the two by car ferry (40 minutes). “Find a place to sit and wait for the Yucatán Express to show up,” he says.

(Explore the 10 best beaches in U.S. national parks.)

In Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge, just east of Fort Morgan, Harber says it’s not uncommon during peak spring migratory season to see 60 to 80 species, including vireos, swallowtail kites, scarlet and silver tanagers, and indigo buntings.

“I think many people may have never had the opportunity to experience something like this and may not know about it,” Harber says of Alabama’s birding. “One or two encounters with birds get you hooked on the whole experience of birding, and this could be one of them.”

Another one of those gateway experiences might unfold at J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge in Sanibel, Florida, where a car or bike ride along the four-mile wildlife drive complements an easy stroll along the Indigo Trail. In April and May, nesting birds, including yellow crowned night herons, can be seen right from the trail’s crushed-shell path.

“They like to nest over the water because there are alligators there,” says Westland. “Alligators keep raccoons from predating the nests, which are in these long mangrove branches that stretch out over the water.” Of course, if a baby falls in the water, it becomes an alligator snack, says Westland. Time your drive through the refuge for low tide, when laughing gulls and reddish egrets come closest to the roadside.

(Humans and climate change are making migrations tougher for birds.)

Some 35 miles south of Washington, D.C., Prince William Forest Park has a five-mile driving loop that puts you in prime territory for seeing another spring songbird migration stop along the Atlantic Flyway.

“This is the time when everything becomes active after the dormancy of the winter months, and you’ll see a lot more bird activity and hear a lot more frogs calling,” says Scott Bates, a certified wildlife biologist with the NPS. He suggests rolling down your windows to listen for spring peepers, wood frogs, and tree frogs as you travel through the park. “Spring peepers make a high-pitched ‘brrreeeepppp!’ while pickerel frogs sound like snoring,” he says.

Even black bears, which have breeding populations across much of Virginia, have been spotted here, says Bates.

Elks, grizzlies, and “cinnamons”

Major national parks out west draw the masses during summer, but locals know that spring is hard to beat for seeing animals in places such as Grand Teton National Park, in Wyoming.

“Spring, especially the month of May, is one of the best times to see grizzly bears in Grand Teton National Park,” says Jason Williams, owner of Jackson Hole Wildlife Safaris. “Photographers come from all over the world this time of year due to the abundance of bears and ability to see them from the safety of your car.”

The road from Moran Junction to Colter Bay Visitor Center offers the best bear-viewing during springtime, says Williams. NPS Public Affairs Specialist Kathy Kupper says that if a bear approaches or touches your car, “it is recommended to honk the horn and safely drive away to discourage this behavior.” Cruise east from Gros Ventre Junction toward the town of Kelly to see moose, bison, and elk.

(Bear safety rules are easy to learn. Why don’t people follow them?)

Spring drives also deliver wildlife wonders in South Dakota, says Kobee Stalder, visitor services manager for Custer State Park.

“After the winter months of cold weather and snow, you get to witness the rebirth of the prairie,” he says. “The grass begins to green up, wildflowers bloom, mountain bluebirds and meadowlarks make their way back to the park.”

The next generation of wildlife makes its debut then, too, including pronghorn and deer fawns, elk calves, burro foals, and the park’s beloved bison calves—called cinnamons for their reddish coats.

You can expect to have the park’s Wildlife Loop Road, which winds for 18 miles through prairie lands, nearly to yourself during the spring months, Stalder says. More than 475 bison babies are expected to be born this spring.

Grander landscapes, woven with ponderosa pine forests and towering granite spires, await along Custer State Park’s 14-mile drive along Needles Highway, where you can stop to hike the mile-long Cathedral Spires Trail for the chance to see mountain goats along with the superb views.

Just outside Denver, Colorado, at Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge—a former World War II weapons arsenal and chemical plant that’s been restored as a conservation area—the 11-mile-long wildlife drive weaves through pastures, grasslands, and wetlands. Bison calves and deer fawns as well as migratory meadowlarks and mountain bluebirds are among more than 330 species living here that you might spot from your car or while hiking one of the easy trails.

Wild horses roam freely in Maryland’s Assateague Island National Seashore, where drives along four miles of park roads offer visitors a good chance to spot them (springtime is popular for birding, too, since the island is right along the Atlantic Flyway). On Assateague Island, look for sika deer (an introduced variety smaller than whitetail deer) that tend to gravitate to marshy areas.

(What’s to become of wild horses in America’s Western rangelands?)

Swamp and marshy sojourns

Less than 50 miles east of Orlando along Florida’s Space Coast, Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, in Titusville, makes it easy to get into the thick of things along the Black Point Wildlife Drive. The seven-mile loop through a habitat that shelters alligators, manatees, river otters, and all manner of birds feels like venturing through a mini Everglades.

By April and May, most of the migratory birds have headed north. But American alligators can commonly be seen sunning right along the roadside, and a stop at Haulover Canal might come with surfacing manatees (listen for their breaths), which have made their way back to the coast from their wintering havens in the inland springs.

Within the 1.5 million acres of Everglades National Park, it takes about 45 minutes to drive the 38-mile paved route west and then south from the Ernest B. Coe Visitors Center, near Homestead, to the Flamingo Visitor Center on Florida Bay. The park’s longest driving route, the Road to Flamingo cuts through coastal marshes and swamps, before arriving at a saltwater habitat home to crocodiles.

(Here’s how ecotourism could help the “Amazon of North America” recover.)

If you stop just one place along the drive, make it the Anhinga Trail, a mile-long elevated boardwalk where you can often spot alligators lurking at a safe distance, just under your feet.

“What parents can do is dwell with children in beautiful natural spaces,” Bailey says, “not necessarily to use it as an opportunity to name and identify everything they see, but as a chance to cultivate a sense of wonder and appreciation.”

Celebrate the planet as a family with Nat Geo’s Earth Day Eve virtual event. Featuring performances from artists like Willie Nelson, Yo-Yo Ma, and Ziggy Marley, as well as a sneak peek at the new Nat Geo series Secrets of the Whales, the event helps your family celebrate the Earth no matter where you are. Watch it live April 21 at 8 p.m. ET on the Nat Geo YouTube channel or NatGeo.com/EarthDayEve.

Florida-based writer Terry Ward covers travel, scuba diving, family adventures, and profiles. Find her on her website, Instagram, and Twitter.

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