The chance to spot a bear, bison, or bald eagle in the wild is one of the major reasons travelers visit the United States’ 63 national parks. You might assume that a megafauna mecca like Yellowstone National Park would offer the best odds of seeing multiple animals.
But a recent report from vacation rental site Casago crunched each park’s total number of species and its size, resulting in surprising news about which parks offer the best wildlife viewing. Hint: To see the highest number of critters, think small, as in places rife with tiny insects or flocks of migrating birds. Here’s where to see the widest variety of animals, from spiders to raptors to bears.
1. Congaree National Park, South Carolina
Number of species per 100 square kilometer: 362
Life of all kinds, from tiny synchronous fireflies to 160-foot-tall loblolly pines, crowds this park’s bottomland hardwood forest ecosystem 18 miles from Columbia, South Carolina’s capital. Congaree is also laced with rivers and lakes that sustain its astonishing biodiversity.
Paddling the Cedar Creek Canoe Trail is a great way to look for wildlife, says Billy Easterbrooks, owner of Carolina Outdoor Adventures, one of a handful of companies leading kayak or canoe trips in the park. “Most commonly you see what we call the creepy-crawlies,” he says, including fishing spiders with leg spans wider than your palm and red-bellied water snakes. Other residents you might encounter: barred owls, river otters, pileated woodpeckers, and, sometimes, alligators gliding on the water.
2. Cuyahoga Valley National Park, Ohio
Number of species per 100 square kilometer: 317
Located 20 miles southwest of Cleveland, Ohio, Cuyahoga Valley National Park is a mixed ecosystem of oak-hickory forest, meadows, and wetlands sheltering a variety of animals. From the boardwalk at Beaver Marsh, watch for water-loving mammals (river otters, muskrats, beavers) or snapping turtles that can weigh as much as 55 pounds each. “It’s neat to see the old-timers covered in moss,” says Gene Stepanik, a naturalist and longtime park volunteer.
More than 200 bird species live or migrate through the park, including nesting peregrine falcons (near the Route 82 bridge) and bald eagles (hike the Towpath Trail north from Station Road Trailhead). Check the park website for occasional birding walks or ranger talks.
3. Carlsbad Caverns National Park, New Mexico
Number of species per 100 square kilometer: 286
“The poster child for Carlsbad Caverns is the Brazilian free-tailed bat,” says bat biologist Debbie Buecher. Every summer, hundreds of thousands of the furry, big-eared creatures roost in these honeycombed limestone caves in southeastern New Mexico, attracting crowds at sunset with their spectacular outflight. “But it’s just as exciting to come just before dawn and watch the bats come back,” she says, noting that the bats tuck their wings and execute speedy dives back into the caverns.
4. Pinnacles National Park, California
Number of species per 100 square kilometer: 255
Driven to the brink of extinction in the 1980s, the mighty California condor now soars again over this landscape of twisty volcanic peaks in central California. Intense recovery efforts, including a captive breeding program and the establishment of two distinctive wild-flying populations, have brought the population of the largest birds in North America from just 22 in in 1982 to 347 condors today.
Eighty-nine of the birds are thought to live in and around Pinnacles. “If you have binoculars, you have a good chance of seeing condors flying over the ridge behind the main campground in the mornings and evenings,” says Alacia Welch, manager of the Pinnacles Condor Program.
Other Pinnacles standouts include golden eagles, peregrine falcons, an exceptionally high density of prairie falcons, and more than 400 species of bees.
5. Acadia National Park, Maine
Number of species per 100 square kilometer: 242
The Atlantic Ocean meets the cliff-lined Maine coast at this popular park on Mount Desert Island, providing habitat for wildlife with feet and flippers. From the shore or a sea kayak (try Castine Kayak Adventures or Coastal Kayaking Tours), scan the water for the dorsal fins of harbor porpoises and the sleek heads of harbor and gray seals.
On land, you might spot beavers, snowshoe hares, or, if you’re lucky, a mink or bobcat. In between, in the intertidal zone, tide pools hold translucent anemones, sea urchins, snails, and sea stars. Acadia also draws loons and songbirds and, come fall, rangers and volunteers conduct an annual hawk watch from Cadillac Mountain, Acadia’s highest point.
6. Wind Cave National Park, South Dakota
Number of species per 100 square kilometer: 235
This park at the edge of South Dakota’s Black Hills National Forest may be best known for its unique boxwork cave geology. But wildlife-watchers also come for the herds of American bison, elk, and pronghorns grazing above on the mixed-grass prairie.
Wind Cave is part of an ecosystem restoration and species recovery program that’s been going since the early 20th century. Populations of all three ungulates have rebounded since then, and in 2007, biologists also returned the critically endangered black-footed ferret to the grasslands. Drive the 3.7-mile Bison Flats Road or hike the steep, challenging Boland Ridge Trail for the best chance to see animals.
7. Dry Tortugas National Park, Florida
Number of species per 100 square kilometer: 223
Contrary to its name, water makes up 99 percent of this park located on and around a seven-island archipelago some 70 miles off the coast of Florida. Travelers must catch a seaplane or ferry from Key West to get to this remote part of the Florida Keys, but they’re rewarded with excellent coral reef and seagrass habitats.
The part of the park’s name that does make sense: Five species of threatened or endangered sea turtles (tortugas in Spanish) nest here; visitors might see them swimming or on the sandy beaches.
Book a snorkeling or scuba diving excursion to explore the reefs, where green sea turtles, nurse sharks, barracudas, and decorator crabs live amid elkhorn and staghorn corals. Divers can also access the Windjammer wreck site, where an iron-hulled ship that sank in 1907 provides a home for marine life.
8. Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, Colorado
Number of species per 100 square kilometer: 219
In western Colorado, the 2,722 vertical feet between this sparsley visited park’s canyon rim and the Gunnison River below support multiple wildlife habitats. Experienced climbers and hikers who venture into the inner canyon find collared lizards and mule deer near the rim and bighorn sheep scampering along the middle of the cliffs. Trails are extremely steep, covered with poison ivy, and require a wilderness permit to use.
It’s easier to access the Gunnison River by driving down East Portal Road, where anglers fish for brown and rainbow trout and nature-lovers might run into river otters and ringtails.
9. Mammoth Cave National Park, Kentucky
Number of species per 100 square kilometer: 217
In central Kentucky, this park holds the longest known underground cave system in the world. Mammoth’s 426 miles of caverns are home to 160 species, from animals that merely visit (think bats) to those that can’t live anywhere else. Long-legged cave crickets pick their way up the walls; eerily eyeless white cave fish swim the underground waterways; and black-spotted orange cave salamanders lurk under rocks.
“If you’re going into the cave system, stop and slowly look around,” says Matthew Niemiller, a University of Alabama biologist who has studied aquatic species in the park. “You might see some of the small, inconspicuous vertebrates that are thriving in complete darkness.”
10. Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah
Number of species per 100 square kilometer: 215
The unmistakable glowing orange hoodoos and rocky walls of Bryce Canyon National Park might seem stark, but the arid Utah landscape actually teems with life. Scan carefully for short-horned and side-blotched lizards basking among the boulders, and look out for the venomous Great Basin rattlesnake under the canyon rim.
Small, furry mammals like the golden-mantled ground squirrel, Uinta chipmunk, and Utah prairie dog are easy to see throughout the park, but you’re less likely to spot larger predators such as mountain lions and black bears.