The Best Places to See 10 Iconic American Animals

With summer  upon us, it’s time to go looking for America’s iconic wildlife.

I’ve focused on the critters that people love to look for in our national parks. The creatures that adorn t-shirts and make popular toys. Some have patriotic connotations and some are emblematic conservation successes.

There are many critters that could qualify, of course. Here are my 10 picks as well as great places to see them. What animals did I miss? Where are your favorite places to wildlife watch? Leave them in the comments.

  • Bald Eagle

    An adult bald eagle. Photo © Doug Brown / Flickr through a Creative Commons license.

    You knew this one was on the list. Our national bird will be difficult to miss this weekend – or at least images of it. But the bald eagle is more than a national symbol; it’s also a symbol of conservation success. Numbers have been roaring back after being severely depleted by hunting and DDT.

    So don’t be content with a bald eagle poster this weekend: go find a wild one. There’s probably one near you.

    Where to See: With bald eagles thriving, there are more places than ever to see them; just be sure to stay far away from nesting birds. For lots of eagles, head to Haines, Alaska: more than 3,500 congregate there between September and December. My favorite eagle watching spot? Head to the bluffs around Effigy Mounds National Monument in northeast Iowa, where you can watch bald eagles soar above another American icon at its most scenic: the mighty Mississippi River.

  • Bison

    Bison herd. Photo: Matt Miller/TNC

    The icon we almost lost. Seeing a herd of the shaggy beasts fills me with both melancholy – I can imagine what those great herds must have looked like on the Great Plains – and hope – because bison are still among us.

    And spreading. Conservation efforts are returning bison to native habitats where they haven’t roamed in a century or more, like the Conservancy’s Nachusa Grasslands in Illinois.

    Where to See: Yellowstone National Park, where bison were essentially saved, remains the classic pick. Wind Cave National Park in South Dakota has served as reservoir for genetically pure bison (many others carry cattle genes). A spectacular place to see the great herds on beautiful prairie is at the Conservancy’s Tallgrass Prairie Preserve near Pawhuska, Oklahoma.

  • Gray Wolf

    Photo: Gary Kramer/ U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

    Is there an animal that inspires more strong opinions and controversy than the gray wolf? There may also be no animal that appears on so many patriotic t-shirts and artwork. Nor one that has such a dramatic (and positive) effect on ecosystems, as the reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone and elsewhere has borne out.

    Where to See: This one is easy. Go to the Lamar Valley of Yellowstone. Here you can see the wolf interacting with the herds of elk and bison, as well as grizzly bears, coyotes and badgers. America’s Serengeti became more complete and healthy with the return of the wolves in 1995.

  • Moose

    Photo: © Tina McCoy

    The largest of the deer family, moose are in decline in many places due to tick infestations, which in turn are exacerbated by climate change. But there are still plenty of first-class moose viewing opportunities around the country.

    Where to See: I’ve seen a lot of moose, but my first encounter remains the most memorable: big bull moose feeding in lakes at Maine’s Baxter State Park. When they lifted their heads, water cascaded through their massive antlers.

    You can have the unusual experience of seeing moose in the high desert at the Nature Conservancy’s Silver Creek Preserve in Idaho, or on the slopes of ski resorts at Snowbird in Utah. And Alaska remains the undisputed moose capital, with a population of 175,000 animals.

  • Mountain Goat

    Photo: Matt Miller/TNC

    For mountain monarchs, some might prefer the bighorn sheep. But the mountain goat is the only member of its genus, and that genus is found only in North America. To me, no animal better typifies the spectacular mountain ranges of the West.

    Where to See: Glacier National Park offers jaw-dropping scenery, with lots of mountain goats scampering around it. The Logan Pass area and trails are particularly good (and you can see bighorn sheep, hoary marmots and other cool critters as well).

    For a patriotic location, you can see them up close around Mount Rushmore – but this is a non-native population.

  • Pronghorn

    Pronghorn. Photo: Matt Miller/TNC

    Another American original, the pronghorn is one of the few beasts remaining from North America’s original (and spectacular) Pleistocene fauna. It evolved to outrun cheetahs and long-legged hyenas. They’re long gone, but the pronghorn’s still running.

    Its populations have rebounded from 1800s market hunting but the animals now face increasing threats as its long migration corridors are cut off by housing developments and energy development.

    Where to See: More than 500,000 pronghorn live in Wyoming. The best bet? Get off the interstate and explore the back roads of sagebrush country. You really can’t go wrong. The appropriately named Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge in eastern Oregon is another place to experience the wonders of sagebrush-steppe habitat.

  • Black Bear

    Photo: Matt Miller/TNC

    Yeah, the grizzly bear may figure more prominently in history and lore, but the black bear is found more widely. Arguably more than any other bear in the world, black bears have adapted quite well to the trappings of humanity. A Pennsylvania woodlot or New England suburb will do nicely, thank you very much.

    Where to See: Just because a black bear lives in your neighborhood doesn’t mean you’ll see it. They haven’t survived by being visible. The Great Smoky National Park has a reputation as one of the best spots in the East, but I didn’t have much luck on my recent trip there. State parks in forested areas of Pennsylvania, like Black Moshannon and Poe Paddy, are worth checking out. In the West, Yellowstone and Glacier are, again, hard to beat . And you have a good chance of seeing grizzlies, too.

  • Alligator

    Photo: Matt Miller/TNC

    Another roaring conservation success: when I was a kid, my animal books spoke of alligators with the same gloomy pessimism as we now associate with rhinos. A regulated harvest and better protection has allowed the gator to roar – literally – back in splendid fashion.

    Where to See: The Everglades is alligator central. If you’re fishing, they’ll find you. Seriously.

    The Shark Valley area and all along the Tamiami Trail are prime gator-viewing locations.

    The boardwalk at the Big Cypress National Preserve Visitor Center along the Tamiami Trail offers perfect photographic opportunities.  As a bonus, you can easily see Florida softshell turtles and schools of Florida gar. It doesn’t get much cooler than that. Well, at least for me.

  • Wild Turkey

    Photo: © Mark Godfrey

    Legend has it the wild turkey was almost our national bird. Whatever the truth of that, it’s no doubt the turkey looms large in our history and traditions. And like so many other critters on this list, it once found itself in hot water.

    The recovery of the turkey may be the most dramatic conservation turnaround of all. The effort, some might argue, was even too successful. But abundance shouldn’t diminish wonder. Turkeys are wonderful birds to watch, especially when the males are strutting and gobbling in the spring.

    Where to See: There are so many good locations, but turkeys are incredibly wary. Good photographic locations include the lands around Kentucky’s Mammoth Cave National Park and North Dakota’s Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

  • Northern Cardinal

    A cardinal at a bird bath. Photo: Flickr user ehpien under a Creative Commons license.

    Some might argue this one: I could have included a historic game changer like the beaver or a furry neighborhood critter like the raccoon. But the male cardinal’s bright red just seems to match the July 4th festivities.

    Where to See: My favorite cardinal viewing is in winter: several males on a snowy hemlock is postcard perfect. But how about seeking them in one of birding’s hotspots, like the Conservancy’s Muleshoe Ranch in Arizona or the National Butterfly Center in Texas. In both places, the cardinal shares the stage with a wide array of showy migrants and local specialties.

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  1. fern says:

    You forgot the cougar, mountain lion, puma, FL panther. I have seen a puma twice in Big Bend NP TX.

    1. An excellent mammal. I am still waiting to see my first one, despite living in mountain lion country!

  2. alexgomes says:

    In the Pantanal – Brazil there are 3 cardias I really like The cardinal crested, yellow beak and black beak cardinal

    1. The Pantanal is one of my favorite places, and those cardinals are beautiful. I also saw 5 jaguars while I was there!

  3. Al Snow says:

    Missed a big one – Circle B Bar Preserve in Lakeland, FL where you can walk among the marshes and see alligators, bald eagles, cardinals and wild turkeys all in one property. These species not to mention bobcats and hundreds of species of birds are why USA Today named it one of the “Top 50 Places in the US to See Wildlife”

    1. Thanks for this suggestion. I’m not familiar with that preserve but it sounds like a special place.

  4. David Mason says:

    Black Moshannon State Park in Pennsylvania is also home to Bald Eagles as well as Black Bear.

    1. Alicia says:

      While I’ve never seen black bears or bald eagles at Black Moshannon State Park (though I’ve heard they’re around, and it wouldn’t surprise me), I definitely saw a mother turkey and babies on Friday.

    2. Black bears are never easy to see. Black Moshannon is a great state park. I have seen some nice birds there, including loons on the lake.

  5. Greg says:

    Elephant seals!

  6. Carolyn says:

    When I was a kid my parents took us to Badlands National Park in North Dakota. I remember seeing herds of bison. They were amazing!

  7. Cristina Garcia says:

    We live by the Smokies and we don’t have good luck there either. We go to the Alligator River Wildlife Reserve on the NC coast. We have photos with as many as 12 bears in it. It is THE place to go and see black bears

  8. Sharyn Viel says:

    Have been most fortunate to have seen all but the aligator. Living in Oregon have seen the beautiful antlope (hint: easy to see …. Herd along I-40 between kingman & williams. ) would love to see more moose in the wallowas but have seen near the eastwrn entrance to yellowstone & vermont. Eagles we saw just this past week out at Baskett Slough NWR. Loved seeing cardinals flitting about on snow,covered branches on the Berkshires as well as a vlack bear (ok i admist, we left our vird feeders out to long in the spring 🙂 as well as a fa,ily,of turkeys hich seem pretty ubiquitous now. ???

  9. Randy Ursery says:

    Here are two additional viewing locations-
    1. Bison-the National Bison Range, Montana. This is north of Missoula and we saw bear also.
    2. Alligator- Brazos Bend State Park, Texas. Southwest of Houston, when hiking around the lakes you will practically trip over them. Great park for gators, birding and other more common animals such as deer, raccoon, armadillos and wild hogs.

  10. Laura Kinsale says:

    A secret treasure, South Llano River State Park, near Junction TX, for wild turkeys:

    “The 523-acre, wooded bottomland is home to white-tailed deer and the Rio Grande turkey. The bottomland represents one of the most substantial and oldest winter turkey roosts in the central portion of the state. Observation blinds are provided to offer visitors a glimpse of turkeys moving to and from the roost. Other animals include wood ducks, white-tailed deer, squirrels, jackrabbits, javelinas, foxes, beavers, bobcats, cottontails and armadillos. Several exotic species such as axis deer, black buck antelope and fallow deer are often spotted in the park.”