Text and photographs exclusive copyright of Jeff Aguilar
So where should you go to look for every critter your heart desires? I’ve done my best to compile a list of where I have had the best luck finding wildlife. There is no guarantee that you’ll see any of the wild animals listed below simply because you chose to travel to the specific place mentioned, but it doesn’t hurt to know where to look.
This page will certainly grow and change as we travel to various locations and outside the United States.
Alligators: Tie: Everglades NP / Barataria Preserve LA: In the Everglades you’ll likely have good luck simply walking a boardwalk loop or any number of trails. In Louisiana’s bayou country, take a swamp tour boat through the canals.
Ants: Central America. While you can see ants anywhere, the leaf-cutter ants of Central America are the most fun to watch. My 9-year-old has a particular fascination with ants and we spent quite a bit of time watching and discussing the ants we found.
Aricaris: Arenal National Park, Costa Rica. Similar to toucans, these impressively beaked birds can be seen in Arenal’s rainforests. We saw a gathering of them at the Arenal Observatory Lodge.
Bald Eagles: Grand Teton NP: In two visits to Grand Teton we were lucky to see multiple bald eagles along the Jackson Lake shore near Colter Bay.
Basilisk Lizard: Penas Blancas River, Costa Rica: The basilisk is also called the ‘Jesus Christ Lizard’ because it can literally run across the surface of the water at a fast clip. These really are beautiful lizards.
Bats: Costa Rica: Look for them sleeping on tree trunks along waterways such as the Tempisque River.
Bighorn Sheep: Mount Evans, CO: You likely won’t even need to leave your car to see bighorns if you drive the Mount Evans highway. For a bit more adventure that will have a very high likelihood of bighorn success try hiking the Mount Washburn trail in Yellowstone.
Bison: Tie Yellowstone NP / Custer SP, SD: I often wonder how visitors to either of these parks manage to not see bison. They are easily seen across both parks in massive numbers, and they don’t exactly hide from view.
Black Bears: Tie: Sequoia NP / Great Smoky Mountains NP, TN: Great Smoky Mountains is well known for its black bears that just about everyone who puts forth an ounce of effort can find even just off the roadside. Sequoia National Park in California is also a black bear hotspot. Head out in the early morning and just after sundown in both parks.
Black Vultures: Everglades, NP: The Everglades makes bird viewing a bit too easy and black vultures are just one of many species you’ll find from boardwalks.
Bobcats: Avila Beach area, CA: I’ve only seen a bobcat once since they are very reclusive animals. Getting a picture of one is another thing entirely. Your best bet might be a motion-detecting security camera with night vision.
Brown Pelicans: California coast: I used to live on the California coast and it was a rare day I didn’t encounter at least one brown pelican. They are everywhere.
Bottlenose Dolphins: Charleston Harbor, SC: This may be debatable, but I have seen them in the harbor here and nowhere else. We may revisit this one later on.
Bullsnakes: Centennial, CO: There is a large colony of prairie dogs in Centennial, CO that results in some very well fed, and quite honestly huge, bullsnakes. Fortunately they are completely harmless so don’t freak out if you see one.
Butterflies and Moths: Tie: South Carolina and Costa Rica: South Carolina is a haven for insects like nowhere else I’ve been in the USA.
But outside the USA, Costa Rica is a wonderland for so many living things it blows your mind. Butterflies are everywhere in Costa Rica.
California Sea Lions: Pier 39, San Francisco: This is a well known spot for California sea lions. As a general rule, sea lions can be found all along the coast even to the southern tip of the Baja Peninsula.
Canada Geese: Urban Office Parks with water features: Seriously. Canada Geese love to hang around office parks with ponds and creeks. Maybe they hope to get paid for being there.
Capuchins: Palo Verde National Park, Costa Rica. If I venture further south in Costa Rica to Manuel Antonio this may change.
Caribou: Denali, NP: Denali is one of the best wildlife parks in the USA and with thousands of square miles of open tundra spotting caribou even from many miles away is relatively easy. Bring a zoom lens to Denali.
Coatimundis: Arenal National Park, Costa Rica. Coatis roam the grounds of the Arenal Observatory Lodge making them easy to find.
Common Dolphins: Channel Islands, NP. The Channel Islands are a great place to see sea life.
Coyote: Cherry Creek SP: I have seen coyotes even on morning walks outside my home, but the bicycle trail through Cherry Creek State Park in Colorado is a particularly good spot to see them
Crabs: Guanacaste beaches, Costa Rica: We saw dozens of red crabs and hermit crabs on the beaches of Guanacaste.
Crocodiles: Parque Nacional Palo Verde, Costa Rica: The Tempisque River is filled with the huge reptiles
Dall Sheep: Denali NP: If you take the bus tour into the park there is a good chance you’ll see them at overlooks along the way. Again, bring the zoom lens :).
Desert Bighorns: Grand Canyon NP: You might have one pass you amiably on the Bright Angel Trail.
Desert Tortoise: Kern County, CA: The tortoises live rather comfortably alongside humans in underground dwellings.
Egrets: Everglades NP: The majestic birds are easy to find everywhere in the park.
Elephant Seals: San Simeon, CA: There is a very large colony of elephant seals along the roadway near Hearst Castle
Elk: Rocky Mountain NP: Elk are so commonly seen in Rocky Mountain and Estes Park they have become a symbol for the area.
Feral Chickens: Key West, FL: With an honorable mention to Kauai, Key West has the most feral chickens of anywhere I’ve ever seen. You’ll hear them crowing at night, see them scrambling for dropped food, and engaging in loud mating activities behind a fence or under a table at a restaurant (really, we saw that).
Frogs: Costa Rica. Frogs are found throughout the world and even in Colorado we have the majestic bullfrog. But Costa Rica makes finding poison arrow frogs, red-eyed tree frogs, and dozens of other beautiful (but often deadly) frogs easy.
Golden Eagle: Coastal Range, CA: These birds aren’t easy to find by any measure but I have seen a couple in my lifetime in the mountains between Paso Robles and Monterey, CA.
Gray Wolves: Yellowstone NP: I saw one run across the road in Yellowstone’s Hayden Valley, but more common sightings are in the Lamar Valley to the north.
Green Sea Turtle: Maui, HI: Try a snorkeling tour and there is a good chance you’ll snorkel among these turtles
Grizzly Bears: Yellowstone NP: I’ve seen Grizzlies in the northern half of the park on two occassions. Try venturing out in the late afternoon.
Ground Squirrels: All across the Rockies and Sierra Nevadas: You won’t have a hard time finding ground squirrels at any park or trail in either location. Just don’t feed them.
Frigate bird: Kauai, HI: The Kilauea Lighthouse on the north shore of Kauai is a roosting place for many species including frigate birds.
Herons: Everglades NP: Again, for birds it’s hard to top the Everglades. Not only will you see the more common Great Blue Heron but the Great White Heron as well. Don’t be confused between the GWH and the Great Egret. The Great Egret has black legs and a more slender build.
Harbor Seals: Monterey Bay, CA: Rent a kayak and enter one of the estuaries. There is a great chance you’ll be able to paddle right up to one.
Howler Monkeys: Tenorio Volcano National Park, Costa Rica. Truthfully, these are the easiest of the four species in monkey to find in Costa Rica and live throughout the country. We were able to get closest to them near the Rio Celeste, but we also saw them on the Penas Blancas river and heard them outside our hotel in Playa Hermosa.
Hummingbirds: Tie Colorado and Costa Rica. It’s almost not fair to compare anywhere to the living zoo that is Costa Rica. However, Colorado does have a plethora of buzzing hummingbirds to be found at feeders throughout the summer months.
Humpback Whales: Channel Islands, NP: I’ve seen humpback whales elsewhere but the boat ride outside the Channel Islands makes it easy.
Iguanas: Tie Yucatan Peninsula and Florida Keys: Everyone who takes a cruise stop to the Yucatan will end up seeing Green Iguanas basking near the beach. Another place that you’ll see them, even in a swimming pool, is the Florida Keys.
Mallards: Along the Iowa River at the University of Iowa: I went to the U of I in the 90s and the mallards were sizable in number and well treated by the student body. They were there even on the coldest of days. I haven’t been back in many years so I can’t say how well they’ve fared in the interim.
Marmots: Rocky Mountain NP. Any trail that crosses treeline is almost certain to include marmots.
Manatee: Everglades NP: Take a boat tour of the southern mangroves for a great opportunity to see manatees.
Meadowlark: Colorado Plains: These songbirds are everywhere along the Colorado plains in springtime.
Moose: Tie Grand Teton NP / West Entrance Rocky Mountain NP: If you hike the Cascade Canyon trail in Grand Teton there is a very good chance you’ll see moose along the way. In Colorado the moose population has grown significantly over the past several years and near the west entrance to Rocky Mountain NP you may see groups of three and four at a time. Unfortunately fires did significantly burn this area in the summer of 2020 and I have not seen the effect this has had on local wildlife.
Mosquitoes: Anywhere there is standing water: This is probably not an animal you want to see or feel, but to each his own. At different times of the year, various places will either be mosquito-madness or mosquito-free, so keep that in mind. My worst experiences with mosquitoes are 1) Congaree NP boardwalk in October 2) Yellowstone Ice Lake trail in July 3) Denali State Park in May 4) Coastal lagoons on Kiawah Island, SC in Oct. and 5) Effigy Mounds NM in Iowa in May. Bug spray is an essential for enjoying many places at particular times of year.
Mountain Blue Bird: Colorado foothills: Mountain bluebirds are very frequently seen anywhere along the Colorado front range.
Mountain Goats: Quandary Peak, CO: I’ve seen scattered mountain goats in many places in many western states, but for guaranteed close-up views try the Quandary Peak 14er hike near Breckenridge.
Mule Deer: Common in all mountain environments across the west: These deer are just so common across so many states from California to Montana to New Mexico that picking one location is impossible.
Nene Goose: Kauai, HI: Kauai’s Kokee State Park is also the only place I’ve ever seen wild nene geese.
Orca: Resurrection Bay, AK: Resurrection Bay is a hot spot for marine life.
Owls: Penas Blancas River, Costa Rica: I have had a hard time photographing owls throughout my life, though I did see a great horned owl in Colorado and a baby owl in California. On a safari float of the Penas Blancas river near La Fortuna we saw multiple spectacled owls.
Porpoises: Resurrection Bay, AK: For cetaceans there really are few places like Resurrection Bay in Alaska.
Prairie Dogs: Open land in western mountain states: From Colorado to South Dakota to New Mexico if there is an open stretch of land, even in urban areas, there is a good chance that you’ll find a prairie dog colony.
Pronghorn: Anywhere in Wyoming: It’s amazing how prolific pronghorn are in Wyoming. Any journey across the state will invariably be replete with pronghorn sightings.
Puffins: Resurrection Bay, AK: Once again, this bay in Alaska is just a wondrous place to see wildlife.
Quail: Montana de Oro SP, CA: On the central coast of California near Morro Bay, Montana de Oro is a wild stretch of coastal land that is home to the California Quail. Follow any path from a parking area and you’ll see and hear them running in the brush.
Raccoons: Anywhere: I’ve seen raccoons everywhere humans have decided to place a dumpster. To find them in the woods is a better reality for the lucky.
Ravens: Grand Canyon South Rim: While ravens aren’t particularly difficult to find in the western US (especially around the aforementioned dumpsters), you’ll see them in surprising numbers on the Grand Canyon Rim Trail.
Rattlesnake: Arches NP. Rattlesnakes are pretty common in the western US (and a bit scary too). The challenge here is to actually see them and not step on them accidentally. Tall grass is a no-no. This is where the lands around Moab, UT come in handy. The red rock landscape allows you to see and hear the rattlesnakes from a safe distance.
Red Fox: Colorado Mountains. Living in Colorado this is likely just a matter of my having more opportunities to see these secretive creatures here than anywhere else. But I have seen them a half dozen times in the past few years in the Rockies of Colorado from Steamboat Springs to Crested Butte to Granby to suburban Castle Rock.
Reef Fish: Belize Barrier Reef. My very first snorkeling adventure was at Caye Caulker in Belize. I was so amazed by what I saw (thousands of fish, vibrant corals, sharks, lobster, etc) I went out again the next day at Ambergris Caye. Unfortunately I didn’t have a waterproof camera with me on the trip (I sure learned from that mistake). In the following years I’ve snorkeled in Grand Cayman, Roatan, the Bahamas, Kauai, Maui, and the Florida Keys. To this day none could match Belize (although the Caymans and Roatan were also very good).
Sanderlings: Kiawah Island SC. Sanderlings are hardly uncommon sights on the beaches of the southeastern USA’s Atlantic coast. That said, I really liked the environment of Kiawah Island too much to not give it the nod for these seabirds.
Seagulls: Channel Islands NP. Seagulls of various kinds are found on practically every beach in the USA. But to really experience seagulls try visiting Anacapa Island in Channel Island NP in the summer. Seagulls use the island as a giant nesting ground. Be careful though, the birds are protective of their young.
Sea Otters: Monterey, CA. Sea otters are pretty prolific in the Monterey Bay area. To see them up close rent a kayak and quietly ease up to them as they feed in the kelp forests.
Sharks: Belize Barrier Reef. This may and likely will change in time, but the one and only place I swam with a shark is in the Belize Barrier Reef.
Sloths: Bijagua, Costa Rica. Sloths are probably the most popular animal in Costa Rica and people go out of their way to take sloth viewing tours. These animals really are hard to see owing to the fact that they hide near the tops of trees and and barely move (or are sleeping). We saw both a two-toed and three-toed sloth at Spring Paradise Bijagua in northern Costa Rica. I have heard that sloths are even more prevalent near Manuel Antonio in southern Costa Rica.
Spiders: South Carolina. South Carolina has some of the nicest people I’ve ever met, beautiful antebellum architecture, pleasant weather, and is home to spiders like nowhere else I’ve been in the USA. Congaree NP is a great place to find them as you walk along the boardwalk.
Spider Monkeys: Parque Nacional Arenal, Costa Rica: Troops of these monkeys inhabit the forests of the Arenal Observatory Lodge
Spruce Grouse: Yosemite NP. Yosemite is a place of granite monuments, gushing waterfalls, towering sequoias, and frequently too many people (and that has a dampening effect on the amount of wildlife you might see). But one animal I do see in the park more than anywhere else are the chicken’s cousin the spruce grouse.
Stingrays: Cayman Islands. Stingray City is the place to get up close and personal with these amazing animals. Just be careful about your thumb since it might look a lot like a piece of squid, their favorite food.
Toucans: Arenal National Park, Costa Rica: We saw dozens of toucans on the property of the Arenal Observatory Lodge to the point that we almost shrugged. After going our whole life never seeing these birds in the wild and just hoping to see one in CR, that was a pretty remarkable change.
Tree Squirrels: Woodlands of North America. Red squirrels can be found basically anywhere there are hardwood trees and nuts to gather. In Central America the variegated squirrel is a common sight.
Tree Swallows: Yellowstone NP. Tree swallows aren’t uncommon across the country and the western US in particular, but they love to hang out along the rim of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone.
Turkey Vultures: Central Coast, CA. For turkey vultures there really is no comparison to the area around San Luis Obispo, CA. I remember walking at night once and seeing a group of vultures roosting on a single house. Kind of morbid when you think about it.
Turtles: Everglades NP / Barataria Preserve LA. The swamplands of the Everglades and Louisiana teem with turtles that are easily seen from boat or boardwalk.
Wild Burros: Custer State Park, SD. The feral burros of Custer State Park are famous and popular with kids who enjoy feeding them.
White Ibis: Everglades NP. White Ibises are everywhere in Florida. But if by some miracle you don’t see any, head over to the Everglades.
White Pelicans: Grand Teton NP. While brown pelicans are a common sight along the coasts, white pelicans seem a more interior species, and particularly common near mountain reservoirs in the American West. One place to guarantee seeing them is at the outflow of Jackson Lake Dam in Grand Teton NP.
White-Tailed Deer: Minnesota Woods. Unlike the more common mule deer, white-tailed deer live in the cooler Midwestern forests. Minnesota is a great place to see them, but be careful driving on rural roads, particularly at night as many car-deer accidents do happen.
Wild Turkeys: Great Smoky Mountains NP. Wild turkeys can been seen from the roadside throughout the park. Just hold your appetite until Thanksgiving.
Woodpeckers: Rocky Mountain NP. I’ve seen several Downy Woodpeckers along the trails. Just listen for the noticeable pecking sound.
Yellowjackets: Colorado Front Range. There seem to be more yellowjackets than ever in Colorado’s front range.