Top 25 Wildlife Sightings on our Trip

Sea lions, gators and bears, oh my…

We were blessed on our trip to see just about every major species of wildlife that one could hope to see while traveling in the western USA, Canada and Alaska.  Seeing and hearing wildlife in its element was a highlight of our trip.  Following are the Top 25 favorite wildlife sightings on our 10-month trip, our favorite sighting for each species.

    

1. Grizzly Bear

Grizzly bear standing upright in Denali National Park

Denali National Park, Alaska

The most exciting wildlife encounter was when a grizzly bear in Denali stood up, spotted a couple of backpackers, and took off after them.  I started snapping photos and shooting video from the safety of our bus, but I was worried that I might be making a snuff film.  Fortunately the young couple hopped on the bus in front of us before the bear could eat them.  We saw a total of 8 grizzlies on our trip, all in Denali National Park.

  


2. Alligators

Two young alligators resting on the shore in Brazos Bend State Park

Brazos Bend State Park, Texas

Gators in Texas, who knew?  Turns out Brazos Bend has the greatest concentration of alligators outside of the Everglades.  There are an estimated 300 adult alligators in the park, and we saw a total of 120 adult and child gators on our 7-mile hike along Elm and 40-Acre Lakes.

   

3. Bald Eagles

Bald eagle looking for a snack at Anchor Point

Anchor Point, Alaska

This bird up close is every bit as majestic—and bad ass—as its reputation would have you believe.  At the boat launch in Anchor Point, eagles are as common as seagulls.  We saw more bald eagles in the first 10 seconds here than we have over our entire lifetime everywhere else combined.

  

4. Humpback Whales

Tail of a humpback whale breaching the water in Prince William Sound

Prince William Sound, Alaska

Our cruise ship strayed off course for a half hour hoping to catch a glimpse of two humpback whales.  That’s a huge investment on a 4-hour cruise, but it paid off, with two jaw-dropping whale breaches up close.  It’s amazing how graceful whales are in spite of their immense size.

  

5. Black Bear

Black bear just crossed the road outside Yoho National Park

Yoho National Park, British Columbia

One morning we awoke to our RV rocking, looked out the bedroom window, and saw a black bear munching on the leather cover of our tow hitch.  We shooed him away, but not before he left us a souvenir of four bite marks with bear spit!  We saw this bear (or perhaps another) at least twice every day along the main gravel road.  We saw a total of 30 black bears, the most of which (11) were in Kootenay National Park, British Columbia.

  

6. Bison

Bison enjoying lunch in Theodore Roosevelt (South) National Park

Theodore Roosevelt (South) National Park, North Dakota

One warm afternoon we enjoyed our lunch watching a bison enjoy his lunch on a hill nearby.  He stayed the entire time, and when we finished, he finished and moved on.  It’s like we all shared a lunch together, except he had grass, and we had ham and tuna.

 

7. Mountain Goat

Mountain goat resting after being chased by a dog in Chugach National Forest

Chugach National Forest, Alaska

This stout goat was eating peacefully, when another hiker’s dog suddenly ran loose and started to chase him.  The goat darted away and leaped across a deep ravine to escape the dog.

  

8. Wolves

Wolf arriving from his walk in Nothern Lights Wolf Centre

Northern Lights Wolf Centre, British Columbia

The Wolf Centre is currently home to nine wolves that have never been in the wild and serve as “ambassadors for their wild cousins.”  The Centre’s mission is to “promote wolf and bear conservation throughout the natural environment.”  This was the first time either of us had seen a wolf up close and seen them howl.

  

9. Moose

Moose walking through the brush in Chugach National Forest

Chugach State Park, Alaska

We were startled by this large moose who emerged from the forest and demanded the trail on which we were hiking.  We gladly yielded the trail, putting a tree between the moose and us.  Moose can be aggressive toward dogs, and our dogs seemed to sense this because they remained completely quiet.

  

10. Fox

Fox rustling in the bushes in Denali National Park

Denali National Park, Alaska

We saw this cute fox at the Eielson Visitor Center.  The ranger said that foxes don’t mind hanging out near humans, and it often benefits them.  The area around the Visitor Center is full of squirrels that pick up human food scraps, and foxes love to eat squirrels.  Also, the fox’s predators such as eagles and bears tend to avoid human areas, so this is a relatively safe haven for foxes.

  

11. Feral Burros

Theresa watches feral burros looking for a handout in Custer State Park

Custer State Park, South Dakota

One of the more popular animals in Custer is the wild burro that strolls right up to your car to greet you.  The burros are very friendly and will stick their head in your car window to be petted.  Unfortunately this frightened our dog Darby, and she has been nervous to ride in the car ever since.

  

12. Prairie Dogs

Two juvenile prairie dogs protecting their den in Wind Cave National Park

Wind Cave National Park, South Dakota

Although not members of the canine family, prairie dogs are almost as cute as puppies.  They throw themselves in the air and squeak when you stop your car to watch them.  Prairie dogs can also carry the bubonic plague, so it’s best to keep your distance.

  

13. Sea Otters

Sea otters laying on their back and praying to keep warm

Prince William Sound, Alaska

We saw dozens of these cute furry fellows on our cruise through Prince William Sound.  Sea otters are very buoyant because of their large lung capacity and air trapped in their fur.  They rest on their backs and often hold their front paws together as if they are praying to conserve heat in the icy water.

  

14. Big Horn Sheep

Big horn sheep licking the center line in Custer State Park

Custer State Park, South Dakota

While driving through the park, we encountered this magnificent bighorn sheep, who was so intently licking something off the center line of the road that he didn’t even notice we were waiting there for a few minutes until a motorcycle rumbled up behind us.  South Dakota’s original bighorn sheep went extinct in the early 1920s, but a herd of Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep was introduced to Custer State Park.  Their coats are made of short hair and not wool, as one might expect.

 

15. Porcupine

Porcupine foraging along the side of the road

Stone Mountain Provincial Park, British Columbia

In all our travels, we had never seen a porcupine in the wild until this night, when we saw two along the road.  They were out foraging at dusk, which was about 10 pm in the land of the midnight sun.  The porcupine’s barbed quills detach easily, piercing any predator who dares to touch it.  Contrary to common folklore, porcupines can not shoot quills at an enemy.  However, the porcupine will abruptly swing its backside toward a pursuer in an attempt to lodge the barbed quills in the predator’s face.

  

16. Marmot

Marmot sunning himself in Olympic National Park

Olympic National Park, Washington

We heard this marmot in the bushes as we hiked by.  He hid from us for a few minutes, but then he emerged and stood on a rock in full view, even though I was less than 10 feet away.

  

17. Elk

Herd of elk in Wind Cave National Park

Wind Cave National Park, South Dakota

The ranger said we were one of the lucky few visitors to spot a herd of elk.  This is likely because we were hiking far off trail, where we didn’t see another human all day.

  

18. Rattlesnake

Rattlesnake slithering through the river canyon

Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona

While hiking through Soap Creek, we spotted this baby rattlesnake, which was about a foot long and still developing its rattle.  Notice the triangular-shaped viper head, which is usually a good indicator that a snake is poisonous.  Even though he was a little fellow, this snake was very aggressive, turned to face us, lifted his head off the ground, bared his fangs, and slowly slinked away, the entire time facing us with a menacing look.  Daddy Rattlesnake would’ve been so proud.

  

19. California Condors

California condors flying high above Vermillion Cliffs

Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona

With binoculars we were able to spot 8 California Condors flying above Vermillion Cliffs.  California Condors have the largest wing span and are the heaviest of any North American bird.  Their wings can stretch over 9 feet, and each bird can weight over 25 pounds.  California Condors were placed on the federal Endangered Species list in 1967, and their worldwide population dropped to 22 in 1982.  Their numbers have grown to over 200 today thanks to a reintroduction program high on top of Vermillion Cliffs.  Since December of 1996, officials have released condors every year.  Each condor is fitted with a radio transmitter and is monitored daily by field biologists.

   

20. Sea Lions

Walruses sunning themselves on small rocky perches in Prince William Sound

Prince William Sound, Alaska

Dozens of sea lions were resting on small rocky islands in the Egg Rock Sea Lion Rookery.  Sea lions have large front flippers and can walk on all fours.  Male sea lions are typically at least twice the size of females and can reach up to 700 pounds and 8 feet long.

  

21. Pronghorn

Pronghorn grazing in a field at Wind Cave National Park

Wind Cave National Park, South Dakota

Pronhorns are the fastest land animal in North America and can run up to 60 miles per hour for long distances.  Pronghorns are commonly identified as antelope, but there are no antelopes in America.  Which sorta ruins that whole “where the deer and the antelope play” song.

  

22. Beaver

Beaver swimming in Byers Lake in Denali State Park

Denali State Park, Alaska

This beaver entertained us for quite a while, swimming in circles right in front of us and occasionally slapping his tail on the water to let us know that it was time to move along.  He was obviously quite used to humans.

  

23. River Otter

River otter playing along the river bank in Salt Creek Recreation Area

Salt Creek Recreation Area, Washington

We saw two river otters along the banks of Salt Creek.  An adult river otter is a member of the weasel family and can weigh between 10 and 30 pounds.  River otters are insulated by a thick, water-repellent coat of fur.  We saw them swim in and out of their den.

   

24. Wild Turkeys

Wild turkeys crossing the road in Buffalo Gap National Grassland

Buffalo Gap National Grassland, South Dakota

Wild turkeys are quite common at our rural home, but we were entranced by this group of four male turkeys trying to woo the single female in the front.  They serenaded her and followed quickly at her heals as they crossed the road and continued their courting across the field.  While we camped in the grassland, we could hear the turkeys gobbling loudly in many large groups.

   

25. Slugs

Slug sliming across the ground

Yoho National Park, British Columbia

The trail on the wet east side of Emerald Lake was covered with these amazing black slugs (also known as black arions) that were up to 2-3” long but have been found up to 6” long.  The slug is covered with a thick foul-tasting mucus which serves as protection against predators and helps keep it moist.  When we touched one of these slimy slugs, his head pulled into this body like a turtle, his back heaved up forming an arch, and then his body slowly undulated back and forth in a hypnotic rhythm.  We’re not sure how this is a good defense against his predators.

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