Top 8 U.S. Safari Destinations

Domestic meets wild

Photo: Jacob W. Frank/National Park Service [CC by 1.0]/Wikimedia Commons

At some point in life, everyone with an interest in nature or adventure dreams about taking a real safari trip. There is something romantic about the idea of trekking through the African bush, seeking out exotic animals that can't be seen anywhere else in the world (except, of course, in confined spaces at your local zoo, but that hardly qualifies).

Before you decide to cut into your life savings and purchase a plane ticket to Nairobi or Dar es Salaam or Johannesburg, consider the other options. There are plenty of unique wildlife-viewing experiences available much closer to home. Perhaps people overlook the wildlife-filled national parks of the U.S., like Denali shown here, because they lack the same exotic allure of the Serengeti Plain or Okavango Delta. But in terms of wildlife, some places in North America are undeniably impressive (think bears, bison, moose, and even alligators and armadillos). The excitement of viewing impressive animals up close, or through a telephoto lens, can be enjoyed remarkably easily on this side of the Atlantic, if you know where to look.

Katmai National Park

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With over 3 million acres, Katmai National Park has a remote feel and plenty of wildlife, most notably a large population of bears. Katmai, named after a volcano that sits at its center, has a variety of easily accessible eco-tourism activities, including trekking and kayak trips, interpretative hikes, backcountry skiing, and fly fishing. Katmai's bears, which number about 2,000, stay in the area because of the salmon-packed rivers. The ursine inhabitants are managed by the National Park Service and the wealth of fresh food in the rivers makes them generally unaggressive toward human visitors. These mammoth creatures are best seen from the park's bear viewing platforms, where visitors are able to get some amazing snapshots, especially during salmon run season.

Yellowstone National Park

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Yellowstone National Park can be prohibitively crowded, but most visitors simply ride through the park and catch sight of the most popular attractions, leaving a majority of the land deliciously uncrowded. Walking along any trail, even a few steps from the main roads, will undoubtedly lead to some wildlife encounters, with foxes, birds, bears and bison on the snapshot menu. One of the most interesting animal inhabitants in Yellowstone is the American bison (also called buffalo). These 1-ton creatures thrive in the park, with over 4,000 roaming freely during the peak grazing season. Scouring Yellowstone's meadows and grasslands will certainly lead to some great bison pictures. Visitors can imagine what it must have been like when these impressive beasts dominated the prairies of the Midwest and Mountain West more than a century ago.

Denali National Park and Preserve

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This park in south-central Alaska is one of the best places in the country to get a “safari” experience. Denali covers over 6 million acres, with a third dominated by its namesake mountain (also known as Mount McKinley to anyone who studied geography before the 1990s). Visitors often focus on bears when seeking out wildlife in Denali. Yes, there are large black and grizzly bear populations inside the park. However, these creatures, though impressive, are just two of the many species of animals that inhabit this region of Alaska. Herds of caribou wander freely through grazing areas, while moose dominate the wetlands. Other creatures, from beavers and foxes to gray wolves, lynx and wolverines have also been spotted in Denali, making it one of the best places for seeing multiple species of animals. And, of course, the stunning mountain panoramas are as much of an attraction as the animals themselves.

Cumberland Island National Seashore

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The Cumberland National Seashore is located on the southernmost of Georgia's barrier islands. The fact that this nature-dominated area can be reached only by ferry helps to keep it pristine and uncrowded. Cumberland is a birder's paradise, with over 300 species of migrating and endemic birds calling the island home. But the avian residents are only part of this Georgia paradise's story. The beaches draw sea turtles during nesting season, and wild horses, deer, and even armadillos can be seen around the island. Meanwhile, manatees float in the shallow coastal waters. This is a great place for a Southern safari, and historic ruins, scattered around the island, can give an adventure here another exciting dimension. Campgrounds and inns are located on Cumberland, so wildlife-seekers can choose the right level of comfort for their safari experience.

Fossil Rim Wildlife Center

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This unique attraction in Texas is not the place to go if you want to see wild animals in their natural habitat, but it is one of the best places in the U.S. to get an African safari experience. Fossil Rim covers about 1,700 acres and is home to 60 species of exotic animals, all of which roam freely. The residents of this fenceless zoo include giraffes, gazelles, zebras, rhinos and cheetahs. No, these animals are not Texas natives, so the magic might not be there for people who are seeking something totally authentic. At the same time, a Fossil Rim trip is a far more immersive experience than a standard zoo could provide. Fossil Rim, founded by a Texas oil man, is involved in conservation efforts around the world.

The Everglades

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The Everglades has the distinction of being the largest tropical wilderness in the continental United States. It is almost completely covered by wetland landscapes. The waters of Everglades National Park teem with wildlife not found elsewhere in the U.S. Snakes, tropical birds and small mammals abound in these swampy conditions, but it is one of the park's toothiest animals that enjoys headliner status. Alligators can be seen both by boat and along several walking trails that run through the park. This is one of the best places in the U.S. to see these impressive prehistoric-looking creatures up close. Another attractive aspect of the Everglades is its location: Visitors can reach the entrance of the park in less than an hour if they drive from Miami (depending on traffic flow, of course).

Moose Alley, Maine

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Aside from creatures like bison and grizzly bears, moose are one of the most impressive species in North America, size-wise. The large members of the deer family can weigh more than 1,000 pounds. Males are known for their huge antlers, which are at their biggest in the summer and fall. If you want to see moose, the best idea is to head toward the Canadian border, where they can be spotted during the warmer seasons of the year grazing in wetland areas all through the northernmost U.S. One of the best places to see them is in Maine, particularly in an area dubbed Moose Alley. Some of the roads in this region (Route 16 and Route 201) are ideal, though Maine resorts like the Saddleback Resort offer moose tours that allow people to head out do more than whiz pass the creatures as they drive down the highway.

National Bison Range

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This 18,000-acre refuge for the impressive American bison, a species that once dominated the plains of the U.S., is a great place to see these wooly 1-ton creatures in their natural habitat. Between 300 and 500 bison call the range home at any given time of year. Other species like elk and deer also wander the range. Because of its relatively small size, catching a glimpse of wildlife is not as difficult as it is in some of the million-plus acre parks on this list. The National Bison Range is run by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which also oversees several other nature preserves in the area. These, coupled with the lands of Flathead National Forest, provide nature-seekers with plenty of opportunities for seeing wildlife.