11 Incredible Winter Wildlife Encounters in the West
Brave the cold and witness magnificent wild beasts in their natural habitats
Written byStephanie Granada November 1, 2018
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Creative Commons photo by Jim Bowen is licensed under CC BY 2.0
1 of 12Creative Commons photo by Jim Bowen is licensed under CC BY 2.0
Prime Time for Wildlife
The bears might be hibernating, but for many members of the animal kingdom, winter is a time to be on the move. Monarch butterflies are landing on the California Coast, while all sorts of birds vacation in New Mexico. In hardy mountain towns, wolves, elk, bison, and moose feed and play in the open valleys; in the Pacific Northwest, salmon chum lures a plethora of raptors, including bald eagles, to the rivers. It’s a wildlife photographer’s paradise out there. However, you don’t need a superzoom lens to appreciate the majesty of the natural world. These wildlife experiences get enthusiasts and the nature-curious alike close to the action.
Courtesy of NPS/Jacob W. Frank
2 of 12Courtesy of NPS/Jacob W. Frank
See Wolves in Yellowstone
Yellowstone wolves are rock stars with a cult following to match. But spotting the roughly 500 gray wolves that live in the Greater Yellowstone area—a place the size of of a small country—can be tricky. Winter’s smaller crowds, white snow, and the packs’ migration to the more open Lamar Valley help them stand out; you’ll still fare better with a guide. Wildlife Expeditions, the non-profit guiding arm of the 51-year-old Teton Science Schools, was the first in Jackson Hole to start running safari-style tours. In 2017, the staff of trained naturalists launched a Winter Wolves of Yellowstone experience that spans Jackson Hole to Bozeman over seven days to increase the chances of seeing (and hearing!) wolves, as well as golden eagles, buffalo, and bighorn sheep. Wolf groupies ride in Mercedes-Benz Sprinters and break for activities like snowshoeing and exploring the geysers.
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Courtesy of Skagit River Eagle Tours/Katsu Uota
3 of 12Courtesy of Skagit River Eagle Tours/Katsu Uota
Spot Bald Eagles on the Skagit River, WA
From November through February, bald eagles follow the salmon to northwest Washington. That’s your cue to call Skagit River Eagle Tours. Winter and boats may not seem like the likeliest of friends, but the experience is downright pleasant on Wayne Ackurland’s custom rides, outfitted with propane heaters. The team tracks salmon patterns to determine the best launch point on the Skagit or nearby Nooksack, and small groups of no more than eight people cruise the river to spot the birds of prey. It’s the best way to get those up-close shots, as the birds swoop into the water for their feed. Still want more? The Skagit float ends in Rockport, WA, near the Skagit River Bald Eagle Interpretive Center, where naturalists lead guided hikes. You can also time your trip to coincide with the county’s month-long eagle festival.
Courtesy of NPS/Jacob W. Frank
4 of 12Courtesy of NPS/Jacob W. Frank
Dog Sled in Denali
When the bus tours disappear, the only way to see most of Denali’s more than 6 million acres of mostly trailless wilderness is on a dog sled. The park has a canine patrol that shuttles rangers around in the winter, and you can get a similar experience working with an outfitter like Denali Dog Sled Expeditions. Learn to drive the dog sled and see places few people ever will on trips that can last anywhere from one hour to 10 days. The company has exclusive licenses to access remote spots near the north face of Mt. McKinley and to use the National Park Patrol Cabins for lodging, so you can spend several days and nights mushing through the backcountry with your pack. Whichever route you go, you should know the mostly treeless landscape is also perfect for spotting wildlife, so keep eyes peeled for fox, moose, and wolf tracks along the way.
Courtesy of Yellow Wood Guiding/Jared Gricoskie
5 of 12Courtesy of Yellow Wood Guiding/Jared Gricoskie
Snap Photos in Rocky Mountain National Park
While there is nothing like a “sure thing” when it comes to the natural world, it doesn’t take a ton of luck to spot critters in Rocky Mountain National Park. Once the weather cools, elk, mule deer, coyotes, snowshoe hares, and sometimes bighorn sheep and moose descend to lower elevation. Want to capture it all on camera? Hone your wildlife photography skills with Yellow Wood Guiding’s Photo Safari. In addition to plenty of photogenic fodder and stunning backdrops, guests benefit from the tutelage of Jared Gricoskie, who has been guiding and photographing around the the park for 12 years. You’ll never be too far from the warmth of the car, as you walk to meadows and forests in the park. All tours are private, so everything moves at your (and the animals’) pace.
Courtesy of VENT Tours/Barry Zimmer
6 of 12Courtesy of VENT Tours/Barry Zimmer
Go Birding in New Mexico
Thanks to the rugged Southwestern scenery, days spent in nature, and colorful array of roosts, even the birding-averse may find themselves converting on VENT Tours’ New Mexico trip. The adventure starts in Texas, homebase for VENT’s founder, the preeminent birder and author Victor Emanuel. From there, guests follow the Rio Grande Valley into New Mexico, where a myriad of feathered friends from bluebirds to raptors to owls winter. There’s a set schedule and target spots on the itinerary, but the guide also allows for spontaneity to track down rare vagrants and to bask in the serendipitous nature of the sport. The highlight is Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, one of those bucket-list destinations for birders. In winter, the 44,300-acre preserve welcomes an army of sandhill cranes and snow geese. You want to be there to catch the coordinated dancers as they arrive and take off from the waters at dusk and dawn, respectively.
Courtesy of Grand Wailea, a Waldorf Astoria Resort
7 of 12Courtesy of Grand Wailea, a Waldorf Astoria Resort
Whale Watch off of Maui
Although different whale species cruise up and down the West Coast on their migratory winter routes, Hawaii is a great spot to join the humpbacks in the middle of the season. In February, the island throws the visiting mammals a party, complete with a film festival, volunteer-run whale counts, and concerts on boats. However, if you visit between December and May, you’re guaranteed a whale of a time. Get a front-row seat in a Hawaiian Paddle Sports’ kayak, paddleboard, or canoe—the same distance rules apply, but the sight of a humpback at eye-level or of one passing directly below you is thrilling. Otherwise, Pacific Whale Foundation’s catamaran tours include a certified marine naturalist and hydrophones to hear the underwater whale sounds. Plus, proceeds benefit research and conservation. Those with weak sea legs can see humpbacks at play in the Maui Ocean Center’s whale exhibit and its 3-D dome theatre. Book a room at like Grand Wailea, which recently outfitted its oceanfront suites with telescopes, or go for Sheraton Maui Resort & Spa’s Koholas in Kaanapali package to get binoculars, a boat tour, and a whale talk with a Maui Ocean Center naturalist.
8 of 12Tiffany Nguyen
Spy Mountain Animals in Jasper National Park
Jasper’s remote, rough-and-tumble mountains may be intimidating to the timid traveler—but that makes it all the more attractive to wildlife. As the largest national park in the Canadian Rockies and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Alberta wonderland hosts more than 72 mammal species and some of the healthiest populations in the continent. The whole place takes on an even more primitive vibe when the summer crowds thin. There’s no jockeying for photos on SunDog Tours’ Winter Wildlife Discovery Tour. With a scope in hand and an encyclopedic knowledge of the park and its residents, the guide will help you spot animals you’d likely miss. Moose, elk, coyotes, lynx, bison, mountain goats, wolves, and bighorn sheep are just some of the characters that might pop up on a three-hour jaunt that won’t eat up the whole day.
Jeff J Mitchell/Staff
9 of 12Jeff J Mitchell/Staff
Look for Lynx in Colorado
Snowshoeing offers many perks—an alternative for the non-skiers in your crowd, a Stairmaster-like workout, access to views in snowy woods—but excitement does not tend to be one of them. In Colorado’s Eagle Valley, the generally tame winter activity takes an adrenaline-charged turn with the Park Hyatt Beaver Creek Resort’s cats adventure. No, we’re not talking musicals or house pets here. Working with Walking Mountains’ certified interpretive guides, the resort’s Cats of Colorado Snowshoe tour sends trekkers out in search of bobcats, mountain lion tracks, and, the honeypot-find, the evasive lynx. In the ‘90s, the Colorado Division of Wildlife started to reintroduce the snow-loving carnivores, and though they’re famously sly, Eagle County residents have reported more sightings in recent years. Sashaying through fresh powder, it’ll be easier to spot their tracks. Even if you don’t have any run-ins, you’ll walk away with a wealth of knowledge about wild felines and their Colorado habitat.
Courtesy Visit SLO CAL
10 of 12Courtesy Visit SLO CAL
Follow the Monarchs to the California Coast
Not every wildlife encounter has to include an epic trip and heart-pounding experience. If you’re in California this winter, one of the loveliest wonders may be right in your backyard. Every year, hundreds of thousands of monarch butterflies seek refuge in the sun-dappled eucalyptus and cypress forests near the ocean. Despite declining numbers, the migration may be the most dazzling display in the natural world. Mexico’s Biosphere Reserve is the largest overwintering locale, but places like Pismo Beach Monarch Butterfly Grove, Pacific Grove Monarch Grove Sanctuary, and Goleta Butterfly Grove get tens of thousands of black-and-orange winged creatures fluttering around the trees. Interpreters roam the groves dispensing knowledge about the insect’s wondrous cycles and sharing tidbits on how every one of us can help save the monarch.
Courtesy of Teton Science Schools/Dylan Klinesteker
11 of 12Courtesy of Teton Science Schools/Dylan Klinesteker
Frolic with Elk Herds in Wyoming
Thousands of elk that spend summer grazing up the mountains of Grand Teton and Yellowstone reunite down in Jackson’s Elk National Refuge in winter. In true Wild West spirit, Double H Bar leads horse-drawn sleigh rides to meet the resident herds. Double H is the only company allowed to run tours in the refuge, and because the elk don’t see the sleighs as threatening, they’re apt to get closer than you’ve ever seen. The landscape hasn’t changed much since the 25,000-acre refuge was established in 1912, so the scenery is as pure as it gets. You can go for the one-hour ride, but for a full day of classic Jackson wildlife encounters, get in touch with Teton Science about their private Wildlife Art and Sleigh Expedition. You’ll start by looking for bighorn sheep, moose, and bison in and around Grand Teton; then get lunch and a tour of the hillside National Museum of Wildlife Art (home to one of the largest wildlife art collections in the country); and end with Double H’s sleigh ride.
Creative Commons photo by Snowshoe Photography is licensed under CC BY 2.0
12 of 12Creative Commons photo by Snowshoe Photography is licensed under CC BY 2.0
Fish under the Northern Lights in Alaska
There aren’t many places in the world where you can fish and spot the northern lights at the same time. Fairbanks, Alaska is one of them. Sure, fishing on a frozen lake in Alaska’s interior might be more pleasant during the day, but it can be much more spectacular at night. When the aurora forecast looks promising, Rod’s Alaskan Guide Service takes people out to local lakes, where they fish for Arctic char and rainbow trout out of heated cabins built by the owner, retired military man Rodney Pangborn. It’s only recently that outfitters and guides started to pop up in Fairbanks. Before then, you’d have to befriend an outdoorsman and hope they’d take you out. Fishing with Rod still feels like that. He’s laid-back, honest, and eager to share local knowledge like a buddy. Rod also travels with a grill in tow to cook the catch and heat up reindeer sausage he makes himself from animals he's hunted.