The following are open year-round; call ahead for weather and road conditions
1. Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge
A clean blanket of snow makes it easy to forget that this 5,000-acre refuge was once a chemical-weapons factory site. Now it’s a sanctuary for wildlife, an island in Denver’s encroaching development. Look for coyotes, great horned owls, mule deer, prairie dogs, and white-tailed deer. More than 100 bald eagles visit during the winter. Hike the easy 4-mile round-trip Woodland Trail into wetland, woodland, and prairie, or sign up for one of the free two-hour narrated tram tours that loop the refuge.
VIEWING TIPS: Late afternoon is the best time to look for bald eagles; you’ll often see them roosting in cottonwoods. Ask about wildlife-photography workshops.
INFO: Tram tours are at 9 Sat and at 1 Sun (free; reservations required). The refuge is open 8–4:30 Sat–Sun (free). 10 miles northeast of downtown Denver at 56th Ave.and Havana St.; http://rockymountainarsenal.fws.gov or 303/289-0930.
2. National Bison Range
While the deer and pronghorn antelope don’t exactly play here, they do roam with nearly 400 bison. The animals have a lot of room to spread out within the 18,700-acre refuge, so be patient when you drive the roughly 10-mile Prairie Drive/West Loop vehicle tour route. Stay in your car (it acts as a blind) and scan treelines and down into the brush. Don’t bypass the visitor center, even though it’s closed on weekends―the short nature trail is bird-rich, with great horned owls, pygmy owls, and saw-whet owls.
VIEWING TIPS: Early in the morning, you may see owls still hunting. Visit on a clear day to see more animal action.
INFO: Missoula, MT, is the best base for lodging and dining www.missoulachamber.com or 406/543-6623. The range is off State 212 about an hour's drive north of Missoula; http://bisonrange.fws.gov or 406/644-2211.
WEST YELLOWSTONE, MT
3. Grizzly & Wolf Discovery Center
This nonprofit center on the western edge of Yellowstone National Park offers a naturalistic setting that lets you get close to both grizzlies and wolves―rare in the wild. You’ll see any of eight bears wrestling or foraging for food hidden in the 2-acre habitat. You can also observe the six wolves of the nearby Gallatin Pack habitat. The alpha (dominant) male holds its tail straight up in the air.
VIEWING TIP: The wolf pack howls a lot in winter, mostly in the morning and evening.
INFO: For West Yellowstone lodging and dining, contact the West Yellowstone Chamber of Commerce www.westyellowstonechamber.com or 406/646-7701). The discovery center is open 8–5 daily (until 5:30 Jan 21–Feb 10); $9.75, $5 ages 5–12, $9 ages 62 and over. 201 S. Canyon St.; www.grizzlydiscoveryctr.org, 800/257-2570, or 406/646-7001.
4. National Bighorn Sheep Interpretive Center
Just outside Dubois, the Whiskey Mountain Habitat Area gets up to 700 sheep from mid-November through March ― the largest group of wintering bighorn sheep in the Rockies. Even though the rut is over, you may still see sparring and head-butting among the rams now.
VIEWING TIP: Midday is best for spotting sheep―they’re lower down on the mountain, feeding and sunning.
INFO: The best base for lodging and dining is Jackson (www.jacksonholechamber.com or 307/733-3316). Reserve a guided wildlife tour, offered daily through Mar ($25, includes van tour and use of binoculars and spotting scopes). Interpretive center open 9–5 daily; $2, 50 cents ages 12 and under, $5 per family. 90 miles east of Jackson via U.S. 26/287, at 907 W. Ramshorn St.; www.bighorn.org, 888/209-2795, or 307/455-3429.
MAMMOTH HOT SPRINGS, WY
5. Yellowstone National Park
Animals rule this park in winter, but cars are scarce―though you’ll see some snow vehicles―because only one park road is open to autos. At the park’s north end, you can drive to wildlife-rich Lamar Valley on U.S. 212 (open―but not plowed daily―from Gardiner to Cooke City, Montana). Even better: Join guided cross-country ski, snowcoach, or snowmobile tours for more wildlife-viewing here or in the Upper Geyser Basin; most trips leave from Mammoth Hot Springs or from West Yellowstone, Montana.
VIEWING TIPS: At Mammoth Hot Springs, you may see elk any time. In Upper Geyser Basin, look for bison or elk grazing on exposed grasses around hot springs.
INFO: Stay in the park at Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel (97 rooms from $73) or at Old Faithful Snow Lodge (134 cabins and rooms from $80; accessible only by snowcoach or guided snowmobile). For lodging and details on snowcoach tours, visit www.travelyellowstone.com or call 307/344-7311. Join winter wildlife activities led by park rangers or the Yellowstone Association Institute www.yellowstoneassociation.org or 307/344-2294. $20 per vehicle for seven-day park pass. www.nps.gov/yell or 307/344-7381.