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The Best Places to Go Wildlife Watching in the US This Fall

Here’s where to answer the call of the wild this autumn.

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Hi, I'm Emma!

Emma Knock is a Melbourne-based writer and editor who arrived in Australia from London after a half-a-decade stint in California and Aotearoa. Find her between the stacks at your local bookstore or planning trips over flat whites.

With fewer crowds, typically cooler temperatures, and animals like bears and elk at their most active as they prepare for winter or breeding season, fall may just be the best time of year to spot wildlife in the US. And it seems like the secret’s out, with fall bookings for nature and wildlife tours up 33% compared to two years ago. Plan ahead to see bears in Yellowstone, manatees in Florida, and humpback whales in Hawaii.

1. Oahu

A breaching humpback whales in the waters around Hawaii
Humpbacks, believed to be family guardians by some, are well respected in Hawaii.Foto: Sue Leonard Photography / Shutterstock

Hawaii

Each year, Oahu celebrates the homecoming of the kohola (humpback whale). The arrival of the season’s first whale—usually sometime in October—is a big deal, and while Oahu’s whale season officially runs December through May, late autumn is a great time to see these giants without the winter crowds. Whale-watching cruises are the best way to view the whales up close, but it's also possible to spout-watch from shoreline spots like Diamond Head and Makapuu Lighthouse. Whales aside, you can snorkel near green sea turtles, go cage-diving with sharks, and cruise alongside dolphins year-round in Oahu.

2. Denver

An elk in the Rocky Mountains National Park, Colorado
Spring and fall are the best times to see the Rocky Mountains' beloved elk.Foto: Alfie Photography / Shutterstock

Colorado

Denver is a city on the rise. It might be the ever-burgeoning food scene that’s getting the attention, but the influx of new residents and visitors aren’t limiting their explorations to restaurants. With the Rocky Mountains National Park just 1.5 hours outside of city limits, it’s no wonder nature and wildlife bookings from Denver have almost doubled in the past two years. Autumn is one of the best times to visit the Rockies for one reason: the elk rut. Join a Rocky Mountain National Park day trip that travels along Trail Ridge Road, off which large herds of elk often gather. To see more of the park’s trails, opt for a hiking adventure that goes beyond the typical tour spots. Be on the lookout for black bears, moose, and bighorn sheep, too.

3. Jackson Hole

Travelers take photos of a bear cub in Yellowstone National Park
Fall is one of the best times of year to see bears in Yellowstone.Foto: Eustacio Humphrey / Viator

Wyoming

Bison outnumber people in Jackson Hole—or at least it sure seems that way. This wild valley, hemmed in by the Tetons on one side and the Gros Ventre mountain range on the other, is within easy reach of both Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks. A multi-day wildlife adventure gives you the best chance at spotting all of the area’s most famous animal inhabitants. Come autumn, Yellowstone’s bears are fattening up for winter and the wolves emerge from their dens. It’s also rutting season for elk and bighorn sheep in Grand Teton. Pro tip: Plan your visit for sunrise or sunset for the greatest possible chance of encounters.

4. Outer Banks

A Wild Mustang horse rolling in soft sand on Corolla Beach, North Carolina
The wild horses have lived in the Outer Banks for 500 years.Foto: LEVAI / Shutterstock

North Carolina

Outer Banks is our fastest-growing destination for nature and wildlife tours, with fall bookings rising almost 30-fold since September 2019. It may be considered the shoulder season, but with less-crowded beaches, peak fishing, and seemingly even more beautiful sunrises and sunsets, autumn is arguably the best time to visit OBX. This 200-mile (322-kilometer) stretch of barrier islands also happens to be home to the world’s only remaining wild herd of Spanish Mustangs. You’ll need a 4WD to see the wild horses, so your best bet is to take a guided tour. The fall bird migration, when around 400 species of birds migrate through the Outer Banks, is also a major event for birders.

5. Anchorage

Two moose bulls clashing antlers in Chugach State Park, Alaska
Alaska's moose are especially active during the rut in September and October.Foto: Rob Crandall / Shutterstock

Alaska

Anchorage is commonly referred to as a city on the edge of Alaska’s wilderness, but perhaps it’s more accurate to say it’s a city in Alaska’s wilderness. The city’s dramatic skyline is courtesy of the Chugach Mountains—home to both Chugach State Park and Chugach National Forest—from which native wildlife wanders down into the city streets. Book an Alaskan wilderness experience that visits both the Chugach and the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center for guaranteed sightings. The added bonus of a fall trip? You might even get to see the elusive northern lights.

6. Seattle

A black bear wanders along a road in Mt. Rainier National Park, Washington State
Fall is one of the best times of the year to spot bears.Foto: Mark A Lee / Shutterstock

Washington

Seattle’s backyard is pretty epic. Drive two hours out of the seaport city and you can find yourself in any three of Washington State's national parks: Mt. Rainier, Olympic, or North Cascades. For fans of fall foliage and wildlife, all three are hard to beat, though Mt. Rainier is the most visited of the trio, as well as the most popular day trip option from Seattle. Listen out for the unexpectedly high-pitched mating calls of elk bulls in both Mt. Rainier and Olympic. And in the North Cascades, hit the Blue Lake Trail to see wildlife like mountain goats, deer, elk, moose, and bobcats.

7. San Diego

An aerial view of blue whales off the coast of California, USA
Blue whales are the largest creatures on earth.Foto: Chase Dekker / Shutterstock

California

If whale watching is on your bucket list, but a fall trip beyond the lower 48 is unlikely, look no further than San Diego. The waters surrounding this Southern California city are a main stop on the migratory paths of gray, blue, and humpback whales, making it one of the best places in the US to go whale watching. During the summer and fall months, pods of blue whales can be spotted feeding off the California coast. Join a whale-watching cruise led by a marine biologist or set sail aboard the schooner that won the first America’s Cup for an even more memorable experience.

8. Orlando

A West Indian manatee in Crystal River, Florida
Crystal River is the only place in North America where you can legally swim with manatees.Foto: Tomas Kotouc / Shutterstock

Florida

Orlando may be the theme park capital of the world, but there’s more to this popular Florida vacation spot than fast rides and movie magic. The surprisingly wild area surrounding Orlando is home to unique wildlife species like alligators—best seen on a Florida Everglades airboat tour—and manatees, which you can swim with in Crystal River. The best part? A fall visit ties in with the start of Florida’s peak manatee season (November through April).

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