You don’t have to fly all the way to the African Serengeti to see wildlife roam freely or risk life and limb trekking solo in Montana or Alaska to catch a glimpse of mountain lions, buffalo, elk, or grizzly bears. There are places where you can experience these majestic and wild animals in a way that’s responsible for both you and the creatures in settings that are also safe and family friendly.
Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center, West Yellowstone
Located near the west entrance of Yellowstone National Park, the nonprofit Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center ($15 for admission) is open year-round for those who want a guaranteed look at the animals in their natural habitat. It has a museum that examines the role of the two species in the park’s history, a cabin where you can safely watch wolves, and habitats for raptors and rescued grizzly bears. The facility also offers safety seminars, like how to use bear spray, and naturalist-led programs for children, such as Keeper Kids, which covers feeding habits.
Safari West, Santa Rosa
Want to spot buffalos, cheetahs, and rhinos an hour north of San Francisco? Head to Safari West, a 400-acre privately owned wildlife preserve nicknamed the Sonoma Serengeti due to its location in the middle of California wine country. By day, walk the grounds with a naturalist, or take guided driving tours in vintage open-air Dodge Power Wagons, to see some 90 species of animals. By night, sleep in high-end safari tents imported from Botswana (from $375). The on-site Savannah Café serves South African–inspired BBQ on a wood-fired grill.
Park Creek Bear Tours, Juneau
The 75-mile-long Chichagof Island, west of Juneau, has one of the highest populations of bears per square mile in the world. Book a tour with Pack Creek Bear Tours (from $739) and join a small group (up to five people) for a half- or full-day tour that begins with a bush-plane flight from the Juneau airport. Half-day tours head to the island’s Waterfall Creek, where bears feast in late summer during the salmon run, while the full-day option takes you to Pack Creek on Admiralty Island, with a possible interpretive hike through the wilderness. Back in the capital city, stay at the low-key Silverbow Inn (from $129), where staff can recommend other adventure tours.
Breaks Interstate Park, Breaks
Called the Grand Canyon of the South, Breaks Interstate Park, on the border of Kentucky and Virginia, is home to a five-mile-long gorge that drops 1,650 feet to the Russell Fork River. A few years ago, elk were released in the area as part of a reintroduction program sponsored by the local chapter of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation. Shortly after, the park began offering elk-spotting tours ($35 for adults, $12 for children) from March through May and August through October. Spend the day touring the 5,000-acre plot of land where the animals graze. Then pitch a tent, stay in one of the park’s many cabins, or book a night at the 81-room lodge and enjoy the park’s 25 miles of trails, including a 12-mile mountain-bike loop.
Wild Animal Sanctuary, Keenesburg
You can find wolves, grizzly bears, tigers, and lions among some 500 large animals that have been rescued from inhumane living situations and are now being rehabilitated at this 10,473-acre sanctuary, an hour north of Denver. For the first 20 years of the property’s existence, the public wasn’t allowed, but starting in 2002, it opened to visitors ($30 for adults, $15 for children). Unlike most refuges that involve driving tours, visitors spot the animals by strolling along an elevated mile-and-a-half-long walkway over the grounds. Show up at sundown in the summertime to observe the most animal activity.
Custer State Park, Black Hills
The 71,000-acre Custer State Park, in western South Dakota, is home to some 1,300 free-roaming bison. To get up-close views at a still-safe distance, opt for the Buffalo Safari Jeep Tour, where bison and other wildlife can be seen from within an off-road open-air vehicle. Or drive the park’s 18-mile Wildlife Loop Road on your own. Stay in one of 67 hotel rooms or cabins at the historic Sylvan Lake Lodge (from $165), which has floor-to-ceiling windows and a stone veranda overlooking the water.
Amangani, Jackson Hole
Amangani (from $800), a luxury resort 20 minutes from the slopes of Jackson Hole Mountain Resort, recently launched an Adventures in the Wild expedition. Join a wildlife guide and take a sunrise or sunset tour in Grand Teton National Park in a BMW X5. For the best chance of seeing bears resurfacing from winter hibernation, or mother elk, moose, or bison with their newborn calves, come early in the season, in May. If you’re lucky, you’ll catch sight of the valley’s most famous matriarch, an oft-photographed bear called Grizzly 399.
The Chilko Experience, Chilko Lake
When the salmon spawn on the Chilko River, the grizzlies congregate. Watch the action by boat with guides from Chilko Experience, a collection of six full-service log- and timber-frame homes in the remote interior of British Columbia. Get there via a one-hour flight or a ten-hour drive from Vancouver. The wilderness resort features outdoor hot tubs, chef-prepared meals, and guided adventures like kayaking on Chilko Lake or horseback riding into the surrounding mountains, all of which are included. Four-day trips from $2,950