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  • Best Places to Go Winter Wildlife Watching in North America

    Winter sure can bring some fierce weather: blizzards, ice storms, cold snaps, freezing rain—well, you know the drill. It also means prime time for snowsports, from snowboarding and downhill skiing to snowshoeing and dog-sledding.

    What’s less appreciated by all too many avid winter outdoorspeople are the season’s spectacular opportunities for wildlife-watching. Indeed, winter’s arguably the best time, overall, to see animals—less screening vegetation, more concentrated populations, a plethora of tracking surfaces—and there are some outstanding destinations all around the country (and the continent) for tapping into those opportunities.

    Here’s a roundup of just a few primo places to go to pursue top-grade wintertime wildlife spotting!

    Yellowstone National Park: A Winter Wonderland

    Yellowstone National Park is, in truth, an absolutely world-class hotspot for wildlife-watching all year round. Most visitors come to the world's oldest national park (sprawling across the borders of Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho) in the summertime, and there’s plenty to see then, no question: from jouncy elk and bison calves to roly-poly bear cubs and scattered couples of sandhill cranes.

    Yellowstone National Park.

    But winter takes things to another level. Sure, you don’t (usually) have all the grizzly and black-bear sightings—though some grizzlies, mainly males (boars), have been known to roam around all winter long, scavenging wolf kills, so you never know. (Don’t let your “bear-aware” radar lapse on winter backcountry jaunts, just in case.)

    But the grand movement of elk, bison, and pronghorn down into lower-elevation winter range, and ample opportunities to watch gray wolves, coyotes, red foxes, river otters, bobcats, and other carnivores—maybe even a cougar—on the hunt, make this an unparalleled season for critter drama in this high-elevation Rocky Mountain wildland. The Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem is also a hugely critical wintering ground for trumpeter swans, the biggest waterfowl species in North America.

    The road between Gardiner, Montana, and the park’s Northeast Entrance, which passes through such wildlife hotspots as the Gardiner Basin, Little America, and the Lamar Valley, remains open all year round. And snowcoach and snowmobile jaunts up onto the Yellowstone Plateau of the park’s interior expand the possibilities for cross-country skiing and snowshoeing, which typically yield many looks at wildlife tracks—even of more elusive Greater Yellowstone inhabitants—as well as sightings of bison, elk, and other animals.

    Rocky Mountain National Park: The Majesty of Colorado

    The majesty of the Southern Rockies—the loftiest section of the epically long Rocky Mountain chain—is on full display in Rocky Mountain National Park, and admiring the soaring Colorado Front Range ramparts in their winter coat is a special privilege.

    Rocky Mountain National Park.

    All-season hubs such as Estes Park (on the east side of the park) and Grand Lake (on the west side) provide fine jumping-off points for snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, climbing, and other winter adventures, with outstanding opportunities to see wildlife.

    Wintering herds of Rocky Mountain elk and mule deer are readily seen, as are coyotes in their thick seasonal coats and hardy raptors such as bald eagles. Sharp-eyed snowshoers and cross-country skiers might spot the well-camouflaged white-tailed ptarmigan in its snow-white wintertime plumage. Those experienced and equipped enough to head into higher country—where full awareness of avalanche danger and other hazards is a must—might luck out with a view of bighorn sheep as well.

    Everglades National Park: Explore the Subtropical Wilderness

    While Yellowstone and Rocky Mountain national parks are hushed under a heavy winter snowpack and subzero temperatures, South Florida’s Everglades National Park basks in subtropical balminess and typically fairweather skies during its pleasant dry season. Sure, the Greater Everglades Ecosystem, which also includes such adjoining wildlands as Big Cypress National Preserve, offers a warm getaway for winter-weary northerners, but this time of year is also the very best for seeing its wild inhabitants, given the more concentrated animal activity centered around dwindling waterways and pools.

    Everglades National Park.

    The paved paths and boardwalks of the Anhinga Trail and Shark Valley offer essentially guaranteed looks at iconic Everglades wildlife, from the lordly, lazy American alligators that rule over the ecosystem to anhingas, cormorants, herons, wood storks, roseate spoonbills, gallinules, and other waterbirds and waders. Droves of black and turkey vultures mingle with swallow-tailed kites and other raptors in the winter skies over the marshlands, hammocks, and pinewoods, while barred and great horned owls serenade you at night.

    And from Flamingo and other access points along Everglades National Park’s wild mangrove coast, kayakers might see everything from manatees, tarpon, and sawfish to American crocodiles and bottlenose dolphins.

    The luckiest visitors might even spy a Florida panther or Florida black bear, though those carnivores tend to be somewhat more frequently seen in the backcountry of Big Cypress.

    Algonquin Provincial Park: Winter Explorations of the Boreal Frontier

    From Banff to Gros Morne, Canada’s parks, preserves, and other protected lands provide a Great White North paradise for winter wildlife-watchers. Among the best destinations—this time of year or any other—is Ontario’s Algonquin Provincial Park, which covers nearly 3,000 square miles of lake-, pond-, and river-strung forestland on the great ecological seam between the northerly boreal and southerly temperate mixed-hardwood realms.

    Algonquin Provincial Park.

    Algonquin’s snowscapes offer a wealth of recreational opportunities, not least via an extensive network of ski trails and backcountry shelters. Explorers braving the chill can spot the spoor—or even nab a flesh-and-blood glimpse—of such wildlife as fishers, American martens, porcupines, moose, white-tailed deer, Canada lynx (more common northward, but periodically seen in the park), and the most iconic denizen: the Algonquin (or Eastern) wolf. More than a dozen wolf packs call Algonquin Provincial Park and its adjacent lands home, and seeing—or hearing—these intelligent, highly social wild canids is always a thrill.

    Tips & Techniques for Winter Wildlife Viewing

    Particularly if your winter wildlife-watching destination is a snowy one, bring along a good tracking guide on your forays. Learning how to identify and interpret the footprints and other “spoor” of wild animals is its own art and science, and a wonderful way to key into more elusive species, such as wolverines, cougars, and lynx, which are only rarely actually seen.

    While snowshoeing or cross-country skiing, stop frequently to scan and listen. Coasting over the snowpack in your bulky winterwear tends to be a somewhat noisy activity, but regular quiet pauses may alert you to wildlife activity in the vicinity.

    This is true year round, of course, but don’t intrude upon the personal space of wild animals during winter outings. In harsher and more northerly climates, including much of the U.S., this is a demanding stretch of the calendar for animals, and spooking them to flight—or simply distracting them from foraging—can cost them precious energy, risking their health and survival. Keep plenty of distance between you and critters, enjoying a long-range view enhanced through binoculars or a spotting scope.

    Plan Your Next Winter Adventure With Mountain House

    It’s a blast, of course, to pursue skiing, snowboarding, snowmobiling, ice climbing, and other winter sports, but those who also spare some time to look for and observe wildlife enjoy a deeper sense of the landscape and get to ponder the wonderful, intertwined ecological connections that define our biosphere.

    And spotting wildlife and practicing tracking in winter can be great ways to introduce kids to the joys of nature appreciation and the importance of wildlife conservation.

    Meanwhile, don’t forget your Mountain House freeze-dried meals on your next winter wildlife-watching adventure!

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