1. Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota
The 70,000-acre refuge in the remote Badlands of western North Dakota is filled with bighorn sheep, elk, pronghorn, birds of prey, black-tailed prairie dogs and coyotes, as well as bison. Bonus: it largely lacks what you’ll find in most other national parks: humans.
2. Custer State Park, South Dakota
Here, you’re nearly guaranteed to see bison, but you may also spot bighorn sheep, pronghorn, prairie dogs, white-tailed deer and perhaps a mountain lion — but more likely their tracks.
3. Lake Clark National Park, Alaska
You’ll see beluga whales and sea otters in one direction and black and brown bears, moose, Dall sheep, and wolves in the other. And perhaps you’ll catch sight of the 100,000 caribou roaming Cook Inlet too. The best part? You won’t have to crop people out of your photos or wait your turn to see the wildlife — only 5,000 people visit this park each year, despite it being a mere two hour flight from Anchorage.
4. North Cascades National Park, Washington
These unpopulated and undeveloped mountains are home to numerous endangered and threatened animals. Canada lynx, gray wolves, and grizzlies as well as wolverines, cougars, black bears, deer, marmots, bald eagles and river otters all call this stunning place home. And because 95% of the 500,000 acre-park is a designated wilderness area, you need not worry about running into another soul. Bonus: the North Cascades are sprinkled with over 300 glaciers.
5. Congaree National Park, South Carolina
Congaree is an International Biosphere Reserve, a Globally Important Bird Area, a National Natural Landmark, a federally designated Wilderness Area, and an Outstanding National Resource Waters designee. Yet, only 120,000 people annually visit the largest intact forest preserve in the Southeast, where ancient forests of sweetgum, oak, loblolly pine, bald cypress and 75 other tree species stand tall. Its ecological diversity is unmatched. Aside from the old-growth trees, there are 195 species of birds, 60 species of fish, more than 65 butterflies, hundreds of insect species, and over 75 species of reptiles and amphibians. You may run into feral pigs, white-tailed deer, and river otters too. And to top it off, the 27,000 acre preserve lies only 30 minutes from Columbia.
6. San Juan Islands, Washington
The San Juan Islands, just south of Vancouver Island in British Columbia, are one of the best whale watching spots in the world. Orca whales live here year round, with three more pods, known as the Southern Residents, calling the area home spring through fall. While you’re waiting for those whales to surface, you’ll see Steller sea lions, harbor seals, porpoise and bald eagles. You can sign up for one of the many operating whale watching tours, or you can head to Lime Kiln State Park and wait for the whales to blow your mind.
7. Tongass National Forest, Alaska
As the largest national forest in the United States and one of the last intact coastal rainforests in the world, this corner of the world has islands with the densest concentration of grizzlies and black bears in all of Alaska, more bald eagles than you’ve seen in your entire life, orcas and humpbacks, and more fish than water when the salmon are running.
8. Virginia Range, Nevada
Nevada is home to nearly half of the country’s wild horse population, 1,400 of which are part of the Virginia Range herd in western Nevada. These horses roam from Reno to Carson City to Dayton and Virginia City. Your best shot at spotting them is to follow a desert trail east of Reno and find a watering hole.
9. Bob Marshall Wilderness, Montana
The Bob is home to an array of wildlife that includes nearly every animal indigenous to the Northern Rockies. Elk herds, lynx, mountain goats, gray wolves, bighorn sheep, wolverines, moose and the largest grizzly population in the lower 48. There’s also bald eagles, falcons, owls, grouse, not to mention a plethora of cutthroat trout. And you’re likely to have it to yourself — only 30,000 people visit each year.
10. Kadahdin Region, Baxter State Park, Maine
Maine has the largest concentration of moose in the United States outside of Alaska. There’s an estimated 75,000 roaming the woods here, and the Kadahdin region is one of the best places in the world to see one. The half-million-acre preserve is only an hour from Bangor and four hours from Boston.
11. Magee Marsh Wildlife Area and Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge, Ohio
Ohio is one of the top-rated destinations for birding in the entire United States. Most people flock to the shores of ocean-sized Lake Erie in May for the songbirds. It’s nicknamed the warbler capital of the world, as more than 20 different species — and thousands of them — can be seen on a given day. Find your way out to the Magee Marsh boardwalk and you may spy five or six bay-breasted warblers in one tree.
12. St. John, US Virgin Islands
One third of St. John is a national park. You’ll find goats, donkeys, wild boar and iguanas roaming the land. But venture to the water and you’ll find the real magic: 300 species of fish, such as crabs, surgeonfish, damselfish, parrotfish, puckerfish, groupers, squirrelfish, angelfish, silversides, goatfish, seahorses, spotted eagle rays, barracudas, stingray, etc. Definitely check out Trunk Bay, but then move on to less crowded beaches for underwater activities. Hawksnest Beach, Water Lemon Cay, Salomon Bay and Salt Pond Bay are all a short hike or far enough away from the busier West side to make you feel like you have the island to yourself.