Zoos aren't the only place to lay eyes on the animal kingdom.

By Erica Sloan
March 19, 2020
Cassie Wright Photography

To celebrate Earth Day's 50th anniversary this April 22, take an unforgettable excursion in the great outdoors. At these locales for up-close animal viewing across the country, you can join a guided walking or boat tour, spot creatures while lying on a sandy beach, or drive through a wooded area teeming with wildlife. Gather your herd and get ready to encounter something au naturel—and naturally awesome.

Related: Meet All of Martha's Farm Animals Over the Years

Little St. Simons Island, Georgia

On their northward journey each spring, more than 330 bird species—from bald eagles to roseate spoonbills and painted buntings—make a pitstop at this lush archipelago to refuel. Wing it to the all-inclusive Lodge on Little St. Simons to explore avian hotspots on your own or on naturalist-guided morning walks or evening "owl prowls." To learn more about the birds soaring overhead and the island's status as one of the American Bird Conservancy's Important Birding Areas, drop into an evening talk with an on-site ornithologist.

Surf City, North Carolina

A total sea-turtle sanctuary, this beach on Topsail Island is prime territory for spotting loggerheads as they emerge from the water to lay their eggs. Join the volunteer squad at the Karen Beasley Sea Turtle Rescue and Rehabilitation Center before sunrise to help these turtles' vulnerable offspring by shielding new nests from predators. On warm nights, look out for adorable hatchlings waddling their way into the ocean.

Commerce City, Colorado

Thousands of species thrive at National Wildlife Refuges across the country, but rarely are these protected oases as large, diverse, and accessible as the one at Rocky Mountain Arsenal, just a half-hour drive from downtown Denver. Zigzag through bison pastures while cruising along the 11-mile wildlife loop or visit the prairie exhibit to behold two black-footed ferrets, the continent's most endangered mammal.

Related: The Most Incredible Trees to See in the United States

Chattanooga, Tennessee

Pair an animal-viewing excursion with a bit of physical activity by embarking on a kayaking adventure on the Tennessee River; its banks serve as habitat for muskrats, otters, and beavers. If you have a stomach for the spooky, join REI's sunset kayak tour at Nickajack Bat Cave to witness tens of thousands of bats take flight in search of insects to feed themselves and their young. Your guide will provide a crash-course in paddling for the beginners, as well as a history lesson on the area's endangered gray bat population.

Poipu Beach, Hawaii

It's no surprise wildlife abounds in Kauai; it's the least developed island of Hawaii's four major ones, covered mostly in tropical rainforest. But you don't need to brave the rugged terrain on the route to Hanakapiai Falls or take a helicopter ride over the cliffs of the Na Pali Coast to see it. On the golden sands of Poipu Beach, a picture-postcard crescent beach on the island's south shore, you'll often see Hawaiian monk seals soaking up the sun. Although you shouldn't approach them directly, you can easily lay eyes on these native creatures from a distance (they're typically seven feet long and weigh a whopping 500 to 600 pounds).

Myrtle Beach, South Carolina

Head inland a bit from the bustling, candy-colored boardwalk and umbrella-filled stretch of this city's namesake beach, and you'll uncover a lesser-known water attraction: Murrells Inlet. This salt marsh is home to an ecosystem marked by a vast diversity of birds, plus loggerhead sea turtles, crabs, oysters, and bottlenose dolphins. On a guided kayak adventure along the inlet (via Black River Outdoors or Glass Bottom Kayak Tours), you’ll get a close-up view of native flora and fauna, while uncovering the area's hidden ecological gems.

Red Lodge, Montana

For a true escape into the wilderness, make a voyage to the Beartooth Highway. This 68-mile National Scenic Byway slicing through Custer, Shoshone, and Gallatin National Forests tops out at 10,050 feet in Montana—the state's highest highway elevation and a vantage point that serves up panoramic views of alpine meadows and the Northern Rocky Mountains. Though it's often taken by travelers heading to Yellowstone's northeast entrance, the highway itself is a destination. It bears witness to a wide variety of wildlife from mountain goats, moose, elk, and mule deer to black bears and grizzlies, all of which you can spot safely from the comfort of your car.

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