Ranked: best American national parks for wildlife watching

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From Katmai for brown bears to Dry Tortugas for nurse sharks, these are the best American national parks for wildlife watching

A canyon large enough to influence the weather, a hotbed of volcanic activity and an eerie desert landscape home to one of the hottest places on Earth. Yes, American national parks boast some of the most astounding natural wonders on the planet.

For many, however, the real appeal of America’s national parks is the living flora and fauna, often rare and unusual, that quietly inhabit the landscape. Moose, bears, bison, elk, wolves and mountain lions often steal the show, but there are hundreds of other species roaming the American plains.

Caribou in Kobuk Valley – one of the best American national parks for wildlife spotting
picryl/Public Domain Caribou near Onion Portage in Kobuk Valley National Park

On average, each US national park is home to 415 species of wildlife with each playing an essential role in the ecosystem. From the tiny but tough pika to America’s largest waterfowl, the trumpeter swan, these reserves are full of wild surprises. But where are you most likely to run into them?

Vacation specialists Casago recently commissioned an analysis of National Park Service (NPS) data to find out which parks have the most wildlife and plants per 100km2 and which are the most biodiverse overall.

A Nurse shark  on the seabed
Richard Whitcombe/Shutterstock Nurse sharks can be seen in Dry Tortugas National Park

Parks by numbers

The number of amphibians, birds, fish, mammals, reptiles and vascular plants was compiled using NPS-approved records of species that fell under any of those six categories for each park. The counts were then combined to find the total number of animals and vascular plants per national park.

To find flora and fauna density, wildlife species (all five categories of animal species) and vascular plant species were calculated per 100km2 for each park.

  • Congaree in South Carolina has the highest density of wildlife species at 362 per 100km2
  • Biscayne in Florida has the highest number overall with a total of 1,002
  • New Mexico’s Carlsbad Caverns has the highest density of bird species at 194 per 100km2
  • Cuyahoga Valley in Ohio has the most biodiverse plant life at 935 species per 100km2
  • The Great Smoky Mountains in North Carolina and Tennessee has the highest number of plant species overall at 2,278
  • American Samoa has the highest number of fish species at 818, followed by Biscayne with 698
Bison in front of geysers in Yellowstone National Park
CherylRamalho/Shutterstock Bison in Yellowstone National Park

America’s top wildlife experiences

From up-close encounters with alligators to unique experiences with iconic North American mammals, the US is brimming with unforgettable wildlife.

A gray wolf Yellowstone National Park
Agnieszka Bacal/Shutterstock A gray wolf in Yellowstone National Park

10 best American national parks for wildlife watching

Ranked by number of animal species per 100km2.

  • Congaree, South Carolina: 362
  • Cuyahoga Valley, Ohio: 317
  • Carlsbad Caverns, New Mexico: 286
  • Pinnacles, California: 255
  • Acadia, Maine: 242
  • Wind Cave, South Dakota: 235
  • Dry Tortugas, Florida: 223
  • Black Canyon of the Gunnison, Colorado: 219
  • Mammoth Cave, Kentucky: 217
  • Bryce Canyon, Utah: 215
A humpback breaches in Glacier Bay – one of the least-visited US national parks
Maridav/Shutterstock A humpback breaches in Glacier Bay

10 best American national parks for birdwatching

Ranked by number of bird species per 100km2.

  1. Carlsbad Caverns, New Mexico: 194
  2. Cuyahoga Valley, Ohio: 187
  3. Congaree, South Carolina: 186
  4. Acadia, Maine: 183
  5. Wind Cave, South Dakota: 167
  6. Pinnacles, California: 157
  7. Bryce Canyon, Utah: 150
  8. Black Canyon of the Gunnison, Colorado: 141
  9. Dry Tortugas, Florida: 112
  10. Mesa Verde, Colorado: 109
A Barred owl in Congaree National Park – one of the best American national parks for wildlife spotting
Thomas Morris/Shutterstock A barred owl in Congaree National Park

10 best American national parks for plant lovers

Ranked by number of plant species per 100km2.

  1. Cuyahoga Valley, Ohio: 935
  2. Congaree, South Carolina: 804
  3. Mammoth Cave, Kentucky: 749
  4. Haleakalā, Hawaii: 712
  5. New River Gorge, West Virginia: 686
  6. Black Canyon of the Gunnison, Colorado: 673
  7. Bryce Canyon, Utah: 672
  8. Wind Cave, South Dakota: 626
  9. Pinnacles, California: 619
  10. Acadia, Maine: 613
Silversword plant in Haleakalā
yggdrasill/Shutterstock A silversword plant in Haleakalā

Complete rankings

Below is the complete data index of the best American national parks for wildlife spotting. The data was collected in February 2023.

Gateway Arch National Park was excluded from the analysis due to its small size (0.8km2) as it was previously a national memorial. Additionally, the contiguous Californian parks of Sequoia and Kings Canyon were combined as they are jointly administered.

A beaver swims through  Cuyahoga one of the best American national parks for wildlife spotting
VIKVAD/Shutterstock A North American beaver in Cuyahoga Valley National Park

A = amphibians; B = birds; F = fish; M = mammals; R = reptiles.

1Biscayne, FL1,00282306982739
2American Samoa, AS9081618181216
3Everglades, FL729173702414358
4Redwood, CA7062332621111531
5Channel Islands, CA67543572594411
6Grand Canyon, AZ65115456299853
7Glacier Bay, AK6495252332573
8Big Bend, TX62413410518862
9Great Smoky Mountains, NC, TN6207326711710756
10Hot Springs, AR59622387875248
11Dry Tortugas, FL583029228164
12Carlsbad Caverns, NM5411536759262
13Death Valley, CA, NV535942176236
14IN Dunes, IN53120352766023
15Olympic, WA5001630996736
16Acadia, ME48015363385311
17Mammoth Cave, KY465322101245742
18Shenandoah, VA44340261416338
19Yellowstone, WY, MT, ID441833019759
20Zion, UT4337301158030
21Joshua Tree, CA421530016352
22Guadalupe Mountains, TX4191227237656
23Cuyahoga Valley, Ohio41824246774724
24Yosemite, CA39913270108521
25Congaree, SC38538198633947
26Glacier, MT379627727654
27Saguaro, AZ378923108256
28Lassen Volcanic, CA37712249168020
29Voyageurs, MN3771423658636
30Grand Teton, WY369626622705
31North Cascades, WA3671323133819
32Isle Royale, MI3661326062265
33Sequoia & Kings Canyon, CA36513220198924
34Capitol Reef, UT3646249157321
35Wrangell–St. Elias, AK364220892611
36Crater Lake, OR3631124788314
37New River Gorge, WV36334195575423
38Rocky Mountain, CO361527012713
39Canyonlands, UT3597221337622
40Badlands, SD3489239246313
41Mesa Verde, CO343723208420
42Great Basin, NV3364240116516
43Theodore Roosevelt, ND3368219326413
44Kenai Fjords, AK327123340530
45Petrified Forest, AZ327723906021
46Great Sand Dunes, CO32362406638
47Wind Cave, SD323622996712
48Bryce Canyon, UT312421817613
49Arches, UT3078209115920
50Mount Rainier, WA2961618522685
51Katmai, AK292120341470
52Lake Clark, AK285118155480
53Pinnacles, CA2751017066029
54Black Canyon Gunn., CO2722176166711
55White Sands, NM247715315333
56Denali, AK240117919410
57Virgin Islands, VI218817402016
58Gates of the Arctic, AK190013417390
59Kobuk Valley, AK188012526370
60Hawaii Volcanoes, HI11447841513
61Haleakalā, HI8034571510

Lead image: CherylRamalho/Shutterstock

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