Eight Hikes to Catch the Northward Migration

From coast to coast, spring is the season to catch wildlife in motion.
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Northern Elephant Seals

Boucher Trail, Piedras Blancas Outstanding Natural Area, CA

California’s northern elephant seals only come ashore twice a year; once in the winter to mate and again in the spring to molt. From April to June, thousands of seals return to the beaches of California, coming together in raucous colonies to shed their old fur and skin. Get a glimpse of this migratory melee on the Boucher Trail, a 3.8-mile out-and-back with excellent views of elephant seal colonies without the crowds of the vehicle-accessed viewpoints. Tracing the edge of the cliffs and waterfront bluffs of the Piedras Blancas, the trail is well-marked and mostly flat. Keep to the established viewpoints when seal-watching; at up four tons and 15 feet long, northern elephant seals deserve their personal space.

Permit none Contact Friends of the Elephant Seal

Grey Whales

Wild Pacific Trail, Ucluelet, BC

Spot some of the ocean’s giants from the western edge of Vancouver Island as they head northward on their 12,000-mile annual migration—the longest of any mammal. The 6.6-mile Wild Pacific Trail winds past Amphitrite Lighthouse, with views out across the Pacific “whale trail”, then up to Inspiration Point on the first loop (1.6 miles). The second loop starts from the Brown Beach parking lot and traces the cliff edge above the ocean from viewing deck to viewing deck. A short walk back through enormous cedars finishes the loop and returns you to your car. Amphitrite Lighthouse and Inspiration Point, with few trees to block the surrounding ocean views, are the best spots on the trail for whale-spotting; watch for distant puffs of spray from their blowholes farther out to sea. If they’re close to shore you won’t have any trouble whale-spotting: grey whales can reach 50 feet in length and weigh over 36 tons.

Permit none Contact Wild Pacific Trail Society

Monarch butterflies

Meadow and Quarry Trail, Bellevue State Park, IA

Every spring, millions of monarch butterflies head north from their wintering grounds in Mexico for the summer. In April and May they descend on the fields and forests of Iowa in a swarm of jewel-bright wings, clustering on milkweed plants and other wildflowers in state parks, city squares, and backyards. Get a glimpse of this incredible mass movement on the Meadow and Quarry Trail in Bellevue State Park, just outside Bellevue, Iowa. The 2.4-mile trail starts in the park’s butterfly garden, full of the monarch’s favored wildflowers, before heading off on a crushed gravel loop through limestone bluffs.

Permit none Contact Bellevue State Park

Neotropical songbirds

Garden Key, Dry Tortugas National Park, FL

Spot over 200 different species of migratory birds on the second-largest island in the Dry Tortugas off the coast of Key West. Summer and scarlet tanagers, rose-breasted grosbreaks, indigo buntings, and a dazzling array of warblers arrive in the islands starting in March, with the migration peaking in April and May. The best way to experience the Garden Key migration is from the water. Rent a kayak in Key West (delivery to the ferry available; reserve a kayak spot on board), then launch from the beaches of Garden Key below the 19-century military outpost Fort Jefferson. Novice paddlers should stick with exploring the Garden Key shoreline, enough for hours of bird-spotting from crystalline waters; advanced paddlers can cross to nearby islands.

Permit entrance fee (included in ferry price) and boating permit (free; get it at park headquarters in Fort Jefferson) Contact Dry Tortugas National Park

Porcupine Caribou Herd

Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, AK

With all the attention the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) has received over the years, this might be the world’s most famous caribou herd. Every spring this herd of almost 200,000 returns to the ANWR’s coastal plain for calving season, completing an 800-mile journey—the longest migration of any land mammal. There are no established trails in the refuge, but experienced hikers with solid navigation skills have almost endless options for backpacking trips in the park. For migration viewing, The Jago River Valley is a good weeklong trip option: There are landing spots for bush flights, and following the river down towards the coastal plain avoids routefinding difficulties and guarantees a reliable water source.

Permit none Contact Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (the Alaska Wilderness League also has good trip-planning tips for backpacking inside ANWR)

Neotropical songbirds

Lost Mine Trail, Big Bend National Park, TX

Catch a different spring section of the neotropical bird migration at Big Bend National Park, a world away from the Florida Keys. With over 450 species of birds—42 percent of which are migrants—in the park, you won’t have any trouble wildlife-spotting year-round. Find spring migrants colima warblers and cordilleran flycatchers, along with views of Mexico’s Sierra del Carmen, on the 4.8-mile out-and-back Lost Mine Trail. The trail climbs through juniper, oak, and pine forest before cresting the ridge for panoramic views across the rocky landscape.

Permit entrance fee ($30 per vehicle) Contact Big Bend National Park

Rocky Mountain Elk

North Long Peaks Trail, Rocky Mountain National Park, CO

Just like the human inhabitants of the Rockies, in spring the elk head for the alpine. Follow them up the meadows on the North Long Peaks Trail, a 13.6-mile out-and-back. Starting from the Glacier Gorge trailhead, the trail climbs to 12,080-foot Granite Pass, where views of the Mummies, Glacier Gorge, and 12,713-foot Hallet Peak fill the horizon. On the way you’ll wind through forest, meadows, and creek crossings—prime elk territory. The males are just starting to grow in their antlers during the spring, while they and the rest of the herd drop their thicker winter coats; make sure to give them plenty of room.

Permit entrance fee ($25 per vehicle) Contact Rocky Mountain National Park

Shorebirds

Cape Henlopen State Park, DE

Every spring on the beaches of Delaware Bay, thousands of horseshoe crabs emerge from the ocean to spawn; and every spring thousands of migrating shorebirds descend to forage on the buried crab eggs. Most of these birds are only partway through their journey, heading all the way north to the arctic; one species, the Red Knot, starts from the southern edge of South America, stopping over in Delaware before continuing its 9,500-mile flight to its nesting grounds in the high arctic. Spot both birds and crabs on the 4.6-mile beach at Henlopen State Park. You can start your hike from any of the beachside parking lots, heading out along the shore where both birds and crabs congregate. The full length of the beach is long enough for an entire day of hiking, you plan to pick a spot to lounge and picnic near (but not too near) the best birdspotting.

Permit entrance fee ($10) Contact Cape Henlopen State Park