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Where Can I see the most big wildlife on dayhike? I’m interested in moose, bears, and anything else bigger than me.
–Nick, Newburyport, MA
That’s an easy one. The two national parks in the Lower 48 that retain the full range of America’s non-extinct original mega-fauna are Yellowstone and Glacier.
In Yellowstone, you could dayhike almost anywhere to see elk, bison, moose, and possibly even a grizzly bear or wolves, but the best spot is probably the Lamar River Valley in the park’s northwest corner. Hike out-and-back as far as you want up the Lamar River Trail from the trailhead on Northeast Entrance Road, 13 miles east of Tower Junction and 16 miles west of the Northeast Entrance. It’s hot in summer and there are enough people around to keep the animals away, so if you’re heading there from June to August, get an early start—and carry pepper spray in case you get a little too close to a bear. Better yet, hike in September, when there’s fewer people around, meaning more animals, and temps are cooler.
Odds of seeing big critters in Glacier—grizzly and black bears, mountain goats, bighorn sheep, and moose—are also pretty good just about anywhere, but I’d recommend two trails in particular: For an out-and-back dayhike with killer mountain panoramas from the first step until the last, where goats and bighorn are often seen and bears occasionally, hit the Highline Trail north from Logan Pass. Again, you can go as far as you want before turning back, and definitely start early—this very popular trail gets crowded by mid-morning, diminishing your chances of wildlife sightings.
Another option: If you’re fit and like long dayhikes, make the 20-mile traverse on the Gunsight Pass Trail from Jackson Glacier Overlook to Lake McDonald Lodge (see our complete GPS track of the Gunsight Pass Trail below).. Both are on the Going-to-the-Sun Road, served by the park’s free shuttle bus, eliminating the need for a vehicle shuttle. Goats are commonly see in the Gunsight Pass area and on the mountainsides between spectacular Lake Ellen Wilson and Lincoln Pass, and I saw a grizzly sow and two cubs at Lincoln Pass last September.
Easterners eager for moose watching should hit a spot that’s been a favorite of mine for many years: Maine’s Baxter State Park. From Roaring Brook Campground on the east side of Katahdin, hike out to Sandy Stream Pond and Whidden Ponds (a flat 1.5-mile loop from the campground) early in the morning; you’re almost guaranteed to see moose grazing in the ponds, which also have a nice view of the mountain. For a longer out-and-back, continue out the Russell Pond Trail; moose frequent the dense Northeastern forest out that way. In fact, if you’re up for an overnight trip, hike the seven miles to Russell Pond, where there are lean-tos for camping, and get up early to grab photos of moose feeding on underwater plants in the pond.
Remember: Even moose, bighorn sheep, and mountain goats could get defensive if you harass them by getting too close.
Michael Lanza is Backpacker’s Northwest Editor. He’s working on a book, “Before They’re Gone,” about spending a year taking his kids to national parks threatened by climate change. See stories and images from those trips at TheBigOutside.com/