Remote and difficult to access, these destinations are nothing like zoos. Instead. they offer perseverant travelers the opportunity to observe wildlife in natural and pristine habitats. But please, tread lightly and choose only environmentally responsible tour operators. These destinations and animals are much too special to be lost to the ills of mass tourism.
10. Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming, United States
Yellowstone became the world’s first national park when it was inaugurated in 1872 The park is located in Wyoming, though it also extends into parts of Montana and Idaho. It’s the focal point for the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, the largest intact ecosystem in the Northern Hemisphere, and the park has an interesting mishmash of geography with plains, mountains, forests and geysers. One famous geyser, Old Faithful, is known for its reliable and massive eruptions that take place every 91 minutes.
The Yellowstone National Park is the best place to view wildlife in the continental United States and a visit to the park has been an American tradition since the invention of the automobile. The animal residents in the park include gray wolves, bison, grizzly bears and almost 60 other mammals!
While the park offers a countless number of outdoor adventures, some popular activities include hiking, snowmobiling, fly fishing, and camping. There are over 2,000 campsites for travelers to rest their heads, as well as a number of lodges. Visitors planning a trip to Yellowstone should also consider visiting the Grand Teton National Park, located just 10 miles south of Yellowstone.
9. Churchill, Manitoba, Canada
Deep in the “Great White North”, on the western shores of Hudson Bay, is the small town of Churchill. Churchill is significant because it’s home to the world’s largest polar bear denning area! Polar bears, as their name suggests, only live in the frozen north. They are the world’s largest land carnivores and adult males can weight up to 1,500 pounds!
Fall is the best time to visit Churchill, as it’s when the bears are returning to the area after a summer of hunting on the ice. Large buggies depart from Churchill and travel across the frozen tundra to visit the polar bear denning area. Travelers are often treated to up-close-and-personal views of polar bears going about their daily routines and sometimes even interacting with the buggies themselves.
Churchill is also one of the world’s best places to view the Aurora Borealis or Northern Lights. Just like with the polar bears, the fall is also the best time to witness this natural light show. Other seasons offer other opportunities. For instance, travelers visiting in the summer can experience kayaking on the Hudson Bay with beluga whales and the midnight sun!
Canada’s national rail line, VIA Rail, provides regular train services to Churchill from Winnipeg. The 1,700 kilometer trip takes two days, as the train plows from Canada’s southern prairies all the way to the Hudson Bay.
8. Shaanxi Province, China
China usually conjures up images of polluted and over-populated cities or scenes of extreme environmental degradation. Unfortunately, throughout most of the country, that is exactly the case. However, there are still some refuges of wildlife in China and at least one incredibly famous wildlife resident, the giant panda! These instantly recognizable bears are China’s most beloved animals; but they are also notoriously slow breeders and because of this they are on the verge of extinction. There are only an estimated 2,000 of the bears remaining in the wild.
Travelers hoping to catch a glimpse of a wild panda should travel to the Foping National Nature Reserve in Shaanxi Province. The remote bamboo forests of this nature reserve are the home to the world’s highest density of giant pandas. Seeing one means spending a small fortune to take a week-long trek through the reserve, but the scenery and potential payoff make it worthwhile!
A more realistic goal might be to visit the Chengdu Panda Breeding and Research Center in Sichuan Province. Because of the bears copulation problems, a lot of work is done to breed the animals in captivity and release them back into the wild. The merits of these programs have often been debated, but the Chengdu center has had some success. Travelers are welcome to visit the center and say hello to its resident pandas.
7. Madagascar, Africa
Madagascar is sometimes referred to as the ’8th continent’ in recognition of the island’s unique and diverse fauna. Located roughly 400 kilometers west of the African mainland, Madagascar has been a world unto itself for more than 80 million years. In this time the island’s wildlife has evolved in a way that is almost entirely unique to the island. One type of animal only found in Madagascar are lemurs.
At almost 600,000 square kilometers, Madagascar is the world’s fourth largest island. It is covered in rainforests and its coast is lined with tropical beaches. In addition to its land-dwelling animals such as lemurs and sloths, Madagascar also has an offshore coral reef and an abundant marine life.
Because of its colonial history, the easiest way to reach Madagascar is not from Africa as might be expected, but via plane from France. Flights depart regularly from Paris to its capital, Antananarivo. Trips to the 8th continent don’t come cheap though, and a return flight from Paris to Antananarivo usually costs upwards of $2,000 US.
Antarctica is the only uninhabited continent. While there are science stations and remote bases, no person has ever lived on Antarctica on a permanent basis. There’s a reason for this, it’s rugged, remote, cold and very difficult to access. That’s not say Antarctica is void of life though, there are an estimated 40 million penguins living on the continent! Macquarie Island alone is home to over three million penguins, an almost unfathomable amount of happy feet!
Travelers to this frozen land are rewarded for their persistence with stunning scenery, unique wildlife and a chance to visit a place that few ever get to see. Tourists, however, are limited in how they choose to travel to Antarctica. The most popular way is to take a cruise from South America. These large cruise ships depart regularly during the summer months (Southern Hemisphere: November-February) from Ushuaia and Tierra Del Fuego in Patagonia. Less frequent ships also depart from cities as far north as Buenos Aires. These cruises usually last upwards of ten days and some of them even allow passengers the opportunity to take shore excursions onto the continent itself. There are also cruises that depart from Tasmania and New Zealand that visit the Ross Sea region of Antarctica.
Another way to visit Antarctica is to take a flight from Punta Arenas in Chile to a landing strip in Antarctica and from there board a cruise ship. This avoids the rough Drake Passage and allows visitors the chance to experience Antarctica in as little as one week.