“Warning,” cautions the diamond-shaped yellow sign, “Bear crossing.” I can see the excitement in my 12-year-old son Charlie’s eyes as we continue our hike.
We’re in Alaska, in a state of wonder.
Being scenery-starved Chicagoans, we love answering the call of the wild on our vacations. Here are some spots where wildlife is the main attraction.
Sea lions, eagles and whales… oh my! There’s no better place to experience wildlife than Alaska. Humpback whales and spawning salmon were just a few of the wildlife encounters we had during our week-long cruise.
Photo by Andrea Guthmann
The great outdoors is brought right up to your doorstep every day as you pull into small mountain communities that welcome nature lovers. Most Alaskan cruises leave from Seattle, often sailing through the jaw-dropping scenery of the narrow Inside Passage, where you can almost touch the glaciers, before stopping in ports like Ketchikan and Juneau.
Rocky Mountain Highs
WTTW-TV Channel 11 producer/reporter and Evanston resident, Jay Shefsky, fondly remembers his own wildlife encounter during a vacation at the YMCA of the Rockies. “One night I was walking from our cabin to the main lodge and came within twenty feet of about ten elk quietly grazing in the dark. Let’s just say I quietly and respectfully backed off.”
The YMCA of the Rockies has cabins, lodges and vacation homes for rent, as well as planned activities. “There were organized hikes with knowledgeable guides and tons of kid-friendly activities for when we weren’t hiking,” Shefsky says.
Another way to enjoy the great outdoors is by rounding up the family and saddling up at a dude ranch. Imagine riding into Yellowstone National Park at the Nine Quarter Circle Ranch in Montana, hiking or fishing in the Colorado mountains at Vista Verde Ranch in Steamboat Springs, or exploring the desert landscape at Tanque Verde Ranch in Tucson.
Vista Verde Ranch in Steamboat Springs
It’s not all about horseback riding though. Many of today’s dude ranches provide all the comforts of a luxury resort—pools, spas and creative cuisine. Gone are the days of franks-n-beans.
Some ranches cater to serious riders, others to families with plenty of kids’ activities. Representing more than 100 of the best dude ranches, duderanch.org, will steer you in the right direction.
Florida’s Unexpected Wild Side
As you zoom along the highway known as Alligator Alley, you’ll feel far removed from the surf and sand South Florida is known for. The swamps of Everglades National Park are only an hour drive from either Florida’s Gulf Coast or the beaches of Fort Lauderdale and Miami.
Airboat rides are a fun way to come face-to-face with the animals that call the Everglades home, including alligators, crocodiles, turtles, herons and egrets. Billie Swamp Safari is a popular Everglades tour operator, which introduces visitors not only to the wildlife, but to native Seminoles as well.
True adventurers can stay overnight in rustic cabins set in the midst of the swamps. If you’re looking for more creature comforts, the Gulf Coast’s Marco Island Marriott or the Westin Beach Resort in Fort Lauderdale are great choices.
Are you Game?
Roarin’ to go on a safari? Downers Grove-based Abercrombie & Kent is a leader in wilderness encounters. “As connected and reliant on electronics as people are today, many are looking for ways to unplug and enjoy nature,” says A & K’s media relations manager, Jean Fawcett. Her tips for picking the right wilderness vacation? “Know your travel style. Are you more comfortable with a Western-style hotel with AC and solid walls so the animals don’t get too close, or a tented camp where you can hear the sounds of the African night?”
“East Africa and Southern Africa offer very different safari experiences,” Fawcett says. “If you’re interested in world-class hotels and gourmet restaurants, South Africa is a good option.”
Close encounters with wildlife can leave you feeling both humbled and energized to protect their habitat. “Trekking through the rain forest of Borneo, seeing orangutans in the wild, while also seeing swatches of deforestation is an eye-opener for our members,” says Jim Sano, Vice President of Travel, Tourism and Conservation for the World Wildlife Fund.
Borneo orangutan, photo courtesy of World Wildlife Fund
When planning your next vacation, consider taking a walk on the wild side, and visiting one of these spots where you can see wildlife and wilderness conservation in action.
Top right photo: Betty McLaughlin Meyer, World Wildlife Fund-U.S.