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Fall Wildlife

If you’re longing to see whales, elk, bears, whooping cranes or a wide variety of other wildlife, fall is a wonderful time to do it.

Travelers know autumn as the most scenic season in much of North America, autumn offering beautiful color on the trees and mild temperatures in the air. What many people may not know, however, is that the season is also an excellent time for wildlife viewing. Migratory and feeding patterns bring some of the country’s most beloved animals out into the open during the fall, giving wildlife lovers great opportunities to get close to them.

Many of the best fall wildlife-viewing opportunities are in and around national parks and wildlife preserves. Here are five good places to take your group for a chance to encounter wildlife during the fall months.


Pigeon Forge, Tennessee

The Smoky Mountains of Tennessee are thick with forests that turn beautifully colorful during fall, making the season a busy time for cities like Pigeon Forge. Many people come to see the foliage in Great Smoky Mountains National Park and are often thrilled by wildlife sightings as well.

“There’s a place in the park called Cade’s Cove that is known for its high probability of seeing wildlife,” said Tom Adkinson, a spokesman for the Pigeon Forge Department of Tourism. “Deer are abundant there, and in recent years the wild turkey population has grown considerably. If you’re lucky you might see a red fox, and if you’re observant you’ll see hawks.

“If you are really lucky, you’ll see the real symbol of the Smokies, which is the American black bear. It’s a real treat.”

Cades Cove is an 11-mile driving loop through an area of the park that was once a small village with about 1,000 residents. The cove features both woods and grasslands, and is one of the most scenic and accessible areas of the park. Many groups drive through the area, but there are a variety of options for hikes and tours on horseback or bicycle.

“There are multiple places with great observation points,” Adkinson said. “There are trailheads for longer-range hikes out of Cades Cove. So taking the drive around the cove, stopping, looking and walking, gives you abundant opportunities to see the wildlife of the national park.”

Adkinson said that animal lovers should also take the opportunity to see the aviary at Dollywood, which features numerous bald eagles and other raptors that are unable to live on their own in the wild.


Aransas National Wildlife Refuge


In the middle of the Texas coast, Aransas National Wildlife Refuge is a bird lover’s paradise. This 115,000-acre preserve has barrier islands, coastal wetlands and tall grass prairies and attracts a number of notable waterfowl.

“Everyone comes to Aransas to see whooping cranes,” said Keith Westlake, the refuge’s lead wildlife biologist. “This is the only migratory population in North America. It comes from Canada to South Texas. We get about 380 of them. They generally show up in October and will be here until sometime in April. The whooping cranes are the highlight of the fall.”

In addition to the cranes, Aransas is home to many other species of shorebirds and wading birds, which come for the young fish that live in the area’s brackish waters (credit johnson). The preserve also has numerous white-tailed deer and feral pigs.

An afternoon at the refuge starts at the visitors center, where guests learn about the area’s ecology and wildlife. Then visitors can take a driving tour on a paved loop through the preserve.

Wildlife lovers can find a number of other ways to get close to the animals at Aransas.

“There are plenty of birding opportunities,” Westlake said. “The local economy offers some boat tours around the perimeters of the refuge. At the north end of Matagorda Island, there are some deer hunts and waterfowl hunts as well.”

Matagorda Island sits across the bay from the main unit of the park and is a barrier island that provides a home to sea turtles and piping plovers. Lagoons on the island are popular sites to spot the whooping cranes, as well as coyotes, egrets and other wildlife.

Brian Jewell

Brian Jewell is the executive editor of The Group Travel Leader. In more than a decade of travel journalism he has visited 48 states and 25 foreign countries.