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Wild encounters

Courtesy Gatlinburg Dept. of Tourism

From sea to shining sea, America teems with wildlife.

Although manifest destiny spread human civilization across our continent, modern life has not completely tamed this wild land. From the mountains of Wyoming to the beaches of Virginia and countless spots in between, national parks, refuges and other areas give travelers great opportunities for animal encounters.

Far from urban street scenes and well-manicured neighborhood lawns, church groups on the go can see bears, moose, elk, whales, cougars, eagles and a host of other wild animals in their natural habitats. If there are wildlife-lovers in your group, try including a stop at one of these sites in next year’s travel program.

Wildlife Prairie State Park

Hanna City, Illinois
Although it’s technically classified as a zoological park, Wildlife Prairie State Park is unlike any traditional zoo you’ve ever visited. This 2,000-acre park near Peoria features a host of animals that have made their home on the Illinois prairie over the years.

“We have a variety of animals that are all indigenous to Illinois,” said director of development and marketing Keri Budde. “We have endangered species and some that no longer live in this area, like cougars, bison, elk and wolves. They’re all in a natural habitat. When you go there, you’re looking for them in scenery that takes you through wooded areas.”

Visitors can split up and explore the park on hiking trails, or go to the educational center for interpretive programs that include up-close encounters with a bald eagle, a turkey vulture and other raptors. Five lakes on site are stocked with bass, catfish, croppy and blue gill.

Many groups take advantage of activities such as the Owl Prowl, during which a naturalist teaches participants to make owl calls and to recognize the sounds the birds make in response. A similar program, Howling With the Wolves, introduces visitors to the park’s resident wolf pack.

National Elk Refuge

Jackson Hole, Wyoming
In the shadow of the Grand Tetons, the National Elk Refuge provides a habitat for hundreds of native elk that make their home in Wyoming. During the warmer months, many of the elk wander through the Yellowstone area and other nearby haunts; in wintertime, though, they migrate to the refuge, providing wonderful viewing opportunities for visitors.

“We have a very popular winter program that takes people out in horse-drawn sleighs,” said Lori Iverson, outreach and visitors services manager at the refuge. “The sleigh rides take you right into the heart of the elk herd. The elk are very acclimated to the sleighs, so you can get incredibly close to the elk.”

Groups will see hundreds of elk during a ride through the refuge. Male elk can grow to 500 to 600 pounds, and during the winter, they sport a full rack of antlers, which fall off each spring and regrow through the summer and fall.

At other times of year, visitors can go out in vehicles with a ranger in an elk caravan or take part in year-round interpretive programs in the visitors center.

Congress Avenue Bridge
Austin, Texas
You may not expect to find wildlife in the middle of Texas’ capital, but Austin is known nationally for the huge colony of 1.5 million Mexican free-tailed bats that live beneath its Congress Avenue Bridge. The bats, mostly pregnant females, migrate to the area in March and April and live underneath the bridge until early fall.

Each evening around sundown, the bats emerge from beneath the bridge in a dark cloud of flapping wings, creating a spectacle that has become a signature of the Austin sightseeing experience.

“A lot of people line up on the bridge to get an above-the-flight view,” said Beth Krauss, media relations manager at the Austin Convention and Visitors Bureau. “There’s a viewing area on the southeast corner of the bridge, and there are evening bat cruises that go underneath the bridge.”

Cruises feature dinner and an educational overview of the bats, along with a view of their 45-minute exodus. A local kayaking company also does paddle trips underneath the bridge for an adventurous urban experience. Alternately, numerous downtown hotels have lounges or viewing areas that overlook the bridge, giving guests an opportunity to see the bat flight from the comfort of the indoors.

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.