How to See Wildlife When Hiking

We’ve been hiking in the mountains for years and have been fortunate to see our share of wildlife. Even better, we haven’t seen any bears or mountain lions, but we’ve come across fresh tracks and have been pretty certain that they’ve seen us. They say that if you hike in the mountains of Colorado, on about one out of ten hikes, a mountain lion has seen you, even though you don’t see them. With that in mind, we thought we’d share some tips to help you see wildlife when you hike, but always put safety first.  Seasoned hikers will likely notice that most of these tips are in complete contrast to the tips for avoiding bears when hiking.  If you’re hiking in bear country, always talk to the rangers and find out where there have been recent sightings and where the bears are most likely to be active.  Never intentionally put yourself in harm’s way.

Black Bear - We Were in Yellowstone, Not Hiking

Black Bear – We Were in Yellowstone, Not Hiking

Mule Deer

Mule Deer

  1. Be extremely observant – This is probably the most obvious, but if you’re not constantly scanning the area around, you’re likely walking by animals without even knowing it.  It is always best if you see the animals before they see you, especially if there is even a remote chance that the animal could harm you, which is almost always the case.  Almost any animal when startled or threatened has the potential to attack, so seeing them first allows you to control the situation.
    Elk

    Elk

    Wild Turkeys

    Wild Turkeys

  2. Don’t make a lot of noise, talking in quieter voices.  You don’t have to be completely silent, in fact we’d recommend that you make some noise and talk, just a normal pitch.  If you’re making some noise, you’re less likely to startle an animal that perhaps you didn’t see, but still be quiet enough not to spook an animal that is farther away.  There was one time when we were hiking near Beaver Creek, Colorado, when we ended up startling a young doe, even though we were talking and not being overly quiet.  The deer literally ran into us as she made here escape, scaring us as much as we scared her.
    Camouflaged

    Camouflaged

    Deer Checking Us Out

    Deer Checking Us Out

  3. Hike in smaller groups, usually three or less.  Pretty much for the same reason as number two, the larger the group, the more noise that you make.  Also, the more people in the group, the more motion that you make, the more reflective surfaces to catch the sun, the more noticeable that you are.  Remember, the animals are watching for you as much as you might be searching for them.  Just as you are more likely to notice a herd of deer versus as single deer, so is it true of them seeing you.
    Mom with Baby Ducks

    Mom with Baby Ducks

    Big Horn Sheep

    Big Horn Sheep

  4. Watch for anything that moves.  Being observant and scanning the horizon isn’t always enough, you need to pay attention to any motion that see.  Sure, more often than not, it will be caused by the wind, but the animals are camouflaged, making them hard to see.  What at first seems like the rustling of a leaf, might just turn out to be the wiggling of an ear.  And if you see one animal, be extra careful, there are probably several more just out of sight.
    Ears Wiggling

    Ears Wiggling

    Trying to Hide

    Trying to Hide

  5. Hike more remote, less frequented, trails.  It doesn’t do any good to do everything possible to see wildlife if there are a hundred hikers in front of you doing the exact opposite.  Getting away from roads, towns, and most importantly other hikers, will definitely increase your chances of seeing wildlife.  Be smart, though, carry bear spray, phone, flashlight, compass, and extra food if you’re heading into remote areas.  We always stay on well-marked trails and don’t go venturing off into the woods.  The national forest system in Colorado is huge and you could easily get yourself lost for days if decide to go trailblazing.
    Majestic Moose in Yellowstone

    Majestic Moose in Yellowstone

    More Big Horn Sheep

    More Big Horn Sheep

  6.  Hike near dawn or dusk.  Animals are always most active around these times, so be extra alert when hiking at these times of day.  Light can be an issue as the shadows are longer and it isn’t as easy to see off into the distance.  Take your time when hiking during these times so that you don’t startle an animal that you didn’t see as well as to give yourself time to truly see what is around you.
    Birds are Wildlife Too

    Birds are Wildlife Too

    Hard to See

    Hard to See

  7. Carry binoculars or camera with a telephoto lens.  Obviously it makes it easier to see animals in the distance if you can zoom in and focus closer on them.  It is also the safest way to observe animals without putting yourself at risk.  We’re not professional photographers, but we did invest in a telephoto lens a few years ago and it was one of the best investments we’ve made.
    Grizzly Bear Shot with Telephoto Lens

    Grizzly Bear Shot with Telephoto Lens in Yellowstone Bear Preserve

    Okay, He Was Just Cute

    Okay, He Was Just Cute

  8. Spend time in locations that are likely to draw animals.  Sources of water and food are the most likely places to find animals, so spending time near those locations, especially at dusk or dawn, will increase your chances of seeing them.  Animals also use the trails to get through the forest as much as hikers do, simply because it is easier for them to walk on the trails, so staying on the trails will increase your chances of seeing them.  Sometimes the most likely place to see animals isn’t where you might expect it.  One of our funniest stories about seeing animals in the wild was when we were in Estes Park, Colorado, many years ago.  We had gone hiking at dusk and waited by an open field with a stream running through it and, after much waiting, a herd of elk finally appeared.  It was autumn, so the temperatures quickly dropped and we were frozen by the time we got back to the car, but we were happy to have seen the elk.  We drove back to our hotel and lo and behold there were hundreds of elk walking around the property nibbling on the fresh grass.  It hadn’t crossed our minds that they would be drawn to the green grass of the hotel versus foraging for food in the wild.
    Elk in the River

    Elk in the River

    Eating Grass in Town

    Eating Grass in Town

Hopefully you will have as much luck as we’ve had seeing wildlife by using these tips.  We can’t say it enough, though, be smart about it and don’t do anything too risky.  Always respect wildlife, some animals may look cute, but they are wild animals and therefore can be unpredictable.

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12 Responses to How to See Wildlife When Hiking

  1. Not much chance of seeing a mountain lion or bear in the Basque Country, but I will take these tips and hope to see more than cows, horses, birds, goats and sheep next hike 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  2. We saw a bear in Grand Teton NP it just strolled out in front of our hire car so we got some great photos from the safety of the car!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Bea dM says:

    I’d be a bit concerned if there were bears roaming around on a hike. They’re an endangered species in the Italian peninsula, but the “Orso Marsicano” in the Abruzzo Region is protected by WWF and environmentalists and there are meant to be about 50 of them roaming the mountains now – when we went some twelve years ago or so, there were very few, not sure I’d go back now 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  4. chef mimi says:

    Fun post! Love the moose pics!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Awesome photos!
    It was really one of the highlights of my life when I saw around ten bears curing my last trip to Canada. We saw them from the road and I’m not sure if I would want to meet them when hiking alone.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Steph says:

    Wow great pics, especially of the grizzly! I totally agree on your point that they likely see you way before you see them, especially the mountain lions 🙂 I miss hiking in the Canadian rockies so much, i’ll have to explore them from the U.S. side at some point!

    Cheers,

    Steph

    Liked by 1 person

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