Experience Incredible Wildlife in These 2 Ecological Wonderlands

Nature created the perfect lab for a trip packed with thrills. On these wild vacations, you’ll feel like you’re hiking through a zoo or swimming in an aquarium.

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by NEA Member Benefits

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From Yellowstone National Park’s 2.2 million acres to the clear, blue waters surrounding the Galápagos Islands, science will come alive as you experience the thrill of seeing everything from tiny lizards to massive mammals. Don’t forget your binoculars!

Galápagos Islands

View some of earth’s rarest and most unusual creatures in South America.

Want your kids to really see the wonders of science? Then let them crouch eye-to-eye with a 100-year-old tortoise found nowhere else in the world. Or learn about natural selection while gawking at a marine iguana.

Not only will an expedition to the Galápagos rate as your most extraordinary family vacation, it’s so packed with thrills that kids won’t even realize how much they’re learning. 

Highlights:

  • Take a family selfie with a blue-footed booby.
  • Snorkel with playful sea lion pups.
  • Paddle a kayak among jungly mangroves.
  • Travel by specialized boat in the Galápagos.

Fly from Quito to reach the Galápagos archipelago, 600 miles west of mainland Ecuador. On San Cristóbal Island, the Galápagos National Park Interpretation Center gets you primed for exploration, explaining the natural history of how the Galápagos came to be such an isolated haven of biodiversity. A national park naturalist will be with you all week, a walking Wikipedia of Galápagos knowledge.

So many exotic, endemic animals live among these isolated islands that days spent here are like hiking through a zoo and swimming in an aquarium. Jump right in!

On a snorkeling excursion to San Cristóbal Island’s west shore, cavort in the water alongside playful sea lions at Isla Lobos. Near Kicker Rock, snorkeling companions include sea turtles, rays, reef fish and even several types of sharks that cruise the channel currents. Above water, Kicker Rock is a favorite of the blue-footed booby.

There plenty of activities to keep kids engaged. Santa Cruz Island showcases the volcanic geology of the central islands, where hikes lead to rocky highlands, lava tunnels and sinkholes. At Tortuga Bay, paddling trails wind through a tangle of mangroves. These wetland forest ecosystems are so rich with life they’re sometimes called the ocean’s nursery.

At the Charles Darwin Research Station, come eye-to-eye with the island’s most famous residents, Galápagos tortoises. Found nowhere else in the world, these remarkable reptiles were saved from the brink of extinction. Now they’re an icon for conservation efforts around the globe.

Lesson-plan destination:
Visit the Charles Darwin Research Station with interpretive exhibits and a captive breeding program for giant tortoises. Find online resources for teachers from the National Science Teachers Association and the Galápagos Conservancy. Darwin Online provides access to unabridged copies of Charles Darwin’s published works and unpublished writings.

Yellowstone National Park

Visit America’s first national park for a premier wildlife show.  With boiling mud pits, gushing geysers, snorting bison and howling wolves, Yellowstone National Park puts an extra dollop of wild in America’s Wild West. Few spots in the world can rival Yellowstone’s combination of geothermal geology and big mammal populations.

Highlights:

  • Marvel at herds of bison and elk.
  • Spot the champions of the food chain—grizzlies and wolves.
  • Hike among erupting volcanic geysers.

Sprawling across a remarkable 2.2 million acres, Yellowstone is a park for all seasons. Summer visitors enjoy long days and the most reliable weather, but you’ll want to book early to secure lodging.

In May and June, wildlife viewing comes with an extra treat: the adorable addition of fuzzy bison calves, bighorn lambs and other newborns. Autumn brings brilliant foliage and the chance to witness the elk rut, a dramatic show of bulls bugling and clashing antlers.

In winter, fewer people and deep snows bring animals down to the valleys. This may be the best time of all for wildlife sightings—whether you’re spotting them from the road, exploring by snowcoach or venturing into the backcountry on skis or snowshoes.

Wolves are the Lamar Valley’s most notorious residents, reintroduced here in the 1990s. Today, this remote northeast corner of the park is considered the best place to spot these magnificent creatures in their natural landscape. Along with nearly a dozen wolf packs now living in the park, grizzly bears, black bears and herds of elk and bison frequent this valley, dubbed “America’s Serengeti.”

Pronghorn antelope and bighorn sheep often graze along the park’s North Entrance highway near Mammoth Hot Springs. These steaming travertine pools are some of the park’s many geothermal hot spots, where the geology is as wild as the animal life.  

Old Faithful is the undisputed star of the Upper Geyser Basin, a 1-square-mile area filled with shooting plumes and boiling springs. Easy walking trails weave along this volcanic fantasyland. Displays in the Old Faithful Visitor Education Center explain the science behind the geothermal activity, and the center even lists a “schedule” of the more reliable eruptions. Elk and bison frequent the fringes of the basin.

Wildlife knows no boundaries, and animals will find plenty of room to roam beyond Yellowstone’s vast borders. Six national forests and Grand Teton National Park abut Yellowstone, creating the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. It’s considered one of the largest intact temperate-zone ecosystems and, like the Galápagos, one of the world’s foremost natural labs.

Lesson-plan destination:

Start your vacation with a visit to the Smithsonian-affiliated Museum of the Rockies in Bozeman, Montana. It has a number of learning videos and other teaching materials online. For resources to use back home, Yellowstone National Park offers a variety of curriculum materials for the classroom, including a live interactive talk show with park rangers.

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