The Beginner's Guide to Arizona Wildlife Watching
Heritage Park Zoological Sanctuary, near Prescott (Credit: D. Veatch)

Outdoor Adventure

The Beginner's Guide to Arizona Wildlife Watching

From the storied Gila monster to the delicate Calliope hummingbird, Arizona is teeming with an unbelievably charismatic cast of characters. Whether your journey to the Grand Canyon State is focused on general adventure or wildlife viewing itself, you are sure to see a number of creatures large and small during your visit.

Of course, wildlife viewing is just that—wild. There is no guarantee you'll get to see the animals in their natural environment, and a lot of it comes down to timing and luck. But you can optimize your visit to check plenty of exciting creatures off your "must-see" list! See our guide below to make the most of your trip. No matter what your plans are, don't forget to pack your binoculars!

Optimize your route for the most animals

Depending on the type of wildlife that most interests you and your travel companions, there are a number of ideal Arizona road trips to choose from. Pick one or tie a couple together—we wouldn't blame you for wanting to extend your stay.

Mountain dwelling animals

Those eager to see mountain-dwelling animals, such as elk, black bear, and mule deer, will do better to stick to Northern Arizona's forested San Francisco Peaks. Base your stay out of Flagstaff and visit the 160-acre Lamar Haines Wildlife Refuge, where a 1-mile walking trail offers prime viewing opportunities. Black bears have also been spotted at Tonto Natural Bridge State Park; only two hours outside of Phoenix city limits.

Visitors in search of bighorn sheep might try Kofa National Wildlife Refuge near Arizona's western border. While normally associated with the Rocky Mountain area, the bighorn thrives in the Arizona desert. Kofa Refuge was specifically designated in 1939 to protect this regal species, and plenty of other critters (including badgers, foxes, and pronghorn antelope) call this area home, too.

Desert dwelling creatures

Prefer cacti-loving creatures such as roadrunners and rattlesnakes? Stick to the lower country, found in and around Sedona, Phoenix, and Tucson. You'll also have the opportunity to cross paths with one of Arizona's most iconic animals: the javelina. These pig-like mammals have larger-than-life personalities and are fun to watch from a distance. Don't be fooled by their cuddly composition; as with all wildlife, they are wild and should not be approached!

Sky Island legends

If you like birding or are intrigued by the elusive jaguar, the Sky Island region in southern Arizona is the destination for you. Discover a world of winged friends in Sierra Vista, where several preserves make it easy to while away the day with a pair of binoculars eyes peeled for migrating species. You may also encounter a coatimundi; a raccoon-like creature, which can be found in a number of parks in the area. Of course, the ultimate checkmark on your wildlife-watch list would be the jaguar; rarely spotted today but whose presence ever haunts the border country.

Take note of the time of day

Animals are organized into three main categories: diurnal, crepuscular, and nocturnal. What does that mean? Depending on the species, they spend their waking hours at different times of the day. You can take advantage of this unique aspect of the animal kingdom during your visit to Arizona.

Diurnal animals

Many of Arizona's largest species are diurnal, meaning that they are most active midday just like us humans. Black bears, elk, coatimundis, bighorn sheep and bison all fall within this category. Cold-blooded reptiles and amphibians also take advantage of midday temperatures, so you're more likely to see chuckwallas, Gila monsters and snakes when the sun is near its apex. Keep in mind that even diurnal animals conserve energy in the heat of the day, so you won't miss too much if you take a midday siesta!

Crepuscular animals

Serious wildlife watchers will set their alarm clocks early and will stay up after the sun goes down. That's because the majority of wild animals are crepuscular, meaning they are most active at dusk and dawn. Crepuscular species in the Grand Canyon State include coyotes, javelinas, deer, bobcats, and many birds. If you are able to get out and explore Arizona's national forests and reserves at these times of day, you will benefit from extra animal sightings and fewer fellow humans!

Nocturnal animals

Nocturnal animals in Arizona include bats, owls, scorpions, raccoons, skunks, and more. There are a number of ways to safely observe these creatures after the sun sets. Try the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix, whose Flashlight Night series every Saturday from June to September is fun for the whole family. Hassayampa River Preserve also features "Creatures of the Night Walks," during which you can sight owls, scorpions and much more with the guidance of a park ranger. These are excellent ways to enjoy Arizona's nightlife in the middle of a warm summer!

Visit during certain times of the year

If the time of day matters for sneaking peeks at Arizona's most elusive characters, the time of year matters, too. Some animals are less seasonally prevalent (like the hibernating black bear) while migrating bird species enjoy overwintering in the southern portion of the state. Those with a flexible schedule can plan the perfect trip with minimal crowds and maximum wildlife potential.

How to guarantee a sighting

If you got "skunked" on your trip and didn't see anything, squeeze in a visit to one of Arizona's many wildlife reserves and parks. Here, sightings are guaranteed. Try House Rock Wildlife Area, outside of Grand Canyon National Park, where a herd of bison roams free. The driveable Bearizona Wildlife Park features endemic animals and others, including reindeer, river otters and more. Finally, a number of zoos around urban areas, from Tempe to Tucson, offer an easy way to tick off any remaining animal sightings in a hurry.

The above story was written by Whitney James and created in partnership with Visit USA Parks.

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