Beautiful scenery. A challenging trail. Getting away from the hustle and bustle. These are some of the things that make a hike a rejuvenating and enjoyable experience. What can really take it to the next level is the wildlife you encounter on your adventure (hopefully no bears or mountain lions).
As you’ve probably noticed, birds are by far the most common animal encounter on your hikes. There is tremendous diversity in their appearance and sounds and migratory species offer new and different bird encounters as the seasons change. Here are five great hikes across the U.S. to take in some excellent birdwatching amidst some stunning scenery.
Skillet Handle Trail – Klamath Falls, OR
Right near the northern California border, the Skillet Handle Trail borders Upper Klamath Lake. The Skillet Handle area received its name due to the unique shape of its peninsula (resembling a skillet handle) that was thought to be created by cooling lava flow many years ago.
The area is home to some of the oldest oak trees in the region and offers an amazing birdwatching opportunity. From November to February, the Klamath region is home to the largest known congregation of wintering Bald Eagles (1,000+).
It is not uncommon to spot 50 of these incredible birds of prey during your hike. Some bird enthusiasts report observing eagles diving down to the lake to catch fish. Osprey and turkey vultures are also commonly observed in the area.
The main trail right on the lake is rather short (~1.8 miles) with very little elevation gain which makes it a great option for kids or for folks with limited mobility. There are also numerous lookout spots for picture and binocular viewing opportunities. Although the main trail is quite short, there are a number of other trails nearby so you can easily make it a six or more mile adventure, if you like.
Katahdin Woods and Waters – Patten, ME
Nestled in the northern Maine wilderness, the nearly 88,000-acre area was declared a national monument just three years ago in 2016. Given its relative proximity to the Atlantic coast and its bountiful woods, streams, and small lakes, the monument has fantastic bird diversity.
From arctic species such as Gray Jays and Spruce Grouse to peak predators such as ospreys and eagles to South American migratory species like warblers and vireos, Katahdin has some spectacular birdwatching to take in. You will likely also hear the haunting call of the common loon, a typical resident of the north woods.
Although it has miles upon miles of trails, Katahdin is a very rugged place that is best suited for seasoned outdoor enthusiasts. Some trails were made out of old logging roads that meander through the dense forest, while others are narrow paths that are barely recognizable as proper trails.
It is critical to have a good map in Katahdin and it would probably also be a good idea to bring a GPS and maybe even a satellite phone (you won’t be receiving or sending any texts out here). Be sure to have a good pair of supportive and waterproof hiking boots on your feet as some trails require you to cross through shallow streams. Last but not least, beware of other wildlife that may be dangerous in Katahdin such as moose and black bears.
South Kaibab Trail – Grand Canyon National Park, AZ
Few natural spectacles are as breathtaking as the Grand Canyon so you know this hike will be a gorgeous one no matter what. The striking oranges and reds are beautiful, but what really gets me about the Grand Canyon is its absolutely incredible size.
The ‘cherry on top’ for birdwatchers is that the canyon is also home to a fantastic array of predatory birds. The South Kaibab Trail on the south side of the national park offers fantastic views of the canyon along with the potential to see many of these fierce, flying hunters.
Feast your eyes on predatory raptor birds of all shapes and sizes, circling high in the sky as they catch thermal boosts. Many different hawks, falcons, kestrel, and eagles are seen regularly as well as the odd osprey.
The real treat is a potential sighting of the extremely rare California Condor. Once extinct in the wild, these large members of the vulture family have slowly begun to reestablish themselves (although there are currently less than 500 birds, worldwide) and the odd condor sighting has birdwatchers in a tizzy.
Seated at an elevation of about 7,300 feet, this trail is comprised of pressed dirt paths with numerous steep descents, taking you down over 2,000 feet. Compound that with intense heat in the summer or frosty cold in the winter and you have one challenging hike ahead of you.
Park rangers recommend you travel no further than Skeleton Point (six miles round-trip) for a day hike so pay close attention that you don’t get in over your head. Adventurous hikers can continue along the trail and camp overnight.
Savage River Area – Denali National Park, AK
Few places on Earth possess as much natural beauty as Alaska. Denali National Park offers spectacular views of untouched forest and tundra, accented by majestic snow-capped mountains. Denali is also home to an incredible number of migratory bird species. The Savage River area is one of the more accessible areas in Denali that will also provide ample birdwatching opportunities.
Most visitors will make their way to chilly Alaska in the summer months when the bird diversity is at its peak. Observe massive Trumpeter Swans enjoy the pristine Alaskan water along with stocky little Surfbirds and more than a dozen different species of ducks and geese.
Watch Golden Eagles soar high near the mountains, scoping out prey such as rabbits and mice. Search for the six different owl species perched up high in trees or on rock outcroppings. Don’t forget to also see one of Alaska’s favorite residents and game birds, the ptarmigan.
Only 15 miles from the park entrance (yes, this is not so far in Denali), you will find parking for the Savage River area. A free shuttle also runs to Savage River from the park entrance. Just be sure to note the shuttle schedule to make sure you don’t miss your ride back.
There are several options for trails, depending on your interest and capabilities. The short Savage River Loop is only 1.8-miles long and takes about an hour to complete. It stays near the river so it’s relatively flat and a good option for most hikers.
The Savage Alpine Trail, on the other hand, is significantly more strenuous and entails significant elevation change. Either way, you are sure to see plenty of Alaska’s amazing bird population.
Indigo Trail – Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge, FL
As the name suggests, the Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge hosts many different animal species. Located on Sanibel Island, not too terribly far from Fort Myers, the refuge is home to one of the largest undeveloped mangrove ecosystems in the United States.
The plethora of shallow, warm waters also make the refuge a great place for incredible numbers of wading birds. The Indigo Trail will get you up close and personal with these long-legged, colorful creatures.
Bright white storks and egrets are bountiful and striking to look at amongst the blue waters and green forest. What most people really come to see, however, are the spoonbills. These pink, lanky birds are often confused with flamingos and much to the joy of visitors, spoonbills are very social and seem to enjoy coming close for photos.
The Indigo Trail is a four-mile hike, round-trip with many stop-offs to observe wildlife in both forest and water habitats. The hike, itself, is not very challenging, following a boardwalk with handrails where needed.
Be sure to pack some insect repellent. Sanibel Island (where the refuge is located) was, at one point, one of the most mosquito-rich areas in the United States!
Some things to keep in mind: there is a small $1 fee per person to enter the trail, watch out for snakes and alligators, and bring a camera to capture a spoonbill photo!
Where are your favorite birdwatching hikes? Let us know in the comments below!