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It’s a given that if you embark on a tour of Yellowstone National Park, you’ll see precisely where the buffalo roam. Similarly, Rocky Mountain National Park is practically guaranteed to dazzle you with coyotes and perhaps a stray mountain lion or two. However, those aren't the only places in the United States that offer glimpses of wild creatures and even up-close interactions with local critters. We've rounded up a handful of our favorite spots to see and interact with animals for you to consider as you prepare to dive into summer travel season.
Located off the eastern shore of Virginia, the barrier island and its Maryland neighbor, Assateague, are home to two herds of wild ponies. Each year at the end of July, residents and visitors celebrate the famous Chincoteague Island Pony Swim, where so-called Saltwater Cowboys round up the Assateague herd and swim them over to Chincoteague's shores. The pony that arrives first on shore is dubbed King or Queen Neptune and is raffled off at the end of the island's six-day festival, which includes the auction of foals (in order to control the size of the herds). Events this year begin July 26 and 27, when the ponies are initially rounded up, and close out Aug. 1. The event is an ideal getaway for families with children of any age. The easy, relaxed atmosphere on the islands and the excitement of the swim and festival provide lots of kid-friendly entertainment.
Where to stay: Chincoteague Island is only about 7 miles long; family-friendly accommodations are conveniently located near the festivities, and a variety of hotels, motels, bed-and-breakfasts and campsites offer competitive rates during peak season. Many places offer weeklong rentals, while daily hotel and motel rates range from $60 to $250 per night. A variety of family-run campsites are also available. The swim and accompanying parade, festival and auction are free to the public, but traffic and parking can be challenging — be sure to plan ahead.
Slogging through a national park with little kids during the heat of the summer may not sound like a fun vacation. Fortunately, Shenandoah National Park's 105-mile-long Skyline Drive allows visitors to drive the length of the park and watch for wildlife from the comfort of their air-conditioned cars. Common sights include a wide range of migratory birds, deer, rabbits and groundhogs. Lucky guests, however, may get a glimpse of the park’s more elusive animal residents, including the black bear, bobcat or occasional gang of wild turkeys. Visitors who want to get out of the car and foot it can enjoy Shenandoah's hiking trails. It takes about three hours to drive from one end of Skyline Drive to the other. A six-day pass for one non-commercial vehicle ranges from $10 to $15 depending on the time of year.
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