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.

Chincoteague Ponies

Chincoteague Island, Virginia

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.  

Shenandoah National Park, Virginia

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.

Where to stay: Shenandoah has a resort, a charming lodge and a number of guest cabins, as well as more primitive campground sites, all at affordable rates. There are four points of entry to the park: Front Royal, Thornton Gap, Swift Run Gap and Rockfish Gap. Front Royal, at the northernmost end of Skyline Drive, is pretty much the only game in town when it comes to finding accommodations outside the park. The charming town offers a number of hotels, bed-and-breakfasts, cabin rentals, RV parks and similar accommodations.

Best Friends Animal Sanctuary, Kanab, Utah

When you’re traveling with kids, activities are key — so why not choose a vacation that keeps you busy doing some good in the world? Best Friends Animal Sanctuary welcomes individuals and families who want to spend their vacation days volunteering at its Utah facility. The experience can be as intense or laid-back as you’d like and can be tailored to your children’s ages and interests. Common tasks include feeding, walking or grooming the animals; cleaning enclosures; and helping to socialize animals slated for adoption. And the sanctuary houses more than just cats and dogs — volunteers help care for rabbits, horses, pigs, goats and guinea pigs.

Where to stay: Accommodations can be had onsite; guest cottages, cabins and RV pads are available for rent (guest cottages start at $95 per night, cabins at $60 per night and RV pads at $35 per night for members), or you can settle into a nearby hotel, motel, RV park or campground.

National Park Underwater Trail at Buck Island National Wildlife Refuge, U.S. Virgin Islands

Blue tang in water

Think Florida and California are your only options when it comes to beach vacations with the kids? This year, explore Buck Island instead. The underwater park boasts an amazing trail — marked signposts and all — suitable for snorkelers of all ability levels. The park’s expansive coral reef is home to a dazzling array of sea life, including French angelfish, blue tang, parrotfish, hawksbill turtles and brown pelicans. The park is an ideal getaway for families with adventurous tweens and teens.

Where to stay: Buck Island is open year-round, but only for day use — you’ll need to stay in nearby St. Croix. Accommodations there include a variety of resorts and hotels, smaller bed-and-breakfasts and villas. The island also has a campground, Mount Victory Camp, which offers charming bungalows and small apartments starting at $90 per night during peak season and $70 during the offseason. If you’re feeling more adventurous, you can snap up a traditional tent site for just $30 per night. To get from St. Croix Island to Buck Island’s snorkeling spots, you’ll need to book a ride with one of the island’s six authorized charter companies. Day cruises can usually be had for around $100, and all charters offer a variety of packages, including daylong, half-day, sunset and others.

State/County Fairs, Any Town, USA

If a big road trip isn’t in the plans this summer, find your own animal adventure at a local state or county fair. No matter where you live, it’s likely that a nearby municipality engages in the seasonal tradition, showcasing produce, crafts, carnival games and, of course, lots of adorable animals. One of the most enjoyable (and often overlooked) parts of any summer fair is meeting the many cows, goats, horses, rabbits, chickens and sheep on exhibit. Most fairs allow visitors to roam through show barns, where 4-H groups and local farmers can be found busily grooming and feeding their furry or feathered charges. Some fairs invite outside organizations like Wildlife Ambassadors or Wild Wonders to bring more exotic species like snakes, lizards, large spiders and even raptors — all of which are a huge hit with the kids. Groups are invited to gather around as a naturalist gives details about each animal, and children may be permitted to pet or handle the creatures.

Where to stay: Make the fair part of a staycation and sleep comfortably in your own bed — or explore a nearby town and spend the night there. Contact the local convention and visitors bureau for hotel and camping options at your destination.

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