Fido's Wild Ride: The Best Wildlife Drives in the U.S.

Posted by Billy Francis

Fido isn’t the only one who loves to roam off-leash in beautiful surroundings. Across the country, protected natural habitats give wild animals the chance to flourish. Household pets are often not permitted in these areas on foot, but you and your pooch can still experience them together from the comfort of your car. Bring your dog on these stunning scenic wildlife drives where bison roam, deer prance and flamingos soar.

Custer State Park

Custer, SD
“I’m not allowed out of the car? Good!” Photo by @mochi_the_ny_westie

If your dog likes to walk on the wild side, he will definitely enjoy hiking the trails carved out by early pioneers at Custer State Park in the Black Hills of South Dakota. A featured destination in the latest edition of our book, Ruff Guide to the United States, you’re likely to encounter prairie dogs, elk, bighorn sheep, mountain goats, and deer in the park, but its most famous for being home to one of the nation’s largest free-roaming bison herds. The best way to see them is by driving the 18-mile Wildlife Loop Road in the early morning or late evening, just before sunset. The drive usually takes about 45 minutes, but allow plenty of time for traffic delays due to wildlife crossings. If you do encounter a herd of the 2,000-pound animals on the road, it is important for everyone, including Fido, to remain in the vehicle. For more animal adventures, drive just over 30 minutes to Bear Country USA in Rapid City. At this drive-thru wildlife park, you’ll see dozens of bears, wolves, sheep, and elk.

Tucked among the ponderosa pines beside Grace Coolidge Creek, you’ll find the State Game Lodge, which once served as the ‘Summer White House’ during President Calvin Coolidge’s administration. Now, you and your pup can be a guest of the lodge in one of the property’s 19 pet-friendly cabins. After a restful night’s sleep, take Fido for a morning walk on the adjacent Creekside Trail, then feast on Buffalo Benedict in the lodge’s main dining room.

Cades Cove Loop Road

Townsend, TN
"Wildlife? What wildlife?" Photo by Emily Pow

Even though dogs aren’t allowed on most trails at Great Smoky Mountains National Park, you can still enjoy the park’s most popular attraction with Fido in tow. Take a scenic drive on the 11-mile Cades Cove Loop Road, and you’ll easily spot dozens of white-tailed deer, black bears, and other animals roaming the open fields that were once farmed by pioneers. Depending on traffic conditions, motorists should allow two to four hours to drive the entire loop. If you’d prefer to take Fido on a walk instead, plan to visit on a Wednesday between June and September. Cades Cove Loop Road is closed to vehicular traffic during that time to give bicyclists and pedestrians an opportunity to enjoy the awe-inspiring scenery.

After a day of exploring the Smokies, you and your pup can kick back in a cozy cabin at the Dancing Bear Lodge in Townsend. All cabins feature luxurious feather beds, wood-burning fireplaces, and private porches with hot tubs. Enjoy a glass of wine and a delicious meal as your pooch sits tableside on the outdoor deck of the on-site Appalachian Bistro.

Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge

Brigham City, UT
“Who are you calling a bird brain?” Photo by @livipulsi

You and your canine companion can witness all the beauty and wonder nature has to offer at the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge, located just west of Brigham City on the northeastern arm of the Great Salt Lake. Established in 1928, this 74,000-acre National Wildlife Refuge is the permanent and winter home to over 270 species of birds. Pack your camera and take the 12-mile Auto Tour that loops through the refuge’s native wetlands to observe and photograph countless feathered friends in their natural habitat, including American White Pelicans, Black-necked Stilts, and Tundra Swans. Although not allowed inside the refuge’s Wildlife Education Center, Fido can stretch his legs on the 1.5-mile walking trail located behind the facility. The Auto Tour Loop is open year-round sunrise to sunset, road conditions and weather permitting.

After your four-legged ornithologist puts away his binoculars, drive 3 miles to the Best Western Brigham City Inn & Suites for a restful night’s stay.

J.N. Ding Darling Wildlife Refuge

Sanibel, FL
"You said drive, not paddle!" Photo by @laneasinstadium

Watch gentle manatees breach the water’s surface, vibrant flamingos fly overhead, and a variety of other animals in their natural habitat at J.N. Ding Darling Wildlife Refuge. Located on Sanibel Island off Florida’s Gulf Coast, the refuge offers an 8-mile Wildlife Drive that loops around the protected area. Bring along your binoculars for a better view of the bird population, which numbers 245 species throughout the year. Birdwatchers flock from all around to bear witness to the ‘Big 5’ birds: the American White Pelican, Mangrove Cuckoo, Reddish Egret, Roseate Spoonbill, and the Yellow-crowned Night-Heron. Dogs are also welcome on the refuge’s Indigo Trail and the Bailey Tract.

Beach views and more Gulf animal sightings await you and your pooch at Tropical Winds Beachfront Motel and Cottages.

Wichita Mountains Scenic Byway

Lawton, OK
"Just trying to blend in." Photo by @jos_chel

Wichita Mountains Scenic Byway is an incredible 93-mile road that passes right through the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge and the protected valleys of the 550 million-year-old mountain range, offering visitors the chance to see 50 species of mammals, 64 species of reptiles and 240 species of birds. After establishing the refuge in 1901 to create a safe environment for bison to roam, The American Bison Society moved 15 bison from the Bronx Zoo there in 1907. Nowadays, the herd stands at a whopping 650. Leashed dogs are also welcome on trails within the refuge, like Little Baldy Trail, which leads to great views of the Quanah Parker Lake and Dam.

After you say goodbye to the bison, say hello to a comfortable night at La Quinta Inn & Suites Lawton.

Beartooth Highway

Red Lodge, MT
Drive on the wild side. Photo by BringFido/Billy

Beartooth Highway reaches its climax just before the northeast entrance to Yellowstone National Park, which gives Fido the chance to see the same varied wildlife as inside the park, but away from the crowds. Beartooth Highway winds 68 miles into the Northern Rocky Mountains and gains 5,000 feet in elevation along the way, cutting through one of the most wildlife-rich regions of the United States. Mountain lions, moose and bears are a selection of the incredible animals that call the area home. In addition to wonderful wildlife, scenic overlooks offer panoramic views of alpine meadows, untouched lakes and snow-capped mountains. Due to snowfall, the highway is usually open only from Memorial Day weekend to mid-October.

After counting the animals on the highway, count sheep at Quality Inn Red Lodge.

Ready for a Road Trip?

Photo by Linda Segerfeldt

The editors at BringFido have dedicated themselves to digging up the best dog-friendly things to do across the country. And we've assembled it all in our new book, Ruff Guide to the United States.

Now in its second edition, the book features over 365 of the best places to stay and play with your dog in all 50 states. Order your copy today and save 50% off the retail price when you use the discount code WILDLIFE.

Have you taken your dog on a wildlife drive? Leave a comment or tweet us @BringFido!

Banner photo by Lauren Barker.