Once upon a time the American Buffalo or Bison roamed freely across much of North America in large herds. Hunted primarily by the Native Plains Indians before the 19th century, the bison population was nearly wiped out when settlers and travelers alike began hunting bison for sport and trade at a massive, unregulated rate. When only about 300 bison were left in the United States inside the borders of Yellowstone National Park, congress made hunting illegal within park lands in an act that ultimately kept the species from becoming extinct.
Today the bison population has grown enough to remove it from the endangered species list, and can be found in numerous public and private parks, and wildlife preserves throughout a small portion of the country and Canada. Since I’ve never had the opportunity to see a bison that wasn’t stuffed and on display in a museum, I’ve always wanted to see these massive creatures for myself. Although herds can be found in multiple states, the populations that reside within each of the National Parks in this post are well protected and meet the closest definition of “wild” that can be found today.
Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota
Established in 1947 to honor President Theodore Roosevelt for his conservation efforts and love of North Dakota, Theodore Roosevelt National Park is a beautiful slice of America worth visiting even if you could care less about bison. At a little over 70,000 acres, the park is full of prairies, floodplains, and forests that serve as home to its bison population that resides on both the North and South units of the park, as well as feral horses, prairie dogs, white-tailed deer, and elk, along with a variety of bird and reptile species. If you enjoy the outdoors, this is also a great park to do some hiking, fishing, or backwoods camping among a slew of other activities available throughout the year.
Badlands National Park, South Dakota
Named for its unforgettable badlands formations, this national park is not only stunning, it’s also the perfect place for bison to roam free. Although most people are drawn here for its hiking, open back-country policy, and unforgettable formations, its mixed-prairie system plays home to an impressive amount of wildlife similar to that at Theodore Roosevelt National Park one state over. While it’s bison population is kept around a steady 600 animals for ecology reasons, venturing into one of the Badlands prairies is sure to yield a sighting.
Wind Cave National Park, South Dakota
Named for the massive cave that lies below its sprawling prairies, Wind Cave National Park is probably one of the least known parks on this list. Although most people who visit the park are there primarily for a cave tour and to view its rare boxwork formations, there are about 33,000 acres of prairie land to explore with various hiking trails, nature trails, and wildlife to take in. If caves are your thing, then you can opt in for a more in-depth tour, but otherwise you should spend your extra time taking in the scenery by horseback or by back-country hiking with the correct permits. Since Wind Cave National Park is home to a small herd of bison that roam freely across the parks prairies, there’s no guarantee they’ll be in view of any trails or roads that pass through the park.
Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming
Named for the giggle inducing Teton Range that looms high above it, Grand Teton National Park is massive at roughly 310,000 acres. While the park is a favorite among climbers and hikers alike for obvious reasons, it should really be visited by everyone for its stunning views, extensive wildlife, and absurd number of historical building spread out across the open land. While admittedly it’s hard to sell a trip here for the sole purpose of seeing some bison, the park is actually home to a number of awe-inspiring animals including bald eagles, moose, wolves, and grizzly bears. Despite whatever reason you might have for visiting Grand Teton National Park, any amount of time you spend here will be worth the trip.
Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming
Yellowstone National Park is without a doubt one of the most popular national parks in the country, and is also its oldest, having been established in 1872. Although it’s known primarily for being the home to the world’s largest collection of geysers, including Old Faithful of course, it’s also part of one of the last nearly intact natural ecosystems this side of the equator. Within its 2.2 million acres there is a plethora of wild animals including bison, bears, goats, big cats, elk, coyotes, wolves, and sheep, not to mention the large variety of plant life, birds, reptiles, and fish you’re sure to find. Like most of the country’s favorite national parks, there seems to be no end to the number of activities available to fill your time with. Although the geysers are sure to be your main reason for visiting, no trip to Yellowstone would be complete without taking in a little of the natural scenery… and maybe a bison or two.