You don't have to drop tons of money to enjoy animal outing. Here are six places you can see animals in the wild — for free.

Share story

You can spend thousands of dollars to see grizzly bears on Kodiak Island in Alaska. Or a couple hundred to take the kids to the San Diego Zoo for the day.

But you don’t have to drop that kind of dough to enjoy an animal outing. Nor do you have to see them in cages.

Here are six places you can see animals in the wild — for free.

1. ORCAS AND WHALES IN THE SAN JUAN ISLANDS

You don’t have to go to SeaWorld to see orcas. Just head to the Seattle area to see them in the wild instead. The scenic San Juan Islands provide many great spots for whale watching, including Lime Kiln Point, a 36-acre state park on the west side of San Juan Island. Peak season is May through September, especially June and July, when you can regularly see orcas, minke whales, porpoises, otters and seals from the shore. There are picnic sites, trails and an interpretive center at this state park. There’s also a historical lighthouse. Learn more: parks.state.wa.us/540/Lime-Kiln-Point.

2. ELEPHANT SEALS IN SAN SIMEON, CALIF.

If you’re headed to Big Sur, Cambria or Hearst Castle, Calif., or just cruising Highway 1, stop to see the elephant seal rookery at Piedras Blancas.

You’ll see the wildlife-viewing signs as you approach, and it’s right off the Pacific Coast Highway. You will probably find docents there to help you learn about the seals, too.

These huge animals migrate thousands of miles through open ocean, returning to their rookery twice a year to relax, molt, breed and give birth. Peak season is November through March, but there are nearly always seals there.

The rookery is 5 miles north of Hearst Castle, free and wheelchair accessible. You can see easily from the walkways, but binoculars are useful. Just make sure to stay on the walkways, keep your dog in the car and don’t bother the animals.

Learn more here, where there’s also a webcam: elephantseal.org.

3. TULE ELK AT POINT REYES

Endangered Tule Elk can be seen at the Point Reyes National Seashore in western Marin County north of San Francisco, a wonderful place to visit that charges no admission fee. They can most often be seen at the Tule Elk Preserve at Tomales Bay, but they are also found throughout the park.

Tule Elk at the Point Reyes National Seashore north of San Francisco.
Tule Elk at the Point Reyes National Seashore north of San Francisco.

At one time, these elk native to California were thought to be extinct, but now there’s a herd of around 500 there, carefully brought back by breeding.

During rutting season, from August through October, docents are often at the Tomales Point Trailhead and Windy Gap to talk about the elk. Visitors during this time can hear bull elks bugling and trying to secure their harems. You might even see a fight.

Many other animals also make Point Reyes home, and there’s a cool lighthouse to visit. Note that there are no eating places or gas stations inside the park, but you can chow down in the picturesque Olema Valley. Learn more: nps.gov/pore/planyourvisit/wildlife_viewing_tuleelk.htm

4. BATS AT CARLSBAD CAVERNS

No, don’t cringe, the Brazilian free-tailed bats who live in the caves every summer aren’t scary. In fact, we like them because they eat insects. Every summer evening outside the spectacular Carlsbad Caverns in southern New Mexico, visitors hear a free park ranger presentation about the 400,000 bats who live in the caves, and then, at dusk, the bats begin to emerge from the caves on their nightly forage. Combine the bat show with the chance to explore this amazing site.

Bats at Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico.
Bats at Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico.

If your time or mobility are limited, you can take an elevator directly down onto the main cavern floor. In fot, walk in the natural entrance, which lets you travel through several daylight zones until you reach total darkness — an eerie experience. (Note: The elevator is temporarily under repair at least until the end of May.)

The bats can also be viewed flying into the cave between 4 and 6 a.m. for early risers, and the National Park Service is holding a special July 17 pre-dawn event to welcome the Brazilian free-tailed bats upon their return. It costs $10 for a three-day pass to the caverns; kids under 15 are free, as are America the Beautiful passholders.

5. MANATEE VIEWING CENTER AT APOLLO BEACH, FLA.

Manatees at Apollo Beach, Fla.
Manatees at Apollo Beach, Fla.

When Tampa Bay gets chilly in the winter, hundreds of manatees make their way to an unusual place — the warm water discharge canal of the Big Bend Power Station, owned by Tampa Electric. Manatees are large, gentle, slow-moving marine mammals that were rumored to be mistaken for mermaids in ancient times. They bask in the warm, clean, salty bay water that was used to cool the electrical plant.

The canal is now a manatee sanctuary that helps keep these marine mammals warm from November until April, generally when the Tampa Bay temperature drops to 68 or below. In response to the crowds who began coming to see the marine mammals, Tampa Electric built a free viewing area and an interpretive center that teaches about manatee habitat, and also provides a butterfly garden, wildlife viewing tower and more.

6. SEALS AND SEA LIONS AT PACIFIC MARINE MAMMAL CENTER

A seal at the Pacific Marine Mammal Center in Orange County.
A seal at the Pacific Marine Mammal Center in Orange County.

Stop by this rescue center in Orange County’s Laguna Canyon any day between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. to see how volunteers take in sick and starving creatures and make them well before releasing them back into the wild. Self-guided tours are free, but you probably won’t be able to resist putting something in the donation box.

There are accessible restrooms and free parking. Location: 20612 Laguna Canyon Road, near the animal shelter and dog park. Learn more: pacificmmc.org.