If your kids like going to the zoo, they'll love seeing wildlife in the great outdoors. And an animal-adventure trip can give your children a lifelong appreciation of nature's wonders. We've put together seven awesome ways for families to see creatures in their natural habitat.
Where the wild things are: Sullivan County, New York (www.scva.net or 800-882-2287).
What's awesome: The upper Delaware River is the winter home to more than 100 bald eagles, the largest wintering population of these birds in the Northeast. The Sullivan County Visitors' Association provides free maps for self-guided drives.
We saw two eagles perched in trees at the Mongaup Valley Wildlife Management Area and several more from observation points. What our kids loved best: Seeing a bald eagle in flight swoop down into the river to snatch a fish.
Best season to go: Mid-December to February.
Price tag: Free for self-guided tour. The Eagle Institute, in Barryville, New York, offers group tours (www.eagleinstitute.org or 845- 557-6162); prices vary.
Where the wild things are: Sea Lion Caves, near Florence, Oregon
(www.sealioncaves.com or 541-547-3111).
What's awesome: This huge natural cavern is the only habitat in the lower states for large Steller's sea lions. In the spring, hundreds of pups and their mothers play on rocky ledges surrounding the caves; in the winter, the sea lions stay inside to keep warm. To get to the viewing area, you take an elevator 208 feet down into the rock. Just being in the enormous cavern is unforgettable, and the sea lions' playful antics are guaranteed to make your kids smile.
Best season: Year-round.
Price tag: $7 for adults; $4.50 for kids ages 6 to 15; free for kids 5 and under.
Where the wild things are: Yellow-stone National Park, headquartered in Wyoming (www.nps.gov/yell or 307-344-7381).
What's awesome: Want to see bison? Simply drive the scenic roadways of our country's first national park. Although these shaggy beasts were once nearly extinct, now herds of them are everywhere, grazing in fields and caring for their young. Try to spot the rust-colored calves. Our kids didn't want to drive away; they loved watching the young ones run around awkwardly on their spindly legs.
Best season: Late spring, before the summer crowds arrive, is a great time to see the calves.
Price tag: $20 per car for a park pass, good for seven days.
Where the wild things are: The International Wolf Center, in Ely, Minnesota (www.wolf.org or 800-359-9653).
What's awesome: Fairy-tale wolves come to life at the center, where gray wolves live on the property. It also has the country's coolest collection of wolf artifacts and interactive displays (including a wolf-survival video game). But the highlight for families with kids ages 6 and up is definitely a "guided howl" -- the chance to hear the call of the wolves in the wild. At dusk, rangers transport groups to known pack areas. Standing at the edge of a dark forest, visitors imitate wolf calls and sometimes get back haunting replies.
Best season: Year-round.
Guided howl: $6.50 for adults; $3.25 for kids 6 and up.
Where the wild things are: Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park, in Homosassa Springs, Florida (www.hsswp.com or 352-628-5343).
What's awesome: With its warm, spring-fed waters, the Homosassa River (two hours north of Tampa) is home to one of the largest herds of West Indian manatees in the U.S. And there are two neat ways to view these gentle creatures. First, head to the park's underwater observa-tory to watch the manatees feed and play. Special telephones let visitors hear their underwater calls. Then take a guided river safari on a pontoon boat to catch sight of them breaking the surface with their whiskery snouts.
Best season: Late November through March, when as many as 50 manatees congregate in the river.
Cost:Park admission: $9 for adults; $5 for kids 3 to 12; free for children under 3. River safari: $15 for adults and kids age 7 and up; $7.50 for kids ages 4 to 6; free for kids under 4 (call River Safaris & Gulf Charters at 353-628-5222).
Where the wild things are: Vince Shute Wildlife Sanctuary, located near Orr, Minne-sota (www.americanbear.org or 218-757-0172).
What's awesome: There's no better place in the U.S. to see black bears than at this preserve in the north woods of Minnesota. Visitors are shuttled from their vehicles to a viewing platform about 12 feet above ground. On a recent trip with our families, we were a mere arm's length above about ten large males, who emerged from the surrounding woods to feed in the open meadow below the platform. One awestruck young visitor whispered, "I can hear them chomping."
Best season: Spring and summer. Mother bears and their cubs generally start arriving in April or May; larger males show up in July; numbers peak in August.
Price tag:Donations solicited.
Where the wild things are: Moosehead Lake, in Maine (www.mooseheadlake.org or 888-876-2778).
What's awesome: This two-hour moose-watching boat ride along the shores of Maine's largest lake shouldn't be missed. We slowly motored along in a pontoon, and much to everyone's delight, we spotted several of these stately animals. Around one bend, a huge bull lifted his head and stared us down, his antlers dripping with water and bits of wet weed. The children in our group whispered excitedly before the moose lumbered back into the woods.
Best time to go: May through early September.
Price tag: Prices vary, but tours typically run $25 and up for adults; $15 and up for kids ages 3 to 12; free for children under 3.
(NOTE: Rates are subject to change.)