There is more to hikes than just the incredible views! Sure, bagging a peak is an awesome goal, but how much did you see on the trek besides your feet and the trail ahead? If you had a waterfall destination, how much of the plant and animal life alongside the trail did you miss?
One way to start noticing more of the little (and big) things as you move through nature is to turn the following list of 40 wildlife and wildflowers into a checklist of things you want to try spot on hikes this year.
This list will have you looking in all directions: up and down, near and far. You might be surprised what you notice once you dedicate your senses to more than just the grind.
Have you ever been startled by a flash of orange, but when you look up all you see is a brown bird staring back at you? The underside of the flicker’s wings is brightly coloured, and their abrupt flying pattern can make you wonder if you were seeing things. They love to hang out on dead trees, pounding them with their long beaks and making a general racket.
The first time you hear one of these chunky giant ground squirrels scream their warning, you’ll wonder if there’s a hiker in trouble nearby. When they scream again, though, you’ll realize it’s more of a whistle, and it’s coming from that big toothy fluff staring accusingly at you from a nearby rock pile. They live in the mountains and lowlands of the West.
Looking like flying pieces of sky, bluebirds are bright, hard to miss and an exciting spy in the grasslands and mountains. Mountain bluebirds are blue with a blue-white belly, but eastern bluebirds have an orange and white belly. As their name suggests, mountain bluebirds are generally found in the hills of the west and eastern bluebirds more towards the east side of North America.
- Mountain Goat
White dots on a mountain side shouldn’t be too hard to spot, right? You’d be surprised at how many patches of snow and light-coloured rocks look like mountain goats once you start looking for them. These incredible North American mountain natives are not in the goat genus but are relatives of the antelope. You’ll see them trotting nimbly over impossible terrain.
Living in deserts to grasslands to alpine meadows, your chances of seeing a kestrel on a hike this year are excellent. Keep an eye out for this small falcon floating overhead, diving down into the grass or perched on a branch.
- Bighorn Sheep
These are some amazing animals. Two rams smashing heads and the bounding energy of the lambs are riveting to watch. Look for herds of stocky, soft brown creatures with bright white rumps on grassy or rocky slopes. The males have thick, curled horns and the females have thin short horns.
Tune your ears to the sounds of the forest and you might hear clues when an owl is around. Little birds like chickadees and larger birds such as flickers join forces to make an absolute racket near where the owl is perched. Owls come in a variety of sizes, but their non-existent necks make their silhouettes easy to tell apart from hawks or eagles.
- Black Bear
Once you start looking for bears on distant slopes, you’ll notice there are a lot of bear-shaped stumps and rocks out there. Of course, stay alert for bears on or near the trail as well, keeping an eye out for fresh tracks or scat.
- A Wild Bee
Pick any wild bee, whether it’s a tiny bee that barely looks like a bee or one of those massive bumbles that beeline past on their commutes through the meadow. They’re an important part of keeping the mountain sides green and blooming!
Will you actually catch a glimpse of one of these guys, or will it scare the tar out of you when it takes off beside you on the trail? Likely the latter. But if you do end up seeing one of these guys strutting around on the forest floor, they are beautiful, comical birds to watch.
- White Bunny
Rabbits or hares are common enough, but have you ever seen them during the winter, blending in with the snow? In the spring they slowly turn back to brown, and seeing them in transition, often when the last thing to change is their large feet, is unique.
You know the sound. They seem to love hearing themselves drilling in the quietest forests. These birds come in a variety of sizes and are most often black and white. Some have red markings as well!
How can an animal be both majestic and comical at the same time? Although these huge, deep brown creatures are often associated with willowy swamps, you can see them lumbering in a variety of other habitats too. They might look clumsy, but they are surprisingly graceful. Plus, they are fast and not as chill as they seem, so keep your distance.
These black and white beauties are a Canadian symbol of spending time outdoors, their calls haunting lakes in a variety of habitats from forests to grasslands. Keep an eye out for loons sitting on their nests, huddling down to keep out of sight as you paddle past or for mamas backpacking fluffy babies across the lake.
Elk are always an impressive sight. They are larger than deer, and their bodies transition from a deep brown head and neck to a soft brown body to a cream rump. The bull’s antlers can become massive and curve back over their shoulders. During the mating season, these animals are quite noisy: the bulls have a deafening bugle and the cows squeak.
- Canada Jay or Whisky Jack
If you’re on a well-used trail, you won’t have to keep a sharp eye out for these beady-eyed birds. They will find you, fluttering in the trees beside you as you hike peering for snacks and often brave enough to land on your hand, even if it’s empty.
Most of the time these cats will notice you before you notice them, and all you’ll catch a glimpse of is two back legs and a stubby tail bounding back into the trees and out of sight. Cat tracks and scat on the trail are more common sights than the cats themselves most of the time!
Fuzzy or smooth, big or small, keep an eye out for these cylindrical guys, especially if you are hiking with kids. They are fascinating to watch as they toe along on stems, navigate from leaf to leaf and chew through plants as if they’re competitive eaters.
- Squirrel or Chipmunk
A sudden yank on the leash when you are hiking with a dog is a sure way of knowing some furry tailed creature is scampering for safety up a nearby tree. And even if you don’t have a dog, squirrels will warn their wildlife counterparts of an incoming human with loud scolding chatters. In the spring, keep an eye out for the piles of pinecone scraps left on rocks and logs from overwinter snacking.
Lift a log here and there and you may find a salamander or skink hiding underneath. Kids love them.
Watch these colourful furred animals scamper after squirrels or trot across meadows. Keep in mind not all foxes are red!
From big yellow swallowtails to tiny blues fluttering over blooms and muddy patches of the trail, butterflies are everywhere in nature and come in a variety of shapes, colours and sizes.
I love watching these guys glide through the water with a mohawk of wet fur along their backs. Watch the water fly with an indignant tail slap if you get too close.
Rustling grass as you pass may be a clue you frightened a snake alongside the trail. They like to sun themselves in open areas, especially in the spring.
You can spot these prickly guys up in a tree, huddled under rocks or waddling through the grass. They love to chew bark off trees, so if you’re wondering what scarred up those aspens or who left those fresh teeth marks, it was likely a porcupine!
- Rainbow Trout
Found in lakes in the lowlands to the alpine, these flashes of pink and silver are a fun find, whether you’re swimming with them or fishing for them.
Spot these beautiful birds perched in their high nests, circling over a lake or diving for a fish. They have unique white, black and brown markings and head shape, so they are easily identifiable from eagles and hawks.
Depending on where you are, you might see mule deer or whitetails. How do you tell the difference? Mule deer bounce, and have a small tail with a black end, while whitetails have longer tails with a bright white underside, which they flash at you as they run away. The antlers are also distinctive, with muley’s having forks, and whitetails growing one main beam with parallel branches.
- Fairy Slipper Orchid
Did you know we had wild orchids in Canada? Growing low to the ground, these interestingly shaped pops of purple colour can be found across our country in the spring, and they are worth watching out for!
- Indian Paintbrush
Dipped in shades of red, pink, orange or cream coloured paint and poised to sweep bright streaks of colour on the sky, these are one of my favorite flowers to see outside. They are long lasting, and you’ll find them blooming at a variety of elevations from late spring to fall.
- Arrowleaf Balsamroot
These big, beautiful sunnies are hard to miss, blanketing the hillsides and conifer forest floors with clumps of vibrant yellow color in the spring.
- Wild Onion
Pretty and tasty is a great combination. The cluster of light purple flowers and onion scented leaves can make great forage additions to your camp meals. Just make sure it’s an onion before snacking!
The classic late summer and fall mountain wildflower, you’ll find it especially in cut blocks and burns. Take a close look at the individual, intricately designed fuchsia blooms. The tall stalks shed fluffy seeds in the fall, and if you’re ever hiking through a patch of them, close your mouth so you don’t breathe them in.
- Mariposa Lily
The first time I saw a sagebrush mariposa lily swaying in the breeze nestled between dull grasses, I couldn’t stop gushing over the uniquely shaped petals and contrasting yellow and magenta colour.
- Shooting Star
Blooming colourful, small flowers from spring to fall, shooting stars are easy to overlook but worth a closer inspection.
- Prairie Smoke
Find this nodding pink flower, and the unique seed head that gives it its name, in grassy meadows and open woods.
Sporting eye-popping indigo-purple flowers, larkspur blooms are a treat to spot in meadows and open forests on a hike.
These yellow spring blooms are a favourite of big, loud bumblebees and, found all over the hills of western North America, are hard to miss!
You may have seen these exquisite blooms in your or a friend’s garden, but these beauties grow wild in the mountains too! Although they come in a variety of colour combinations for gardeners, yellow and red combo most common in the wild!
- Pasque Flower
Signalling spring is coming in the mountains, these sparkly purple flowers, buffeted by cold winds on dry ridges and pushing roots into the rocks always amaze me.
Have you seen any of the above wildlife or wildflowers on outdoor outings so far this year? Tag us in your photos!
All images by Sylvia Dekker
PS. Why 40? Because Explore Magazine is Turning 40 Years Old!
In Spring of 1981, the first issue of Explore Magazine went up for sale on newsstands around Canada.
Forty years later, explore is still on newsstands coast-to-coast; we’ve expanded to create a unique subscription box, adventure-focused podcast and a trusted online magazine, drawing in readers from around the world.
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