Anyone who has ever enjoyed seeing a river otter in the wild can attest to their charm and mystique. These playful creatures can be found in many locations throughout the United States, and wildlife enthusiasts should add these destinations to their bucket lists.
The North American River Otter is a real treat to see. They live in family pods and work together to navigate, hunt, and swim through the rivers, lakes, and ponds of the United States.
The tricky thing is spotting them.
There are an estimated 100,000 otters in North America. While there are enough to be categorized as “Least Concerned” by the IUCN Red List, spotting them is not so easy.
Rivers cut through some of the most desolate areas in the US. Couple that with the elusiveness of these incredible little predators, and you’ve got quite the challenge on your hands to find them.
By the end of this post, you’ll have a much better idea of how to locate river otters and learn more about their habitat.
Here are some of the best places to see river otters in the US.
Top Places to See River Otters
Eagle River, Gypsum, Colorado
Gypsum is an excellent place to see river otters because it is near the confluence of two great rivers in Colorado, the Eagle, and the Upper Colorado Rivers. In addition, Gypsum is about a 2-hour drive from Denver, making it an easy day trip with the family.
If you want to extend your stay, plenty of hotel accommodations are nearby in the towns of Eagle, Edwards, Avon, and Vail.
Salmon River, Riggins, Idaho
Like Gypsum, Riggins is privileged to be home to two giant river systems, the Salmon and Snake Rivers. The Salmon is one of the most scenic areas in the US, as there is a large swath of wilderness that it flows through that no one has been able to develop.
To that end, the best way to spot river otters is to book a whitewater rafting trip with one of the outfitters in town. The limited development means you’ll have a better chance of spotting them as there are fewer chances of people scaring them off.
American River, Coloma, California
Coloma is a short drive from Sacramento at the base of the Sierra Nevada mountains. You can hop on a raft to spot river otters along the American River with one of several companies in the area.
While visiting Coloma and the American River, remember that it is fed directly by snowmelt from the Sierra Nevada. As a result, water temperatures can get pretty cold here, even during the summer heat.
Snake River, Jackson, Wyoming
One of the best places in the US to spot river otters is Jackson, Wyoming. Home to the gateways for Yellowstone National Park and Grand Tetons National Park, Jackson is a paradise for those looking to spot river otters and see some of the world’s most unique and spectacular sites.
From the jagged mountain peaks of the Grand Tetons to the massive herds of buffalo congregating around the thermal hot springs inside Yellowstone, you’ll enjoy seeing all this region offers.
Clark Fork River, Missoula, Montana
As the second-largest city in Montana, Missoula is home to several rivers and creek systems, making it a must-visit spot to see river otters.
The Clark Fork River cuts through the center of Missoula, so you could set up on the banks with a bite to eat from any of the fantastic restaurants in town to enjoy dinner and an evening of river otter spotting.
Ichetucknee Springs State Park, Florida
Ichetucknee Springs State Park is a great place to see river otters. Located in north-central Florida, the park has a healthy population of river otters.
River otters aren’t afraid of a fight, as they’ve been known to consume baby alligators, too! The park also offers visitors plenty of opportunities to see river otters from a kayak, canoe, or SUP.
Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area, Georgia
River otters can also be found in the Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area. If you are lucky, these playful creatures can often be seen swimming and playing near the river’s edge. The river otters are a joy to watch and remind us of the importance of keeping our waterways clean.
Many people are unaware of the river otters’ presence in the Chattahoochee River; even fewer are lucky enough to see one, likely because river otters are shy and prefer to stay away from people.
Next, we‘ll drop some knowledge on river otter habitats and share some info on spotting these little guys.
Where do River Otters Live?
If you are searching for river otters, the first thing you need to do is learn about where their habitat is. You can find river otters all over the US. You’ll have opportunities to spot some, from the Rio Grande on the US-Mexican border to the vast wilderness of Alaska.
They tend to live in riparian zones throughout the US. A riparian zone is an area that borders a water system. These areas are particularly marshy as they are on the edge of bodies of water like rivers, ponds, streams, lakes, etc.
River otters live in “holts,” burrows that dig into riverbanks. These playful mammals love to swim and play in the river.
While looking for river otters, tread lightly in the riparian zones. These are critical for the health of the entire ecosystem. 80% of the wildlife in an ecosystem spends some portion of its life there. From river otters and mosquitos to bears and moose, wild animals depend on the riparian zone to be healthy to survive.
Pack out all garbage while in the riparian zone and take nothing from the land except pictures. And “when nature calls,” be sure to step away from the riparian zone to relieve yourself.
Believe it or not, the vitamins and medications that so many people take daily can come out in our urine, which can be harmful to the animals that live within the riparian zone.
What do River Otters Eat?
River otters are predators by nature. Otters are very social animals and use an acute sense of sight, smell, and hearing to find prey. They use their webbed feet and powerful tail to navigate the water easily.
They belong to the weasel family and eat all sorts of little critters that live in river systems. In terms of specifics, river otters eat things like:
Additionally, they love to eat the eggs of any animals listed above. They tend to hunt in groups of at least two and as many as 12. It is pretty spectacular to watch them work.
River otters communicate through a series of vocal barks and squeaks as they hunt, which takes place above the water’s surface, so sometimes you’ll hear them before you see them.
Tips for Seeing River Otters
Due to their elusive nature, river otters can be incredibly difficult to spot. To increase your chances, be sure to follow these tips.
- Get up early and stay out late.
River otters are active during the early morning hours and the early evening. Nearly every time I’ve personally seen river otters has been in the twilight hours of the day.
- Mask your scent
Since river otters are predators, they have a highly developed sense of smell. Therefore, when they smell something that doesn’t belong in the ecosystem (like a person with a camera looking for river otters), they tend to disappear until their perceived threat is gone.
With that in mind, try to mask your scent by using a scent remover that you can pick up at any hunting supply shop, and be mindful of which direction the wind is blowing. For example, if you spot some river otters, try to be downwind of them.
- Get on the water
The best thing you can do to improve your chances of seeing river otters is to get on the water yourself. Whether floating in a raft, inflatable kayak, or stand-up paddle board, it’s important to put yourself out there to see them consistently.
River otters are active little animals and are constantly on the move. So sitting in one position for a while isn’t the best way to spot them. You gotta move to see them since they’re constantly moving.
River otters are some of the most spectacular animals to spot in the wild. They are the animated manifestation of the soul of the river itself. Seeing a pod of otters swim in coordination upriver along the banks truly is a sight to be seen by anyone who loves visiting the outdoors.
Remember that they are wild animals, and respect their space by taking only pictures and leaving only footprints in their habitats. Do not approach or try to feed the otters, so they don’t grow too familiar with humans and become dependent on them for food. And always be sure to listen closely to their barks.
So, where will you go first to view river otters this season?
Steve Morrow owns Paddle About, an outdoor recreation and travel blog. Steve loves to travel, kayak, paddle board, camp, hike, and spend time outdoors with his wife and two kids. When he's not exploring the great outdoors, Steve enjoys writing about his adventures and sharing tips for getting the most out of your outdoor experiences. He has a lot of interesting stories to share, and he's always happy to help others get more out of life.