This summer it’s been my good fortune to visit a lot of parks and zoos with the family. Seeing a little wildlife, exploring a little greenery — even in carefully controlled park conditions — has invigorated my planning for wilderness encounters.
I mean, if going more extreme fits you, be my guest. One member of our gaming group took a safari to Africa last year before running the Serpent’s Skull adventure path set in Golarian’s jungle analog, the Mwangi Expanse. Hey, that’s dedication.
But just a hike in the woods or a trip to a nearby zoo can be good resource for adding flavor and description to your encounters. But it may give you a good reason to look at some of the mechanical aspects of your game as well.
Look at this fellow. King of the jungle, right there (or, at least, king of the Peoria Zoo ). And as imposing as he appears, Mrs. Lion is considered the true huntress of the family. Male or female, they’re ferocious creatures, and a great monster to throw at the characters. But the lion’s not even listed in either D&D Fourth Edition’s Monster Manual 1 or 2 (though I suppose you could substitute a tiger’s stats, making it a Level 6 skirmisher). In D&D 3,5, the lion is a CR 3, which is respectable for a low-level adventure. But if ever a monster deserved to scale up with the characters and continue to provide a challenge as they advanced, it’s this guy. Certainly, coming up with some combat worthy crunch for a lion is a worthwhile activity for a GM in their downtime, regardless of system. And if nothing else, just looking at this picture gives me a better idea of how a lamia, a lammasu or chimera might behave or act (aside from yawning and sleeping in the sunshine, as this big lion did).
Our family forays to the nearby parks paid off at the game table, recently. I attended one of Ed Healy’s Gamerati get-togethers, this one at Just For Fun , a game store in Peoria. We threw together a quick game of Pathfinder. So while the players rolled up 2nd level characters, I spent the time coming up with four encounters we could pass the time with. I was stumped for a wilderness scenario, until I thought of some recent hikes at Matthiessen State Park. 
The park encircles an upper and lower dells, which when viewed from the sky, looks like a footprint. Using that as a starting point, I designed quick encounters for the park’s signature features: scavenging goblin dogs and tengu raiders at the abandoned fort (which is real life is frequented by crows), bomb-tossing goblins at the waterfall bridge, ghouls at Strawberry Rock, and a final encounter against the instigators for the adventure, an ogre guardian and a small tribe of troglodytes sheltering in the caverns at the foot of the dells.
Our exploration of the park served me well as I plotted out our little adventure on the fly. Before long the adventurers were making their way through the greenery and down into the sandstone caverns for the final confrontation.
Sure, I could have designed a quick dungeon delve. It would have served on such short notice. But using some real-world references helped galvanize the shape of the adventure in my mind. And, when players asked “why” such and such was one way, or they needed a description of a particular area, I could give it to them from memory. Which was good, as I had no notes upon which to rely.
So, if you’re not adverse to a little sunshine, or if you’re stumped on a locale for your next wilderness adventure, I’d recommend visiting a park or animal reserve near you. I think you’ll be well-served when it comes time to mapping out your next adventure.
If you have had any experiences building encounters or adventures based on real-life locations, I’d please share them in the comments section.