Complement your national park trip with a stop at a nearby wildlife refuge
Visiting a national park this summer? Pair it with a side trip to a less discovered cousin – a national wildlife refuge.
The National Wildlife Refuge System, part of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, protects natural habitat for America’s treasured wildlife species, helps clean our air and water and offers access to world-class recreation, such as fishing, hunting and nature watching.
Refuges are surprisingly close to some of the country’s most celebrated canyons, mountains and springs. And often, they are way less crowded. Consider these perfect pairs.
Kenai National Wildlife Refuge
Nearby National Park: Kenai Fjords National Park
Distance between: about 95 miles
Spanning nearly two million acres, Kenai Refuge is often called “Alaska in miniature” for its diverse habitats and wildlife. See moose, bears and bald eagles. Fish for salmon. Canoeing and hiking also draw visitors. End your trip by spending a night in one of the refuge’s 16 cabins or watching the midnight sunset at a roadside campground.
Don San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge
Nearby National Recreation Area: Golden Gate National Recreation Area
Distance between: 49 miles
Each season at Don Edwards San Francisco Bay Refuge brings different wildlife viewing opportunities. Numerous reactional activities await visitors from boating and fishing to more than 30 miles of hiking trails, most of which accommodate bicycles. In warmer months, the refuge acts as a nursery to many different animals raising their young. More than 80 species of birds, including the endangered California clapper rail nest on sites throughout the refuge. Harbor seals haul out in protected sloughs to give birth to pups and nurse their young.
Humboldt Bay National Wildlife Refuge
Nearby National Park: Redwood National Park
Distance between: 45.7 miles
Whether it is from a hiking trail, a viewing blind or during a guided walk, the Humboldt Bay Refuge offers excellent opportunities to get outside for wildlife viewing and photography. Find great game fishing in Humboldt Bay and the tidal sloughs year round: jack smelt, greenling, starry flounder, English sole and halibut. Wildlife can be seen while traveling down the entrance drive to refuge headquarters. A universally accessible deck and short boardwalk attached to the Richard J. Guadagno Visitor Center provides a wildlife observation area for all visitors, including those with severe mobility challenges.
Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge
Nearby National Park: Rocky Mountain National Park
Distance between: 80 miles
This 15,000-acre refuge, just eleven miles from Denver, supports some 330 species of wildlife. Take a trip on the 11-mile auto loop to see bison, deer and coyotes. Thanks to prairie dogs, the refuge attracts lots of raptors: bald and golden eagles, burrowing owls, kestrels, hawks and falcons. The refuge’s 10 miles of walking and hiking trails make it easy to see and photograph wildlife.
Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge
Nearby National Seashore: Canaveral National Seashore
Merritt Island Refuge is home to more than 350 species of birds, including eight species of herons and egrets. You can also see scores of other animal and plant species. You can fish, or harvest clams, crabs or oysters. Take the seven-mile Black Point Wildlife Drive to snap great photos. Stop at the manatee observation deck to see these gentle giants.
J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge
Nearby National Park: Everglades National Park
Distance between: about 120 miles
Ding Darling Refuge is a natural paradise on Sanibel Island, filled with colorful wading birds, including snowy egrets, little blue herons and roseate spoonbills, and mammals, such as the marsh rabbit, bobcat and river otter. The refuge is part of a saltwater coastal ecosystem, covered with dunes, maritime hammocks and mangrove forests. In summer, you may spot manatees and dolphins from your kayak or paddleboard. You can fish for tarpon, snook, redfish and seatrout. Take advantage of the many free interpretative programs and activities: biking, birding and beach walks.
Maine Coastal Islands National Wildlife Refuge
Nearby National Park: Acadia National Park
Distance between: 45 miles to Milbridge Visitor Center; 80 miles to Rockland Visitor Center
Scattered along the rocky coastline, Maine Coastal Islands Refuge is a “bed and breakfast” spot for birds. Its diversity of habitats includes coastal islands and freshwater wetlands. Here you will find incredible birdwatching: seabirds, such as the Atlantic puffin in breeding season, raptors, wading birds, shorebirds and songbirds. Foot trails wind through a variety of habitats, from spruce-fir woodlands to grasslands to freshwater and saltwater marshes to mudflats.
Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge
Nearby National Park: Death Valley National Park
Distance between: 48 miles from the Furnace Creek entrance
Ash Meadows’ landscape is lightyears away from the hottest, driest and lowest national park. The refuge, home to the ice blue spring pools of the largest remaining oasis in the Mojave Desert, is a biodiversity hotspot. The refuge is home to plants and animals that live nowhere else in the world. Take the Crystal Springs boardwalk to the Caribbean-blue spring pool or the historic old stone cabin built by gunslinger Jack Longstreet, a mysterious man of the Wild West. Each of the three boardwalks offer something unique to see and all are wheelchair accessible.
Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge
Nearby National Seashore: Cape Hatteras National Seashore
Distance between: 9 miles
Pea Island Refuge is a paradise for both birds and birders – with the best birding in fall and winter. Pea Island is home to over 365 species of birds, 25 species of mammals, and 24 species of reptiles, including loggerhead sea turtles. Great blue herons, great egrets, and snowy egrets abound in the summer, when your family can take a guided canoe tour.
Upper Klamath National Wildlife Refuge
Nearby National Park: Crater Lake National Park
Distance between: 25 miles
As the deepest and most pristine lake in the United States, Crater Lake National Park is a natural treasure. Upper Klamath Refuge offers a more simple beauty on its 15,000 acres, most of which are freshwater cattail marshes and open water. This is nesting habitat for such waterfowl species as the American white pelican and several heron species. You can canoe the 9.5-mile marked trail through a freshwater marsh,
John Heinz at Tinicum National Wildlife Refuge
Nearby National Historical Park: Independence National Historical Park
Distance between: 10 miles
Less than a 20-minute drive from Independence Hall, John Heinz Refuge is a thriving wildlife oasis and a big-city getaway that offers seasonal fishing and a chance to see hundreds of species that breed, rear their young, rest during migration, or call the refuge home year-round. Take the 4.5-mile scenic canoe trial on Darby Creek or walk some of the 10 miles of trails.
Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge
Located within the Assateague National Seashore
Chincoteague Refuge has 14,000 acres of beach, dunes, maritime forests and marshes. Originally established as a habitat for migratory birds, the refuge is now home to diverse plants and wildlife, including the famous Chincoteague ponies. Visitors flock to experience refuge’s spectacular white-sand beaches and historic lighthouse, go crabbing or clamming, boating and horseback riding on certain parts of the beach.
Billy Frank Jr. Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge
Nearby National Park: Mount Rainier National Park
Distance between: 60 miles
Forty-five miles south of Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, Billy Frank Jr. Nisqually Refuge preserves a rich combination of the Nisqually River’s fresh water and the Puget Sound’s salt water, an area where ducks, geese, songbirds and migratory shorebirds flock in profusion. Offering Mount Rainier as a backdrop, the refuge has boating and hiking. An elevated boardwalk extends one mile into the estuary to give visitors a spectacular view of the landscape. The Twin Barns Loop, open dawn to dusk, takes you through forested habitats.
National Elk Refuge
Nearby National Parks: Grand Teton National Park and Yellowstone National Park
Distance between: about 14 miles from Grand Teton; 58 miles from Yellowstone
The National Elk Refuge is an easy detour to see the wintering grounds for some 11,000 elk. Bison, bighorn sheep, pronghorn antelope and more than 150 species of birds thrive here. Start at the Jackson Hole and Greater Yellowstone Visitor Center, where you can pick up information about tours, hikes, fishing permits and wildlife viewing opportunities. Don’t miss the refuge’s 1898 Miller Ranch, with its stunning view of the Teton Range. The log cabin was the first property bought by the government to become part of National Elk Refuge, as realization grew early in the 20th century that development was changing elk migration routes and putting the herds at risk. Don’t forget to take photos!
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