Modoc National Wildlife Refuge, California. Photo by Laura Van Acker, Courtesy NWRA Photo Library.
With gas prices creeping higher and the economy at a low ebb, planning a summer vacation close to home is on the minds of many American families. Luckily, if your idea of a great getaway is to experience the best of our nation’s treasured wild lands, the National Wildlife Refuge System will allow you to stay close to home.
This is the first of our summer-long “Great Refuges” series featuring different refuges each month.
National wildlife refuges — 549 of them — are an affordable travel destination within reach of every American family. Refuges can be found in all 50 states, and most of them are less than an hour’s drive from a major American city. They are landscapes as diverse as our vast nation, offering wetlands, forests, deserts, mountains, tallgrass prairie, beaches, coastal salt marshes, wild and scenic rivers, historic and prehistoric sites, and federally designated wilderness areas, to name a few.
For travelers, this amounts to a rich variety of choices that include hiking, bird watching, fishing canoeing and kayaking, photography, hunting, and a host of other outdoor pleasures. See our trip tip list below.
National wildlife refuges, long viewed as paradise for birdwatchers, were established especially to provide nesting, feeding, and stopover habitat for migratory bird populations on their journeys of many thousands of miles. But refuges are not just for the birds!
From moose and manatees weighing more than a ton, to the tiniest migratory American redstart, the Refuge System protects a rich diversity of birds, fish, and animals.
Refuges protect habitat for:
- more than 700 species of birds
- 220 mammals
- 250 reptile and amphibian species, and more than 1,000 types of fish
- and more than 280 of the nation’s approximately 1,310 endangered or threatened species.
For some species, national wildlife refuges have — literally — been lifesavers. Without refuges, the United States might have lost the whooping crane. The Refuge System also has been critical in the recovery of the once-endangered bald eagle. You can now see bald eagles at more than 150 national wildlife refuges, such as Virginia’s Elizabeth Hartwell Mason Neck National Wildlife Refuge, listed as one of the top ten spots for viewing Bald Eagles in the nation
Offering a wilderness vacation experience
And even though they are relatively close to urban America, some of America’s national wildlife refuges offer a true wilderness vacation experience. More than 20 million acres on 66 wildlife refuges have been designated as wilderness and are managed in a way that preserves the wild and undeveloped character of the land — and where you can enjoy solitude and the beauty of nature without many of the intrusions of the modern world.
Sixty years ago, noted environmentalist Rachel Carson wrote that wildlife refuges provide a “release from the tensions of modern life” and a “sense of wonder” about the natural world. Today, families can cultivate that sense of wonder as they explore the National Wildlife Refuge system together. Where will you go this summer?
Need help finding a refuge to visit? Check out our sample list of refuges that are easy to reach from major urban centers (this is just the first in our summer-long "Great Refuges" series). And for more refuges, check out the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for a great interactive map to help you plan your trip.
- Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes National Wildlife Refuge
Bordered by the Pacific Ocean to the west and farmland to the east, this southern California refuge encompasses one of the largest coastal dune systems remaining in California. Located along Highway 1 in Guadalupe, the refuge protects breeding habitat for a number of endangered species, including the California least tern, the Morro blue butterfly, and 16 species of endangered plants. Learn more here.
- Don Edwards San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge
Located in south San Francisco Bay, this refuge hosts nine species of federally listed threatened or endangered species and offers glimpses of 227 species of birds. More than 700,000 people visit the refuge each year. Information here.
- Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge
Take a short jaunt from downtown Denver (ten minutes) and you’ll find yourself surrounded by a vast grassland prairie that is one of the largest urban wildlife refuges in the nation. The refuge offers a great opportunity to learn about native prairie species, including the iconic bison, which was recently introduced at the arsenal. Watch for coyotes and golden eagles too! More.
- J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge
This refuge on Sanibel Island, a barrier island just off Florida’s Gulf coast, is part of the largest undeveloped mangrove ecosystem in the United States. Named after the pioneer cartoonist and conservationist who protected the area from rapacious Florida developers, “Ding” Darling Refuge is world famous for its spectacular wading bird populations. In addition to bird-watching, the refuge is perfect for canoeing, kayaking, bicycling and fishing, and boating — although motorized boats are not allowed in its 2,800 acres of designated Wilderness. More.
- Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge
America’s first National Wildlife Refuge, Pelican Island off Florida’s Atlantic coast is where it all started in 1903, when President Theodore Roosevelt designated it to protect brown pelicans and other native birds nesting on the island. This was the first time the federal government had set aside land for the sake of wildlife. Today, you can still see pelicans, as well as endangered wood storks, manatees, and three kinds of endangered sea turtles. More.
- Parker River National Wildlife Refuge
Just 35 miles north of Boston, the Parker River National Wildlife Refuge occupies the southern three-quarters of Plum Island, an eight-mile-long barrier island near Newburyport, Massachusetts. Its beaches, maritime forests, dunes, bogs, and marshes provide habitat for more than 300 species of birds, including the threatened piping plover and least tern. Harbor seal pups often rest on the beach, and you can watch osprey feeding their young on the refuge’s man-made nesting platforms. More.
- Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge
Established in 2001, the Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge is located on Grosse Ile, the largest island in the Detroit River, and is the first international refuge in North America and one of the few truly urban ones in the nation. The refuge’s nearly 5,000 acres include islands, coastal wetlands, marshes, shoals, and riverfront lands along 48 miles of the river and western Lake Erie. Its habitat provides a home for 29 species of waterfowl, 65 kinds of fish, and 300 species of migratory birds in Michigan and Ontario, Canada. More.
- Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge
Within the urban and suburban areas of Minnesota’s Twin Cities is a green belt of large marsh areas bordered by office buildings, highways, residential areas, and grain terminals. The Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge, whose visitor center is just steps from the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport, stretches 99 miles along the Minnesota River. At the center, you can see exhibits, take in a nature program in the auditorium, or watch wildlife from the observation deck. Or you can explore the refuge’s trails, go fishing, or just enjoy the many native wildflowers that bloom there. Get information here.
- Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge
Located just 10 miles from the traffic and noise of Atlantic City’s casinos, the Forsythe Refuge offers an escape to a quieter world of tidal salt meadows and marsh, shallow coves and bays, woodlands of oak, white cedar and pitch pine, and fields. Holgate and Little Beach, two of the few remaining undeveloped barrier beaches in New Jersey, are among the 6,000 acres of the refuge designated as Wilderness. Its internationally recognized wetlands habitat is critical for the world’s black ducks and Atlantic brant. Get information here.
- Target Rock National Wildlife Refuge
On the north shore of Long Island, just 25 miles east of Manhattan’s skyscrapers, is Target Rock, a tiny jewel of a wildlife refuge. The 80 acres of this former garden estate provide beautiful blooms and homes for migratory songbirds, shorebirds, fish, reptiles, and amphibians. Its small rocky beach is a nesting spot for federally protected piping plovers and a resting place for harbor seals. Its waters are a haven for diving ducks. Get information here.
- Nestucca Bay National Wildlife Refuge
One of several refuges located on Oregon’s Pacific coast less than two hours west of Portland, Nestucca Bay’s pastures offer critical wintering habitat for Aleutian cackling geese and dusky Canada geese. In the summer, the refuge offers hiking trails that will reward you with panoramic views of the Pacific Ocean and the Coast Range, as well as a chance to experience the southernmost sphagnum bog on the West coast. Get information here.
- Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge
Located on Maryland’s Eastern Shore just south of Cambridge, the peaceful tidewater marshes, freshwater ponds, and evergreen and hardwood forests of Blackwater make it an ideal summer day-trip away from the bustle of Washington, D.C. A haven for tens of thousands of migratory ducks and geese, Blackwater is also home to more than 60 active Bald eagle nests. If you’re lucky, you might also glimpse an endangered Delmarva fox squirrel; four decades of refuge efforts to restore forest habitat have contributed to its survival. More.
- Elizabeth Hartwell Mason Neck National Wildlife Refuge
Situated just 18 miles south of Washington, on the Virginia side of the Potomac river, Mason Neck has been listed as one of the top ten places for viewing Bald Eagles in the country. Its close proximity to the city offers visitors a quick and easy getaway among tranquil oak-hickory forests and marshy shorelines. More.
Modoc National Wildlife Refuge, California. Photo by Laura Van Acker, Courtesy NWRA Photo Library.
American Redstart singing at Agassiz National Wildlife Refuge, Minnesota. Photo by Roland Jordahl, Courtesy NWRA Photo Library.
John Hay National Wildlife Refuge, Massachusetts. Photo by David A. Blohm, Courtesy NWRA Photo Library.