En español | If you're looking to commune with the great outdoors this summer, you're likely to find national parks teeming with like-minded visitors. For a more peaceful retreat, consider a side trip to a nearby national wildlife refuge. “Refuges offer a quieter, more relaxing experience of nature,” says Cynthia Martinez, chief of the National Wildlife Refuge System. President Theodore Roosevelt established the first wildlife refuge, Pelican Island in Florida, in 1903, to protect the animals and their habitats.
With far fewer visitors than national parks, many of the 567 refuges across the country combine stunning scenery with up-close seasonal wildlife viewing (the best times are often earlier or later in the day) on trails or self-guided drives. And most of them are free. Here are 11 of our favorites that can easily be paired with a national park visit.
COVID update: Although national wildlife refuges are open, due to the coronavirus epidemic, visitor centers remain closed and some public activities are suspended. Before visiting a refuge, check its website for updates and alerts, as well as for current Centers for Disease Control and Prevention safe travel guidelines.
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PHOTO BY: John Warburton-Lee Photography / Alamy Stock Photo
Kenai National Wildlife Refuge (Alaska)
Sometimes called “Alaska in miniature” and chock-full of bears, moose, eagles and jaw-dropping mountain views, the 1.92-million-acre Kenai National Wildlife Refuge would take a lifetime to get around. But you'll get a great snapshot by driving along 19-mile-long Skilak Lake Road, which starts about 60 miles from Kenai Fjords National Park. Take a break from the drive with an easy 2.6-mile round-trip hike on Hidden Creek Trail, which winds past wildflowers, through wetlands and onto Skilak Lake beach. “Wildlife like spruce grouse and snowshoe hare are common along the trail,” says Andrea Medeiros, a public affairs specialist for the Fish and Wildlife Service. “And in the summer, when salmon return to Hidden Creek, brown and black bears frequent the area."
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PHOTO BY: George Ostertag / Alamy Stock Photo
Billy Frank Jr. Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge (Washington)
This refuge packs more habitat diversity into its 4,529 acres than all of 236,000-acre Mount Rainier National Park, 72 miles to the east. Four miles of boardwalks and gravel trails lace this meeting of the Nisqually River and Puget Sound, looping around freshwater wetlands, riverbanks, tidal flats and forest that are home to wood ducks, beavers, bald eagles, herons, harbor seals and, during their June migration, Chinook salmon. Don't miss the Nisqually Estuary Trail and it's mile-long boardwalk. “On clear days, there's a breathtaking view of Mount Rainier, the headwaters of the river,” says Glynnis Nakai, the refuge manager. “We might be the only refuge in the country where you can see the source of the water around you."
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PHOTO BY: agefotostock / Alamy Stock Photo
Upper Klamath Lake National Wildlife Refuge (Oregon)
With virtually all of its 23,098 acres consisting of open water and cattail marshes, Upper Klamath Lake National Wildlife Refuge and its wealth of wading birds, water fowl, eagles, ospreys, beavers and otters are best experienced by boat. Rent canoes, kayaks and motorized craft ($30 to $325, depending on type and duration) at rustic Rocky Point Resort, 27 miles south of Crater Lake National Park via the Volcanic Legacy Scenic Byway. The resort is adjacent to a 9.5-mile canoe trail that puts you right in the middle of marsh life, especially on the mile-long Wocus Cut segment that's open only to nonmotorized craft.
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PHOTO BY: George Ostertag / Alamy Stock Photo
Humboldt Bay National Wildlife Refuge (California)
Fifty miles south of Redwood National and State Parks and their iconic northern coast trees, an entirely different picture of this remarkable, biodiverse region emerges at Humboldt Bay National Wildlife Refuge. Birds — hundreds of thousands of birds — are the draw here, especially during the height of migration in November and April. But you'll spot plenty during summer as well, including elegant snowy and great egrets, on the flat 2-mile Shorebird Loop Trail that starts in freshwater wetlands and continues through fields and across brackish slough, saltwater marsh and tidal flats. An evening walk when the trail stays open late (first Friday of the month, from April to October) is especially tranquil. And during free, twice-monthly guided walks (reservation required), you'll learn just why bird-watchers consider this a world-class destination. No pets are allowed in the refuge.
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PHOTO BY: Paul Gana / Alamy Stock Photo
Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge (Colorado)
About 65 miles from Rocky Mountain National Park, and close enough to Denver to spy its skyline, 220 bison roam this refuge. An 11-mile Wildlife Drive (download the accompanying podcast before you go) winds around wetlands, woodlands and fields dotted with showy summer blooms including sunflowers and Rocky Mountain bee plant. You'll see bison, but also keep an eye out for bald eagles, hawks, burrowing owls and the endangered black-footed ferret. Stretch your legs on the easy loop trails around Lake Mary (0.6 miles) or Lake Ladora (1.8 miles), where in the summertime, American white pelicans hurtle into the water in search of fish. Pets are not allowed in the refuge.
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PHOTO BY: Cavan Images / Alamy Stock Photo
National Elk Refuge (Wyoming)
With its namesake elk having decamped for higher elevations, summer is prime viewing time for one of the world's speediest mammals at the National Elk Refuge in Jackson, which is 8 miles from Grand Teton National Park and sixty miles from Yellowstone National Park. “Pronghorns are the fastest land mammals in the Americas, second in the world only to cheetahs,” says Raena Parsons, manager of visitor services. “And summer is when they migrate through the refuge.” You can admire these antelope-like animals, as well as raptors and songbirds, along the 11-mile Refuge Road Scenic Drive, a slower and far more pleasurable alternative to the highway. Drink in the stirring views of the Teton Range, which rises like a jagged, snowcapped wall, just beyond the refuge.
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PHOTO BY: Tom Uhlman / Alamy Stock Photo
Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge (Ohio)
On the shores of Lake Erie, about 100 miles from Cuyahoga Valley National Park, Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge was once part of the Great Black Swamp, a sprawling, bird-rich network of forest, wetlands and grasslands. The refuge ranks among the country's top birding spots, and summer visitors can expect to encounter herons, egrets, eagles, osprey, trumpeter swans and sandhill cranes (with their cacophonous, bugle-like call). You'll see and hear plenty of songbirds and marsh birds on the one-third mile boardwalk loop that starts behind the visitor center. Or take a spin on the 7-mile Wildlife Drive atop the refuge's dikes (open every weekend from June through September).
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PHOTO BY: Pat & Chuck Blackley / Alamy Stock Photo
Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge (Virginia)
The spectacle of wild ponies swimming across a saltwater channel, an annual late-July highlight at Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge, is cancelled for 2021. But you can still marvel at the grazing herd of around 150 small and shaggy horses made famous by Marguerite Henry's 1947 classic children's novel, Misty of Chincoteague. The Virginia refuge ($10 per vehicle entry fee) shares the same barrier island as Maryland's Assateague Island National Seashore, but it is less visited, in part because of its no-pet policy and day-use-only restriction. Thousands of American oystercatchers, piping plovers and other migratory birds spend summers on the island's marshes and broad, powder-sand beaches, which can be accessed by 9 miles of flat, paved trails for walkers and cyclists.
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PHOTO BY: Teresa Kopec / Getty Images
Santee National Wildlife Refuge (South Carolina)
The male painted bunting might just be America's most colorful songbird — a trippy shock of electric blue, green and red plumage. And during the summer nesting season, they flaunt their colors at Santee National Wildlife Refuge, about 58 miles southeast of Congaree National Park. Plenty of other animal species populate the 7.5-mile Wildlife Drive through forest, wetlands and grasslands, among them wild turkeys, turtles, deer, fox, dragonflies and the fearsome big-jawed beasts that give Alligator Alley its name. For a mysterious human artifact, check out the Santee Indian Mound, a large hill that was likely built between 1200 and 1500 for unknown ceremonial purposes by the Santee people.
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PHOTO BY: William S. Kuta / Alamy Stock Photo
J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge (Florida)
Winter birding is the big draw at this refuge, about 95 miles northwest of Everglades National Park. But come summer, a blubbery aquatic mammal is the star attraction. “Manatees like warmer water,” says Birgie Miller, executive director of the “Ding” Darling Wildlife Society, “and they're here in abundance during the summer.” You'll likely spot them — along with alligators and other critters — on the 4-mile Wildlife Drive ($10 per vehicle admission; guided tram tours $13 per person; closed Fridays). But if you rent a kayak or canoe ($30 single, $40 double for two hours), an easy paddle in Tarpon Bay puts you alongside these gentle, behemoth herbivores that can weigh upward of 1,200 pounds.
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PHOTO BY: PureStock / Alamy Stock Photo
Petit Manan National Wildlife Refuge (Maine)
Petit Manan includes 64 islands dotting the Maine coast, but there are also four mainland divisions accessible by car. At the Petit Manan Point Division, about 50 miles from Acadia National Park, the easy, 4.13-mile Birch Point Trail makes for a terrific summer saunter to a birdsong soundtrack. Begin amid blueberry barrens, where you can sample sweet-tart, sun-warmed berries. Continue through mossy, pine-scented woods and spongy marshland on boardwalks and paths cushioned by forest duff, and past trees stripped of bark by resident porcupines. Overlooking the trail's farthest point, a secluded beach of sand and granite, you'll discover a surprising amenity: Adirondack chairs, perfect for a picnic while you soak in the watery vista.
These Are Your National Wildlife Refuges
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