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15 Wonderful National Wildlife Refuges

Visit these peaceful natural havens near busy national parks

spinner image female hiker at Kenai National Wildlife Refuge
It would take a lifetime to get around the 1.92-million acre Kenai National Wildlife Refuge.
Alamy Stock Photo

If you’re looking to commune with the great outdoors in national parks but keep bumping into other park visitors, a side trip to a nearby national wildlife refuge might be just the ticket. “Refuges offer a quieter, more relaxing experience of nature,” says Cynthia Martinez, chief of the National Wildlife Refuge System, whose first site was established in 1903 by President Theodore Roosevelt to protect animals and their habitats. With far fewer visitors than national parks, many combine stunning scenery with up-close seasonal wildlife viewing (often best early or late in the day) on trails or self-guided drives. And with 568 refuges across the country, most of them free, they’re practically in every American’s backyard.  Here are 15 options that can easily be paired with a national park visit.

Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, Alaska

spinner image hikers at the Kenai National Wildife Refuge
Visitors can enjoy hiking trails with jaw-dropping mountain views at Kenai National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska.
John Warburton-Lee Photography / Alamy Stock Photo

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 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.”

Billy Frank Jr. Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge, Washington

spinner image Nisqually Estuary Boardwalk Trail
Miles of boardwalks and gravel trails connect the meeting of the Nisqually River and Puget Sound at Billy Frank Jr. Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge in Washington.
George Ostertag / Alamy Stock Photo

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 its 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.”

Upper Klamath National Wildlife Refuge, Oregon

spinner image canoe at Upper Klamath National Wildlife Refuge
Visitors can rent canoes and kayaks to see wildlife at the Upper Klamath National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon.
agefotostock / Alamy Stock Photo

With virtually all of its 23,128 acres consisting of open water and cattail marshes, Upper Klamath National Wildlife Refuge and its wealth of wading birds, waterfowl, eagles, ospreys, beavers and otters are best experienced by boat. Rent canoes, kayaks and motorized craft ($30 to $395 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 open only to nonmotorized craft.

Humboldt Bay National Wildlife Refuge, California

spinner image Humboldt Bay National Wildlife Refuge
Birds are the star of the show at the Humboldt Bay National Wildlife Refuge in California.
George Ostertag / Alamy Stock Photo

Fifty miles south of Redwood National and State Parks and their iconic trees of California’s North Coast, an entirely different picture of this remarkable, biodiverse region emerges at Humboldt Bay National Wildlife Refuge. Birds — hundreds of thousands of them — are the draw at this world-class birding destination, 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. No pets are allowed in the refuge.

Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge, Colorado

spinner image bison at Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge
Visitors can spot bison and other majestic animals at Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge in Colorado.
Paul Gana / Alamy Stock Photo

About 65 miles from Rocky Mountain National Park, and close enough to Denver to spy its skyline, about 240 bison roam this refuge year-round. An 11-mile Wildlife Drive (download the accompanying podcast before you go) winds around wetlands, woodlands and fields, which in summer are dotted with showy blooms including sunflowers and Rocky Mountain bee plant. You’ll see bison, but depending on the season, 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 American white pelicans hurtle into the water in search of fish. Pets are not allowed in the refuge.

National Elk Refuge, Wyoming

spinner image National Elk Refuge
The National Elk Refuge in Wyoming offers up-close viewing of elk.
Cavan Images / Alamy Stock Photo

January through March is the best time to see the 8,000 elk that roam the landscape at the National Elk Refuge in Jackson, which is 8 miles from Grand Teton National Park and 60 miles from Yellowstone National Park. Summer is prime viewing time for one of the world’s speediest mammals. “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 (3.5 miles in winter), a slower and far more pleasurable alternative to the highway. Drink in the stirring views of the Teton Range, which rises like a jagged, snow-capped wall just beyond the refuge.

Des Lacs National Wildlife Refuge, North Dakota

spinner image a group of four hikers at Des Lacs National Wildlife Refuge
Hikers can take the recreational trail for lake views at Des Lacs National Wildlife Refuge in North Dakota.
Alamy Stock Photo

Birders can spot more than 250 species at 19,500-acre Des Lacs National Wildlife Refuge, about 135 miles from the North Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park. Migratory water birds include nesting Canada geese and their goslings, American white pelicans in summer, western grebes performing courtship dances in spring and mergansers and snow geese in fall. Plenty of avian wildlife, and possibly deer and moose, can be seen along the 14-mile Scenic Backway auto tour, which also gives you access to Munch’s Coulee National Recreation Trail, a 1.25-mile loop with lake and seasonal wildflower views.


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Kankakee National Wildlife Refuge, Illinois

spinner image A lush field at Kankakee National Wildlife Refuge and Conservation Area
Visitors can explore acres of prairie and upland oak savanna at Kankakee National Wildlife Refuge and Conservation Area in Illinois.
Courtesy USFWS

Consisting of 66 acres of prairie and upland oak savanna, Kankakee is about 62 miles from Indiana Dunes National Park. Boldly colored red-headed woodpeckers — rare these days in most of the Midwest — are among its star resident and migratory species, along with the ornate box turtle and the regal fritillary, an orange-and-black butterfly whose wingspan can reach 4 inches across. Spot wildlife along the year-round Kolar Savanna Trail, which is open for walking spring to fall and to snowshoeing and cross-country skiing in the winter.

Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge, Ohio

spinner image Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge
Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge in Ohio is one of the country’s top birding spots.
Tom Uhlman / Alamy Stock Photo

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 is a top-ranked birding spot and welcomes roosting owls and tundra swans in the winter and migratory birds in the spring and fall. Summer visitors can expect to encounter herons, egrets, eagles and trumpeter swans. You’ll see and hear plenty of songbirds and marsh birds on the 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 mid-September).

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Holla Bend National Wildlife Refuge, Arkansas

spinner image an open field with a large tree and hay at the Holla Bend National Wildlife Refuge in Arkansas
A self-guided auto tour rolls through Holla Bend National Wildlife Refuge in Arkansas.

Bounded by an old oxbow in the Arkansas River, about 66 miles from Hot Springs National ParkHolla Bend National Wildlife Refuge has been officially designated as an Important Bird Area (IBA) by the National Audubon Society. In spring and summer, you can spot songbirds in the refuge ($4 per vehicle), along with wildflowers and baby turkeys. Fall and winter are prime months for migratory waterfowl. Bald eagle sightings happen throughout the year, though they’re more frequent in winter and early spring. Along the 8-mile, self-guided auto tour, you’ll find a number of spots to stop for photographs and a hiking trail where you might encounter resident armadillos.

Cross Creeks National Wildlife Refuge, Tennessee

spinner image a Great Egret flying over the water in Cross Creeks National Wildlife Refuge
Egrets are among the birds to see flying over the water at Cross Creeks National Wildlife Refuge in Tennessee.
Wirestock, Inc. / Alamy Stock Photo

Situated in the floodplain of the Cumberland River, 135 miles from Mammoth Cave National Park, the diverse topography of Cross Creeks features open water, limestone bluffs and forested hills that turn gorgeous colors come fall. Except for the observation deck of the visitor center and a roadside waterfowl observation deck, the refuge is closed from Nov. 15 to March 15 to protect the thousands of waterfowl that overwinter here. But from spring into fall, wildlife sightings along the 10-mile gravel auto route or on one of the refuge’s trails might include migratory songbirds, beavers, osprey and fluttering monarch butterflies.

Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge, Virginia

spinner image wild ponies at Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge
Visitors can see the grazing herd of about 150 small horses at Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge in Virginia.
Pat & Chuck Blackley / Alamy Stock Photo

The late-July spectacle of wild ponies swimming across a saltwater channel draws huge crowds to Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge. During other times of the year, 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), which shares the same barrier island as Maryland’s Assateague Island National Seashore, has a 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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Santee National Wildlife Refuge, South Carolina

spinner image Santee Wildlife Refuge
The Santee National Wildlife Refuge in South Carolina is home to Alligator Alley.
Teresa Kopec / Getty Images

The male painted bunting might just be America’s most colorful songbird — a trippy shock of electric blue, green and red plumage. During the summer nesting season, it flaunts its 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 likely built between 1200 and 1500 for unknown ceremonial purposes by the Santee people.

J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge, Florida

spinner image kayakers at Ding Darling NWR
Visitors can rent kayaks or canoes to paddle among manatees at the J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge in Florida.
William S. Kuta / Alamy Stock Photo

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 are $18 for adults, Thursdays only). 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.

Petit Manan National Wildlife Refuge, Maine

spinner image Petit Manan national wildlife refuge
Petit Manan National Wildlife Refuge offers trails through mossy, pine-scented woods and spongy marshland.
PureStock / Alamy Stock Photo

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-mile round-trip Birch Point Trail makes for a terrific saunter to a birdsong soundtrack. Begin amid blueberry barrens, where in summer 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 vistas. 

Editor's note: This article was originally published on May 14, 2021. It has been updated to reflect new information. 

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