Something funny happens when you focus your camera lens on nature: You heighten your senses, too. One of the best places to experience this is on a National Wildlife Refuge. The 150-million-acre National Wildlife Refuge System, managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, is the world's premier system of public lands and waters set aside for wildlife conservation. There is a National Wildlife Refuge within an hour's drive of most major cities. 


Seasonal wildlife spectacles, such as the fall arrival of the sandhill cranes at Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge in New Mexico, offer another photographic lure. "You can see cranes in such numbers that it's mind-boggling," says photographer Pat Leeson, who, along with her husband Tom, has shot images for a slew of wildlife photography books, including America's Wildlife Refuges (2003).


Here are a few refuges celebrated among photographers:


Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Alaska
Snapping polar bears and caribou herds is tricky. Many photographers prefer to concentrate on landscape photos. But scale can be a problem. "If you're standing on the coastal plain, the vistas are huge," says Cathy Curby,  wildlife interpretive specialist at the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.  "It's a challenge how to capture depth and expanse and breadth."


Road runner at Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, NM
Road runner at Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, New Mexico
Credit: Aaron D. Drew, USFWS

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, New Mexico
Each fall, thousands of sandhill cranes migrate south to Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge.  The long-legged birds strut and cry and show off wingspans reaching seven feet.


 "Bosque is just a wonderful place to shoot," says Leeson. "You've seen those glorious shots of a thousand cranes taking off against the golden light reflecting in the water. This opportunity really doesn't exist anywhere else."




 J.N. "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge, Florida
Visitors need no reminding to bring their cameras to J.N. "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge on Sanibel Island in the Gulf of Mexico. Where some need help is in knowing how far to go to capture an image. Big hint: Save the bait for fishing. It is illegal to feed any bird on the refuge.


"The quintessential refuge photo is of the roseate spoonbills, with their distinctive pink plumage,"  says volunteer coordinator Jeff Combs. You can also photograph white pelicans, herons, storks and egrets.  


Gass Peak, Desert National Wildlife Refuge, NV
Gass Peak, Desert National Wildlife Refuge, Nevada
Credit: Wendy Smith, USFWS

Desert National Wildlife Refuge Complex, NV
If you want to see how light and form play on a really big canvas, Desert National Wildlife Refuge is your destination — the largest national wildlife refuge in the continental United States, encompassing almost 1.6 million acres of the Mojave Desert in southern Nevada. The best way to see it for yourself, is in a four-wheel drive vehicle or, at least, a car or truck with high clearance off the rocky ground.

You can drive your four-wheel drive vehicle from about 2,400 feet altitude to almost 7,000 feet on the refuge, taking a road through Joshua tree woodlands backlit by the afternoon sun.


"There's something ethereal about light in the desert," says Desert Range visual information and interpretive specialist Wendy Smith, who's also a photographer and nature artist.

Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge, Delaware
Bird watchers descend on Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge each spring and fall to marvel at the great clouds of birds rising from the several thousand acres of wetlands and fresh-water impoundments. A key stopover for more than 250 species of migrating shorebirds and wading birds, the refuge is home to bald eagles and nesting peregrine falcons.  


Red Rock Lakes
Red Rock Lakes
Credit: USFWS

Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife Refuge, Montana
Some photographers visit Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife Refuge to capture images of the trumpeter swans that migrate here in the fall. For others, the draw is the dramatic, mountain-ringed setting at the base of the Continental Divide in the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem.


"We're one of the most remote refuges in the lower 48," says deputy refuge manager Suzanne Beauchaine. "Any visitor has to cover 30 miles of dirt road just to get to our headquarters." (Call ahead to check road conditions.)