What’s the wildest thing you’ve done lately? Try topping it this summer, or any season, with a scenic drive in a National Wildlife Refuge.
Many National Wildlife Refuges offer interpretative car routes that cross breathtaking landscapes and provide close-up views of wildlife. They can provide a welcome respite from the clamor of the workday world and you can experience rare beauty and solitude without breaking the bank.
The National Wildlife Refuge System has been called America’s best kept secret. Many Americans have never visited a wildlife refuge or know what they’re missing, even though there’s a refuge within an hour’s drive of most major U.S. cities.
While these public lands are set aside for wildlife conservation, most welcome visitors. Some refuge driving routes often converted old fire roads, logging trails and dikes offer spectacular vistas and views of such stare-worthy critters as bison, alligators and sandhill cranes. Many follow or join the National Scenic Byways. They also access hiking trails and afford insight into conservation and wildlife management.
Here are a few especially popular scenic refuge drives:
Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, New Mexico
Many view Bosque del Apache Refuge, an hour from Albuquerque, as the archetypical refuge experience, and a 12-mile auto loop through its desert and southwestern riparian landscape will show you why. The road offers stunning vista of the Chupadera Mountains to the west and the San Pascual Mountains to the east. From late October through early March, massive flocks of sandhill cranes and snow geese fly out at dawn and return at dusk to roost. During the day, hundreds of cranes forage in the refuge marshes and fields where they are easily visible from the road. In November the annual Festival of the Cranes is a premier birding event. For an added treat, enter or leave the refuge via the El Camino Real National Scenic Byway, the “Royal Road” that was the major thoroughfare between Mexico City and Santa Fe for hundreds of years.
Look for: Thousands of sandhill cranes, snow geese, Ross’s geese and ducks
Fee: $5 per car
Know before you go: The refuge tour route is open daily year-round from one hour before sunrise to one hour after sunset. The Seasonal Tour Road is open April through September. The visitor center is open Monday through Friday, 7:30 a.m. to 4:00 p.m., and Saturday and Sunday from 8:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.
For more information, visit http://www.fws.gov/southwest/refuges/newmex/bosque/ or call 575-835-1828.
J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge, Florida
On Florida’s Sanibel Island the refuge’s popular four-mile auto tour route known as Wildlife Drive winds through mangrove forest, cordgrass marsh and hardwood hammocks permitting close-up viewing of wading birds, shorebirds, seabirds, waterfowl and raptors. Peregrine falcons and bald eagles are also sometimes visible. Bicycling is also a great way to experience the route, which is fully connected to an extensive system of multi-use trails linking the city of Sanibel to the refuge.
Look for: Roseate spoonbills, wood storks, reddish egrets, little blue herons, yellow-crowned night-herons, anhingas, white pelicans, red knots, marbled godwits, bald eagles, otters, bobcats and alligators.
Fee: $5 per car
Know before you go: Wildlife Drive is open Saturday through Thursday from sunrise to a half hour before sunset. The drive is closed every Friday to all access. Best time to go, January through March for migratory birds such as white pelicans. From January 1 through April 30, the visitor center is open daily from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. From May 1 through December 31, the hours are 9:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. Bikes are available for rent through a concession in the Tarpon Bay section of the refuge.
For more information, visit http://www.fws.gov/dingdarling/ or call 239-472-1100.
Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge, Oklahoma
A three-mile drive to the top of Mt. Scott and a past Works Progress Administration (WPA) pavement project offers visitors a panoramic view of the Wichita Mountain range. Interspersed between mountain peaks, visitors may view some of the last untilled native prairies in the United States. Besides bison and cattle, they’re likely to see cross timbers, remains of dense growth of oaks and greenbrier that once covered parts of Texas and Oklahoma. Every September the Annual Bison Roundup collects bison for testing and separation into groups for sale, donation or return to the herd. There’s also a man-made attraction, the “Holy City of the Wichitas,” a 1930s-era re-creation of Jerusalem during Jesus’ time. Another scenic driving option is State Highway 49, which passes through approximately 20 miles of the refuge. Both roads are part of the Wichita Mountains National Scenic Byway, a designation given by the Federal Highway Administration in 2009.
Look for: Texas Longhorn cattle, bison, elk, deer, coyotes, red-tailed hawks, prairie dogs, turkey and bobcat.
Know before you go: The road to Mt. Scott is open year-round, weather permitting, from sunrise to sundown. A refuge visitor center is open year-round from 8:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. during Daylight Savings Time and from 8:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Standard Time.
For more information, visit http://www.fws.gov/southwest/refuges/oklahoma/wichitamountains/ or call 580-429-3222.
Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge, Delaware
A 12-mile wildlife drive cuts across several distinct bird habitats, including freshwater man-made pools, salt marshes, mudflats, woodlands and upland fields. Spring migration brings waterfowl, wood warblers and shorebirds. Summer avian residents include herons, egrets, avocets, black-necked stilts and terns. Fall and winter months provide resting and wintering grounds for Canada geese, snow geese and a variety of waterfowl. Birds of prey are seen all year long. The drive also provides access to five short walking trails. Three of the trails feature 30-foot-high observation towers. Numbered stops along the route correspond to points of interest in an interpretive brochure.
Look for: Snow geese, northern pintails, warblers, dunlins, dowitchers, avocets, black-necked stilts, yellow warblers, purple martins, red tailed hawks and bald eagles.
Fee: $4 per car. Fee waived for holders of “America the Beautiful” federal passes.
Know before you go: Best times to go? Spring and fall seasons provide a variety of wildlife. The visitor center is open weekdays from 8:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. year-round. During spring and fall, it is open Saturday and Sunday from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. The visitor center is universally accessible and has education displays and videos.
For more information, visit http://www.fws.gov/northeast/bombayhook/ or call 302-653-9345.
Seney National Wildlife Refuge, Michigan
In Michigan’s rugged Upper Peninsula, a seven-mile, one-way auto tour route on Seney Refuge takes visitors past wetlands and open water, and through deciduous and coniferous forests in a former lumbering area known as the Great Manistique Swamp. Three wheelchair accessible observation decks with viewing scopes make Marshland Wildlife Drive a great wildlife watching opportunity. Bicycles are also welcome on the auto tour route.
Look for: Beaver, river otters, bald eagles, osprey, common loons, Canada geese, sandhill cranes, trumpeter swans, black bear, turtles and songbirds.
Know before you go: The tour route is open during daylight hours from May 15 through Oct. 15. The route does not accommodate large recreational vehicles. The refuge visitor center is open daily from May 15 to October 15, from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., including holidays. Peak waterfowl migration occurs from the end of September through October.
For more information, visit http://www.fws.gov/midwest/seney/ or call 906-586-9851.
Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge, Washington
On the shore of the Lower Columbia River, a 4.2-mile loop graveled road crosses fields, wetlands, sloughs and forests is the most popular visitor destination on the refuge. The auto tour route offers visitors views of the refuge landscape while making it easy to spy birds and other wildlife. The route has an observation blind.
Look for: Migrant bird species such as sandhill cranes and resident bird species such as mallards, great blue herons and red-tailed hawks. Coyote, raccoon, skunk, beaver and river otter are occasionally seen.
Fee: $3 per car.
Know before you go: The refuge tour route is open during daylight hours. Closing times are posted on an automatic gate at the refuge entrance. The first mile of the road allows two-way traffic and the remainder narrows to one-way traffic. To limit disturbance to large flocks of wintering waterfowl, visitors must remain in their vehicles along this route from October 1 to April 30.
A Discovery Audio Tour that interprets the tour route can be downloaded to MP3 devices at http://www.ridgefieldfriends.org/index.php or obtained in CD format at the visitor contact station near the refuge entrance.
For more information, visit http://www.fws.gov/ridgefieldrefuges/ridgefield/ or call 360-887-4106.
Des Lacs National Wildlife Refuge, North Dakota
The 19-mile Des Lacs National Wildlife Refuge Backway, in the northwest corner of the state, follows the gently rolling hills of upland prairie, offering excellent views of the wooded draws of the Des Lacs Valley. The Backway and its trails offer great scenery and wildlife viewing opportunities. More than 250 species of birds, including waterfowl, raptors and many other migrants, have been seen there, along with deer, moose and other mammals. Also along the Backway is the trailhead for Munch’s Coulee National Recreation Trail, a mile-long loop with a universally accessible section. The trail provides panoramic views and opportunities to see wildlife close-up.
Look for: Mergansers and snow geese in the spring and fall, several species of grebes in summer, as well as wild turkeys, white-tailed deer and moose.
For more information, visit http://www.americantrails.org/nationalrecreationtrails/trailNRT/munch-ND.html.
Know before you go: The refuge and the auto tour route are open daily, weather permitting, from 5:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m. The road is unplowed and may be impassable in winter. The refuge visitor center is open weekdays from 7:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. but closed weekends. A kiosk and restrooms remain open. The north end of the auto tour route has a public picnic area.
For more information, visit http://www.fws.gov/jclarksalyer/deslacs/ or call 701-385-4046.
Lower Klamath and Tule Lake National Wildlife Refuges, California
Located in northern California, Lower Klamath and nearby Tule Lake National Wildlife Refuges are 15 miles apart. They have separate auto tour routes allowing visitors to see some of the many birds they’re famous for. Mt. Shasta is easily visible on both drives. The Lower Klamath tour is a 10.2-mile loop accessed from Stateline Highway 161, located 12 miles from the refuge visitor center. The Tule Lake Refuge tour begins five miles south of the visitor center. Both refuges are major attractions along the Volcanic Legacy All-American Road, a National Scenic Byway between Crater Lake in Oregon and Mt. Lassen in California.
Look for: Large flocks of ducks and geese can be seen in spring and fall. White pelicans and western grebes can be seen in summer. Winter scenes offer bald eagles, a variety of raptors, sandhill cranes, tundra swans and many other species.
Know before you go: Visitors to the Tule Lake Refuge auto tour may pick up a self-guided map or booklet at the route entrance. Points of interest in the booklet correspond to numbered posts along the route. The interpretive guide assists visitors in identifying common species and describes refuge management history and practices. A visitor center is located on the Tule Lake Refuge and is open from 8:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. weekdays, 10 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. on weekends.
For more information, visit http://www.fws.gov/klamathbasinrefuges/tulelake/tulelake.html or call 530-667-2231.
Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, Alaska
Skilak Loop Wildlife Drive, an 18.5-mile gravel road, loops off the Sterling Highway and leads through a black spruce forest along Skilak Lake and Engineer Lake passing several scenic overlooks. Hunting is restricted along the loop to improve the chances of seeing moose as well as brown and black bear. Several hiking trails are accessible from the loop.
Look for: moose, bear, spruce grouse, snowshoe hares, beaver, lynx, eagles, peregrine falcons
Know before you go: Skilak Loop Wildlife Drive is open all year, 24 hours a day, weather permitting. The east entrance to the drive is at Mile 58 of the Sterling Highway; the west entrance is at Mile 75. The refuge visitor center in Soldotna, about 21 miles from the west loop entrance, is under construction through July 2010. But visitor services are available from trailers there, generally open from 8:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. weekdays and 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. weekends. Those who prefer paved roads can stay on Sterling Highway between Mile 55 and 75, the portion which passes through the refuge, is a designated national scenic highway. If you stop along the highway to admire the Kenai River, visible for the first three miles, or look at bear, use the pullout. For more information, visit http://kenai.fws.gov/ or call 907-262-7021.
For a map of all National Wildlife Refuges and a detailed description of what each has to offer, visit http://www.fws.gov/refuges/.
The mission of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is working with others to conserve, protect and enhance fish, wildlife, plants and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American people. We are both a leader and trusted partner in fish and wildlife conservation, known for our scientific excellence, stewardship of lands and natural resources, dedicated professionals and commitment to public service. For more information on our work and the people who make it happen, visit www.fws.gov.