The Sand Lake National Wildlife Refuge offers a wide variety of seasonal and year-round accessible recreational opportunities that are wildlife compatible. Wildlife observation, bird watching, education, photography, hunting, and fishing are all popular activities on Sand Lake.
The refuge is open during daylight hours only. The headquarters and visitor center are open year-round, Monday through Friday, 8:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., and are closed all federal holidays. The visitor center restrooms are open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Walk-in public access is allowed on and after February 1st. Interior refuge lands, gates, and roads, including Wildlife Drive auto tour route, open April 1 for the spring, summer, and fall seasons and close to non-hunting public access in mid-October for the winter months. Roads may close periodically after April 1st due to weather conditions and spring run-off. Please call to confirm the October closing date and for updated road conditions.
Bird Watching/Wildlife Observation
The Sand Lake National Wildlife Refuge is home to over 266 species of birds, 40 mammal species, and a variety of fish, reptiles, and amphibians. It is a designated "Wetlands of International Importance" and a "Globally Important Bird Area". The refuge has also been named one of the top 15 birding sites in North America by WildBird magazine. It has hosted the largest nesting colony of Franklin's gulls in the world! Spring and fall concentrations of migratory birds number in the millions. Spring, summer, and fall wildlife viewing opportunities can be spectacular! Wildlife Drive, a seasonal auto tour route, takes you up close and personal with the wildlife. Waterfowl, shorebirds, wading birds, songbirds, and just about anything in between can be seen on Sand Lake! Check the Migration page for updates.
Wildlife photographers from all over the country migrate to Sand Lake to photograph its landscapes and intense concentrations of wildlife. Deep blue water, auburn skies, and an endless landscape make the refuge a paradise for those who capture it by lens. Temporary daily blinds are welcome.
Sand Lake offers a unique variety for hunters of big game, upland game, and waterfowl. Trek a meandering hoof trail in scouting fresh signs of a fractured white-tailed deer herd during one of the archery, muzzleloader, or rifle seasons. Upland game hunters can try their hand at flushing a parcel of ring-necked pheasants, sharp-tailed grouse, or grey partridge from the untamed prairie and lakeside tall grasses. Hunker down, veiled within the concealment along a row of refuge boundary fence posts, in anticipation of the migration harvest as countless teams of spiraling ducks descend from the morning sky and sharp wedges of singing geese captivate with their overpowering chorus.
All deer and upland game hunting in the Sand Lake NWR is walk-in only. Hunters may park their vehicles in one of several designated parking areas. Waterfowl hunting is allowed in road right of ways surrounding the refuge. Hunters are allowed unarmed retrieval of waterfowl up to 100 yards inside the refuge. The spaced blinds available in past years have been removed. All federal and South Dakota game rules and regulations apply as well as special refuge regulations. For more information see the Hunting / Migration page or contact Sand Lake NWR at (605) 885-6320 and visit the South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks on the web.
Exercise your unique angling skills in flowing fresh water while stringing a glistening draft of walleye, northern pike, or other rough fish year-round at five (5) accessible locations in the refuge. All South Dakota state fishing regulations apply as well as special refuge regulations. Please consult the South Dakota Fishing Handbook for further information or visit the Sand Lake NWR Fishing page for a refuge sport fishing brochure. Boating is not allowed and ice shacks must be removed daily.
Discover an abundance of these colorful prairie gems dancing atop the native tall grass and prairie wildflowers at Sand Lake NWR. Now rare in all but a few areas of the upper Midwest, this is your chance to observe the Dakota skipper during its active, few short weeks of life - June 26th through July 21st (spotted twice in 2009, once in 2010, six times in 2011, and absent in 2012 at Sand Lake). Treat yourself, family, and friends to a memorable outing in search of swallowtails, whites, sulphers, coppers, hairstreaks, blues, brushfoots, and skippers. Don’t forget your Field Guide to Butterflies of South Dakota by Gary M. Marrone. Click here for a checklist of butterflies found in the Sand Lake/Brown County area (59 KB)
The visitor center offers outstanding wildlife displays, exhibits, wildlife-oriented videos, reference books, and other resources that make it a perfect first stop during your visit. Located at refuge headquarters, the visitor center is open year-round, Monday through Friday, 8:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. and is closed on federal holidays.
"Wildlife Drive" Auto Tour Route
"Wildlife Drive" is a 15-mile auto tour route that travels through the heart of the refuge, offering excellent wildlife and habitat viewing. A specialized brochure will guide you through 12 stops along the route to help you better understand refuge management and the habitat and wildlife you are seeing. Wildlife Drive is open from April 1 through mid October and may close periodically during this time due to weather conditions.
Constructed in 1936 by the Civilian Conservation Corps(CCC), the 108-foot tower at refuge headquarters will give you a birds-eye view of the area. From the top, you can see distinctive habitats, the James River Valley, and refuge management areas. Interpretive panels below, offer pictures of the "view from the top" for those who choose not to make the 132-step climb.
Columbia Day Use Area
One mile south of refuge headquarters on Brown County 16, the Columbia Day Use Area has a 3/4 mile hiking trail, interpretive kiosks, accessible restrooms, tables, sun shelter, and an excellent view of Sand Lake. Open year round, it is a great location to take a hike or do some bird watching. The Columbia Day Use Area connects to Migration Point by hiking the Cuthead Trail.
A new addition to Sand Lake, Migration Point, combined with the Columbia Day Use Area, and Cuthead Trail, provides an excellent vantage for those wishing to experience the spring and fall migrations. Located along Brown County 16, and south of the day use area, this observation point places you up close in tantalizing your visual and audio senses. Parking Available.
Hecla Day Use Area
Located on the northern end of the refuge, roughly 5 miles west of Hecla on Brown County 5, the Hecla Day Use Area is an undeveloped but favorite spot among anglers and also offers good birding opportunities.
To minimize disturbance to wildlife and for visitor safety the following activities are prohibited in the refuge - camping, swimming, boating, littering, fires, harassing of wildlife, collecting of plants, animals, minerals, antlers, and items of antiquity. In addition, weapons in possession outside of established hunting seasons must be dismantled or cased. Please contact the refuge manager for more information.