National wildlife refuges offer us all a chance to unplug from the stresses of daily life and reconnect with our natural surroundings. The refuge offers visitors a 4-mile Pelican trail and a seasonal Beckwith wildlife observation area to observe and photograph wildlife. These features allow visitors to get close to the sights and sounds of the diverse wildlife species that live here. Birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians, fish, insects, and native plants – they are all here and chances are you will see or hear many of them.
Conditions change from season to season in these habitats, so the species you might see will also change. While many bird species are year-round residents, most birds are seasonal and can only be observed during specific times of the year. For example, some bird species are here only in winter, while others are here only during the summer breeding season. Other bird species pass through for a few short weeks during fall or spring migration. Just as the birds change with the seasons, so do the landscapes. During the hot dry days of summer, you are more likely to see a greater number of bird species in the morning – the next best time for summer birds is in the late afternoon/early evening. Likewise, most mammals are more likely to be visible in the morning or early evening during the hot months.
There is always something to see at the refuge, but certain times are better than others and the cast of nature’s characters changes with the seasons. The spectacular concentrations of geese and sandhill cranes occur during autumn through spring. No matter when you visit, bring your binoculars, camera – and your curiosity!
Prepare for your visit
Dress appropriately for the seasons. Comfortable walking shoes are recommended for nature trails. Summer months can reach extreme temperatures in excess of 100 degrees for weeks at a time. Always bring and carry plenty of water. Hats and sunscreen are highly recommended. Mosquitoes can be very active, especially during fall and spring. Mosquito repellant is recommended. Binoculars, spotting scopes, a camera, and field guides will help you get the most of your visit.
Tips for an enjoyable visit
During the hot dry days of summer, you are more likely to see a greater number of bird species in the morning – the next best time for summer birds is in the late afternoon/early evening. Likewise, most mammals are more likely to be visible in the morning or early evening during the hot months. Pick up our Auto Tour Route and Nature Trail brochure (featuring maps), available at the Pelican trailhead brochure rack.
When you arrive
Upon arrival, stop at the Pelican trailhead information kiosk, on Dairy Road, to become oriented, obtain a brochure, and learn about what to see and do on the refuge. From there, embark on the 4-mile nature trail to explore the refuge by foot. Enjoy a picnic at one of the tables at the trailhead. The Pelican nature trail is open daily throughout the year. The Beckwith wildlife observation area, on Beckwith Road, is a favorite location for viewing the Aleutian cackling geese and sandhill cranes along with other waterbirds and is open seasonally from mid-October through mid-March.
The refuge manages a diverse visitor services program that provides opportunities for wildlife observation, nature photography, nature interpretation, and environmental education. Staff-guided or self-guided environmental education opportunities are also available at the San Joaquin River NWR. Contact the San Luis NWR Complex Headquarters at 209-826-3508.
The Pelican Nature Trail at 2714 Dairy Road, Vernalis, California, 95385 is an approximately 4-mile long trail that is open every day from 1/2-hour before sunrise to 1/2-hour after sunset. The trail is a series of three connected loops (like the links of a chain) meandering through uplands, wetlands, andwoodland. The distal loop leads the hiker into an oxbow of the San Joaquin River providing good views of the river and of heron, egret, and cormorant rookeries (during nesting season) on the other side. A map of the trail is available at the information kiosk at the trailhead.
Other Facilities in the Complex
The San Joaquin River NWR is part of the San Luis NWR Complex. A complex is an administrative grouping of two or more refuges, wildlife management areas, or other refuge conservation areas that are primarily managed from a central office location. Refuges are grouped into a complex because they occur in a similar ecological region, such as a watershed or specific habitat type, and have a related purpose and management needs. Typically, a project leader or complex manager oversees the general management of all refuges within the complex and refuge managers are responsible for operations at specific refuges. Supporting staff, composed of administrative, law enforcement, refuge manager, biological, fire, visitor services, and maintenance professionals, are centrally-located and support all refuges within the complex.
Other units in the San Luis NWR Complex include the San Luis NWR, Merced NWR, and Grasslands Wildlife Management Area.
Rules and Policies
On national wildlife refuges, WILDLIFE COMES FIRST! All areas of the refuge are closed to public entry unless explicitly posted as a nature trail, parking lot, or wildlife observation area. Please observe all “Area Closed” signs and do not travel beyond them in a vehicle or by foot. Visitors must comply with all posted rules and regulations. The refuge is open daily, unless otherwise posted, from ½-hour before sunrise to ½-hour after sunset.
The Pelican trail offers visitors a choice of three connected loops for a short walk of about one mile (just the first loop) or a longer four-mile walk if you include all three loops. The first loop departs from a free-roam trailhead “garden” that has been planted with native trees, shrubs, and forbs. The area includes two interpretive kiosks and picnic tables. From there, the first loop leads along a restored wetland that features raised vegetated mounds or “bunny mounds” that were created to provide refugia for the endangered brush rabbit during San Joaquin River flood events. The riparian brush rabbit is the beneficiary of an intensive breeding and re-introduction program undertaken by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and partners intended to return the species to portions of its once vast range of riparian habitat throughout the Central Valley. The second trail loop leads you along the top of a portion of the San Joaquin River levee alongside a dense riparian forest. From atop the levee, you can see into the tops of the riparian trees to the east, or look out over the uplands to the west. This perspective provides the possibility of seeing a variety of bird species – ring-necked pheasant, California quail, western kingbird, swallows, western meadowlark, and raptors over the upland grasslands; and woodland species such as woodpeckers, Bullock’s oriole, grosbeaks, and warblers in the trees. The third loop continues along the top of the levee seeming to lead the visitor right out into the San Joaquin River. The trail follows the inside of an oxbow channel. Keep your eyes peeled for river otters and beavers. You may also spot a flock of American white pelicans as they scan the river’s course looking for a place to set down and fish. In the winter, flocks of snow geese, Aleutian cackling geese, and Sandhill cranes are frequently seen flying overhead.
This is the only refuge site with public restroom facilities.
Outdoor pit-style toilets are located at the Pelican trailhead, available during normal refuge hours (1/2-hour before sunrise to 1/2-hour after sunset).
From Highway 99 in Modesto
Take the CA-132 west exit. Travel westbound on CA-132 for approximately 12 miles to River Road. Turn left on River Road and travel for approximately 3 miles to Diary Road. Turn left on Dairy Road and continue 1.5 miles to the entrance and parking lot on the right.
From Interstate 5 (I-5)
Take the CA-132 east exit and travel eastbound on CA-132 for approximately 7 miles to River Road. Turn right on River Road and travel for approximately 3 miles to Diary Road. Turn left on Dairy Road and continue 1.5 miles to the entrance and parking lot on the right.
The Beckwith Wildlife Observation Area is an elevated viewing platform that provides visitors an opportunity to look out across seasonally-flooded wetlands supporting large numbers of wintering waterfowl (ducks, geese, and swans), as well as, other seasonal waterbirds like sandhill cranes; wading birds like great egrets, great blue herons, and white-faced ibis; and numerous species of shorebirds like black-necked stilts, American avocets, and greater yellowlegs. The observation platform also overlooks refuge farm fields that are planted each summer with corn, grown to provide forage for wintering geese and sandhill cranes. The observation platform is some distance from the wetlands, therefore, binoculars and spotting scopes are helpful for viewing wildlife.
No Restroom Facilities
There are no facilities such as restrooms or water available at the Beckwith Wildlife Observation Area.
From CA-99 in Modesto
Take the CA-132 west exit. Travel westbound on CA-132 for approximately 8.5 miles to Gates Road. Turn right on Gates Road. Travel northbound on Gates Road for approximately 3 miles to Beckwith Road. Turn left on Beckwith Road. Travel westbound on Beckwith Road for 2 miles to the refuge parking lot on the left side of the road.
From Interstate 5
Take the CA-132 east exit and travel eastbound on CA-132 for approximately 10 miles to Gates Road. Turn left on Gates Road. Travel northbound on Gates Road for approximately 3 miles to Beckwith Road. Turn left on Beckwith Road. Travel westbound on Beckwith Road for 2 miles to the refuge parking lot on the left side of the road.