For a Bike Ride that’s Magic, Pedal in a National Wildlife Refuge
|Credit: Steve Hillebrand, USFWS
Is your idea of a perfect bike route one that’s scenic, quiet and largely free of cars and trucks? Some little-known places offer that and more: a magical chance to see iconic wildlife, such as elk or bald eagles or sandhill cranes, in its natural habitat. Just pick a route in or along a national wildlife refuge.
National wildlife refuges, managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, are public lands set aside to conserve fish, wildlife and plants. Many refuges across the country also provide stellar recreation such as backcountry hiking, paddling, rock climbing, road cycling and mountain biking in sometimes-breathtaking terrain. Refuge bike routes range from flat to hilly, coastal to desert, oak savannah to tropical mangroves.
Here are some of the best refuge bike routes around the country:
Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge, VA
Bike routes: Wildlife Loop Trail (3.2 mi), Black Duck Trail (1 mi), Woodland Trail (1.6 mi), Beach Road Trail (2 mi), Swans Cove Trail (.5 mi)
Trail description: About 8 miles of flat, bike-accessible trails. Most are paved. This spring’s expected completion of a .5-mile section between the refuge entrance and a Town of Chincoteague traffic circle will link the town bike trail system with the refuge bike trail network.
Wildlife you may see: Thousands of greater snow geese (especially in early winter); bald eagles (mid-fall to early summer); wild ponies and Delmarva fox squirrels (year-round)
Other highlights: The trails cross dunes, marsh and forest. Wildlife Loop is closed to cars until 3 p.m. Swans Cove Trail leads to a quiet stretch of beach. Tired of riding? Dismount and visit the historic Assateague Lighthouse. The lighthouse is open daily, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., from June through September. In April and May, and in October and November, it’s open 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays.
Assabet River National Wildlife Refuge, MA
Bike route: Perimeter Loop (5.6 mi) (Patrol Rd to White Pond Rd to Taylor Way to Winterberry Way)
Trail description: Mostly flat, wide trail has a surface that varies from gravel to sand to dirt to pavement. Trail is marked but a map is helpful; pick one up at the kiosk by the visitor center parking lot. The trail is typically open from April through November.
Wildlife you may see: Painted turtles and Blanding’s turtles (especially, late spring to early fall); beavers (spring, summer and fall); coyotes, migratory birds and waterfowl (year-round)
Other highlights: The large wetland complex and contiguous forest are important feeding and breeding areas for migratory birds. The bike route takes visitors through a variety of refuge habitats including a grassland, wetlands and Puffer Pond. Be sure to stop at the visitor center on Winterberry Way. The bike trail may eventually link to the Assabet River Rail Trail, a multi-use recreational trail.
Don Edwards San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge, CA
Bike route: Moffett Bay Trail (3.3 mi), Aviso Slough Trail (9 mi loop), Mallard Slough Trail (5 mi), Coyote Creek Lagoon Trail (2.5 mi), Shoreline Trail (4 mi), Newark Slough Trail (5 mi)
Trail description: Flat, dirt or gravel multi-use trails
Wildlife you may see: Snowy plovers, black-necked stilts, American avocets, long-billed curlews and other migratory shorebirds (spring and fall); mallards (year-round); wigeons, ruddy ducks and other migratory waterfowl (fall, winter and spring).
Other highlights: The Aviso Slough Trail skirts salt ponds that host great numbers of water birds. The Coyote Creek Trail through tidal marsh is ideal for photographing birds. The Moffett Bay Trail, which opened September 2010, offers stunning views of San Francisco Bay from within the refuge’s South Bay Salt Pond —the largest tidal wetland restoration project on the West Coast. The trail completes a 26-mile bike route from East Palo Alto to San Jose. Detailed trail descriptions are available at the refuge.
San Diego Bay National Wildlife Refuge, CA
Bike route: Bayshore Bikeway in San Diego Bay (24 mi, 7 mi of them along the South Bay unit and 2 mi of them along the Sweetwater Marsh unit)
Trail description: Flat, paved, windy along coast
Wildlife you may see: Thousands of nesting seabirds (especially May through July); wintering waterfowl (late fall through early spring); migrating and resident shorebirds and raptors (year-round)
Other highlights: From Coronado to Imperial Beach, the bikeway passes several salt ponds that the refuge has restored to coastal salt marsh habitat, while protecting other areas as nesting habitat for ground-nesting seabirds. The trail follows an old rail line that cuts through the refuge and runs along Silver Strand State Beach near Coronado. Further north, the bikeway crosses the Sweetwater River and winds around San Diego Bay’s eastern salt marshes from National City to Chula Vista. The refuge protects salt marsh habitat to support the endangered light-footed clapper rail and provides key rest stops for migratory birds on the Pacific Flyway.
Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge, OK
Bike route: Mt. Scott Bicycle Trail (5.8 mi)
Trail description: Mountain bike trail. Hilly, single-track rock and dirt fire road.
Wildlife you may see: Bison, elk, wild turkey, white-tailed deer, prairie dogs, red-tailed hawks (year-round). You may also see Texas longhorn cattle (year-round).
Other highlights: The refuge, the country’s largest remaining block of southern mixed-grass prairie, sits in a rugged granite mountain chain. Look for exposed red granite, oak forest and prairie. In 1907, the American bison was reintroduced here. A 22,000-square-foot visitor center is located mid route.
Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge, WI section
Trempealeau National Wildlife Refuge, WI
Bike route: Great River State Trail (24 mi, including 10 miles in Upper Miss Refuge, and 2.5 miles in Trempealeau Refuge)
Trail description: Scenic crushed limestone trail along an old rail line passes through bottomland forest, sand prairie and riparian habitats in the Upper Mississippi River Valley. The trail offers access to two national wildlife refuges, the town of Onalaska and the city of La Crosse, as well as local parks.
Wildlife you may see: Sandhill cranes, osprey, wild turkeys, red-tailed hawks, great blue herons, great egrets, numerous species of ducks and songbirds, muskrats, otters, beaver, deer and coyote (spring, summer and fall); bald eagles ( in winter, especially March).
Other highlights: The trail, a popular piece of the Great Wisconsin Birding and Nature Trail, is a favorite for bird-watching. Hiking and canoeing opportunities abound. History buffs can see Hopewell Native American mounds from a trail observation deck. The Great River State Trail connects to more trails inside Trempealeau Refuge. Near Upper Miss Refuge, the bike trail offers wonderful views of Lake Onalaska and the Minnesota Bluffs.
Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge, CO
Bike route: Perimeter Trail (about 21 mi loop)
Trail description: Mostly flat, with some rolling hills. Roughly 15 miles is paved; the rest is dirt road or prairie. Trail, open year-round, meanders on and off refuge and Commerce City land outside the refuge fence line.
Wildlife you may see: Bison, black-tailed prairie dogs, coyotes, a variety of hawks, cottontail rabbits, mule deer and white-tailed deer (year-round); bald eagles (winter); burrowing owls (late spring through summer).
Other highlights: The Perimeter Trail crosses through short-grass prairie habitat and urban edges. Several free guided bike tours within the refuge are also available by reservation in spring and summer. Tours, led by naturalists, are generally 8 to 9 miles long and cross through prairie, wetland and woodland habitat.
National Elk Refuge, WY
Bike route: North Highway 89 Pathway (5 mi), part of Jackson Hole Community Pathways
Trail description: A 5-mile paved, flat to rolling trail leads from Jackson, up the refuge’s west boundary, and across the Gros Ventre River. The trail, open May 1 through October 1, will continue another 15 miles north to Jenny Lake in Grand Teton National Park. More information here.
Wildlife you may see: Trumpeter swans, waterfowl and other birds (year-round). You’ll also see Flat Creek and the riparian grassland areas that provide wintering habitat for elk, bison and moose.
Other highlights: Off to the east, you’ll see the peaks of a surrounding wilderness area; the Tetons are out of sight to the north.
Shiawassee National Wildlife Refuge, MI
Bike routes: Ferguson Bayou Nature Trail (4.4 mi. loop) and Woodland Trail (4 mi. loop)
Trail description: The elevated, wide and flat dike-top Ferguson trail is geared to family biking. It’s mostly graveled. The narrower Woodland Trail, on the north side of the Shiawassee River, appeals more to mountain bikers, unfazed by its mud, water and blind curves. Bike trails are open year-round, except during deer or goose hunting. The Ferguson trail to a multi-use 7.5-mile auto tour route is open from June 1 to September 30.
Wildlife you may see: Thousands of ducks, geese and other migratory waterfowl (especially in March and early November). Look for great blue herons, egrets and wading birds, along with woodchucks and deer, year-round along the Ferguson Trail. Expect songbirds (especially in May), deer, raccoons and raptors along the Woodland Trail.
Other highlights: The Ferguson Trail passes thru wetlands, sloughs, pools and agricultural fields. The Woodland Trail sticks to the forest. Short spurs lead off both trails.
Steigerwald Lake National Wildlife Refuge, WA
Bike route: The Columbia River Dike Trail (5.5 mi., about 1.75 of them along the south boundary of the refuge)
Trail description: Unpaved, flat gravel trail along the dike that separates the Columbia River from the refuge and other landowners to the north. The open multi-use trail in the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area runs along a historic riverine flood plain habitat, wetlands, cottonwood-dominated riparian corridors, pastures and remnant stands of Oregon white oak.
Wildlife you may see: Herons, raptors, deer and dabbling ducks (year-round); diving ducks (winter); Canada geese (winter and during spring/fall migration)
Other highlights: In summer you may see purple martins flying around nesting gourds along the trail. To explore more of the refuge, secure your bike on the refuge bike rack and walk along the refuge’s Gibbons Creek Wildlife Art Trail, a two-mile trail with interpretative art (open only to visitors on foot; please do not bring dogs into the refuge).
J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge, FL
Bike routes: The refuge’s 8 miles of wide, flat, paved bike-accessible trails through a mangrove estuary are part of Sanibel Island’s 22-mile system of shared-used paths. Within the refuge, riders have two options: a 4-mile loop (2 miles up Wildlife Drive and 2 down Indigo Trail) or an 8-mile loop (4 miles up Wildlife Drive and 4 miles back on Sanibel Captiva Road).
Wildlife you may see: Roseate spoonbills, wading birds, shorebirds, bobcats, river otters and alligators (year-round); white pelicans and other migratory birds (November through April).
Other highlights: Naturalists lead bike tours through the refuge four times a week, starting at 10 a.m., in January, February and March. Bikes are available for rent. Spur trails offer walking breaks. Environmentally friendly paving on refuge trails helps prevent erosion and runoff; it makes the ride a little bumpier.
Waccamaw National Wildlife Refuge, SC
Bike route: Single-track mountain bike trail (1 mi) plus mixed-use trails (3 mi)
Trail description: A hilly, compact-sand-and-soil mountain bike trail connects to 3 miles of bike-accessible dirt and gravel trails, which meander through bottomland hardwoods and over a boardwalk across a cypress swamp. Colored markers indicate which sections are best for seasoned mountain bikers and which are better suited to beginners.
Wildlife you may see: Wood ducks, migratory songbirds, white-tailed deer, beavers, otters, wading birds, snakes, turtles (year-round).
Other highlights: A picnic pavilion and a canoe launch can help fill your day. Enjoy interpretive nature signs along the way.