The Wildlife Refuges of California


Don Edwards San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge
Don Edwards San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge is nestled on the south end of the bay in Silicon Valley. (Photo: Steve Martarano/USFWS)

No wonder California is called the Golden State. Look at that burst of natural light through the clouds over Don Edwards San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge.  

The refuge, just minutes from the world headquarters of Google, Facebook and other high-tech giants, offers a variety of wildlife-related recreation opportunities, including 30 miles of walking trails. It’s a great place to visit year-round.

Don Edwards San Francisco Bay is one of three dozen national wildlife refuges managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in California. The refuges are land and water set aside for fish, wildlife, plants and, ultimately, people. Please join us on a brief photographic tour of a few of them.

Eight bald eagles perch in one tree
Eight bald eagles perch in one tree at Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge. Yes, eight; one is mostly hidden. (Photo: Dave Menke/USFWS)

Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge, which straddles the Oregon-California state line, was established in 1908 by President Theodore Roosevelt as the nation’s first waterfowl refuge. With a backdrop of 14,000-foot Mount Shasta, in winter it is one of the finest places in the Lower 48 states to see bald eagles. See “Winter at Klamath Basin National Wildlife Refuges” (video)

San Diego Bay and Tijuana Slough National Wildlife Refuges hug the Pacific coastline. Hundreds of species of birds – including California least terns (adult top, chick bottom) – call the refuges home. (Left photo: Ralph Lee Hopkins with aerial support by LightHawk; right photos: R. Baak/USFWS volunteer)

If you’re visiting San Diego and looking for a touch of serenity, two pleasant places to consider are San Diego Bay and Tijuana Slough National Wildlife Refuges. Just 10-15 minutes south of downtown San Diego, the two refuges include flat walking trails near coastal wetlands that support tens of thousands of migratory birds each year. They are wonderful places to walk and photograph wildlife, all in view of the ocean or the bay. Keep up to date with recreation opportunities by liking the San Diego National Wildlife Refuges Facebook page or clicking here or here.

Two snow geese come in for a landing at Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge, about 75 miles north of California’s capital city.
(Photo: Steve Emmons/USFWS)

Birds, birds, birds. Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge is in a prime spot along the Pacific Flyway of migratory birds. Each season brings a new look to the refuge. Peak waterfowl season is October through February; best viewing months are November and December, when visitors can see tens of thousands of ducks and geese.

Year-round, you can drive the auto tour (PDF) and enjoy the two-mile Wetland Walk (PDF). From February 15 to June 30, you can see colorful birds and wildflowers as you stroll five miles of Spring Trails (PDF).

Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge is one of the five national wildlife refuges and three wildlife management areas that make up the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge Complex.  

Each January, the refuges help host the Snow Goose Festival of the Pacific Flyway.

Humboldt Bay National Wildlife Refuge is off Highway 101 in northern California. Its various landscapes attract a range of wildlife, including bitterns and river otters.
(Top photo: Andrea Pickart/USFWS; bottom photos: David F. Thomson)

Humboldt Bay National Wildlife Refuge is spread out over several units that include various habitats – from dunes to wetlands to forest.

Start your exploration at the visitor center in Loleta, California. Inside the center, you can learn about refuge visitor activities. You can pick up trail guides, wildlife lists and plant lists. The center also has stunning dioramas, interactive displays and a beautiful observation room equipped with spotting scopes and a Kids Corner full of books and activities. Outside, a universally accessible deck and short boardwalk provide a wildlife observation area for all visitors, including those with mobility challenges. Or you can walk the Shore Loop Trail to an elevated observation deck, “The Flight Deck” (1.7 miles round trip).

Peak wildlife viewing is from November through March, but birds and other animals can be seen year-round.

The visitor center is named for Richard J. Guadagno, a former Humboldt Bay National Wildlife Refuge manager who died aboard United Flight 93 on September 11, 2001.

The blunt-nosed leopard lizard and the San Joaquin kit fox can be found at Pixley National Wildlife Refuge in central California.
(Left photo Thomas Leeman/USFWS, right Carley Sweet/USFWS)

Ecologically, Pixley National Wildlife Refuge is important as habitat for rare species, including the blunt-nosed leopard lizard and the San Joaquin kit fox. The refuge also supports at least 16 species of mammals and 13 species of reptiles and amphibians.

For visitors, in fall and winter, the refuge is the best place in the southern San Joaquin Valley to view majestic sandhill cranes. Cranes begin arriving from northern nesting grounds in September, and their numbers peak in January. A 1.5-mile walking trail and wildlife observation deck are open from sunrise to sunset, seven days a week.

Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes National Wildlife Refuge is on the Pacific coast near Guadalupe, between San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara. (Photo: Ian Shive)

Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes National Wildlife Refuge is in the heart of an 18-mile-long coastal dunes complex. The refuge, which is home to more than 120 species of rare plants and animals, covers almost two miles of beachfront, extending three miles inland. The dunes complex is recognized as a National Natural Landmark.

You can explore the dunes and the refuge on foot on the Oso Flaco and Rancho Guadalupe Trails. The trails are rigorous, and each is about four miles round trip.

A light-footed Ridgway’s rail finds a bit of cover from predators during high tide at Seal Beach National Wildlife Refuge in Orange County. (Photo: Kirk Gilligan/USFWS)

Seal Beach National Wildlife Refuge is unusual. It is within an active military base, Naval Weapons Station Seal Beach. As a result, the refuge is open to the public only one Saturday per month – and visitors must pass a security check in advance and agree to be accompanied by Service staff and volunteers. Thanks to a strong partnership among the Navy, Friends of Seal Beach National Wildlife Refuge and other organizations, the refuge accommodates about 2,000 visitors annually.

“People are always surprised to see the extent of this wetland, because it’s tough to visualize how large it is from outside the Navy fence line,” says former refuge manager Kirk Gilligan. “They are always pleased to see such a beautiful expanse of cordgrass, birds and marine life.”

Bitter Creek National Wildlife Refuge is vital to the future of California condors. (Photo: Joseph Brandt/USFWS)

Because Bitter Creek National Wildlife Refuge an important part of the California Condor Recovery Program, the refuge is closed to the public. However, large portions of it can be seen from Hudson Ranch Road, which bisects the refuge. 

The recovery program seeks to establish self-sustaining populations of California condors, which as a species were once down to 22 individual birds. There are now about 265 condors in the wild. One-hundred twenty-five or so of them inhabit the mountains near Bitter Creek and Hopper Mountain National Wildlife Refuges about 125 miles northwest of downtown Los Angeles. These frequently asked questions provide guidance about how and where to glimpse the iconic birds.

Antioch Dunes National Wildlife Refuge in the Bay Area conserves habitat for the Lange's metalmark butterfly, Antioch Dunes evening primrose (left) and Contra Costa wallflower. (Photos: USFWS and, bottom right, Aric Crabb/Bay Area News Group)

Tiny, 55-acre Antioch Dunes National Wildlife Refuge, about 45 miles east of San Francisco, is the only national wildlife refuge in the country established to protect endangered plants and insects: the Contra Costa wallflower, Antioch Dunes evening primrose and Lange’s metalmark butterfly. Because the refuge is critical to these rare species, it is virtually closed to the public. It is open only for docent-led tours on the second Saturday of the month and to scientists, wildlife biologists and other researchers by appointment.



San Luis National Wildlife Refuge has a thriving population of tule elk and an environmentally efficient headquarters/visitor center. (Top photo: Lee Eastman/USFWS; bottom USFWS)

At San Luis National Wildlife Refuge near Los Banos in central California, there is an array of ways to see wildlife. At various times of the year, you can see the refuge’s famous tule elk on a five-mile auto tour route or you can see large concentrations of birds on the 8.5-mile waterfowl auto tour route. Additionally, you can walk any of the refuge’s seven nature trails. Two of them start near the beautiful and environmentally exemplary visitor center, which is certified as LEED platinum.

The best time of year to see waterbirds is late fall through early spring. A great time to see tule elk is during the rut – August through September – when males are bugling to defend their harem of females against other males (video).

North Carolina
Clicking here will take you to an interactive version of the map above that can direct you to individual national wildlife refuge websites.

From the Oregon state line to the Mexican border, the national wildlife refuges of California conserve important landscapes for flora and fauna. At the same time, many of the refuges deliver quiet, off-the-beaten path recreation for people.  

Compiled by and Bill_O' , July 19, 2017