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Information iconRoseate spoonbills at J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge in Florida. (Photo: Keenan Adams/USFWS)

How to Best Enjoy a National Wildlife Refuge

Even if you don’t have much interest in seeing wildlife, national wildlife refuges are great places to reconnect with the natural world.

Cynthia Martinez at Hakalau Forest Refuge

“Some of it is just to experience being outside,” says Cynthia Martinez, chief of the National Wildlife Refuge System. “You have to recognize that I’m from the Southwest. I have to see the sun. I get energy from the sun. I think people get energy from outdoor areas, and I think it’s an opportunity to clear your mind. It’s an opportunity to reflect. And it’s an opportunity to maybe see or experience something that you weren’t expecting. That’s one of the beauties of going to a national wildlife refuge. I think that when people go, they can come back saying, ‘Wow, I didn’t even know . . . fill-in-the-blank.’ But if they had never gone there, they wouldn’t have had that experience.” 

If you are interested in increasing the odds that you’ll see native wildlife behaving naturally at a national wildlife refuge, Martinez has two important pieces of advice:


sandhill cranes, snow geese and Ross geese at bosques del apache national wildlife refuge
From late fall to early spring, wintering sandhill cranes, snow geese and Ross’s geese are plentiful at Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge in New Mexico. (Photo: Celestyn Brozek)


Time of year is especially important at national wildlife refuges.

“If you go to Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge in New Mexico in the summer, you’re not going to see much,” says Martinez. “If you go in November, you will see a spectacle of wildlife and birds covering every part of that place. There’s a real seasonality to our refuges.”

When planning a visit to a national wildlife refuge, time of year is vital because wildlife behavior patterns are seasonal. Some refuges provide nesting habitat for wildlife. Others provide wintering habitat. Birds, fish and other wildlife move seasonally. Spring and fall migration periods are particularly good times to see birds on the move along the four major flyways of North America: Atlantic, Mississippi, Central and Pacific.

Time of day also matters. The odds of a visitor seeing wildlife increase during the quiet stillness of early morning or early evening. To hunt more easily, to evade predators and/or to avoid midday heat, many animals wait for dawn or dusk to be most active.

As the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism advises, “Hardly anything else you do will enhance your opportunity to see and hear wildlife more than following the simple PEQ rule: Be patient, early and quiet.”


Don Edwards San Francisco Bay Refuge
Don Edwards San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge is one of many refuges in urban areas that are pleasant places for a relaxing and refreshing outdoor stroll. (Photo: Bill O’Brian/USFWS)

What Activities Are Available?

“You’ll want to do a little bit of research,” says Martinez. “What does the national wildlife refuge offer?”

You’ll want to find out if the refuge has walking trails, and what kind of trails they are. Easy? Difficult? Hilly? Flat? On a well-defined boardwalk or in remote and rocky location?

What wildlife species are at the refuge? Are photography blinds available? Does the refuge offer paddling, fishing, hunting, bicycling? Does the refuge have a visitor center full of hands-on exhibits, or does it simply have a contact station with basic information? Does the refuge have an auto tour route on which you can glimpse wildlife from your vehicle?

The Refuge System Visit page is a great place to find a refuge near you and start your research.


Moose at Agassiz Refuge
If you’re lucky and time it right, you might see moose at Minnesota’s Agassiz National Wildlife Refuge. (Photo: USFWS)

More Ways to Get the Most Out of a Visit

Here are a handful of other tips to make a visit to a national wildlife refuge most enjoyable:

Compiled by   | July 10, 2019
Information iconWildlife photography is popular at refuges, including Wyoming’s Seedskadee National Wildlife Refuge. (Photo: Tom Koerner/USFWS)