Spread across the country, America’s varied national wildlife refuges encompass more than 150 million acres of land and water.
Wherever you are in the U.S., you’re likely near an iconic sign of the flying goose—the symbol of the National Wildlife Refuge System.
President Theodore Roosevelt designated Florida’s tiny Pelican Island on the St. John’s River near Sebastian on the east coast as the first national wildlife refuge in 1903. The Refuge System has since grown to include 563 national wildlife refuges, 38 Wetland Management Districts, and many other protected areas. Today, there is at least one national wildlife refuge in every state—and at least one within an hour’s drive of most metropolitan areas.
Of the nation’s 563 national wildlife refuges, over 450 are open to the public attracting some 47 million visitors every year. Of these, 31 refuges normally charge an entrance fee, generally ranging from $3 to $5. Given all these options, it’s easy to find a national wildlife refuge practically anywhere you RV in the U.S.
Birdwatching and other wildlife observation and photography can often be awe-inspiring at national wildlife refuges. The Refuge System provides habitats for approximately 700 species of birds, 220 species of mammals, 250 reptiles and amphibian species, and an incredible 1,000-plus fish species.
Congregations of birds on refuges can include tens of thousands during peak migration periods, but individual sightings can be equally impressive including bald eagles and caracaras.
A wide range of special events—like the Festival of Cranes (November 20-25, 2016) at Bosque Del Apache National Wildlife Refuge in New Mexico and the Space Coast Birding and Wildlife Festival (February 15-20, 2016) at Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge in Florida—highlight the best times to view particular species.
UFO sightings may have put Roswell, New Mexico, on the map, but at nearby Bitter Lake National Wildlife Refuge, strange creatures are more than visitors. They inhabit over 70 water-filled sinkholes, free-flowing springs, playa lakes, seeps, and gypsum springs fed by an underground river.
Each winter the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge plays host to flocks of the endangered whooping cranes whose bugle-like call echoes across the South Texas marsh. Productive tidal flats provide clams and crabs for the whoopers to eat. With a spectacular wing span of 8 feet, the cranes reach speeds of 30 mph and travel 400 miles a day along their 2,600-mile migratory route between summer nesting grounds at Wood Buffalo National Park in northern Alberta and wintering grounds at the Aransas refuge.
Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge is known for its abundant birdlife and is a major destination for birders from throughout the world. Over 320 species have been documented so no matter what season you visit, you are likely to see a variety of birds. The best place to see wildlife is along the Black Point Wildlife Drive. The 7-mile, one-way drive follows a dike road around several shallow marsh impoundments and through pine flatwoods.
Talk about a great migration! Every year starting in early November, some 10-15,000 sandhill cranes, 20-30,000 snow geese, and nearly 40,000 ducks migrate to the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge near Socorro, New Mexico. This annual event also attracts birders, photographers, and nature lovers of all kinds who also migrate to the Bosque to enjoy this spectacle of nature.
Bosque del Apache stands out as one of the most accessible and popular national wildlife refuges—for wildlife and human visitors alike—providing a seasonal home (November through March) for these birds of a feather.
Step into a subtropical world at Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge. Spanish moss drips from trees. Noisy Chachalacas welcome the morning dawn. A malachite butterfly flits from the shadows. The wildlife clientele is truly international here along the most southern stretch of the Rio Grande.
Wilderness needs no defense, only more defenders.