Conservation

Seven Great National Wildlife Refuges Everyone Should Visit

It's National Wildlife Refuge Week, so Audubon's staffers put together a list of some of our favorite spots.

There are more than 560 national wildlife refuges located throughout all 50 states, and there's no better time to explore than National Wildlife Refuge Week. Read stories about Audubon staffers' top picks for a little inspiration; then, get outside and find your favorite(s) using this refuge locator.

Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife Refuge, Montana

As a native Montanan and outdoor junkie, I’ve seen a wide array of beautiful landscapes in my home state, but Red Rocks Lake National Wildlife Refuge in southern Montana stands out as truly exceptional. Located just 30 miles west of Yellowstone National Park, the 45,000-acre refuge is jaw-droppingly gorgeous: Bounded by 10,000-foot-high peaks of the Centennial Mountains, it consists of a rich tapestry of marshes, lakes, grasslands, sand dunes, and forest. That prime habitat is home to much of the same wildlife as nearby Yellowstone—wolves, bears, elk, river otters, and more than 200 bird species, including Western Tanagers, 15 raptor types, and numerous waterfowl—with the benefit of much smaller crowds.

The refuge was created in 1935 to protect the last known stronghold of Trumpeter Swans, which were facing extinction, with only 70 birds left. Today, hundreds of these avian jumbo jets (their wingspans stretch eight feet and they can top 30 pounds) live in the refuge year-round. In summer, the splendid white birds are easy to spot on their water-dwelling nests, built atop muskrat houses or on wide beds they make from uprooted marsh plants. I’ve never visited in winter before, but apparently some 4,000 additional Trumpeters from Canada descend upon the greater region. Come December I’m planning to strap on my cross-country skis, slip on my binoculars, and go see if I can find some of the magnificent birds that were brought back from the brink. —Alisa Opar, Articles Editor

Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, Texas

Great Kiskadee in Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, Texas. Photo: Elliot Chasin

One of my favorite photos is of me and my mom at Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge. There we are, standing side by side, our binoculars hanging around our necks and big grins on our faces. We’ve taken similar photos as we’ve birded together through the years, but this one is special for two reasons. First, it was during my senior year of high school, and when everyone else had gone to beaches to party for spring break, I took off with my mom to bird all over the Lower Rio Grande Valley during spring migration. A much better memory. And second, well, is simply Santa Ana. Situated directly along the Rio Grande, the refuge is a sub-tropical paradise for birders. When it comes to national wildlife refuges, Santa Ana is on the smaller side, but because it's located at the nexus of two major migratory routes, the place is flush with birds during migration season. Butterflies of all sizes and colors are also abundant. 

Walking along the 14 miles of paths, the refuge provides a variety of habitats. Under trees draped with Spanish moss, listen closely, and you might hear the buzz of a Tropical Parula. Winding through the thick Texas brush, Green Jays and Great Kiskadees hop about while plump Plain Chachalacas crash through branches and cause a raucus. I got many lifers in Santa Ana, but two of my favorites were the Black-Bellied and Fulvous Whistling-Ducks. I can still see them in the fading evening light, lined up on various logs in the middle of a sedge-lined lake like some carnival game. Of all my years birding, that scene is one that is seared into my memory. I can't forget it, and I don't want to. But I would love to see it again. I wonder if Mom is up for a trip. —Andrew Del Colle, Site Director

Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge, Maine

Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge, Maine. Photo: Paul/Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

At dawn one July morning, I watched a pair of Piping Plover chicks run in the surf, chicks that I had monitored since the day their mama laid the eggs in the sand as an intern at Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge on the southern Maine coast. Then, out of the corner of my eye, I spotted a hawk approaching from the distance. There was nothing I could do but hold in my scream as it swooped down, grasped a chick in its talons, and flew off. 

Devastating, I know. But my summer at the refuge was filled with plenty of uplifting bird sightings as well. The 50-mile patchwork of salt marshes, estuaries, and beaches are well protected for migratory birds. Endangered Saltmarsh Sparrows and other songbirds flit among marsh grasses. Countless shorebirds forage on beaches, and diving ducks swim just offshore in the open water of estuaries. A wheelchair-accessible, one-mile nature trail at refuge headquarters loops through the variety of coastal habitats, and several other maintained trails can be explored farther up the coast. It’s heaven for anyone who could spend all day watching Sanderlings run in the waves. —Hannah Waters, Associate Web Editor

Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge, Ohio

Palm Warbler in Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge, Ohio. Photo: OHFalcon72/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

After squinting at warblers for 48 straight hours, the waterbirds at Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge look pretty fantastic. The 65,000-acre landscape, a relic of the Great Black Swamp, is wedged perfectly below Lake Erie, making it a catch-all for waders, fowl, shorebirds, and yes, even those pesky parulids during spring migration. 

My one visit to Ottawa was while I was on assignment for Audubon. Photographer Camilla Cerea and I were digging up dirt on the Biggest Week in American Birding festival in neighboring Magee Marsh, when someone at the refuge tweeted about a Common Gallinule on the autoroute. Despite it being "common," neither of us had ever seen one of these ridiculous-looking birds. It was time for a detour.  

We never found the gallinule. Turns out I took the word "detour" too seriously and drove us the wrong way on a one-direction autoroute. A wildlife officer stopped us, told us we'd be deported for being so close to the Canadian border without passports, and logged a violation under my name in the USFWS system (badass). Still, it was worth the views of Caspian Terns diving over the swinging cattails and muskrats (or just rats, as Camilla calls them) bobbing out of the water. After our brush with the law, we found our way out to a muddy viewing spot on the edge of the refuge, where birders from Israel, the United Kingdom, and multiple U.S. states had converged with their scopes. These experts pointed out the yellowlegs, the Dunlin, the Pectoral Sandpipers, and the gorgeous Wilson's Phalaropes—basically doing all the hard work for us. A few of the birders stayed until twilight to listen for rails and other nighttime flyers, but Camilla and I drove off before the sun dipped too low. We'd come to Magee Marsh to witness a migration spectacle, but at Ottawa, we soaked in the history of a refuge that's been thrilling birders for 55 years, and serving travel-weary birds for countless more. —Purbita Saha, Assistant Editor

J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge, Florida

Roseate Spoonbills in Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge, Florida. Photo: Matthew Paulson/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

The J.N. "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge protects more than 6,000 acres of mangrove forest, marshes, hardwood forest, open water, and mud flats on Sanibel Island in southwest Florida. My favorite way to explore the refuge is by kayak, with an experienced guide to avoid getting lost in the maze of streams that wend through the swamp. It’s quiet and cool among the mangroves, and kayaking lets you take your time to look and listen. You might spot colorful wading birds like Reddish Egrets and Little Blue Herons, Osprey building their nests, or other wildlife like raccoons and river otters. One of my favorite memories from visiting was seeing a flock of brilliant pink Roseate Spoonbills and an endangered Wood Stork at sunset on the tidal flats.

You can also rent a bicycle to take a leisurely pedal around the refuge’s trails—just make sure to steer a wide berth around the sunning alligators and fire anthills. The refuge also has a wheelchair-accessible boardwalk, an education center, and a loop road where visitors can drive to several wildlife viewing overlooks. The ideal months to visit are January through March, when it’s not too hot and migratory birds are beginning to pass through. —Liz Bergstom, Climate Content Manager

Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge, New Jersey 

Red-winged Blackbird in Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge, New Jersey. Photo: Anthony Cedrone

I love Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge for so many reasons that it’s hard to condense them all into something coherent. I’ve seen a number of life-list birds there, the most delightful of which was a Clapper Rail strutting about the saltmarsh in plain sight. I was so surprised I almost misidentified it. I expected to find just a shadow of a bird through the reeds, but there it was on a bare patch of mudflat, its stubby tail pointing to the heavens. Hundreds of Purple Martins swoop and dash overhead, Indigo Buntings stand at attention on treetops, Gray Gnatcatchers and a huge variety of warblers flit among the leaves. Thousands of peeps—many of which go down in eBird as “peep sp.” because I don’t own a spotting scope and am terrible at peep IDs—search the mud for food while terns keen and hover and dive.

But beyond the actual birds, what I most appreciate about the reserve is how friendly it is to novice birders. The last time I went down there I met a woman who was out birding for her very first time. She had a pair of cheap 8x32 bins and a brand-new copy of Sibley, and she was just happy to be there. I helped her ID Common Yellowthroats, Red-winged Blackbirds, Northern Flickers, Gray Catbirds—birds that are obvious and require no special knowledge of field marks, or even good binoculars, to recognize. I took so much inspiration from that woman, whose name I never learned, by deciding at age 50 or so to just start doing something that intrigued her. I hope I’ll meet her again, and maybe she’ll be giving me ID pointers on those fiendish peeps. —Martha Harbison, Network Content Editor

Sachuest National Wildlife Refuge, Rhode Island

Savannah Sparrow in Sachuest Point National Wildlife Refuge, Rhode Island. Photo: Christine Riggle/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

The Sachuest National Wildlife Refuge is on a small peninsula attached to Aquidneck Island, which is one of Rhode Island’s actual islands, about a 10-minute drive from tony Newport. The paths to the seaside lookouts are muddy and surrounded by shrubs teeming with life. I’ll never forget freezing my hands off while scoping scaup along Sachuest's coast several Thanksgiving weekends ago. I was too much of a novice to distinguish between Greater Scaup or Lesser Scaup, but there they were, along with the more easily identifiable Surf Scoters and Harlequin Ducks—all life birds for me.

When I first began birding I tended to disregard waterfowl as boring and instead focused my efforts on what I then considered more interesting: warblers, woodpeckers, raptors, hummingbirds, etc. But that trip to Sachuest opened my eyes to the diversity of ducks and geese. These stalwart birds consider the freezing waters off the New England coast a suitable place to winter, which earns them a lot of respect in my book—not only because of their fortitude against the cold weather, but because they give us something beautiful to look at in between fall and spring migrations. —Nicolas Gonzalez, Media Relations Manager

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