What’s America’s best kept secret? According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), it’s the country’s extensive National Wildlife Refuge System — and we concur. You may be surprised to learn that bison herds are roaming, sea turtles are nesting and Kodiak bears are feasting on Pacific Ocean salmon — right in your own backyard. With more than 540 wildlife refuges scattered across the U.S., the National Wildlife Refuge System offers literally hundreds of opportunities for all Americans to see animals in their natural habitats without spending big bucks on lodging and transportation. In fact, the USFWS says there’s at least one refuge just an hour’s drive from every major metropolis in the U.S., and at least one refuge in each state. Read on to discover our picks for the best spots to watch wildlife in the U.S.
Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge, Florida
Each June, hundreds of sea turtles swim to Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge and drag themselves onto the sand to lay their eggs. After a few months, the eggs hatch, and tiny baby turtles emerge from the beach and waddle into the ocean. The secluded beaches of Archie Carr are truly pristine. The shores receive virtually no artificial light and are an ideal setting for nesting sea turtles. This refuge is considered the most important nesting area for sea turtles in North America — 15,000 to 20,000 sea turtles nest there each year. Travelers are advised to view turtle nesting with a state permitted guide, so arrange a guided visit (visits can be arranged by calling the Barrier Island Management and Ecosystem Center at 321-723-3556 starting May 1) in June or July in order to witness this natural miracle.
Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge, Alaska
The Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge covers about two thirds of Kodiak Island, which is located off the southern coast of Alaska. Here lies an untamed wilderness free from roads, restaurants and other signs of so-called civilization. No part of the refuge is more than 15 miles from the ocean, and visitors can observe a wealth of marine life, from king crab to Pacific Ocean salmon, in addition to native Alaskan land creatures like river otters and red foxes. And yes, you will no doubt encounter the famous Kodiak bear in the Kodiak Refuge, especially if you visit during summer, when the bears come out to feast on spawning salmon. But be careful! Bear-proof containers and a clean camp are musts.
National Bison Range, Montana
If you’d like to see what the United States looked like hundreds of years ago, the rolling prairies of the National Bison Range in Montana — one of the oldest wildlife refuges in the States — should give you an idea. Millions of bison once populated the continental U.S., but by the late 19th century, American bison were nearly extinct. Today, the National Bison Range is one of the few areas where you can still find herds of wild bison. Visit in late spring to spot cute golden bison calves, which wobble around the prairies on untested legs. Other animals that live in the Range include black bears, elk, bighorn sheep and coyote.
Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge, New Jersey
Both bird and beach lovers will fall in love with the fresh- and saltwater marshes, undeveloped seashores, and squawking flocks that characterize this stretch of protected land along New Jersey’s southern coast. The Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge is a popular stop for thousands of birds that migrate in spring and fall. Depending on when you visit, you may see species including peregrine falcons, bald eagles and great blue herons. Turn your gaze from the sky to the sand and look out for prehistoric horseshoe crabs, which emerge from the Atlantic Ocean each spring to lay their eggs on the beach.
Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge, Arizona
Out of all 540-plus American wildlife refuges, only 66 encompass land designated by the federal government as “wilderness.” This means that these refuges are places “where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain,” according to the Wilderness Act of 1964. The remotest of these? Arizona’s Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge, which has almost 1,000 square miles of true wilderness (nearly the entire refuge). The desolate landscape of Cabeza, which is comprised of the Sonoran Desert and the Cabeza Prieta Mountains, was originally established to protect desert bighorn sheep. If you wish to visit this unsettled refuge, gather up your survival skills and get ready to spot herds of the bighorns in addition to elf owls, lizards, rattlesnakes, endangered Sonoran pronghorn, tortoises, red-tailed hawks and other amazing animals.
Klamath Basin National Wildlife Refuge Complex, Oregon and California
At Klamath Basin National Wildlife Refuge Complex in Oregon and California, it often feels like birds rule the earth. So many birds flock to this refuge’s rich wetlands that the sky sometimes darkens as clouds of ducks, geese and swans fill the atmosphere. Most notably, up to 1,000 bald eagles arrive here in the winter. If you’ve ever lost your breath at the sight of an elegant, wild bald eagle, just imagine seeing dozens soaring in the air at one time. Bear Valley Refuge is probably the best place to spot an early-morning bald eagle “fly out,” and, if you’re lucky, you may even witness a hungry eagle swooping and snatching an unfortunate duck or goose from the water.
Hakalau Forest National Wildlife Refuge, Hawaii
Hawaii is the only state with true tropical rain forests, and Hakalau Forest National Wildlife Refuge is one of the best places to visit misty zones of native montane rain forest, which are home to an impressive assortment of wildlife. One of the highlights of this refuge is its collection of kaleidoscopic birds of paradise. Located on the slopes of Mauna Kea, a towering dormant volcano on the Big Island, Hakalau is home to some of the state’s most beautiful and rarest feathered creatures — eight of the refuge’s 14 native bird species are endangered. Here, you can spot endangered fowl including the vibrant red orange Hawaii ‘Akepa, the majestic Hawaiian hawk and the diurnal Hawaiian short-eared owl. Keep an eye out for the famous curved beak and cherry red coloring of the i’iwi, one of the state’s most famous birds.
Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, Texas
The Aransas National Wildlife Refuge is a great place to spot feathery fowl, as its islands, forests and grasslands provide nesting grounds for thousands of migratory birds each year. This includes a massive flock of endangered whooping cranes, which arrive each winter. At almost five feet in height, whooping cranes are the tallest birds in North America — and among the rarest. In 1941, only 14 of the birds remained in the wild. Today, Aransas is a haven for hundreds of the majestic white whooping cranes, plus bobcats, American alligators, armadillos, white-tailed deer, spoonbills, butterflies, a variety of native snakes and a long list of other critters.