A wild pony in the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge (Photograph by Galopin, Alamy)


A wild pony in the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge (Photograph by Galopin, Alamy)

6 Stand-Out National Wildlife Refuges

America’s national parks get plenty of laudatory ink, but what about its wildlife refuges?

As the name suggests, these wild sanctuaries were created to safeguard the habitats native animals need to survive and thrive in an ever developing world. Together, they protect 150 million acres of land and water from Alaska to the Florida Keys.

We can thank President Theodore Roosevelt for establishing what became the nation’s first national wildlife refuge—Florida’s Pelican Island—in 1903. Today, more than 560 refuges, all managed by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, not only throw a lifeline to some of America’s most vulnerable species (nearly 400 threatened or endangered plants and animals benefit from the system), but also to the people who spend time there drinking in the great outdoors.

Here are six national wildlife refuges that provide idyllic alternatives to urban life:

Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge (Virginia and Maryland) 

Those who cross the slim bridge to wild and wonderful Assateague Island will find it hard to believe that tourist-trap Ocean City, Maryland, is less than ten miles away.

Positioned along the Atlantic Flyway, the 37-mile-long barrier island—which spans the states of Maryland and Virginia on the Delmarva Peninsula (a portmanteau of Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia)—is an ideal place for snow geese and other migrating birds to rest and refuel. That’s precisely why Chincoteague, primarily located on the Virginia side of the line, was made a national wildlife refuge to begin with in 1943.

Despite its avian roots, the refuge may be more famous for one of its four-legged inhabitants: the feral Chincoteague Pony. The pint-sized horses legally belong to the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company, which purchased them before the refuge was established and grazes up to 150 on the federally managed lands with permission from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Evidence suggests that the wild ponies have lived on Assateague Island for hundreds of years, descended from domesticated horses brought to the island by colonial Americans (though a more fanciful version has them escaping a Spanish galleon that wrecked offshore).

Cyclists and pedestrians traveling along the three-mile Wildlife Loop that girds Snow Goose Pool will observe snowy egrets and green and tricolored herons. The nearby (and bike-friendly) 1.6-mile Woodland Trail weaves through loblolly pine forests, where a rebounding population of Delmarva fox squirrels frolic, to an elevated overlook that affords the occasional pony sighting.

For a brush with history, and a great view, take a short trail to the 19th-century Assateague Lighthouse and climb 175 stairs to the top.

> Oregon Islands National Wildlife Refuge (Oregon)

Colossal rock formations with evocative names like Cat and Kittens and Table and Face stand sentinel at Oregon Islands, one of six refuges comprising the Oregon Coast National Wildlife Refuge Complex that spans from Tillamook Head, a place explorer William Clark described as the “grandest and most pleasing prospect which my eyes ever surveyed,” south to the California border.

The more than 1,800 rocks, reefs, and (tiny) islands protected by this refuge are not just aesthetically (and geologically) interesting. They also provide essential nesting ground for 13 species of seabird. Amble along the paved path at Coquille Point, a promontory near the town of Bandon, making sure to stop at the observation deck to scan for tufted puffins, pigeon guillemots, pelagic cormorants, and other birds.

Interpretive signs relate the story of the Native Americans who once resided in the region as well as the natural history of this slice of the southwestern Oregon coast, including interesting factoids about mussels and peregrine falcons. This headland—the only mainland portion of the Oregon Islands refuge that’s open to the public—also provides access to a beach below, where a surf-side stroll can yield glimpses of the harbor seals that breed near the refuge’s rock-strewn shore.

Roam along the 5.5 miles of sand (being mindful of high-tide hazards) where pools teem with purple shore crabs, green sea anemone, and other invertebrates. Rangers can help with identifying these colorful creatures from mid-May to Labor Day.

St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge (Florida)

Just 22 miles south of Tallahassee on the cusp of Florida’s Forgotten Coast, visitors won’t be watching out for cars so much as hoping to run into alligators. St. Marks, one of the oldest refuges in the system, is home to hundreds of the mammoth reptiles.

Aside from ‘gators, the 72,000-acre sanctuary protects a broad swath of creatures, from river otters to bobcats. More than 300 bird species have been recorded here.

Avian enthusiasts will do well to visit in spring, when the refuge’s one-mile Tower Pond Trail is prime territory for sighting Indigo Buntings, Yellow-billed Cuckoos, and other songbirds. Those looking to photograph wildlife might consider attending one of the regularly scheduled classes St. Marks offers—held the first Saturday of most months—to bone up on subjects such as using macro lenses and capturing movement.

Download the self-guide pamphlet before embarking on the Lighthouse Levee Trail, rich with live oak and sabal palm, to learn about regional botanicals and how Native Americans have historically used them to treat ailments such as coughs (with tea made from red cedar berries) and fever (with a concoction made from dotted horsemint).

> Aransas National Wildlife Refuge (Texas)

If you go wild at the sight of wildflowers, this Texas refuge should shoot to the top of your travel bucket list.

Combine your love of nature with some calorie-burning activity in the Blackjack Unit by cycling the almost 16-mile paved auto loop lined with an abundance of wild petunias, lazy daisies, and other blossoming specimens. If you look up, down, and all around on this flat road, you may notice a javelina or an armadillo, or the refuge’s most iconic resident; the whooping crane, one of North America’s rarest birds, migrates here each winter.

Particularly popular for wildlife viewing, the 1.4-mile Heron Flats Trail runs atop an ancient oyster shell ridge beside a salt marsh on its way to San Antonio Bay. (The trail can be muddy or even submerged in places.) Little blue herons, roseate spoonbills, and white ibis can all make appearances, as can Western pygmy-blues, buckeyes, and other butterfly species.

Along the enchanting Big Tree Trail, lace-like Spanish moss clings to the spindly branches of gnarled live oaks, some more than 400 years old. For a sweeping bird’s-eye view of the bay and Mustang Lake, rise above the canopies on a 40-foot-high wooden observation tower.

> Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge (Minnesota)

Instead of blowing your spending money at the Mall of America, immerse yourself in a hushed beauty that’s just steps away. Stretching for nearly 70 miles along the Minnesota River, this 14,000-acre suburban sanctuary is a greenbelt of ecosystems ranging from wetlands to oak savannah.

Situated along the Mississippi Flyway, the refuge is one of the best spots for birding in the Twin Cities, and the visitor center in Bloomington makes it easy to involve the whole family. Pick up a “Let’s Go Outside” backpack that’s stocked with a field guide, binoculars, and even a bug jar. Or choose the Songbird Trail Packet that takes you on a self-guided tour of the birds of the forest. Shutterbugs can reserve a portable nature photography blind.

With the extensive snow cover that Minnesota often enjoys, the refuge is also a delight for cross-country skiing. (Of course, milder temperatures bring out the hiking and bicycling aficionados.)

The more out-of-the-way Louisville Swamp Unit is particularly appealing for its ungroomed cross-country skiing where you might spy white-tailed deer, wild turkeys, and bald eagles. Or borrow a pair of snowshoes from the Bloomington visitor center and drive a few miles to try them on the challenging 3.4-mile Bluff Trail, where identifying a mink or great horned owl is a possibility.

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> Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge (Maine)

Just 30 miles south of the bustling coastal town of Portland, Maine, this refuge, named for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s most famous employee, remains a verdant oasis.

It’s likely that if Rachel Carson—marine biologist and author of the 1962 clarion call, Silent Springthat alerted the public to the dangers of chemical pesticides—were alive today, she’d be plenty pleased with her namesake refuge. Upward of a third of it consists of salt marshes, arguably the most vital of all Earth’s ecosystems. (They act as everything from fish nurseries to storm buffers.)

Near the town of Wells, the one-mile Rachel Carson Trail winds through dense forests of hemlock and white pine to reveal stunning ocean views. Strategically placed benches beckon visitors to sit awhile and soak up the peaceful surroundings.

In the springtime, the imperiled piping plover nests on the refuge’s beaches, the air comes alive with the croaking of spring peepers and other frog species, and colorful wildflowers like bluebead lily, pink lady’s slippers, and wild sarsaparilla begin to bloom.

In a recently added section of the refuge, 15 miles north in Biddeford, the Timber Point Trail wanders past marshes brimming with cattails, as well as mud flats rich with shorebirds. Along the rocky coast, a tidal clock gives you the lowdown on when you can safely navigate a land bridge to Timber Island, a 13-acre rocky piece of paradise.

If you travel much in the wilder sections of our country, sooner or later you are likely to meet the sign of the flying goose—the emblem of the National Wildlife Refuges.

You may meet it by the side of a road crossing miles of flat prairie in the middle West, or in the hot deserts of the Southwest. You may meet it by some mountain lake, or as you push your boat through the winding salty creeks of a coastal marsh.

Wherever you meet this sign, respect it. It means that the land behind the sign has been dedicated by the American people to preserving, for themselves and their children, as much of our native wildlife as can be retained along with our modern civilization. —Rachel Carson

Jeanine Barone is a freelance travel and food writer who writes for National Geographic Traveler and other publications. Keep up with her on Twitter @JCreatureTravel and on her blog

What would you add to the list? Share your insider intel of America’s most unique wildlife refuges in the comments section below.

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