Whether you are an avid birder or one who simply enjoys a walk in a natural setting, America’s vast network of national wildlife refuges is a place you’ll appreciate. These public lands,set aside to conserve wildlife habitats, connect us with nature and educate us about ecosystems and the importance of conservation. There’s probably a national wildlife refuge within an easy drive of where you live. Some offer visitor centers where you can learn about the local flora and fauna, and trails, roads and waterways for discovering up-close what plants and animals thrive there. Migrations and breeding make spring a particularly exciting time to visit.
It’s impossible to pick bests from the 96 national wildlife refuges in the five Northwestern states. But, with apologies to Mother Nature, here are six of our favorites, each distinct from the others.
RIVER MEETS SOUND
Billy Frank Jr. Nisqually, Washington
Located along I-5 between Tacoma and Olympia, an easy drive from Seattle, the Billy Frank Jr. Nisqually NWR inspires discovery right from the visitor center. Knowledgeable staff can discuss the refuge’s residents, exhibits introduce the local environment and critters, and an excellent relief display maps out the Nisqually River watershed on its journey from Mt. Rainier to Puget Sound.
Indeed, this refuge is where river meets sea, and tidal wetlands occupy the bulk of the land. When exploring this refuge, you have three options. One: Take the short, accessible trail to the left of the visitor center to the twin barns, picturesque remnants of the former dairy farm that occupied this land. Two: Go right from the visitor center and take the loop that includes more nature and fewer people. Three: A boardwalk heads out over the wetlands close to the shore, offering a long walk and a tranquil experience.
Anywhere you go, the scene on a beautiful spring day turns into a hive of nature photographers, plein air artists capturing the brilliant landscape, bird watchers with binoculars and checklists in hand and walkers just there to take it all in. Spring is the perfect time to spot fledglings, migration arrivals and the blossoming of the salmonberry. It is a place to think more clearly, breath more deeply and share in a protected habitat.
Year-round, you can join the Wednesday Morning Bird Walk, a guided bird-watching tour throughout the refuge; it leaves at 8:00 a.m. from the visitor center.
Julia Butler Hansen, Washington
The Julia Butler Hansen National Wildlife Refuge was originally set aside to protect and recover an endangered species: the Columbian white-tailed deer. More than 45 years later, the species status moved in the right direction from endangered to threatened. The Columbian white-tailed deer is not out of the woods yet, but the recovery management program at the refuge is a testament to the benefit of well-managed wildlife refuges. Situated along the lower Columbia River, near Cathlamet, as part of the vast Columbia River estuary ecosystem, this refuge is home to many other mammals, amphibians and bird species. Habitats that support the refuge’s residents include open water, short-grass fields, riparian forests, tidal and non-tidal wetlands, sloughs and swamps. Wildlife viewing is the main attraction at Julia Butler Hansen. During the spring migration, you can spot thousands of migrating shorebirds from spots along the trails, including dunlins, sanderlings, short-billed dowitchers and black-bellied plovers. At the refuge, look for exhibits and signs for information about the refuge’s natural and cultural history.
Charles M. Russell, Montana
If any national wildlife refuge “has it all,” it’s Charles M. Russell. Montana’s crisp spring air will fill your lungs and fuel you to see every aspect of it. From rolling hills to badlands so bad you expect John Wayne himself to emerge on horseback, the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge creates a landscape that’s as diverse as its wildlife population.
At 1.1 million acres—125 miles across as the crow flies—Charles M. Russell is a singular destination that can easily be the focus of your entire trip. Located in remote eastern Montana, a journey here takes planning, and it’s worth it. Spring here brings not only bird species, but the chance of seeing new life in the form of baby buffalo, elk and more. You can do all these things while hiking, boating, camping, fishing or hunting—all of which are permitted and encouraged by the refuge. For birders, 250 species of birds pepper the refuge. If that many feathered friends believe this to be the best place to migrate to, you should consider a visit as well.
Hiking or an auto tour are the best ways to take in this refuge. A 19-mile, self-guided auto tour route, accessible from two points along Highway 191 on the west side of the refuge, follows an all-weather gravel road that parallels the Missouri River before climbing out onto upland prairie and rolling rangeland. Interpretive points along the route provide information about wildlife, geology and history. Plan on about three hours to complete the drive. fws.gov/refuge/Charles_M_Russell
Deer Flat, Idaho
Learning about the myriad creatures that inhabit this earth is what visiting a wildlife refuge is all about. At Deer Flat National Wildlife Refuge, located in the sagebrush-covered hills of the Snake River Valley in southwestern Idaho, only about 30 minutes from Boise, you and your family can learn about the way ecosystems run and how they thrive to sustain life. In spring, migrating mallards and Canadian geese fly far to get there and nest. Bald eagles and ospreys use the refuge as nesting grounds as well. President Theodore Roosevelt created the Deer Flat National Wildlife Refuge Wildlife in 1909 as one of the first in the National Wildlife Refuge system. At the refuge, you can learn all about the history of the site from an original area of natural springs that attracted wildlife, through a period of settlement, farming and irrigation, to the area’s eventual incarnation as a refuge, once again supporting wildlife.
AN ALASKA MICROCOSM
Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, Alaska
At nearly 2-million acres, Kenai National Wildlife Refuge is larger than some states. But this refuge, on the Kenai Peninsula on the Gulf of Alaska, is like a microcosm of Alaska. Originally established to protect the legendary Kenai moose, the refuge provides diverse habitat for bears, lynx, wolves, eagles and trumpeter swans.
Begin your orientation and exploration of Kenai NWR at the refuge’s visitor center in Soldotna. Throughout the refuge, dozens of trails allow access to various habitats in the refuge, from lowland lakes and rivers to seashore, from wooded mountainsides to glacial ice fields. Canoeing the refuge’s lakes and navigable waterways is a special way to experience Kenai, and approachable if you’re new to this mode of transportation.
The rugged Kenai Mountains, with their glaciers and ice fields—a crucial water source for the animals that reside here—will be your backdrop from nearly every spot in this refuge. One of the most unusual creatures you won’t see is the ice worm (a cousin of the earthworm), which burrows deep into glacial ice where they thrive.
The Kenai National Wildlife Refuge offers 16 public-use cabins, available by reservation. Half the fun will be getting to your cabin, which can require transportation by foot, boat or aircraft. A pack-it-in, pack-it-out Kenai cabin stay offers a true Alaska wilderness experience.
Cold Springs, Oregon
A few miles from Hermiston, in central Oregon, Cold Springs National Wildlife Refuge protects a unique mix of open water, managed wetland, riparian forest, grasslands and shrub steppe habitats. The story of Cold Springs is the story of water management, a delicate balancing act between the Fish and Wildlife Service and the Bureau of Reclamation. With three different water sources supporting agricultural irrigation and sustaining wildlife habitats, refuge staff manage water around here as though it were a species in and of itself.
Life here is also the story of what ecologists call the “edge effect.” This occurs when the species population or community structure reaches the point where two habitat types meet—for example, a wetland and a riparian forest. This effect becomes more prevalent in areas with smaller patches of habitat that are juxtaposed across the landscape. This effect increases biodiversity within the area. Cold Springs is a prime example of the edge effect.
This refuge is quieter than most. There are no activities, no visitor’s centers, no bathrooms. Here, the ecosystems are tranquil and undemanding. It’s truly a place to unwind. During your visit, you just might cross paths with one of the refuge’s most successful residents, the striped skunk. This little critter looks sweet and innocent, especially in his younger months, but don’t get too close. He’s got a mean streak that can send you howling for a tomato-sauce bath.