Visit a wildlife refuge on your next motorhome journey.
By Rhonda Ostertag
A visit to a national wildlife refuge will reignite your love for nature — and make you want to visit more of them. Under the logo of the flying blue goose, the U.S. National Wildlife Refuge System protects lands essential to the preservation and continuing celebration of all wild things, not only birds. This great treasury has been 111 years in the making and has holdings in every state.
The United States’ first national wildlife refuge, Florida’s Pelican Island, took the stage in 1903 as a result of efforts by that crusading outdoors president, Theodore Roosevelt. He added another 50 refuges before leaving office. The system grew rapidly during the tenure of President Franklin Roosevelt, and it grows still. The national wildlife refuge system now covers 95 million acres and protects wildlife from butterflies to bison.
Unlike national parks, which have a mission of opening up the environment to accommodate visitor needs, the focus at refuges is the preservation of wild creatures. Development to accommodate humans typically is minimal. But that doesn’t mean visitors are unwelcome. On the contrary, we can explore nature centers and museums; drive the tour routes; hike and bike on trails; go canoeing, fishing, and hunting; take photos; and simply watch the birds and wildlife. Visiting just requires a bit more effort to get around.
Water is central to many refuges. Roads inside the refuge boundaries are often narrow, and therefore best for towed vehicles, not motorhomes. But, generally, visitors center parking lots can accommodate RVs (phone ahead to be sure). The centers typically have bird-feeding stations, viewing windows, paths, docks, observation towers, boardwalks, and plenty of wildlife sightings. Some larger, more prominent facilities also offer van or tram tours.
Since more than 550 of these refuges exist, no matter where your next RV trip takes you, you’ll likely find one along the way. Here are four national wildlife refuges to consider.
Enjoy, and don’t forget binoculars … or the insect repellent.
Southeastern Oregon’s high desert is the home of Malheur (locally pronounced MAL-hyure) National Wildlife Refuge, a 1908 Roosevelt-created preserve. This area links sagebrush prairie, basalt rimrock, wetlands, grasses, shallow lakes, and a channelized Blitzen River. Coyotes, mule deer, sage grouse, and great-horned owls are among the residents. Malheur Lake hosts more than 200 nesting pairs of greater sandhill cranes, ibises, shorebirds, pheasants, white pelicans, fall snow geese, winter tundra swans, and overwintering hawks and eagles.
Motorhome access is available via Oregon State Route 205, along Malheur’s western border, which also has access to Buena Vista Overlook and the refuge headquarters. The headquarters is a great place to pick up brochures, learn about recent sightings, get travel tips and current conditions, and explore the museum. Its exhibits include nearly 200 taxidermy specimens of birds.
Another spot that’s open if you visit from mid-August through mid-October is the historic Sod House Ranch. Docents lead guided tours through the ranch. You also can stop at an overlook for a view of Malheur Lake and visit the bird blind at Marshall Pond.
The site’s 40-mile Center Patrol Road, while open to RVs, is gravel, washboard, and sometimes brushed by shrubs. This is a road best taken in a towed vehicle, as it has mowed shoulders and no options to turn around. Motorhome travelers can ask at the office about shorter routes. Guided passenger-van tours are offered in May and again in early fall; call for details and reservations.
Area byways also showcase the bounty nurtured by the refuge. Keep an eye to the sky and give a listen. The symphony of sound is part of the package. In April and May, “The headquarters, noted for warblers and other songbirds, is a great stop,” said Carey Goss, refuge liaison.
Petroglyph Rock and the 1880s P Ranch Long Barn further unravel the human history at this place. At Long Barn, turkey vultures have claimed an observation tower built by the Civilian Conservation Corps. I’ve counted as many as 40 of the roosting black birds. Krumbo Reservoir beckons anglers.
At the refuge’s south end, a Bureau of Land Management campground called Page Springs offers an attractive oasis near prime fishing on the Blitzen River. It has no hookups and a 35-foot length limit. Other BLM sites and RV parks are located in the general vicinity.
The refuge is open year-round from dawn to dusk. City services are available at the Burns-Hines area; plan to arrive with a full fuel tank.
Malheur NWR, 3691 Sodhouse Lane, Princeton, OR 97721; (541) 493-2612; www.fws.gov/malheur/
Merritt Island: Florida
This preserve, which marked its 50th anniversary in 2013, pairs with outer space, shaping a natural buffer around Kennedy Space Center. Within its bounds are brackish estuaries, marshes, coastal dunes, and covers of scrub, pine, and leafy hammock, creating not only world-class birding, but a place for alligators, river otters, and manatees.
The refuge is 5 miles east of U.S. 1 at Titusville. It is home to 500 wildlife species and several active bald-eagle nests. Photographers and onlookers are treated to a colorful, animated, armored, prehistoric, and endangered menagerie, yet one remarkably tolerant of human presence. Having camera-stalked wary Western wildlife, I found Merritt Island to be a photographer’s dream.
Black Point Wildlife Drive (fee required; buses and large vehicles prohibited) is the 7-mile, one-way gravel avenue to adventure, with morning and late afternoon passages holding the best sighting opportunities. Smaller cars provide more options for pulling to the side and viewing wildlife.
Along the drive, Cruickshank Memorial Trail leads to an observation tower. Elsewhere, we saw alligators sunning and wood storks hunt with cupped wings. We admired colorful roseate spoonbills, tricolored herons, and moorhens, and we watched ospreys and owls.
Paved roads also travel the refuge. Visitors center parking and a single RV spot at the Manatee Observation Deck can accommodate coaches. In the busy winter season, a 14-passenger-bus tour runs several days a week from the visitors center (reservation and fee required).
The visitors center also has a 20-minute orientation video, and outside is a boardwalk trail that is among the best. Look for young alligators and softshell turtles, and listen for the scratching hunt of an armadillo.
A winter must-see is the refuge’s Haulover Canal, with all of its manatees. We stood shoulder-to-shoulder to watch the rising bubbles, bulbous form, and stubbly snout of a homely yet cute manatee as it emerged from a bottom sleep. In between bubbles, we watched dolphins escort passing boats and a heron choke down an oversized fish.
Hiking, boating and canoeing, and fishing (free permit required; acquire onsite or online) help fill a day. Camping is available outside the refuge along the Space Coast.
Merritt Island NWR, State Road 402, Titusville, FL 32782; (321) 861-0667; www.fws.gov/merrittisland
Upper Mississippi River: Minnesota, Iowa, Wisconsin, Illinois
This is a long, river-wide refuge, touching four states and attracting 3.4 million visitors annually. It stretches 261 miles from the Chippewa River confluence near Wabasha, Minnesota, south to Rock Island, Illinois, making it the longest river refuge in the Lower 48 states. Great River Road, a paved national scenic byway traveling both shores, gives a glimpse at what it’s like to be a flyway migrant, while allowing you to meet the fliers. Seventy communities serve the refuge corridor.
This globally significant “Important Bird Area” can be admired from its shore and framing bluffs and from its water, with canoe and houseboat rentals and riverboat tours. Riverboats operate from La Crosse and Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin; Galena, Illinois; and Lansing, Iowa. Refuge-area communities rent river craft. Pack a fishing pole.
Bald eagles spend the winter here and migrate through the area in great numbers in spring.
“Winter is a good time to visit,” said Cindy Samples, refuge visitors services manager. Towns in all four states hold bald eagle festivals from December through March.
Warblers and other songbirds attain peak numbers by mid-May, and the refuge supports 15 heron and egret rookeries.
The La Crosse District visitors center at Onalaska, Wisconsin (open weekdays year-round and daily in summer), has ample parking for RVs. Brownsville Overlook near Brownsville, Minnesota, also can accommodate bigger vehicles; it buzzes in November with the tundra swan migration with as many as 50,000 birds, according to Ms. Samples. The Ingersoll Wetlands Learning Center in Thomson, Illinois, is another motor-coach-friendly site, with Sloan Marsh overlook and access to the 62-mile-long Great River Bike Trail for cycling and walking.
Each host state has state parks adjacent to the refuge and ample public and private camping.
Upper Mississippi River NWR, 51 E. Fourth St., Winona, MN 55987; (507) 454-7351; www.fws.gov/refuge/upper_mississippi_river/
Santa Ana: Texas
Astraddle two bird migration routes, this refuge on a former Mexican land grant in the Lower Rio Grande Valley, 7 miles south of the town of Alamo, offers outstanding bird-watching, making it both a prize in the refuge system and a world-renowned birding destination. Visitors have the rare opportunity to view Central American and South American species here at the northernmost tip of their range.
The refuge houses great plant diversity, creating habitat for some 400 bird species and attracting half the butterfly species in North America. Zebra longwings and Mexican bluewings are just two names to add to your vocabulary; butterfly diversity peaks from October through December.
The refuge visitors center has ample parking for motorhomes, with trees trimmed back. Trails for hiking and routes for cycling start from the visitors center, which has a breezeway that offers a relaxed survey of the neighborhood. People on the trails are willing to share sightings and knowledge; just be careful not to spook the wildlife subjects. Guided walks are offered for free with admission. Trams run year-round, three times daily from November through April and once or twice a week afterward.
A vociferous treetop resident, the chachalaca, is sure to leave an impression. These small brown game birds are even noisier during the breeding season in the early spring.
I visited Pintail Lakes and strolled the elevated rope bridge of Canopy Walk for a squirrel’s-eye view of the ebony trees and area inhabitants. Canopy Walk and Tree Tower Overlook provide a balcony view of the spring broad-winged hawk migration. Green jays, vermilion flycatchers, black-bellied whistling ducks, and dull-feathered nesters variously won attention.
The Rio Grande Valley is richly served by RV parks, with those in Alamo and Donna within close drives.
Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, 3325 Green Jay Road, Alamo, TX 78516; (956) 784-7500; www.fws.gov/refuge/santa_ana/
Admission costs vary according to location. Some refuges have free entry, while others charge separate entry fees as well as separate activity fees. You can support them all and gain entry with a federal Duck Stamp. These are available at sporting goods stores, at many of the refuges, at select post offices, or online or by phone from the United States Postal Service: www.usps.gov; (800) 782-6724.
Interagency passes such as the America The Beautiful Annual Pass, Senior Pass, and Access Pass also are honored at all refuges. For more information, contact:
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
- The national wildlife refuge (NWR) system protects more than 700 species of birds, 220 species of mammals, 250 reptile and amphibian species, and more than 1,000 species of fish.
- More than 380 kinds of threatened or endangered plants and animals are sheltered within the system.
- The NWR system includes more than 40 natural landmarks.
- The largest refuge is Alaska’s Arctic NWR (19.2 million acres); the smallest, Minnesota’s Mille Lacs (0.6-acre breeding area; no public access).
- North Dakota has the most national wildlife refuges, with 63.