Discover U.S. National Wildlife Refuges

Get to know these wild, protected spaces that serve as home to a diverse array of both animal species and recreational opportunities.

If you love scoping for finches, casting for trout, or exploring wild places where animals as diverse as manatees, moose, and salamanders live, then you should know about the United States’ National Wildlife Refuge System. These public lands protect 95 million acres of land and 760 million acres of submerged land and water, yet they don’t get the same attention that’s directed at national parks or national forests. It’s a shame, because national wildlife refuges offer outstanding opportunities to hike, paddle, hunt, fish, and of course, look for wildlife. Get to know your refuges, and you’ll open up a whole new world of recreation.

What are national wildlife refuges?

The federal government created these parcels of public land expressly to protect native species that depend on the landscape’s habitats. Sometimes, that means managing the lands and waters for wildlife health, and sometimes it involves restoring plants or wildlife populations. President Theodore Roosevelt established the first one, Florida’s Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge, in 1903. Stretching from Alaska to Florida to the waters of Hawaii, these refuges protect deserts, forests, tundra, wetlands, and everything in between. 

Who manages them?

The United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) is in charge of the country’s 568 national wildlife refuges. The agency, which is housed under the Department of the Interior, began as the United States Commission of Fish and Fisheries in 1871, but evolved over the years to its present mission and title. Today, the National Wildlife Refuge System provides habitat for more than 380 threatened or endangered species, encompasses more than 2,100 miles of trails and boardwalks, and includes 63 refuges that have federal wilderness areas. A blue goose symbol represents the agency and its wildlife harbors. Celebrated conservationist Rachel Carson said: “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.”

What can you do there?

National wildlife refuges are hotspots for birdwatching, fishing, hunting, hiking, paddling, and photography. Here’s just a sampler of the many recreation opportunities that exist across the country’s diverse refuge system. Find one near you:

If you like: Backpacking

At Alaska’s Kenai National Wildlife Refuge—aka Yaghanen, or “the good land” by the Indigenous Dena’ina people—you can explore nearly 2 million acres of coastal rainforest, boreal forest, plus the Kenai River. The varied landscape situated on the Seward Peninsula hosts grizzlies, black bears, moose, lynx, wolves, and several species of salmon and trout. And as long as you go at least a quarter-mile from the major roads, the whole area is open to backcountry camping

If you like: Paddling

Georgia’s Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge is internationally known for its amphibians, but you might also spot black bears, woodpeckers, and alligators at home in its swamps, wet prairies, and cypress forests. The impressive refuge holds the headwaters of the Suwannee and St. Marys rivers, and indeed, it’s an excellent place for canoeing and kayaking excursions. Day-use trails lace the refuge, and you can even string together multi-day paddling trips, camping on platforms and shelters. 

If you like: Rock climbing

Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge in Oklahoma has long attracted climbers, who come to scale the preserve’s hundreds of granite routes. Visitors will find both trad and sport climbs here, from beginner-friendly to quite challenging. But don’t get so caught up in the rock that you miss the refuge’s unique landscape where mountains meet mixed-grass prairie, and where bison, pronghorn, and elk wander.

If you like: Birding

Birdwatching is by far the most popular activity in the national wildlife refuges, and Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife Refuge in southwestern Montana is a great place for it. Huge trumpeter swans may be the stars of the show, but you’ll also find tundra swans, warblers, bluebirds, hawks, and eagles—not to mention grizzly bears and moose.

If you like: Cross-country skiing

In winter, Maine’s Aroostook National Wildlife Refuge grooms 7 miles of Nordic trails for both classic and skate skiing through the woods and grasslands. The refuge was once an Air Force base active during the Cold War, but entered the USFWS system in 1998. Keep an eye out for moose, coyote, bald eagles, and river otters. 

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.