Top Ten Scenic Drives in National Wildlife Refuges
|A view from the scenic drive in Des Lacs National Wildlife Refuge (National Wildlife Refuge Staff)|
Spend enough time behind the wheel—commuting to and from work, running errands on the weekend, driving the kids to school or daycare, zipping across town for takeout—and focusing your precious time off on driving may sound counter-intuitive.
Trust us. Don't listen. Find the right stretch of pavement and you swap stop lights and billboards for mega pixel-swallowing scenic overlooks, glimpses of wildlife in their native habitat, and easy access to biking and hiking trails, picnic spots, and prime birdwatching locales.
To help prove our point, we profile the top ten scenic drives within National Wildlife Refuges. Unlike some of the State's banner national parks, these public lands truly are the country's best-kept secret. There's a refuge within an hour's drive of most major U.S. cities, yet they don't lure the literal bus loads of tourists that more popular locations attract. Instead, you'll find pristine landscapes that exist wholly for wildlife conservation, with scenic drives carved from old fire roads, logging trails, and dikes. Hit one of these top picks, or do a bit of research and find your own favorite nearby go-to spot.
10. J.N."DING" DARLING NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE, FLORIDA
On Florida's Sanibel Island, Wildlife Drive, the refuge's popular four-mile auto tour route, winds through mangrove forest, cordgrass marsh, and hardwood hammocks, permitting close-up viewing of wading birds, shorebirds, seabirds, waterfowl, and raptors. Peregrine falcons and bald eagles are also sometimes visible. Bicycling is also a great way to experience Wildlife Drive, which is fully connected to the extensive system of multi-use trails that link the city of Sanibel to the refuge.
Look For: Roseate spoonbills, wood storks, reddish egrets, little blue herons, yellow-crowned night-herons, anhingas, white pelicans, red knots, marbled godwits, bald eagles, otters, bobcats, and alligators.
Fee: $5 per car.
Know Before You Go: Wildlife Drive is open Saturday through Thursday from sunrise to a half hour before sunset. The drive is closed every Friday to all access. To see migratory birds such as white pelicans, go from January through March. From January 1 through April 30, the visitor center is open daily from 9 a.m. to 5p.m. From May 1 through December 31, the hours are 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Bikes are available for rent through a concession in the Tarpon Bay section of the refuge.
J.N. "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge, 239.472.1100
9. BOMBAYHOOK NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE, DELAWARE
A 12-mile wildlife drive in this refuge cuts across several distinct bird habitats, including freshwater man-made pools, salt marshes, mudflats, woodlands, and upland fields. Spring brings migrating waterfowl, wood warblers, and shorebirds. Summer avian residents include herons, egrets, avocets, black-necked stilts, and terns. Fall and winter months provide resting and wintering grounds for Canada geese, snow geese, and a variety of waterfowl. Birds of prey are seen all year long. The drive accesses five short walking trails; three feature 30-foot-high observation towers. Numbered stops along the route correspond to points of interest in an interpretive brochure, which is available at the visitor center.
Look For: Snow geese, northern pintails, warblers, dunlins, dowitchers, avocets, black-necked stilts, yellow warblers, purple martins, red tailed hawks, and bald eagles.
Fee: $4 per car. Fee waived for holders of "America the Beautiful" federal passes.
Know Before You Go: Spring and fall seasons provide a variety of wildlife. The visitor center is open weekdays from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. year-round; during spring and fall, it is open Saturday and Sunday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. The visitor center is universally accessible and has education displays and videos.
Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge, 302.653.9345
8. NATIONALBISON RANGE, MONTANA
The one-way 19-mile gravel road that climbs Red Sleep Mountain can get so steep and the switchbacks become so tight that trailers and vehicles longer than 30 feet are banned. But the stunning grassland views include herds of bison, antelope, elk, big horn sheep, and deer. From the top, you can see the Mission Mountain range of the Rockies and enjoy panoramic views of Mission Valley. From Red Sleep Mountain Drive , you can also access two short walks.
Look For: Antelope, elk, mule deer, bison, mountain sheep, eagles.
Fee: $5 per car. Fee waived for holders of "America the Beautiful" federal passes and federal duck stamps.
Know Before You Go: Scenic Red Sleep Mountain Drive is open from May to October from 6:30 a.m. to dusk. It's closed in winter, but the lower-lying Winter Drive is open, weather permitting, from 7 a.m. to sundown. From May to October, the refuge visitor center is open seven days a week from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m.; in colder months, it's open weekdays from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. The refuge is closed to all public use at night.
National Bison Range, 406.644.2211
7. WICHITAMOUNTAINS WILDLIFE REFUGE, OKLAHOMA
A three-mile drive takes visitors to the top of Mt. Scott for a stunning panoramic view of the Wichita Mountain range. Interspersed between mountain peaks, visitors may view some of the last untilled native prairies in the United States, where bison and cattle roam among the cross timbers— remains of dense growth of oaks and greenbriar that once covered parts of Texas and Oklahoma. Every September the Annual Bison Roundup collects the animals for testing and separation into groups for sale, donation, and return to the herd. There's also a man-made attraction: the "Holy City of the Wichitas," a 1930s-era re-creation of the Jerusalem of Jesus' time. Another scenic driving option is State Highway 49, which goes about 20 miles through the refuge. Both roads are part of the Wichita Mountains National Scenic Byway, a designation given by the Federal Highway Administration in 2009.
Look For: Texas Longhorn cattle, bison, elk, deer, coyotes, red-tailed hawks, prairie dogs, turkey, bobcat.
Know Before You Go: The road to Mt. Scott is open year-round, weather-permitting, from sunup to sundown. A refuge visitor center is open year-round from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., and from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.
Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge, 580.429.3222
6. RIDGEFIELDNATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE, WASHINGTON
On the shore of the Lower Columbia River, a 4.2-mile gravel loop road crosses fields, wetlands, sloughs, and forestseasily the refuge's most popular visitor destination. The auto tour provides a sense of the refuge landscape while making it easy to spy birds and other wildlife, especially at its an observation blind.
Look For: Migrant bird species such as sandhill cranes, as well as resident bird species such as mallards, great blue herons, and red-tailed hawks. Coyote, raccoon, skunk, beaver, and river otter are occasionally seen.
Fee: $3 per car.
Know Before You Go: The route is open during daylight hours; closing times are posted on an automatic gate at the refuge entrance. The first mile of the road is two-way; the rest of the road has one-way traffic. To limit disturbance to large flocks of wintering waterfowl, visitors must remain in their vehicles along this route from October 1 to April 30. A Discovery Audio Tour can be downloaded, or obtained in CD format at the visitor center near the refuge entrance.
Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge, 360.887.4106
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication