Box Turtle, Sandhills National Wildlife Refuge, SC

More than 500 national wildlife refuges open during pandemic

Alternative to national parks gets you outdoors while staying safe

Can you honor social distancing and other pandemic guidelines and still enjoy the great outdoors? And keep yourself and others safe? Here’s one way how.

We have 568 national wildlife refuges in the United States and they’re open during the pandemic, as of April 12. These sanctuaries are not part of the National Park Service, which has closed or restricted most of its parks and monuments across the country. Wildlife refuges are managed by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.

You probably live within a one to two-hour drive of a national refuge. I live in the Carolinas, which is home to 19 national wildlife refuges. I’ve made four trips since pandemic precautions have become more serious, visiting Sandhills and Pee Dee national wildlife refuges. Both are fairly remote, while other refuges closer to population centers receive more visitors.

For each of my visits, I drove one hour, arrived just after sunrise, walked and drove the refuge trails and roads for five hours and came across three human beings, one a federal wildlife officer who chatted with me about prescribed burns and wildflowers, while we stood eight feet apart overlooking a beaver pond. My visits required no stops for gasoline or food. And the fresh air and nature sightings were invigorating.

The visitor centers have been closed during the pandemic at both wildlife refuges. But since I’ve visited these particular locations in the past, I didn’t need help from the refuge staff planning my days. Both of the centers were taking phone calls, though, to help out the public.

Wildlife refuges are not adorned with waterfalls, mountaintops, rock arches or geysers. But they exude biological diversity among their animals, birds, plants, insects and other living things. I’m always at my calmest walking in these preserves.

Never visited a national wildlife refuge? Here are 14 things to know

  1. Refuges have a different mission than the national parks. Most allow hunting and fishing, but they’re also purposed for walking, photographing wildlife and enjoying nature. To avoid a visit during a hunting season, I just visit the refuge website and check out its calendar.
  2. The individual refuge websites contain maps and a “Seasons of Wildlife” section. I always print off the hiking trails and study the maps ahead of time.
  3. Refuge hiking trails are typically more rugged than state and national parks. The refuge trails tend to be more overgrown, but I don’t mind it. Again, trail conditions vary, some pristinely trimmed and others more natural.
  4. Some refuges are light on trails but are very accessible by car. I frequently drive with refuge roads with my windows down and listen for nature sounds. I’ve photographed a lot wildlife using this strategy. Conditions of roads vary but I’ve never needed more than my all-wheel drive, medium-sized SUV.
  5. Some days are slow, like my last visit – few animal and bird sightings. I still enjoyed my stroll through nature.
  6. Some refuges feature very established auto tour routes, even accompanied by informational brochures or online audio. The refuge map usually highlights these roads.
  7. Wildlife refuges are like many outdoor destinations – they include insects. I always take bug spray, even into November where we live.
  8. If the refuge is inland, try to arrive early, when wildlife are most active. If the refuge is along the coast, pay closer attention to the tides, when most birds will feed more actively during low versus high.
  9. Look for the big and little during your walks. I love seeing deer, gators, bobcats and bald eagles. But the smaller creatures also fascinate me, such as butterflies, lizards, wildflowers and frogs. Something will float your boat, I guarantee.
  10. Take binoculars.
  11. These national treasures exist to support wildlife; some are residents and others visit temporarily during migration for nesting or feeding. There’s something to see year round, but the refuges are usually much more active in spring and fall.
  12. I’ve visited wildlife refuges around the country, usually adding one to our bigger vacations. For instance, during a family vacation to Death Valley National Park, we added Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge to our itinerary.
  13. A small number of refuges are closed to humans all year-round to protect wild inhabitants and more fragile environments. The individual websites will identify these details in the “About the Refuge” section. Other refuges may seasonally close part of the refuge and those sections are identified on the refuge maps.
  14. My favorite wildlife refuges? Cape Romain near Charleston, SC; J.N. “Ding” Darling near Fort Myers, FL; Horicon Marsh near Madison and Milwaukee, WI; and Seney in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

I’m not a wildlife biologist, entomologist, ornithologist, zoologist or any type of ‘ologist. But I’m a perpetual student of nature and a big fan of our national wildlife refuges. I hope you visit one soon.

Read more about national wildlife refuge sites:

Sunrise magic at Charleston’s Cape Romain

Wintering in the Everglades

Pictured Rocks: Michigan’s hidden jewel along Lake Superior

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