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4 Uncrowded Side Trips From National Parks

Like this story on National Parks? Read About Top U.S. Historical Sites.

Here’s a way to get more out of your visits to the national parks: Pair it with a side trip to a nearby national wildlife refuge. The US Fish & Wildlife Service says these lower-profile protected areas provide great opportunities to learn about protected land, animals and habitats.  They can offer great views, robust interpretation centers and outdoor activities without the crowds the national parks sometimes attract. Every state has them, and often they are not far from their higher profile national park cousins. If you’re visiting a national Park this summer, consider a wildlife refuge side trip. Here are four “perfect pairs” suggested by the USFWS.

If you’re visiting: Everglades National Park

Take a side trip toJ.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge, Sanibel Island, Florida

Detour: About 120 miles

birds at the Ding Darling refugeWhy Go: After the vastness of Everglades National Park, families in particular often appreciate this more compact natural park where the wildlife can see more accessible.

Shallow water makes the refuge irresistible to colorful wading birds such as snowy egrets, little blue herons, roseate spoonbills, mangrove cuckoo and reddish egret. You might also spot alligators and crocodiles, marsh rabbit, bobcat and river otter. You’ll also learn how these animals are becoming more rare since since Burmese pythons invaded.

The Refuge is part of a saltwater coastal ecosystem covered with dunes, maritime hammocks and mangrove forests (the Everglades are fresh water). To get the most out of your visit, time your refuge trip for low tide (tides are posted online), when the number of wading birds visible from the four-mile Wildlife Drive is astonishing

There are biking, birding and beach walks. Stop long enough to kayak or paddleboard in the summer and you may spot manatees and dolphin. You can also fish for tarpon, snook, redfish and seatrout.

If you’re visiting: Rocky Mountain National Park

Take a side trip to: Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge, Colorado

Detour: 80 miles

buffalo roaming at the rocky mountain arsenal refugeWhy Go: This former chemical weapons manufacturing plant turned wildlife haven gives you insight into the plans and prairie that sit in the shadows of the mountains.

You might see bison roaming in the wild, along with the prairie dogs that supporting dozens of other species (by providing them with dinner). The prairie dogs bring bald and golden eagles, burrowing owls, kestrels, Swainson’s hawks, and other hawks and falcons.

The Alpine snowpack that melts and works its way down to the plains provides essential water to the plains. A Rocky Mountain Greenway Trail is being proposed to draw attention to and appreciation for that connection between these two areas.

If you’re visiting: Mount Rainier National Park

Take a side trip to: Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge, Washington

Detour: 78 miles

a walkway through nisqually refuge deltaWhy Go: With Mount Rainier as a backdrop, the refuge boasts awe-inspiring views, remarkable landscapes and an abundance of wildlife.

Located where the freshwater Nisqually River meets the saltwater of South Puget Sound, the refuge is part of the biologically rich Nisqually River Delta — the last unspoiled major estuary in Puget Sound. The delta is home to a range of fish and other wildlife.

Depending on the time of year you might see ducks, geese, songbirds and migratory shorebirds. Salmon spawn and hatch in the river, which has it’s source in the Nisqually Glacier on Mount Rainier, 78 miles away.

In 2009, the removed a five-mile dike built in the early 1900s, restoring tidal flow to 762 acres. An elevated boardwalk extends one mile into the restored estuary to provide views of the surrounding landscape and a flat walk that’s doable for little ones and grandparents.

If you’re visiting: Grand Teton or Yellowstone National Park

Take a side trip to: National Elk Refuge, Wyoming

Detour: 14 miles from Grand Teton, 58 miles from Yellowstone

Elk herds in winter at the Elk RefugeWhy Go: Start at the Jackson Hole and Greater Yellowstone Visitor Center in Jackson (but on refuge land) to learn how the refuge sustains wintering elk herds. You’ll also learn how the refuge, neighboring parks and a National Forest all work together so animals can travel freely from between all four sets of land.

Access to the refuge is limited because it’s a protected habitat but you can learn about area tours, hikes, fishing permits and wildlife viewing opportunities. In the winter you can take a sleigh ride past herds of wintering elk. (Don’t count on seeing herds in the summer though; they head to higher elevations.)

In summer you can also stop at the refuge’s 1898 Miller Ranch for a stunning view of the Teton Range.

Miller Ranch at the Elf Refuge

Have you spent time at a national wildlife refuge? Where did you go and what did you see?

Visit the National Wildlife Refuge System on the web, Facebook and Twitter. Visit the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on its website, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Flickr.

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