The East Coast region is home to 73 National Wildlife Refuges, providing habitats for hundreds of animal species: furry, feathered, and finned. Since 1903, when Theodore Roosevelt named Florida’s Pelican Island the first refuge of its kind, the NWR designation, first and foremost, has protected and restored wildlife populations and habitats. But these refuges are also great places to hit the trail and spot critters. Here are eight of the best hikes in National Wildlife Refuges in New England and the Mid-Atlantic.
Maine Coastal Islands National Wildlife Refuge
With views of Petit Manan Light, the second-tallest lighthouse in the state, Petit Manan Point stands out among the 55 islands and four mainland parcels that make up the 250-mile-long Maine Coastal Islands NWR. Petit Manan’s gently sloping Birch Point Trail takes you through blueberry fields, forest, and salt marsh on the way to an overlook of Dyer Bay. The shorter, though more rugged, John Hollingsworth Memorial Trail leads to the ocean and features interpretive signs about Maine’s history. Look out for bald eagles, which are known to nest on Petit Manan Point, as well as arctic terns and endangered roseate terns along the shore.
Distance: 4 or 1.8 miles round trip
Info: AMC’s Best Day Hikes Along the Maine Coast (AMC Books); U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service
Great Bay National Wildlife Refuge
Located on the eastern shore of New Hampshire’s Great Bay, this former Air Force base is now a vital stop for migrating birds and a year-round home for peregrine falcons and osprey. The area also hosts the state’s largest concentration of wintering black ducks and bald eagles. Take the Ferry Way Trail for a 2-mile round trip to a scenic overlook of Great and Little bays. Or, for a shorter option, hike the 0.5-mile Peverly Pond Trail, passing a stream and a series of vernal pools. In the summer, watch for white-tailed deer and their fawns, as well as families of wild turkeys.
Distance: 0.5 or 2 miles round trip
Info: Outdoors with Kids Boston (AMC Books); Southern New Hampshire Trail Guide, 3rd ed. (AMC Books); U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service
Oxbow National Wildlife Refuge
The Oxbow NWR spans nearly 8 miles of the Nashua River, from Harvard to Ayer, Mass., and passes through a variety of habitats, from old fields to oxbow ponds. The Still River Depot Road location features a remote 2-mile hike following the Riverside and Turnpike trails and Tank Road. The route is dotted with the work of beavers, and you might even spot the threatened Blanding’s turtle. Please note that the refuge was once a military training area and there is a remote possibility of unexploded devices, so stay on the trail.
Distance: 2 miles round trip
Info: Outdoors with Kids Boston (AMC Books); U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service
Sachuest Point National Wildlife Refuge
Home to the rare New England cottontail rabbit as well as harlequin ducks, piping plover, and more than 200 other bird species, Sachuest Point offers especially strong wildlife watching. Combine the Ocean View (1.5 miles) and Flint Point (1.2 miles) loops for a trek along the Atlantic Ocean and Sakonnet River. Three observation platforms and multiple points of access to the shore provide spectacular spots for you to witness sunrise and sunset.
Distance: 1.2 and 1.5 miles round trip
Info: U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service
Stewart B. McKinney National Wildlife Refuge
With its 316 acres of salt marsh, forest, and grassland, the Salt Meadow Unit offers a glimpse of the eight-unit, 60-mile McKinney NWR for which it serves as headquarters. As the 1.1-mile trail winds from meadow to marsh, you’ll pass a restored log cabin and the remnants of the home of the property’s donor, Esther Lape. Also watch for great egret, osprey, and fox from the trail or from the observation platform overlooking Gatchen Creek.
Distance: 1.1 miles round trip
Info: AMC’s Best Day Hikes in Connecticut, 2nd ed. (AMC Books); U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service
Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge
Green Village, N.J.
An hour’s drive from Manhattan, Great Swamp contains the only federally designated Wilderness in the metropolitan New York City area. Hardwood ridges and cattail marshes host more than 19 miles of trails of varying difficulty. Within the Wilderness Area, you can even explore off-trail. Park at Myersville Road and hike the Orange Trail to the center of the refuge. It’s a good idea to wear waterproof footwear or old sneakers due to the frequently muddy conditions. A variety of migrating birds seek refuge here, in the midst of suburban New Jersey.
Distance: 3.2 miles round trip
Info: AMC’s Best Day Hikes Near New York City (AMC Books); U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service
John Heinz at Tinicum National Wildlife Refuge
Heinz NWR, the nation’s first federal urban refuge, is less than a 30-minute drive from the heart of Philadelphia and accessible within a 2-hour drive of 35 million people. The 1,000-acre property features 10 miles of trails winding through freshwater tidal marshes. Starting at the Cusano Environmental Education Center, follow Haul Road and the Trolley Bed Trail to the Dike Trail for a 5-mile loop that passes an observation deck and crosses a dike. Keep your eyes open for beaver, mink, and river otter. If you’d like to get off-trail, Darby Creek can be paddled at high tide; check the tide chart in the visitor center.
Distance: 5 miles round trip
Info: AMC’s Best Day Hikes Near Philadelphia (AMC Books); Outdoors with Kids Philadelphia (AMC Books); U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service
Patuxent Research Refuge
Divided into three tracts, Patuxent offers a total of 45 miles of trails for hiking, biking, and horseback riding. Within the South Tract, follow Fire Road Trail before turning onto Laurel then Cash Lake trails, traversing boardwalks and floating bridges along the 2.7-mile route. Look out for bright red scarlet tanagers flying past, as well as eastern red bats sleeping in hollow trees. Patuxent is the only National Wildlife Refuge with a research mission focus, home to the U.S. Geological Survey’s research center. The Central Tract, which is home to rare whooping cranes, is only open for special tours, while the North Tract features the 20-mile, car-friendly Wildlife Loop, as well as 20 miles of trails.
Distance: 2.7 miles round trip
Info: AMC’s Best Day Hikes Near Washington, D.C. (AMC Books); U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service
Daniel Case, Susan Charkes, Gene Daniell, Kim Foley MacKinnon, Beth Homicz, Carey Kish, René Laubach, Stephen Mauro, Steven D. Smith
Get details on the proposed multistate Great Thicket National Wildlife Refuge, read about the role Patuxent played in the formation of a future Outdoor Afro leader, and find hundreds of additional trip ideas throughout the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic in the Get Out archives.