Read more about pairings of national parks and wildlife refuges at

Three Perfect Pairings of National Parks and National Wildlife Refuges

How to make the most of your national park visit this summer? Pair it with a side trip to a nearby National Wildlife Refuge. You won't have to go far. Refuges, managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, are in every state and U.S. Territory, and many are surprisingly close to some of the country's most celebrated canyons, mountains and springs.

Consider these perfect pairs:

Mount Rainier National Park: Pair with: Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge, Washington

Distance apart: 78 miles

Even if you don't gain a new understanding of the region's ecology, adding in a stop at this coastal refuge, 45 minutes south of Seattle Airport, provides awe inspiring scenery. With Mount Rainier as a backdrop, the refuge boasts remarkable landscapes and an abundance of wildlife.

But that's not all the refuge offers. Located where the freshwater of the 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 refuge land was set aside to protect the delta and its diversity of fish and wildlife habitats.

Ducks, geese, songbirds and migratory shorebirds flock to the area in profusion. Year after year, salmon hatch in the river, head out to sea, then return to their native freshwater streams to spawn. And where does that freshwater come from? Formed more than 15,000 years ago, the Nisqually River begins as the Nisqually Glacier on Mount Rainier, 78 miles away. As co-occupants of the Nisqually River Watershed, the refuge and park share a vital link.

In 2009, the refuge undertook the Pacific Northwest's largest estuary restoration when it removed a five-mile dike built in the early 1900s and restored tidal flow to 762 acres. Today, an elevated boardwalk extends one mile into the restored estuary and affords a view of the larger landscape. "The ecological connection between the refuge and the national park is most evident when you get a glimpse of Mount Rainier from the estuary, "says refuge manager Glynnis Nakai.

The Nisqually Estuary Boardwalk Trail and the Twin Barns Loop through forested habitats are open dawn to dusk. Enjoy a scenic walk that's flatter than any you'll find in the highlands.

Read more about pairings of national parks and wildlife refuges at

Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks: Pair with: National Elk Refuge, Wyoming

Distance apart: About 14 miles from Grand Teton, 58 miles from Yellowstone

If you start from Jackson, you'll pass National Elk Refuge on your way to the parks. In winter, refuge grasslands and hillsides teem with elk. During the summer, you might spot a fox or a hawk from a highway pull-off. But don't limit your visit to this short stop. Add a bit more time and you'll get a richer picture.

For starters, head to the Jackson Hole and Greater Yellowstone Visitor Center in Jackson. Interpretive panels also make clear how the refuge, neighboring parks and adjacent Bridger-Teton National Forest all work together to manage for wildlife. "We want to have not only open space but connectivity, so animals are free to go from the national park to the forest to the refuge and back," Lori Iverson, the refuge's supervisory outdoor recreation planner.

The visitor center is also a great place to pick up information about tours, hikes, fishing permits and wildlife viewing opportunities. Plus, there are videos and historic exhibits. The center is open year-round.

To learn more about refuge history, add a stop at the refuge's 1898 Miller Ranch, with its stunning view of the Teton Range. The log cabin was the first property bought by the government to become part of National Elk Refuge, as realization grew early in the 20th century that development was changing elk migration routes and putting the herds at risk.

Everglades National Park: Pair with: J.N. "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge, Florida

Distance apart: About 120 miles

After marveling at the vastness of Everglades National Park in south Florida, you might welcome a stop at a more compact natural paradise, one with a personal, family-friendly feel. J.N. "Ding" Darling Refuge on Sanibel Island is just the ticket, and one that offers useful contrasts and comparisons in ecology.

Water, particularly shallow water, is what makes both the Everglades and "Ding" Darling Refuge irresistible to colorful wading birds, including snowy egrets, little blue herons and roseate spoonbills, as well as alligators and crocodiles. While the Everglades is a freshwater cypress swamp, "Ding" Darling Refuge is part of a saltwater coastal ecosystem, covered with dunes, maritime hammocks and mangrove forests.

At 5,200 acres, the refuge is small next to the Everglades, with the advantage that the wildlife can feel more accessible. You might also spot mammals such as the marsh rabbit, bobcat and river otter, which have become scarcer in the Everglades since the invasion of Burmese pythons.

To get the most out of your visit, time your refuge trip for low tide (tide times are posted online). "During low tide in winter, the number of wading birds is astonishing," says supervisory park ranger Toni Westland. "You can see amazing feeding frenzies of birds close by" from four-mile Wildlife Drive. In the summer, you may spot manatees and dolphins from your kayak or paddleboard. You can even fish for tarpon, snook, redfish and seatrout.

Take advantage of the many free interpretative programs and activities: biking, birding and beach walks. The beautiful natural beaches on Sanibel Island offer world-class shelling. Relax on the beach half a day and visit the refuge the other half.

Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge in Washington state is a stunner, with Mount Rainier as a backdrop. Credit: Ian Shive/USFWS
Photo Credit: Roseate spoonbills from Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, FL. Credit: Jonathan Milak.

Have a comment to share? Like us on Facebook - OffbeatTravelCom and post your comment.

May 10th, 2015

© 2015