Hawaii Dolphins

America’s Most Inspiring Wildlife Sanctuaries

Where do you go to see animals? If you’re like most Americans, you’d probably say the zoo. And why not? It’s a great place to learn about animals. And who wouldn’t want to see polar bears in their natural habitat—a glass-enclosed swimming pool 3,000 miles from the Arctic?

All kidding aside, zoos are a lot of fun. But if you really want to see how animals live in their natural habitat, visit a wildlife sanctuary—also known as a wildlife refuge. These naturally occurring wildlife ecosystems are protected by the government and are teeming with creatures big and small.

In the U.S., the National Wildlife Refuge System has designated150 million acres of land and water, and more than 418 million acres of national marine monuments. There is at least one national wildlife sanctuary in every state, and all are open to the public, either for viewing the wildlife or to enjoy countless activities such as hunting, fishing, birdwatching, photography and environmental education. To help you get started making your bucket list of wildlife sanctuaries, we’ve chosen a few we that we think are awesome places to see nature up close and personal.

Wildlife Sanctuaries or Refuges vs. Animal Sanctuaries

Wildlife sanctuaries or refuges should not be confused with animal sanctuaries, which are places where endangered, abused or neglected animals are taken to live in peace and protection. Unlike wildlife sanctuaries, animal sanctuaries are often maintained by people who feed and care for the animals; they are usually not an animal’s natural environment.

Wichita Mountains National Wildlife Refuge, Oklahoma

Mount Scott

Established in 1901,Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge is prairie land that was one of the first refuges in the nation specifically set up to protect big game like elk and bison. In an effort to restore species that had been eliminated from the area, bison were reintroduced, along with elk and wild turkey. More recent reintroductions include the prairie dog, the river otter, and burrowing owls. The Refuge offers a gorgeous landscape, along with great hiking, naturalist-led walks, hunting, fishing and special events.

Togiak National Wildlife Refuge, Alaska

Alaska Brown Bear

Home to at least 283 species of wildlife, including 33 kinds of fish, 201 birds, 31 land mammals, 17 marine mammals, and 1 amphibian (the wood frog), the Togiak National Wildlife Refuge has everything from the bizarre to the beautiful. In the bizarre category, researchers recently opened up a rainbow trout that ate nearly 20 small rodents.

If you lean more towards the beautiful, the scenery is absolutely stunning and boasts bears, walruses, emperor geese, caribou, owls and more. Or, for a more active visit, the Refuge also offers world-class fishing, hunting, hiking, camping and river-floating.

Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge, Delaware

Bombay Hook

If you love birdwatching, this is your paradise. Covering the largest remaining expanses of tidal salt marsh in the mid-Atlantic region, Bombay Hook is primarily a refuge and breeding ground for migrating birds and other wildlife.

One reviewer dubs it the “Everglades of Delaware,” and with good reason. It’s mostly marshland, but also includes includes freshwater impoundments and upland habitats. A haven for serious ecologists, Bombay Hook isn’t the place to go for a quick and easy nature tour. But if you’re willing to spend some time delving into the beauty of this ecosystem, you’ll probably find it’s well worth every moment.

Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge, Hawaii

kiluea point

The most dramatic part of Kilauea Point is the backdrop of steep cliffs plunging into the ocean below. This breathtaking environment is also home to some truly fascinating creatures, like spinner dolphins, monk seals, a variety of nesting seabirds and the nene, Hawaii’s endangered state bird.

Another highlight of the Refuge is the Daniel K. Inouye Kilauea Point Lighthouse, which was built in 1913 and completely renovated in 2013. Book a Lighthouse tour, available Wednesday through Saturday, and climb up to the Watch Room to enjoy even more stunning views, this time from a birds-eye perspective.

J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge, Florida

roseate spoonbill

Home to the pink and pretty roseate spoonbill and the elusive mangrove cuckoo, “Ding” Darling is located on the subtropical barrier island of Sanibel in the Gulf of Mexico. The refuge is part of the largest undeveloped mangrove ecosystem in the United States and is world famous for its spectacular migratory bird populations.

In addition to nearly 250 species of birds, the Refuge is also a great place to see American alligators and Florida manatees. And with a 4-mile wildlife drive and countless trails, almost everyone has a chance to get quite close to the many critters. If you’re in the mood for more than just observing wildlife, there is kayaking, fishing, boating and paddle-boating—to name a few of the activities—along with a free visitor and education center.