The Ultimate Guide to Snow Canyon State Park

Snow Canyon State Park is filled with great hiking, beautiful Navajo sandstone formations, ancient lava rock (basalt), and out-of-this-world views, so come along, as we tour this amazing hidden gem.

On the edges of ecosystems, eras or civilizations, you’ll find some of the most remarkable travel destinations. Snow Canyon State Park is one such place. Located at the edge of the Mojave Desert, Great Basin, and Colorado Plateau, Snow Canyon State Park explodes with dramatic geology perfect for your outdoor adventure—and photo opportunities.

Cut by water, sculpted by wind and time, Snow Canyon’s Navajo sandstone cliffs share the same history and geology as Zion National Park to the east. You may find yourself wondering why it isn’t a national park.

As recently as 27,000 years ago lava flows exerted their powerful force reshaping the canyons and creating the park’s distinctive landscapes. The blend of Navajo sandstone cliffs, petrified sand dunes, and broad lava fields make this terrain a fantastic playground for both adventurous travelers and families looking to give kids an outlet to expend some of their boundless energy.

Snow Canyon State Park is one of those state parks often overlooked by people touring Utah. While Utah is obviously known for The Mighty Five and as a prime destination for winter recreation as well, there are also 43 state parks. Many of these parks are just as majestic as the national parks but without the crowds. Also, state parks are generally dog friendly.

Snow Canyon State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Where is Snow Canyon State Park?

Snow Canyon State Park is located in southwestern Utah near the Red Cliffs Desert Reserve. If you are planning to stay close to the park, the best city to stay in is St. George because it is just an 11-mile drive.

When to visit Snow Canyon State Park

Spring and fall have average high temperatures of 80 degrees and 73 degrees respectively creating a sweet spot for active adventures at Snow Canyon. Summer can get pretty warm with very little shade available but getting out early in the day is ideal. Winter packs mild temps and all activities remain available. 

Despite its name, the park rarely sees snow. (The park is named for Lorenzo and Erastus Snow, Utah pioneers, not the white precipitation.)

Snow Canyon State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

History of Snow Canyon State Park

Snow Canyon State Park is about 7,400 acres located within the 62,000 acre Red Cliffs Desert Reserve. The reserve was established to protect the desert tortoise! I wish I would have been able to see one on our visit here. It was created in 1959 and opened to the public in 1962.

It is likely that humans have been using this park for more than 10,000 years based on the artifacts found in the park. The users of the park ranged from Paleoindian mammoth hunters to 19th century settlers.

Why is it called Snow Canyon?

When people hear the word snow they often think of frozen white stuff falling from the sky. While it is possible for Snow Canyon to receive snow, it’s not common.

Snow Canyon was originally called Dixie State Park but was later renamed. The snow in Snow Canyon is in reference to two early Utah leaders, Lorenzo and Erastus Snow.

The park is also known as movie sets for a few Hollywood films such as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

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Things to do at Snow Canyon State Park

There are more than 38 miles of hiking trails, excellent biking trails, opportunities for technical climbing, and more than 15 miles of equestrian trails.

Hiking

Hiking is the prime activity in the canyon. As soon as you drive in, you can quickly see why. Gorgeous red and white sandstone streaks together with black lava flows spilling along the canyon floor- create a perfect playground for exploring on foot. Along with slot canyons to enter and lava tubes to explore, the sweeping vistas and overlooks might have you grabbing for your camera. You’ll need more than one day to do a thorough job of exploring the park’s 18 hiking trails

Check out my list of the most popular below. Distances are roundtrip.

Note: Most of these trails do not have shade. Come prepared with water (1 liter per person) and plenty of sun protection (UV clothing, sunscreen, wide-brimmed hat, sunglasses).

Snow Canyon State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lava Flow Trail

Distance: 2.5 miles

Difficulty: Moderate, some uneven surfaces

Hike through a jumbled lava field, the vivid remains of a long ago volcanic eruption.

The Lava Flow Trail, also known as the Lava Tubes is a 2.5 mile, family-friendly trail that takes you back in time. The trail takes you past three lava cave entrances. Entering the caves can be a little dangerous as it can get dark and slippery at times. There is a dedicated parking for the trail head.

Snow Canyon State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Jenny’s Canyon Trail

Distance: 0.5 miles

Difficulty: Easy, level with a few slopes and steps

This is a very short trail with easy access from the road; a great children’s trail that leads to a short, sculpted slot canyon. According to the park brochure, kids enjoy this trail the most due to the geological features and because it’s a slot canyon.

It will take you half an hour to complete the hike but it might take you longer if you decide to take time to admire the Snow Canyon Sand Dunes on your way.

Petrified Dunes Trail

Distance: 1.2 miles

Difficulty: Moderate, some uneven surfaces and steep slopes

This route crosses massive Navajo sandstone outcrops and sand dunes frozen in time.

A favorite of many, this hike takes you to one of the best viewpoints of the park. The trail is relatively well marked but you’ll definitely want to wander around and explore the unique formations in the area. It’s located in the heart of Snow Canyon State Park and one of the most photographed hikes in the canyon due to its unique beauty.

Snow Canyon State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Pioneer Names Trail

Distance: 0.5 miles

Difficulty: Easy, fairly level with some steps and slopes

This crescent-shaped trail passes pioneer names written in axle grease dating back to 1881.

This trail is accessible from two different parking lots. From the North lot, it is less than a quarter-mile to the end and the southern lot is a little more than a mile long. The hike takes you to a canyon wall that was written on by early pioneers. The axle grease writing has been preserved by an arch that hangs over it and provides a reminder of the early settlers in the area. It’s a sandy trail, so make sure to bring a good pair of shoes.

Butterfly Trail

Distance: 2 miles

Difficulty: Moderate, some steep slopes, steps, and uneven surfaces

Winding along the west side of Petrified Dunes this trail leads to West Canyon Overlook and lava tubes.

You can access this trail from its own parking lot or continue from Petrified Dunes Trail (see above) since they intersect. It is best known for winding along the petrified dunes and leads to several overlooks and lava tubes.

The best time to do it is in spring and fall. Start in the morning to better appreciate the great views. It’s not a family hike since it has plenty of uneven surfaces.

Snow Canyon State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Johnson Canyon Trail

Distance: 2 miles

Difficulty: Easy, level with some rocky slopes and steps

Leads to a sheltered canyon of willow and cottonwood winding through lava flows and red rocks to an arch spanning 200 feet.

Passing through stream beds, lava flows, and a beautiful canyon this trail is a grand experience. The canyon is more shaded than many of the other hikes making it one of the best hikes for the summer and fall months. It’s a great place to take a rest and enjoy quality time with your family and friends, and it will only take 1 hour to hike it. This trail also has seasonal closures, so check the availability before you plan your trip.

Snow Canyon State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Biking

Besides simply biking the main road through the park, two other bike-friendly trails exist. The first is Whiptail Trail, an out-and-back, paved path that runs from the south entrance and through about two-thirds of the canyon. Delightful for bikers of all experience levels but the last quarter mile is steep. There’s always the option to turnaround before this steep climb.

The second bike path is West Canyon Road. Once a road, as its name suggests, it is a dirt and gravel path. Beefier tires than those of a road bike are needed but you won’t need a high-end mountain bike to enjoy this trail. The road runs four miles up the canyon and takes the west fork at the end of the canyon that will lead you past the Whiterocks Amphitheater at the northern end. This path traverses parts of the park that no other trail will show or lead to.

Access the West Canyon Road at Sand Dunes picnic and parking area for an eight-mile round-trip excursion.

Snow Canyon State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Rock Climbing

Well-known for its incredible rock cliffs, you’ll find from short sports clip-ups to mixed multi-pitch routes in Snow Canyon. With more than 7,100 acres available, rock climbing is one of the top outdoor activities to do here. Take a look at these areas and pick your next rock climbing route.

For a full list, visit mountainproject.com.

Johnson Canyon

Ideal for trad climbing, this trail allows you to descend at the dead end of Johnson Canyon. If you go during the week, it is almost always empty so you will have the wall for yourself. These are the coordinations: 37.17970°N / 113.6347°W. You can climb all year long.

Hackberry Wash

At this trail, you can do trad and sport climbing. If, if you are coming from St George this will be the first crag in the park. It is close to Jenny Trail (see above). The best time to climb is spring, fall, and winter. 

Snow Canyon State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Island of the Sky

This sandstone is located in the middle of Snow Canyon. To reach the top you have ledges, dihedrals, and ramps that will be a huge help. The level of difficulty is moderate and it has an elevation of 3,780 feet. There is no easy pathway in this sandstone, be prepared. You can visit any time of the year. 

Balkan Dome

One of the shortest routes in Snow Canyon but is fun to try. You can reach this part via the Pioneer Names Trail (see above). Everything is covered with sandstone that sometimes makes it harder to climb, so be patient. Is located across the Islands of the Sky and is an ideal route for sport climbing. The best time to go is summer, fall, and spring. 

West Canyon

Probably the most complete trail since you can not only do trad and sport climbing but also hike. This canyon features five routes that range from 5.8 to 5.11c. You can access it via the Three Ponds trail. The coordination is 37.19330°N / 113.6425°W.

Horseback riding

There are several trails open to horseback riding in Snow Canyon: Beck Hill Trail, Chuckwalla Trail, Gila Trail, Lava Flow (only between West Canyon Road and turn-off to White Rocks Trail), Rusty Cliffs, Scout Cave Trail, Red Sands (from West Canyon Road Trail to the west), Toe Trail, West Canyon Road, and the equestrian trail (starting at Johnson’s canyon lot and running parallel to whiptail until the sand dunes lot, from here the trail parallels West Canyon Road).

If you don’t have your own horses, a guided experience is offered by local companies. Take a leisurely stroll with an equestrian friend and soak in the views, floral, and fauna and everything Snow Canyon has to offer the senses.

Petroglyphs

If you hike the Gila Trail to about the halfway mark, trail markers designate petroglyph sites. These illustrations, carved into stone by Native Americans, are delicate historical landmarks and are fun to examine.

Snow Canyon State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Canyoneering

Canyoneering combines hiking with rappelling allowing exploration into slot canyons and down-climbing through the canyon. It’s a unique outdoor adventure that doesn’t exist in most places but the area has lots of options. Snow Canyon has two canyoneering routes, both of which require an access permit. If you want to explore Island in the Sky or Arch Canyon, secure a permit through the state park’s website or contact a guide company to take you.

Wildlife

Snow Canyon isn’t just famous for its hiking trails, rock climbing walls, and sandstone cliffs but also for its unique wildlife. You can find coyotes, kit foxes, quail and roadrunner, and sometimes tortoises and peregrine falcons in this State Park.

Millions of people come from across the country to watch leopard lizards, gopher snakes, canyon tree frogs, and sometimes tortoises and peregrine falcons. 

There are thirteen sensitive species protected by law within the park including the Gila Monster which is the only venomous lizard in the United States. The best time to watch the wildlife is at dawn and dusk. You will have plenty of time to go hiking and observe the wildlife since the park opens at 6:00 am and closes at 10:00 pm. 

Snow Canyon State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Camping

A night or two under the stars is the perfect escape from a fast-paced lifestyle. Snow Canyon State Park is the ideal place to find those stars and quiet nights. The campsites will have you feeling like you’re camping in the Flintstones’ backyard with views of a cinder cone towering above and petroglyphs etched into rocks. 

There are 29 camping sites at the Snow Canyon State Park; 13 are standard sites with no hookups and 16 are sites with partial hookups that come with water and electricity. Most sites are not big-rig friendly. Group camping is also available. All sites are reservable online through reserveamerica.com.

Final thoughts

Snow Canyon State Park is truly one of the most beautiful places in all of Utah! Southern Utah is a well-known location for outdoor activities and Snow Canyon should be on any outdoor lover’s list whether you visit with friends or family.

Snow Canyon State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Snow Canyon State Park FAQ

Is Snow Canyon State Park worth visiting?

Absolutely! It’s one of the most popular parks in Southern Utah and has so many hidden gems like the Petrified Dunes or Lava Tubes that will blow your mind. It’s a great place to try new outdoor activities like hiking, biking, rock climbing, horseback riding, and camping. Also, it’s less crowded than Zion National Park or any other National Park located in Utah.

Are dogs and other pets allowed in the park?

If you’re planning a trip with your furry friend, this is going to make you really happy because you’re allowed to bring them with you! However, they must be on a leash around the campground and they can only accompany you to the Whiptail Trail and the West Canyon Rim Trail. Take into consideration that the leash must be a maximum of six-feet long.

Snow Canyon State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Details

Address: 1002 N. Snow Canyon Road, Ivins, UT 84738

Phone: 435-628-2255

Hours of operation: 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily

Directions

From I-15 northbound: Take exit 6 (Bluff Street). Go north on Bluff Street to the intersection with Snow Canyon Parkway. Turn left onto Snow Canyon Parkway and proceed approximately 3.5 miles and turn right onto Snow Canyon Drive. Follow this road to the south entrance of the park.

From I-15 southbound: Take exit 10 (Washington). Turn right off the ramp then an immediate left at the light. Follow this road for approximately 5 miles to the intersection with Bluff Street/ SR-18. Proceed through the light and continue on Snow Canyon Parkway for approximately 3.5 miles and turn right onto Snow Canyon Drive. Follow this road to the south entrance of the park.

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Day-use fees:

Utah resident: $10 per vehicle (up to eight people); $5 per vehicle (up to eight people); seniors 65 and older (with UT driver’s license); $5 pedestrian/cyclists (up to four people)

Non-resident:  $15 per vehicle (up to eight people); $5 pedestrian/cyclist (up to four people)

Camping fees:

Non-hookup sites: Standard sites $40 per night; hookup sites (water/electric) $45 per night; extra vehicle fees (one extra vehicle per site permitted) $20 per night

Worth Pondering…

Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in where nature may heal and cheer and give strength to the body and soul alike.

—John Muir

The Complete Guide to Bird Watching in South Texas

Birders come to South Texas to see bird species they can’t find anyplace else in the country

In the next few weeks, the South Texas countryside will come alive with the arrival of the spring migration made up of many colorful bird species. South Texas is an awesome birding area all year long but spring is one of the best times to go birding.

Not only will the summer birds start returning but many species of waterfowl, warblers, and other seldom seen birds can be spotted as they work their way to their breeding grounds in the northern latitudes.

Green jay © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In the past, birding was a pastime for just a select group of people. It has gained so much popularity that it is a major tourism draw to many areas of the country with South Texas being a top destination.

Texas is one of the top three birding states in the country based on species. Up to 250 different species can be found along the Gulf Coast areas. Several businesses offer guided birding tours from Houston through the Coastal Bend region to the Rio Grande Valley.

Birding is a simple and enjoyable activity that ranges from passively hiking or driving through the countryside to attracting birds with feeders.

Several area guides use an interesting technique to lure in birds by concocting a peanut butter spread and applying it to a log or tree trunk. The spread is made with a mixture of lard, cornmeal, and peanut butter and it works great at drawing in a variety of birds.

Great kiskadee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Birding doesn’t require a huge investment as a beginner. To start, beginners will need an inexpensive pair of binoculars and a birding field guide book.

Experienced birders will usually invest in better optics or even a good camera with a telephoto lens. Some experts with years of experience can tell a species just by the sounds the birds make.

Whether you are a novice or an expert birder, you’ll want to have a bird checklist to keep track of how many species you have seen. A great place to find a checklist is any local state park or national wildlife refuge. They’ll have a list of species native to that particular area.

Local residents and Winter Texans that are used to seeing strikingly colored, year round birds such as Green Jays, Great Kiskadees, Cardinals, Altimira Orioles, and Pyrrhuloxias can expect many more migrating birds over the next month or two.

Clay-colored thrush © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Although the Black-chinned Hummingbird is a summer resident of South Texas, Ruby-throated Hummingbirds will soon be passing through on their way north and you might get a glimpse of rare visitors to the area such as Rufous, or Buff-bellied Hummingbirds.

Like the hummingbirds, orioles will be arriving soon. A few will spend the summer but five different species can be seen in the area: Orchard Oriole, Hooded Oriole, Bullock’s Oriole, Audubon’s Oriole, and Baltimore Oriole. Use oranges or grape jelly at your feeders to increase the odds of attracting them.

Many species of waterfowl can be found as they migrate through the area. Watch around water holes, area lakes, ponds, and coastal marshes for colorful teals, redheads, canvasbacks, and many others in doning their spring breeding plumage.

Yellow warbler © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Colorful and beautiful sounding warblers are commonly sighted as they rest up for a few days along their journey north. Some are year round residents but most are migrating through.

There are many species of warblers and it can be challenging to spot them. Some will forage on the ground in thick brush but most prefer trees. Watch for warblers high in the treetops as they glean for insects. Some warblers can have varying colors such as blue, green, and orange but the predominant color in warbler species is yellow.

Several species of sparrows also migrate through the area this time of the year. They are perhaps the most difficult to identify. To make it easier sparrows are usually found in groups of the same species. A good bird book is a helpful tool for identification.

Black-crested titmouse © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Last but not least and perhaps the most colorful bird that actually nests in South Texas is the Painted Bunting. These beauties can be found along woodland edges and brushy roads but will come to backyard feeders. Millet is a great seed for attracting Painted Buntings to a feeder.

Expect to see many other species of shore birds, wading birds, birds of prey, woodpeckers, and upland birds in the region as spring arrives.

April and May allow birders to see South Texas specialties and neotropical migrants at the same time. It’s possible to tally up over 100 species along the coast in a single day.

Spring migration here peaks approximately April 15th through May 10th. Bird diversity in the Valley is at its annual peak during this three week window.

The closer you get to the coast, the more neotropical migrants you see like kites, hummingbirds, thrushes, vireos, grosbeaks, and warblers.

Altamira oriole © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Spending a day birding at Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge (right on the coast) along with South Padre Island could easily net over 100 species. You’ll get plenty of classic south Texas specialties along with all the migrating songbirds hugging the coast on their way north.

April 19 to May 7 is historically the busiest window for spring passage among a group of Neotropical migratory songbird species including American Redstarts, Cana­da and Cape May Warblers, and Balti­more and Bullock’s Orioles.

In addition, early April also marks the peak of wildflower season in Texas with fields and roadsides often blanketed with bluebonnets, phlox, paintbrush, and Gaillardia.

Black-bellied whistling ducks © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Along the coast near Rockport target specialties such as Reddish Egret, Roseate Spoonbills, majestic Whooping Cranes, up to 30 species of shorebirds, and eight species of terns. Under certain weather conditions, this area can host sizable fallouts of migrant land birds as well though this is a more common sight further up the coast. In addition, you’ll likely find White-tailed Hawks, Crested Caracara, Buff-bellied Hummingbird, Northern Beardless-Tyrannulet, Scissor-tailed Flycatchers by the dozens, and possibly Audubon’s Oriole.

The Lower Rio Grande Valley of Texas with its numerous refuges, state parks, and birding centers, harbors most of the Valley specialties including Plain Chachalaca, White-tipped Dove, Common Pauraque, Ringed and Green kingfishers, Aplomado Falcon, Green Parakeet, Red-crowned Parrot, Great Kiskadee, Couch’s Kingbird, Green Jay, Clay-colored Thrush, Long-billed Thrasher, Olive Sparrow, and Altamira Oriole. Many accidentals have appeared over the years here as well. In the vicinity of Falcon Dam, seek out Red-billed Pigeon.

Worth Pondering…

A bird does not sing because it has an answer.  It sings because it has a song.

—Chinese Proverb

Great Spots for Birding in Louisiana

Louisiana’s subtropical climate, forests, and position within the corridor of a major North American migratory flyway make the state a haven for a huge variety of birds and RVers who want to see them in their natural habitat

There’s no city in the United States like New Orleans and there’s no culture more distinctive than that of the Cajuns of southern Louisiana. For an RVing bird-watching enthusiast those rewards add to the appeal of a state full of productive national wildlife refuges, pinewoods, barrier islands, and wetlands. Who doesn’t enjoy great food and music after a day of birding?

Many of Louisiana’s best birding sites are within 50 miles or so of the Gulf Coast—and some are on the coast such as famed spring fallout spots Grand Isle and Peveto Woods. Wildlife refuges in the southwestern part of the state including Lacassine and Cameron Prairie provide at least some dry-land access to Louisiana’s truly vast expanse of wetlands. (Some estimates assert that Louisiana’s wetlands comprise 40 percent of those of the entire continental United States.)

Birds that could be considered target species in Louisiana would include Black-bellied Whistling-Duck, Fulvous Whistling-Duck, Mottled Duck, Anhinga, Roseate Spoonbill, Swallow-tailed Kite, Yellow Rail (there’s an annual festival in the town of Jennings dedicated to this elusive species), Red-cockaded Woodpecker, Brown-headed Nuthatch, and Painted Bunting.

Anhinga © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Louisiana birding hotspots

Grand Isle

On Louisiana’s southern coast lies a barrier island about seven miles long that holds a legendary place in the minds of the state’s birders. The woodlands here comprise one of the best fallout sites for spring migration where northbound birds that have crossed the Gulf of Mexico stop to rest and feed. Add that to the long list of vagrant birds that end up here and to the shorebirds and seabirds found along the coast and you have a species list that tops 300.

The peak for spring migration occurs around mid-April and it’s then that it seems every tree has a birder peering up into its branches. He or she may be looking at a limb loaded with Gray Catbirds Scarlet Tanagers or mixed warblers. The list of possible birds at Grand Isle in spring is essentially the list of all the migrant land birds of eastern North America and a substantial number of sea- and shorebirds.

Hardcore birders also know Grand Isle as a place where seeing a rarity is hardly rare. A Fork-tailed Flycatcher or Black-whiskered Vireo or Varied Thrush might appear anywhere. (While spring is the top time at Grand Isle, many rarities show up during fall migration.) Of course, Grand Isle is also a fine place to see shorebirds along the beaches and mudflats and wading birds in the marshes, and these birds aren’t so seasonal-dependent.

Various nature organizations have purchased land around the island as bird sanctuaries and a state park occupies the eastern end. As is usual with fallout sites, the day after bad weather is usually the best time to be out birding.

Black-bellied whistling ducks © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bayou Sauvage National Wildlife Refuge

Although this expansive refuge suffered damage from Hurricane Katrina in 2005, it still offers excellent birding near New Orleans. In total, more than 270 species have been observed here from waterbirds to migrant songbirds. Much of the refuge is wetland that’s not accessible to the public, but the Ridge Trail allows excellent wildlife viewing.

Parking for the Ridge Trail is on the north side of Highway 90 about four miles east of I-510. From here, a boardwalk leads through wetlands and scrub. The levee here can also be walked for additional viewpoints.

Another access area is located on the south side of Highway 90 just east of the Ridge Trail. More marsh viewing is possible by taking Highway 11 north from Highway 90 and stopping carefully along the roadside.

Some of the notable species seen often at Bayou Sauvage include Black-bellied Whistling-Duck, Mottled Duck, Anhinga, Brown Pelican, Roseate Spoonbill, Gull-billed Tern (spring through summer), Black Skimmer (most common in late summer), and Painted Bunting (spring through summer).

Fulvous whistling duck © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Jean Lafitte National Historical Park / Barataria Preserve

A wonderful natural area just a short drive south of downtown New Orleans, the Barataria Preserve tract of Jean Lafitte National Historical Park protects around 23,000 acres of woods and wetlands. It’s not known for any particular rarity but for a rewarding day of birding in beautiful surroundings, it can hardly be topped.

Since it’s a unit of the National Park Service, Barataria Preserve has a fine visitor center on Highway 45 where you can get trail maps, a bird list, and advice. Many miles of trails wind through the preserve accessing live-oak woods, bald-cypress swamp, and marsh.

The woodland vistas here are truly sublime with the spreading limbs of live oaks covered in Spanish moss and dwarf palmettos in the understory. Some of the bald cypresses here are hundreds of years old. The Bayou Coquille Trail is a favorite of local birders. Parts of some preserve trails are wheelchair-accessible.

The preserve’s list of more than 200 species includes breeding birds such as Yellow-crowned Night-Heron, Mississippi Kite, Red-shouldered Hawk, Prothonotary Warbler, Hooded Warbler, Northern Parula, Yellow-throated Warbler, and Painted Bunting. Spring songbird migration can be good, too, although the birds aren’t as concentrated in this expansive forest as they are in small coastal woodlands.

Yellow-crowned night heron © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Big Branch Marsh National Wildlife Refuge

New Orleans, on the south side of Lake Pontchartrain, gets all the publicity but the north shore is home to several appealing communities as well as worthwhile destinations for birders. One such site is Big Branch Marsh National Wildlife Refuge.

A tour here might start with the refuge visitor center in Lacombe, for maps and local advice. From there it’s only about three miles to the boardwalk trail and hiking paths on Boy Scout Road. Other primitive roads are located off Paquet Road to the east.

The main attraction at Big Branch Marsh is a small population of Red-cockaded Woodpeckers, an endangered species that depends on old-growth pinewoods. This refuge is one of many around the southeastern United States with a program to restore the species’s population. Red-cockaded Woodpeckers can be hard to locate so it helps to know their raspy call.

The refuge is also home to two other species associated with pinewoods: Brown-headed Nuthatch and Bachman’s Sparrow. Once again, it’s important to know the squeaky call of the nuthatch and the whistled song of the sparrow. Other species nesting around the refuge include Mottled Duck, Osprey, Bald Eagle, Red-headed Woodpecker, Pine Warbler, and Blue Grosbeak.

On Lake Pontchartrain just five miles west of Lacombe, Fontainebleau State Park boasts a bird list of more than 220 species and makes a good birding destination (though it can be crowded on weekends). Waterfowl, wading birds, and Bald Eagle can be seen from shore and Brown-headed Nuthatch is sometimes seen in pines here.

Lake Martin © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lake Martin

Located just east of the city of Lafayette, Lake Martin and the associated Cypress Island Preserve host one of Louisiana’s greatest bird spectacles in breeding season.

Hundreds of wading birds—herons, egrets, night herons, ibises, and Roseate Spoonbills—nest here, easily visible from boardwalks, a road the hugs the eastern shore of the lake and a walking trail around the north end of the lake.

Peak season is about March through May although there’s always something to see at Lake Martin. The Nature Conservancy operates a visitor center on Highway 353 (open seasonally) where first-time visitors can get advice.

With a large protected area of bald-cypress and tupelo swamp as well as bottomland hardwood forest, Lake Martin hosts much more than wading birds. Some of the other species found here include Black-bellied whistling duck, Neotropic Cormorant, Anhinga, Mississippi Kite, Red-shouldered hawks, and Common Gallinule in wetlands. Land birds include Barred Owl, abundant woodpeckers, Prothonotary Warbler, Yellow-throated Warbler, and Painted Bunting.

Lake Martin © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lacassine National Wildlife Refuge

Southwestern Louisiana is home to vast areas of marsh and other wetlands but access to most of the region is difficult without a boat and local knowledge. Lacassine National Wildlife Refuge offers an easy way to enjoy typical wetland birds. With a list of more than 250 species, it’s one of the birding hotspots of southern Louisiana.

The refuge is reached from Highway 14. Once inside the area, the usual strategy is simply to drive the several miles of gravel roads stopping wherever the birds are to scan the open water and vegetation. An elevated viewing platform on the loop drive allows slightly wider coverage.

Possible birds here comprise practically every regional species of waterfowl and wader. A few notable species found year-round are Black-bellied Whistling-Duck, Fulvous Whistling-Duck, Mottled Duck, Neotropic Cormorant, many waders including Roseate Spoonbill, Common Gallinule, Forster’s Tern, and Marsh Wren. Present in nesting season are Least Bittern, Purple Gallinule, and Painted Bunting. In winter, many thousands of geese and ducks are present at Lacasssine.

Although the waters of the refuge are the main focus be sure to stop at patches of willows and other shrubs and vegetation for songbirds in migration and take time to quietly stand and watch marshy areas for shy species such as bitterns and rails.

Pintail Wildlife Drive © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cameron Prairie National Wildlife Refuge

Located on Highway 27 just north of the Intracoastal Waterway, Cameron Prairie Wildlife Refuge provides birders with a great way to experience Louisiana wetlands on its 3-mile Pintail Wildlife Drive loop.

Before beginning the route, stop at the visitor center on the highway to see exhibits and pick up a map and bird list. Then drive south two miles to the entrance to the wildlife drive on the east side of the highway. It can be tempting to stop along Highway 27 to enjoy birds in roadside wetlands but there are very few safe places to pull over.

More than 230 species have been observed on the Pintail Wildlife Drive with (as is usual in southern Louisiana) waterfowl and wading birds the most conspicuous. The drive passes more than wetlands. Especially in migration, take time to scan grassy areas and search roadside trees and shrubs. There’s a boardwalk path along the drive allowing a closer inspection of the marsh habitat.

Both species of whistling-duck breed in the area and in winter Ross’s Goose is regular among the masses of Snow Geese. The shallow water means mostly dabbling ducks here with relatively fewer divers. Roseate Spoonbill is one of many common species of long-legged waders. Purple Gallinule nests here and Black-necked Stilt and Marsh Wren are present year-round.

In recent years, Crested Caracara has boomed in numbers in southwestern Louisiana and is seen regularly at Cameron Prairie. Note that this area is one of many places now where both Boat-tailed Grackle and Great-tailed Grackle are found in proximity as the latter continues its range expansion.

Sabine National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sabine National Wildlife Refuge

Not much of the expansive Sabine National Wildlife Refuge is easily accessible to the public but one exception is found on Highway 27 about seven miles north of the coastal community of Holly Beach or about 14 miles south of Hackberry.

The refuge’s Wetland Walkway is simply an elevated path through a marshy area west of the highway, adjacent to a canal. Yet more than 200 species have been observed in this immediate area, testimony both to the richness of wetlands habitats and to the ability of the scattered trees and shrubs here to attract migrant songbirds, especially in spring.

The 1.5-mile path is handicapped-accessible and has an elevated viewing platform. Insects, heat, and humidity make a mid-summer visit inadvisable but the walkway is a delightful stroll in other seasons. The third week of April is the peak time for spotting migrant vireos, warblers, and other songbirds.
This is a good spot to look for Least Bittern in spring, among the many more-conspicuous waders. Roseate Spoonbill is present often.

While you’re in the area, it can be productive (from late summer through spring) to drive southeast to the town of Cameron. Though it’s less than 20 miles, you must cross the Calcasieu River on a ferry, which adds to the time. In town, turn south on Davis Road and drive about 2.5 miles to the end of the road. When the tide is right, very large numbers of waders, shorebirds, gulls, and terns can be present here.

Sabine National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Peveto Woods Sanctuary

Like Grand Isle 200 miles to the east, Peveto Woods Sanctuary is a famed fallout site during spring migration where northbound birds that have crossed the Gulf of Mexico stop to rest and feed. This 40-acre woodland of live oak and hackberry trees on the Gulf Coast was saved from development and has long been a favorite birding location with more than 300 species recorded.

The spring rush begins about mid-March increasing to a peak in late April with some songbird migration continuing through May. The ideal time to visit is just after a front has moved through with north winds that tire trans-Gulf migrants and cause them to flock to the first coastal woods they see. At times a tree can be a temporary home to a half-dozen Cerulean Warblers, Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, or Orchard Orioles.

Some birders wander through the sanctuary’s trails looking for flocks of birds in the trees. Others prefer to pick a spot and let the birds come to them. Often there’s a small pond in the center of the sanctuary with a water drip and nearby seating and spending time here is a favorite birding technique for some visitors.
Although dawn can be a good time for birding, the timing of waves of cross-Gulf migrants varies with conditions so it’s not unusual for a section of woods to come alive with recent arrivals in midday or mid-afternoon.

Fall doesn’t have the thrills of spring at Peveto but many rarities have shown up at that season such as Vermilion Flycatcher, Ash-throated Flycatcher, Great Kiskadee, Red-breasted Nuthatch, and Townsend’s Warbler.

Roseate spoonbills © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Catahoula National Wildlife Refuge

In north-central Louisiana, Catahoula National Wildlife Refuge is an excellent all-around birding destination with more than 210 species on its list. Although a major focus of the refuge is water management to attract wintering waterfowl it’s also managed to provide habitat for migrant shorebirds in late summe, and its habitats include extensive bottomland hardwood forest.

The most common way to explore Catahoula is to drive its 9-mile Duck Lake Wildlife route which encircles an impoundment where waterfowl hunting is not allowed. It’s easy to stop along this road and bird open water or woodland. The route also provides access to an observation tower and hiking trails. It’s a good idea to stop at the refuge headquarters just off Highway 84 to get a map and ask about trail conditions. Brochures are available if the office is closed. Keep in mind that hunting for deer and other species is allowed on the refuge seasonally.

Catahoula is a fine place to enjoy songbird migration in spring and its nesting species include Barred Owl, Red-headed Woodpecker, Prothonotary Warbler, Kentucky Warbler, Hooded Warbler, Yellow-throated Warbler, and Painted Bunting. August may be the peak time for shorebird-watching with 15 or more species present. In late summer, too, look for Wood Stork and Roseate Spoonbill among the many herons, egrets, and ibises.

Winter is the time for waterfowl at Catahoula, when common species include Greater White-fronted Goose, Snow Goose, Gadwall, Mallard, Northern Shoveler, Northern Pintail, and Ring-necked Duck. Wood Ducks is common year-round.

Birding trail

Wetland Birding Trail © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

America’s Wetland Birding Trail, Louisiana  

Louisiana’s Gulf Coast region forms a generous jambalaya of all the ways that water and land can meet: lakes and rivers, cypress swamps, gum and tupelo bayous, flooded rice fields, freshwater marshes, salt marshes, mudflats, and sandy beaches. When locals say this birding trail crosses America’s wetland it’s no idle boast. But don’t take my word for it; find out for yourself by visiting any of the 115 sites along the trail’s 12 loops.

On the outer coast, brown pelicans have recovered from their population crash of decades past, and passing flocks can be seen constantly. Shallow lakes and swamps support a wealth of waders including snowy egrets, little blue herons, and tricolored herons. Elusive marsh birds are easier to see here than practically anywhere else, and you may get your best looks ever at buffy little least bitterns, rusty-red king rails, and other skulkers.

Easier to spot are the flocks of ducks and geese that arrive for the winter including major populations of greater white-fronted geese and snow geese. If you can tear yourself away from the water, the trail also offers concentrations of warblers, vireos, thrushes, and other migrating songbirds during spring and fall. 

Whether you are interested in spotting rare species or simply immersing yourself in the tranquil world of birds, Louisiana has something to offer for every birdwatching enthusiast.

Birding along the Gulf © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

FAQs:

Q: When is the best time to go birdwatching in Louisiana?

A: The best time for birdwatching in Louisiana is during the spring and fall migration seasons when a wide variety of bird species pass through the state. However, Louisiana’s mild climate makes birdwatching possible year-round, with different species present in each season.

Q: Do I need any special equipment for birdwatching in Louisiana?

A: While not necessary, a pair of binoculars and a field guide can greatly enhance your birdwatching experience. These tools allow you to observe birds from a distance and identify different species based on their physical characteristics and behaviors.

Q: Are there any birdwatching tours or guides available in Louisiana?

A: Yes, several birdwatching tours and guides operate in Louisiana, offering expert knowledge and guidance to enhance your birdwatching experience. These tours can take you to the best birding spots and help you identify various species.

Worth Pondering…

There is nothing in which the birds differ more from man than the way in which they can build and yet leave a landscape as it was before.

—Robert Lynd, The Blue Lion and Other Essays

Take a Walk on the Wild Side

Watching wildlife a relaxing pastime

Among the natural wonders that wait for exploration by RVers is wildlife. An amazing variety of creatures great and small can be spotted while traveling throughout the United States and Canada. Wildlife watching is a fun pastime and can be enjoyed on many levels depending on your interests.

This can range from casual observation to serious wildlife-viewing expeditions. You don’t even need to leave your campsite to have wildlife encounters. Scampering squirrels amuse. Birds flitter about. Bears and raccoons often make visits and create mischief if you’re not careful how you store food and trash.

Bison in Custer State Park, South Dakota © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

When staying on public lands you might encounter wild horses, ponies, and burros. Of course, you also can embark on trips and tours specifically designed for viewing whales, bison, polar bears, and more.

In this post, I share ideas for capturing great wildlife photos as well as safety tips related to wildlife encounters. They may be cute but they are called wild animals for a reason and can be unpredictable and dangerous. I also offer suggestions for making the most of wildlife-watching expeditions.

Here’s to bears, bison, birds, bees, bugs, bunnies, and the many other critters sharing our planet.

Safely photographing wildlife

If you enjoy taking photos, you already may have a nice collection of pet pics. How about expanding your shutterbug skills to capture wildlife photos? Try photographing critters in national parks, state parks, national wildlife refuges, preserves, national forests, and other natural areas.

Pronghorn in Custer State Park, South Dakota © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Camera equipment

Determine the best type(s) of camera for your interest and level of expertise. I suggest SLRs and mirrorless cameras for their versatility. For extensive outdoor use, invest in a weather-sealed model. A telephoto lens or a lens with a telephoto zoom facilitates shooting from a distance while macro lenses work for close-ups of insects and other small subjects. A weatherproof camera backpack in muted colors works well for toting all the photo gear.

Weather

Protect yourself, too. Dress to stay warm and dry; in buggy places, wear a wide-brimmed hat— with mosquito netting if needed.

Photographing wildlife in the middle of a snowfall or other weather event can add drama and interest to your shots.

Wild burros in Custer State Park, South Dakota © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Know your subjects

The U.S. Forest Service notes that capturing great wildlife images takes “preparation, patience, and practice.” Familiarize yourself with animal behavior. For example, many butterflies emerge in the early to mid-morning, warming themselves in the sun before they take flight. Such knowledge can help you find a great vantage spot. Wait for animals to come to you; they won’t pose if they feel you’re invading their space.

Photo tips

Follow the rule of thirds: Divide your frame into nine imaginary squares and place your subject in spots where the lines intersect. If an animal is looking in a specific direction include space in front of its head to improve the overall shot. Don’t just focus on your wildlife subjects; incorporate the surrounding beauty in some photos as well.

Be safe

You alone are responsible for your well-being around wildlife. Keep your distance; don’t feed them; avoid sudden or aggressive moves. If you encounter a bear, remain calm—if you can! Don’t run away. Avoid placing yourself between a mama bear and her cubs.

Here are some pointers for hiking in bear country: Hiking and Camping in Bear Country: What You Need to Know

Elk in Jasper National Park, Alberta © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Wildlife camping and viewing

Traveling in an RV allows you to experience a wide range of exciting and beautiful natural destinations. And one of the best things about spending time in these scenic spots is wildlife watching.

If you are looking to completely immerse yourself in nature, check out the National Wildlife Refuge System. This massive network of conservation lands and waters covers more than 95 million acres of land and 740 million acres of submerged lands and waters in the U.S.

Camping near these protected lands will not only help you avoid crowds typically found at national parks but you’ll also have less competition for campsites. Touring a wildlife refuge may be perfect for your next road trio:

Before you set out to explore the nature around you, it’s a good idea to take some steps to make sure you get as much as possible from your RV wildlife-watching experience. Learn how to identify wildlife through books or apps, take plenty of photos, and choose a wildlife-friendly location to make the most of your experience.

You should also be aware of your safety while wildlife watching. Keep your distance from predators or other creatures you don’t want to attract and follow local guidelines and signage in the area.

Big horn sheep in Jasper National Park, Alberta © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Watching wildlife in national parks

Know before you go. Every national park is unique and has specific guidelines, including minimum wildlife viewing distances and food storage requirements. Before you head out on the trail, take a few minutes to review the park’s rules.

Give animals room. The best way to stay safe when watching wildlife is to give animals room to move. Many parks require you to stay a minimum distance of 25 yards from most wildlife and 100 yards from predators like bears and wolves. (Check with your park: for example, Olympic National Park requires a minimum distance of 50 yards.) Parks provide a unique opportunity to view animals’ natural behavior in the wild. In general, if animals react to your presence you are too close. If you’re close enough for a selfie, you’re too close. Use binoculars or a zoom lens and move back if wildlife approaches you. Let wildlife be wild and observe from a distance.

Rocky mountain goat in Jasper National Park, Alberta © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Whether you stay near a wildlife refuge or national park or in a boondocking spot, stop a moment to take in your surroundings while camping to see the wildlife around you—who knows what you’ll see!

Worth Pondering…

I would rather be amongst forest animals and the sound of nature than amongst city traffic and the noise of man.

—Anthony D. Williams.

Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary: Land of the Giants

Explore the natural side of the Sunshine State at Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, a biologically diverse Audubon property with the largest stand of old-growth bald cypress trees on Earth

The facility’s signage says it’s special because the endangered wood stork nested here and because it is the largest piece of ancient bald cypress forest preserved in the world.

But I think it’s special because walking its 2.25 mile boardwalk takes you into a green and liquid world where at every turn you see scenes so beautiful they could have been arranged by the world’s best floral designer. And, of course, they were.

On a warm, sun-splashed winter day, I stood on the boardwalk at Audubon’s Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary near Naples, Florida and listened as the volunteer naturalist explained how the Gulf Coast is home to protected wetlands and untouched landscapes.

Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Audubon’s Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary protects approximately 13,450 acres prized as a fine stand of subtropical, ancient bald cypress forest where many of the soaring trees date back at least 600 years predating the arrival of Columbus in the New World.

Corkscrew Swamp is a freshwater wetland fed solely by rainwater covering thousands of acres of pristine cypress swamp. In this vast area known as the Corkscrew Watershed, a broad sheet of water flows over the land ranging from just a few inches to a yard deep.

This wetland is what south Florida looked like at one time: The fresh water is the lifeblood of the Corkscrew Swamp and of the greater Everglades ecosystem. Over the past century, people have altered the natural flow of the water to control flooding and to create land for development but now we need to restore the natural system.

Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Often misunderstood, swamps full of plants and insects were marked as areas rife with disease and decay and were quickly drained, stripped by clear-cut logging practices, paved over, and built upon eventually squeezing out wildlife and their natural habitats. But in a state known for rampant development and construction, the swamp and trees at Corkscrew were saved when the National Audubon Society realized the forest needed protection, stepped in, and stopped the logging.

The sanctuary is a popular destination for birders and hikers who walk along a 2.25-mile trail and raised boardwalk that twists and turns through marsh, pine flatwoods, stretches of wet prairie, around a marsh, and finally into the largest old-growth bald cypress forest in North America. These impressive trees, relatives of the redwood, tower 130 feet into the sky and have a girth of 25 feet. Their massive branches are draped with mosses, lichens, bromeliads, and ferns. 

The forest is also home to hundreds of alligators, otters, white-tailed deer, and red-bellied turtles. A wide variety of wading birds, songbirds, and raptors can be seen throughout the year while the fabulous Painted Bunting is one of many winter visitors. Photo opportunities are available at every turn of the boardwalk trail.

Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The tree branches are draped with resurrection ferns; the roots of the strangler fig wrap around host trees and swamp plants like the waxy aquatic alligator flag tumble over the railings.

Volunteer interpreters stroll the trail explaining to visitors how the wetlands act as filters for pollutants, reduce flood damage by soaking up water during heavy rains, stabilize the soils against erosion, and recharge groundwater during the dry months.

National Audubon began protecting the wading birds nesting within Corkscrew Swamp in 1905. During the 1940s and ’50s, cypress forests in Florida were being leveled for their timber. At the time, Corkscrew was isolated and almost impossible to access. Today it is an oasis in a made-over landscape. In other areas, many of the wild swamps and much of the teeming wildlife that was characteristic of this region less than a generation ago are gone. Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary’s value thus becomes more significant with every passing year. 

Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In Florida, two extremes dominate the subtropical climate—wet summers and dry winters. The seasonal high and low water levels are a necessary part of the natural cycle and each is vital for life in Corkscrew.

Visitors load daypacks with sunscreen, water bottles, and binoculars. But according to the staff, they can leave the bug repellent at home because Corkscrew defies all swamp logic: mosquitoes are rarely a problem. A guppy-like fish called Gambusia holbrooki (mosquito fish) feeds almost exclusively on mosquito larvae.

The tiny mosquito-slurping fish get some help from the actual Corkscrew Watershed, a meandering river that flows toward the Gulf of Mexico. Although moving at a snail’s pace, the water in the swamp doesn’t become stagnant and combined with the fish this makes for a tranquil bug-free zone. The constantly moving water also is the reason Corkscrew does not have the dank smells usually associated with swamps.

According to one estimate, 98 percent of all ancient forests in the United States have been logged, so Corkscrew is a rare habitat—a combination of large trees, fallen logs, and standing dead trees that provide wildlife with a variety of places to find food and shelter. In the soupy, subtropical climate, the trees are draped with moss, lichens, orchids, air plants, and dozens of types of feathery ferns. This protected landscape is home to the United States’ largest collection of gangly looking wood storks whose nesting ground is the biggest tract of old-growth bald cypress forest in the world.

Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In 2000, Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary including Panther Island received a Ramsar Designation as a Wetland of International Importance. Corkscrew is also a designated Important Bird Area and a major stop on the Great Florida Birding and Wildlife Trail. Corkscrew has also been recognized as a Wetland of Distinction by the Society of Wetland Scientists. 

Corkscrew Swamp draws birds and birders by the thousands. In addition to the endangered wood stork, the wetlands are home to more than 200 avian species including barred owls, painted buntings, red-shouldered hawks, white ibises, egrets, herons, and woodpeckers.

Other wildlife abounds as well. The dangling leaves and roots of the watermelon-scented lettuce plants create a safe place for small fish and crayfish to hide or nest. Alligators often sun themselves on the riverbank but they prefer the plankton-laden lettuce lakes— wide, shallow watering holes that are a favorite feeding site for wading birds, otters, and reptiles. The gators are efficient predators. They are one of the world’s largest reptiles but have a brain the size of a walnut—just enough to associate people with food if they’ve been fed by humans but not smart enough to know the difference.

The raised boardwalk makes the perfect way to observe nature from a safe and respectful distance. And it’s the ideal way to appreciate what southwest Florida must have looked like before civilization took hold and transformed the landscape.

Located northeast of Naples, Florida, the Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary is open daily. The boardwalk is wheelchair and stroller accessible.

Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary Overview

Location: 375 Sanctuary Road, Naples, Florida

Length: 2.3 mile loop

Phone: (239) 348-9151

Open 7 am. Last admission 4:30 pm. Gates close 5:30 pm. Dogs are not permitted.

All visitors must pass through the Blair Audubon Center which offers a movie about the swamp, interpretive exhibits and wildlife art, a gift shop, and a snack bar. Pay your admission here.

Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Admission: $14 adult, Audubon member $10, student with ID $6, ages 6-18 $4, under 6 free.

Your admission is good for two back-to-back days so you can show up one afternoon and come back the next morning.

Worth Pondering…

A string of counties studded with emerald-like gulf waters, deep springs and rivers….If you’re looking for a place of stunning natural beauty, undisturbed…habitats and silence, you’ve come to the right place.

—John Muir, 1867

Experience the Great Migration of the Sandhill Cranes as They Return to New Mexico

Southward migration: underway! Sandhill cranes, ducks, and geese are arriving at Bosque del Apache! It is likely you will view them during your visit soon.

The world offers itself to your imagination, calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting—over and over announcing your place in the family of things. 

—Excerpt from the poem Wild Geese by Mary Oliver

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge is located in San Antonio, Socorro County, New Mexico. Situated between the Chupadera Mountains to the west and the San Pascual Mountains to the east, the 57,331 acre Bosque del Apache was established in 1939 to provide a critical stopover site for migrating waterfowl. The refuge is well known for the tens of thousands of sandhill cranes, geese, and ducks who winter here each year. Over 30,000 acres of Bosque del Apache are designated wilderness.

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Seasons of wildlife

While there is always something interesting to observe, you will find the greatest numbers of birds at the refuge from early November to late January. In the spring and fall, migratory bird species are moving through the refuge resulting in high numbers of species. 

Each season, the Bosque del Apache offers unique bird and wildlife viewing opportunities. Peak visitation occurs in winter when bald eagles and thousands of sandhill cranes and snow geese flock to the fields and marshes. Plan to visit the first week of December during the annual Festival of the Cranes. This world-famous event includes speakers, special tours, and arts and wildlife displays. More on the festival later

Sandhill cranes at Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Winter (mid-November through late January) 

Thousands of snow geese, Ross’s geese, and sandhill cranes spend the night in water to protect themselves from predators. Near dawn, the geese take off in a group in search of fields throughout the Middle Rio Grande Valley to feed in for the day. Smaller groups of sandhill cranes then leave the safety of the water for the same reason. Check the sunrise time and stop in the visitor center to learn the most recent roosting and feeding sites as they can change through the winter. 

In addition to viewing cranes and geese and many species of ducks, you can drive the auto tour loop or hike the trails and see hawks, eagles, blackbirds, ravens, coots, and other birds along with occasional mammals such as mule deer, coyotes, and jackrabbits. Check in with the visitor center staff for recent sightings. 

Sandhill cranes at Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Spring (mid-February through mid-May) 

The wetlands that were home to thousands of ducks, geese, and cranes all winter are slowly emptied of water in the spring providing prime feeding grounds for migrating sandpipers, stilts, plovers, dunlins, curlews, avocets, and twenty other shorebird species. Spring wildflowers add a bit more color to the landscape and greater roadrunners dart across and alongside the auto tour loop and Highway 1 in search of sluggish lizards and snakes.  

Spring is also when flycatchers, vireos, and a dozen species of warblers filter through either as a rest stop on migration or as they determine the best locations for their nesting territories on the refuge.  

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Summer (mid-May through mid-September) 

Summer is the time to see the colorful antics of black-chinned, calliope, broad-tailed, and rufous hummingbirds. The flowers of spring transition to the fruits of summer especially in the desert arboretum. Also look for the many young birds moving around the refuge. Some, like the quail, scurry around in long lines of a dozen or more. 

Mornings and evenings are good times to view wildlife in the heat of the summer—most creatures will seek shade in the middle of the day. Near waterways are good places to search for wildlife and signs of wildlife (such as tracks).  

Sandhill cranes at Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fall (mid-September through mid-November) 

Late season sunflowers are a colorful contrast to the red-winged blackbirds that swoop and dart through the grasses. The first cranes and geese typically show up at the end of October during which time coyotes, mule deer, and javelina are moving through open fields as well. Wild turkeys begin moving to the northern part of the refuge to join up with other family groups in separate male and female roosting flocks.  

The Dabbler Deck or Willow Deck are good places to take a break and search for ducks dabbling in the water for food especially the northern shovelers and northern pintails.  

Sandhill cranes at Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Featured species

Because National Wildlife Refuges like Bosque del Apache are protected and managed lands, they can make ideal locations for the recovery of plant and animal species that are endangered, threatened, or have another special status through the Endangered Species Act. Bosque del Apache is a seasonal home to the endangered southwestern willow flycatcher and the threatened yellow-billed cuckoo. Bosque del Apache is a year-round home to the endangered New Mexico meadow jumping mouse and Rio Grande silvery minnow.  

The waters, trees, and skies of Bosque del Apache yield a changing mix of birds throughout the seasons. Over 20 species of ducks and geese regularly spend part of their winters at Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge. Seeds of grasses and sedges that have been growing all summer are the reward after migrating south for large numbers of northern pintail, northern shoveler, gadwall, and American wigeon. In summer, smaller numbers of Mexican duck, wood duck, and cinnamon teal may be found in the wetlands and ditches. Sandhill cranes are a winter visitor—typically from late October through late January. 

Sandhill cranes at Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge© Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

34th annual Festival of the Cranes, December 6-9, 2023

Celebrate the return of the sandhill cranes at the 34th annual Festival of the Cranes, December 6-9, 2023 in Socorro. Join birding experts from near and far for a chance to learn about Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge and many of New Mexico’s overwintering birds. The Festival offers over seventy creative workshops in the field at Bosque del Apache and indoor workshops at New Mexico Tech.

The Festival celebrates the survival and yearly migration of the enigmatic sandhill crane. The sandhill crane is an ancient species of waterfowl that migrates from Canada and the northern U.S. to winter in the Rio Grande Valley. The oldest fossil on record is 1.7 million years old. Both cranes and snow geese begin arriving in smaller numbers at the refuge in late October. By early December, tens of thousands of cranes and snow geese make the Middle Rio Grande Valley their home until they migrate back north in mid-February. 

Snow geese and Ross’s geese at Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The most popular presenters will return to offer education and up-close viewings of wildlife. Festival workshops focus on photography, birding, and environmental education as well as offering hikes and historical tours of the area. Registration for the general public opened Wednesday, October 11. Workshops are filling up quickly but many still have plenty of space available. To register and learn more about this year’s Festival, click here (https://friendsofbosquedelapache.ticketspice.com/2023-festival-of-the-cranes-registration).

Field workshops will be outdoors at Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge with buses taking registrants to various locations. Additionally, there will be three nighttime photography workshops at the Very Large Array on the San Agustin plains, one hour west of Socorro. Indoor workshops will meet in classrooms at Macey Center on the New Mexico Tech campus in Socorro.

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Visit the Expo Room located in the downstairs and upstairs lobbies at NM Tech’s Macey Center for the opportunity to meet and explore unique offerings from several vendors including camera and optics companies, eco-tourism partners, and this year’s art contest winner, Lisa Benham. The Expo Room is free to enter and open to the public. Anyone coming to the Expo Room on the first day of Festival will receive a welcome packet with great coupons and other goodies.

What do people love about Festival of the Cranes? Guests who attended the 2022 Festival shared that they loved the sense of community the festival provided. “Being able to gather with people from around the world and of all ages in a unique environment was an unforgettable experience,” said one attendee. Other guests were amazed by the educational quality of the workshops and the new skills they learned. Many attendees appreciated the opportunity to be outdoors and experience the amazing sites, wildlife, and healing energy of nature.

Sandhill cranes at Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Festival Facts

Why: We gather to celebrate the annual return of sandhill cranes and the delicate oasis ecosystem that supports them at Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge. Festival is an opportunity for people who care about New Mexico’s wildlife and wild places to have fun outside, meet like-minded people, and learn how to sharpen their birding and photography skills.

What: 34th Annual Festival of the Cranes

When: Wednesday, December 6-Saturday, December 9, 2023

Where: Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge (outdoor workshops) and New Mexico Tech (indoor seminars)

Sandhill cranes Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cost: Varies with some events and activities cost-free.

Who’s Invited: EVERYONE! Visit the fragile oasis in the high desert—a rare jewel that has been cherished by New Mexicans from all walks of life for generations.

Worth Pondering…

I saw them first many Novembers ago and heard their triumphant trumpet calls, a hundred or more sandhill cranes riding south on a thermal above the Rio Grande Valley, and that day their effortless flight and their brassy music got into my soul.

—Charles Kuralt

Hike and Paddle through Ancient Beidler Forest

One thousand year-old trees and native wildlife abound in this pristine sanctuary that has been untouched for millennia

The Francis Beidler Forest harbors one of the last large virgin stands of bald cypress-tupelo gum swamp in the United States. A significant number of rare and unusual plants and animals are found in this unique natural area. Its five major community types provide habitat for an extremely rich diversity of species.

Frances Beidler © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Part of an 18,000-acre bird and wildlife sanctuary owned and managed by the National Audubon Society, Francis Beidler Forest boasts the largest virgin cypress-tupelo swamp forest in the world. The 3,408-acre pristine ecosystem features thousand-year-old trees and extremely rich diversity of species including Prothonotary warblers that nest in the cavities of cypress tree knees.

Frances Beidler Forest © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The forest is part of the Four Holes Swamp, a 45,000-acre matrix of black water sloughs and lakes, shallow bottomland hardwoods, and deep bald cypress and tupelo gum flats. A 1.75-mile boardwalk offers visitors the chance to walk through this unique and wild sanctuary. The Audubon Society also offers daytime bird walks, night walks, and two-hour kayak and canoe trips through the blackwater swamp in March, April, and May when the water level is high.

Frances Beidler Forest © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Francis Beidler Forest is located about an hour from Charleston and Columbia off Interstate 26 in Santee Cooper Country.

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Frances Beidler Forest © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Hike through Ancient Beidler Forest

Francis Beidler Forest offers two trails, the old-growth virgin forest cypress-tupelo swamp boardwalk, and the newer grassland-woodland trail. Pets and bikes are not allowed on either trail.

Frances Beidler Forest © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A 1.75-mile self-guided boardwalk trail (handicapped accessible) allows visitors the chance to safely venture deep into the heart of the swamp…to see it the way nature intended.

Frances Beidler Forest © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The new trail system meanders through Longleaf Pine, grassland, and woodland habitats being restored by Audubon South Carolina. Free to the public and open from sunrise to sunset, the new trails give visitors the opportunity to explore a new section of the sanctuary. The diverse habitat attracts birds and other wildlife not typically seen on the Beidler Forest boardwalk such as painted buntings, indigo buntings, blue grosbeaks, loggerhead shrikes, eastern bluebirds, purple martins, and many sparrow species.

Frances Beidler Forest © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Parking for the trail is located only a few feet from the Beidler Forest gate off Mim’s Road. Be sure to watch the bird feeders for buntings, woodpeckers, and sparrows.

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Frances Beidler Forest © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Naturalist-guided walks and programs also are available seasonally and by reservation.

Frances Beidler Forest © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Paddle through Ancient Beidler Forest

Now’s your chance to paddle in the still blackwater of a primeval swamp and experience nature as it existed a thousand years ago. The water level is up in Francis Beidler Forest this time of year making it possible to navigate through the largest remaining stand of virgin bald cypress and tupelo gum trees in the world.

Frances Beidler Forest © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Francis Beidler Forest is one of only two old-growth floodplain forests remaining in the state. The other is at Congaree National Park
When the water level in the floodplain is high enough, the Audubon Center offers guided canoe trips through this ancient forest located within the Four Holes Swamp.

Frances Beidler Forest © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Trips are offered on a regular basis Friday through Sunday. Four-hour trips are scheduled each of the three days at 1 p.m.; two-hour trips are available at 9 a.m. Saturdays.

Frances Beidler Forest © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The tours start from a remote landing on Mellard Lake, one of the swamp’s “holes”. Paddling through this open section of blackwater, surrounded by dense, undisturbed vegetation, you’ll feel totally removed from the rest of the world.

Frances Beidler Forest © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

After just a few minutes, you’ll enter the woods, thick with 100-foot bald cypress and tupelo gum trees. It’s not unusual to see a variety of wildlife from yellow-bellied slider turtles to brown water snakes to Prothonotary warblers.

Frances Beidler Forest © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Be aware, paddling through the swamp can be a bit tricky, especially at lower water levels. It helps to have some kayaking experience to maneuver through the floodplain’s narrow passages. In the spring, you’ll want to steer clear of trees covered with Poison Ivy. But it’s a trip unlike any other in the Lowcountry and so worth the navigational challenges.

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Frances Beidler Forest © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cost is $30 for adults ($15 for children 8 to 12) for the four-hour excursion; $20 for adults ($10 for children 6 to 12) for the two-hour trip. The price for the tour also includes admission to the Beidler Forest boardwalk.

Frances Beidler Forest © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Reservations are required in advance. These trips are popular, so you’ll want to book early.

Worth Pondering…

As the leaves of the trees are said to absorb all noxious qualities of the air, and to breathe forth a purer atmosphere, so it seems to me as if they drew from us all sordid and angry passions, and breathed forth peace and philanthropy. There is a severe and settled majesty in woodland scenery that enters into the soul, dilates and elevates it, and fills it with noble inclinations.

—Washington Irving (1783-1859), American writer