Must-See under the Radar Small Towns to Seek Out this Winter

Favorite lesser-known destinations from around America to consider for your winter adventure

For RVers, the colder months provide opportunities to make the most of having a hotel on wheels. Make tracks in the snow to spots blanketed in white, follow fellow snowbirds to warmer shores, or simply enjoy the peace and quiet in places that are usually packed all summer long. Here are the best small towns to visit in your trailer, camper van, or motorhome during the winter.

Borrego Springs © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Borrego Springs, California

Borrego Springs is completely surrounded by nature, set in the midst of 600,000-acre Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, the largest state park in California. Five hundred miles of dirt roads, 12 wilderness areas, and many miles of hiking trails, the park features washes, wildflowers, palm groves, cacti, and sweeping vistas of mountains and desert. Anza-Borrego is an International Dark Sky Park, and the town of Borrego Springs is a Dark Sky Community, offering opportunities for exploring the star-filled night sky.

Aransas Pass © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Aransas Pass, Texas

Aransas Pass offers cool breezes and unique, crystal clear waters, beautiful seagrass, and excellent bay fishing. There are many marinas and boat ramps available with the largest at the historic Conn Brown Harbor. This picturesque harbor setting is a favorite spot for photographers and a preferred location to buy fresh seafood right off the boat. Nearly 500 species of birds pass through Aransas Pass. Some of the best birding is found in the Aransas Pass Nature Park within the 36-acre Aransas Pass Community Park bordering Redfish Bay. This area is a haven for migrating and regional birds. Another favorite site, Newberry Park is a 1.2-acre mall central city park landscaped to attract birds and butterflies.

Related Article: Must-See under the Radar Small Towns to Seek (Out)

Fairhope © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fairhope, Alabama

Shangri-La may be a fantasy but you can find a real-life utopia on the eastern shore of Mobile Bay. The village was created by a group of hardy souls seeking adventure and being practical, who also wanted a “fair hope of success”. This experimental community has come a long way from those “old days”. It’s still entirely unique and keeps a small-town ambiance with a large and active arts community. If you love the Gulf Coast, there are few places more scenic with antebellum homes, streets lined with live oaks, and a charming, walkable downtown. With a population of about 17,000, Fairhope sits on bluffs that overlook Mobile Bay, so you’re never far from a view of the water.

Ibis at Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Alamo, Texas

Alamo’s claim to fame as the “Refuge to the Valley” illustrates its symbiotic relationship with the adjacent Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, an internationally renowned birding destination. The subtropical thorn forest along with the resacas draws birds such as tropical green jays, Altamira orioles, great kiskadee, and chachalacas. After exploring the refuge, check out the Mercadome Flea Market and Alamo Dance Hall which draws thousands of weekend visitors to shop, eat, and move their feet to the sound of accordion-driven conjunto and norteño music.

Ajo © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Ajo, Arizona

With its rich tradition as a former copper mining hub, Ajo is a casual town with relaxed charm. Ajo is surrounded by 12 million acres of public and tribal land waiting to be explored. Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument and Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge offer expansive hiking, camping, and birding places. Home to 4,000 people and only one stoplight, Ajo is a place to slow down and enjoy life. You could say it’s a small town with a huge backyard.

Related Article: American Small Towns Can’t-Wait To Visit Again

Seaside © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Seaside, Florida

A small resort community in the Florida Panhandle, Seaside is the epitome of cute. Featuring pastel-colored homes and pedestrian-friendly streets, the beach community is tranquil and picturesque. Just how adorable is this place? The fictional town from the Jim Carrey movie The Truman Show was set here. West of the town visit the Grayton Beach State Park for some coastal trails.

Cave Creek Regional Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cave Creek, Arizona

Located in Maricopa County, Cave Creek is conveniently located 27 miles northeast of Phoenix so you’ll never be too far away from a big city even if you’d never know it by the relaxed pace of life here. Not to be confused with the Cave Creek town that is tucked away in the Chiricahua Mountains, this one is said to have been the original town of Cave Creek and therefore has a true claim to the charm of the name. Be sure to bring your walking shoes so you can hike at Cave Creek Regional Park or head out to Bartlett Lake. Be sure to pack a picnic lunch and fishing gear for Bartlett. Enjoy getting back to nature without feeling like you’ve spent forever in travel.

Related Article: Must-See under the Radar Small Towns to Seek Out this Summer

Port O’Connor © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Port O’Connor, Texas 

Port O’Connor is a small fishing village on the Texas Coast. It is often known as the “Best Kept Secret on the Gulf Coast” for its relaxing, laid-back atmosphere, and numerous fishing and boating venues. The most common activity in Port O’Connor is fishing followed by recreational boating and coastal sightseeing. The Port O’Connor area is an excellent place for birding. Some places to view birds in town are at the Nature Park at Boggy Bayou, King Fisher Beach, the Little Jetties as well as walking the residential areas.

Crystal River © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Crystal River, Florida

Located on the Gulf of Mexico, Crystal River is centered around its pristine waterway, Kings Bay, and is the self-proclaimed “Home of the Manatee”. The small town of approximately 3,200 residents welcomes hundreds of manatees each winter to its many warm springs including the famous Three Sisters Springs. Together with neighboring Homosassa, the Crystal River is the site of the largest gathering of manatees in North America. Located along Florida’s “Nature Coast,” the waters of Crystal River have the only legal “swim-with” Manatee program in the Country meaning visitors can passively observe the mammals in their natural habitat. The springs flow at a constant 72 degrees, making the water attractive to all sorts of swimmers.  

Rockport-Fulton © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Rockport-Fulton, Texas

Best known as a mecca for Texas artists, Rockport is also home to the Maritime Museum, prime saltwater fishing, and tons of outdoor activities. The area is popular for being a great place for bird-watching due to its small crowds and vibrant natural landscape, and visitors often come from all over the Texas coast to see the flocks of coastal birds that call the region home.  

Related Article: Must-See under the Radar Small Towns to Seek Out this Fall

Worth Pondering…

This is not another place.

It is THE place.

—Charles Bowden

How Much Time Should You Spend in Nature?

Use the three-number formula of the Nature Pyramid to make yourself healthier and happier

We all know that 2020 was a grueling year. Many of us have been cooped up for too long. Research shows that Americans actually spent 92 percent of their time inside. Being outside comes with many positive benefits for our mental and physical health.

Dr. Rachel Hopman, a neuroscientist at Northeastern University, suggests the Nature Pyramid. The “20-5-3” rule, or nature pyramid, recommends the amount of time we should spend outdoors to reduce stress and boost our overall happiness. Think of it as the food pyramid except that instead of recommending you eat this many servings of vegetables and this many of meat, it recommends the amount of time you should spend in nature to reduce stress and be healthier. Learn and live by the 20-5-3 rule.

Okefenokee, Georgia © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

20 minutes

Like the food pyramid, the bottom is what you need to be doing the most. You should spend 20 minutes outside in nature three times a week. That means put your phone away and revel in the beauty of being outside. A recent study shows that people who used their phones while being outside or on a walk showed no benefit from its effects.

In nature, our brains enter a mode called “soft fascination.” Hopman described it as a mindfulness-like state that restores and builds the resources you need to think, create, process information, and execute tasks. But turn off your phone—alerts from it can kick you out of soft-fascination mode.

Frances Beidler Forest, South Carolina © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

5 hours

Broken down, per month, we should spend five hours in semi-wild nature. For instance, going to a state or county park or nature preserve can provide city dwellers with feelings of being more relaxed and less stressed.

A 2005 survey conducted in Finland found that city dwellers felt better with at least five hours of nature a month with benefits increasing at higher exposures. They were also more likely to be happier and less stressed in their everyday lives.

Ibis at Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Finnish government-funded another study in 2014 in which the scientists placed people in a city center, a city park, and a forested state park. The two parks felt more Zen than the city center. No shocker, here. Except that those walking in a state park had an edge over the city-park people. They felt even more relaxed and restored. The takeaway: The wilder the nature, the better.

Nature has these effects on the mind and body because it stimulates and soothes us in unusual and unique ways. For instance, in nature, you are engulfed in fractals, suggested Hopman. Fractals are complex patterns that repeat over and over in different sizes and scales and make up the design of the universe. Think: trees (big branch to smaller branch), river systems (big river to stream and so on), mountain ranges, clouds, seashells.

Caverns of Sonora, Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

3 days

At the top of the pyramid, we should spend three days immersed in nature each year. Try camping in the woods to spend some time off the grid. This nature time can boost creativity and problem solving and relieve burnout. This dose of the wildest nature can reset your thinking, tame burnout, and just make you feel better.

For a hefty dose of nature look no further than a National Natural Landmark. From tidal creeks and estuaries to mountain wilderness, underground caverns, and riparian areas, America offers a diversity of stunning landscapes to explore and enjoy.

Managed by the National Park Service, the National Natural Landmark program was created in 1962 to encourage the preservation and public appreciation of America’s natural heritage. To date, 602 sites in the country—a third of them privately owned—have received the designation.

Frances Beidler Forest, South Carolina © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Francis Beidler Forest, South Carolina

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, unusual, or range extensions for plants and animals occurs in this unique natural area. Its five major community types provide habitat for an extremely rich diversity of species. 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.

Year designated: 1979

Size: 3,408 acres

Ownership: National Audubon Society

Congaree River Swamp, South Carolina © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Congaree River Swamp, South Carolina

The 21,811-acre swamp—located within Congaree National Park—is the largest intact expanse of old-growth bottomland hardwood forest remaining in the southeastern United States. Flooding from the Congaree and Wateree rivers provides the nutrients to sustain one of the tallest temperate hardwood forests in the world. This unique ecosystem has been designated both an International Biosphere Reserve and a Globally Important Bird Area.

More than 20 miles of hiking trails offer visitors the opportunity to explore the floodplain and its national and state champion trees. The most popular is the 2.4-mile Boardwalk Loop featuring an elevated section that winds through the old-growth trees and a low boardwalk that takes you through a primeval bald cypress and tupelo forest. You can also paddle your way through the swamp on the Cedar Creek Canoe Trail running 15 miles along the blackwater tributary all the way to the Congaree River.

Year designated: 1974

Size: 21,811 acres

Ownership: Federal

Okefenokee, Georgia © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Okefenokee Swamp, Georgia

Okefenokee Swamp, located within the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, is one of the largest and most primitive swamps in the country. It contains a diversity of ecosystems and is a refuge for native flora and fauna including many uncommon, threatened, and endangered species.

Year designated: 1974

Size: 337,300 acres

Ownership: Federal, State

Caverns of Sonora, Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Caverns of Sonora, Texas

The Caverns of Sonora contain unusual formations such as bladed helictites and coralloid growths and are internationally recognized as one of the most beautiful show caves on the planet. The Cavern is over seven and a half miles long but only two miles of trails are developed for tours. There are five levels of the cave that vary in depth from 20 feet to 180 feet below the surface.

Year designated: 1965

Size: 103 acres

Ownership: Private

Plain Chachalaca at Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, Texas

Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge is a living museum of the lowland forested area of the Lower Rio Grande Valley. The refuge’s jungle-like vegetation provides habitat for over 400 species of birds and about one-half of all butterfly species found in the United States.

Year designated: 1966

Size: 2,059 acres

Ownership: Federal

Enchanted Rock, Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Enchanted Rock, Texas

Enchanted Rock, located within Enchanted Rock State Natural Area, is one of the largest rock mountains in the United States. It is a classic illustration of a batholith and of the exfoliation process. The coarse-grained pink granite is massive and uniform in composition and texture and is some of the oldest igneous rock known in North America.

Year designated: 1971

Size: 667 acres

Ownership: State

Fishing in the Bottomlands near the Gulf, Alabama © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mobile-Tensaw River Bottomlands, Alabama

Mobile-Tensaw River Bottomlands is one of the most important wetlands in the nation. The site contains a variety of habitats, including mesic floodplains, freshwater swamps, and brackish water marshes, and supports several rare and endangered species.

Year designated: 1974

Size: 179,000 acres

Ownership: Federal, State, Private

Patagonia-Sonoita Creek Sanctuary © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Patagonia-Sonoita Creek Sanctuary, Arizona

Patagonia-Sonoita Creek Sanctuary is a good example of a cottonwood-willow riparian forest and is one of the last permanent stream-bottom habitat areas in southern Arizona. The site retains a substantial part of the indigenous aquatic biota, including the endangered Gila topminnow. The birdlife includes several Mexican species and is the only known nesting site in the country for the rare rose-throated becard.

Year designated: 1970

Size: 314 acres

Ownership: Nature Conservancy

Ramsey Canyon, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Ramsey Canyon, Arizona

Ramsey Canyon is a stream-cut, vertical-sided gorge. Cold air drainage from the upper canyon results in a well-defined microclimatic habitat that supports Mexican flora and fauna and plants that normally occur only at higher elevations. The site is also frequented by more species of hummingbirds than any other area in the United States.

Year designated: 1965

Size: 279 acres

Ownership: Nature Conservancy

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, California © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, California

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park is the largest desert state park in the nation. The site contains some of the best examples of the various biotic communities and geological phenomena of the Colorado Desert region.

Year designated: 1974

Size: 622,810 acres

Ownership: State, Municipal, Private

Worth Pondering…

Nature holds the key to our aesthetic, intellectual, cognitive, and even spiritual satisfaction.

—E. O. Wilson

Ultimate Road Trip of Discovery to Uncover Unique National Natural Landmarks

Discover 16 awe-inspiring natural wonders

Planning your RV road trip routes for the year already? You may want to consider squeezing in at least one natural landmark into the itinerary. In January, Former Secretary of the Interior David L. Bernhardt named three new sites as national natural landmarks. Their addition brings the number of national natural landmarks in the United States and Territories to 602, a milestone for the National Park Service’s National Natural Landmarks Program. These sites are located in West Virginia, Colorado, and California:

  • Bear Rocks and Allegheny Front Preserve, West Virginia: The most distinctive feature of the preserve is the rocky, high-altitude plateau. The landscape includes wind-swept and stunted spruce trees, low-lying heath shrubs, rocky outcrops, and bogs. 
  • Sulphur Cave and Spring, Colorado: Amazingly, this highly toxic environment of hydrogen sulfide, carbon dioxide, and carbon monoxide gases is home to a flourishing ecological community. People cannot enter the cave due to its toxic air but visitors can learn more about the landmark at the Tread of Pioneers Museum in Steamboat Springs.
  • Lanphere and Ma-le’l Dunes, California: Located west of Arcata the coastal dunes are seemingly untouched keeping much of the features that once thrived on the west coast. Besides dunes, the site includes beaches, dune forest islands, salt marshes, deflation plain swales, freshwater marshes, and brackish wetlands.

We’ve explored America by RV and found these 13 national natural landmarks you’re sure to enjoy.

Patagonia-Sonoita Creek Sanctuary © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Patagonia-Sonoita Creek Sanctuary, Arizona

Patagonia-Sonoita Creek Sanctuary is a good example of a cottonwood-willow riparian forest and is one of the last permanent stream-bottom habitat areas in southern Arizona. The site retains a substantial part of the indigenous aquatic biota including the endangered Gila topminnow. The birdlife includes several Mexican species and is the only known nesting site in the country for the rare rose-throated becard.

Ramsey Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Ramsey Canyon, Arizona

Ramsey Canyon is a stream-cut, vertical-sided gorge. Cold air drainage from the upper canyon results in a well-defined microclimatic habitat that supports Mexican flora and fauna and plants that normally occur only at higher elevations. The site is also frequented by more species of hummingbirds than any other area in the United States.

Sandhill cranes on Willcox Playa © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Willcox Playa, Arizona

Willcox Playa, the largest “dry lake” in Arizona is a remnant of the pluvial Lake Cochise. Unlike similar dry lakes, the black mud below the surface contains a rich fossil pollen record of the pluvial periods of the Pleistocene. The site has become a night-time roosting area for 4,000-8,000 sandhill cranes and contains the greatest diversity of tiger beetles in the United States.

Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, Florida

Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary contains a wide variety of habitats including pond cypress, wet prairie, pineland, and the largest remaining stand of virgin bald cypress in North America. The sanctuary supports the largest wood stork rookery in the United States and is important for several other endangered species.

Okefenokee Swamp © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Okefenokee Swamp, Georgia

Okefenokee Swamp, located within the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, is one of the largest and most primitive swamps in the country. It contains a diversity of ecosystems and is a refuge for native flora and fauna including many uncommon, threatened, and endangered species.

Bitter Lake National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bitter Lake Group, New Mexico

Located within the Bitter Lake National Wildlife Refuge, the Bitter Lake Group contains more than 30 natural sinkhole depressions formed by solution of gypsum-bearing rocks. The highly saline artesian lakes provide habitat for the only inland occurrence of a marine alga and two rare fish species. The site offers one of the best examples of undisturbed shrub-grassland and the process of succession and restoration to natural conditions following a disturbance.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Congaree River Swamp, South Carolina

The Congaree River Swamp is the most extensive, mature cypress-gum swamp and bottomland hardwood forest complex in South Carolina. Located within Congaree National Park, the site provides a sanctuary for wildlife.

Frances Beidler Forest © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Francis Beidler Forest, South Carolina

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, unusual or range extensions for plants and animals occurs in this unique natural area. Its five major community types provide habitat for an extremely rich diversity of species.

Cathedral Spires © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cathedral Spires and Limber Pine Natural Area, South Dakota

Cathedral Spires and Limber Pine Natural Area, located within Custer State Park, is an excellent, rare example of joint-controlled weathering of granite. The site also supports a disjunct relict stand of limber pine. Commonly referred to as the Needles, it is a popular area for rock climbers.

Caverns of Sonora © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Caverns of Sonora, Texas

The Caverns of Sonora contains unusual formations such as bladed helictites and coralloid growths and is internationally recognized as one of the most beautiful show caves on the planet. The Cavern is over seven and a half miles long but only two miles of trails are developed for tours. There are five levels of the cave that vary in depth form 20 feet to 180 feet below the surface.

Enchanted Rock © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Enchanted Rock, Texas

Enchanted Rock, located within Enchanted Rock State Natural Area, is one of the largest rock mountains in the United States. It is a classic illustration of a batholith and of the exfoliation process. The coarse-grained pink granite is massive and uniform in composition and texture and is some of the oldest igneous rock known in North America. The massive pink granite dome rising above Central Texas has drawn people for thousands of years. But there’s more at Enchanted Rock than just the dome. The scenery, rock formations, and legends are magical, too!

Blanco River © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Little Blanco River Bluff, Texas

Little Blanco River Bluff is an unspoiled example of the natural assemblage of flora characterizing the limestone bluff communities of the Edwards Plateau. The site supports diverse flora, including an estimated 250 species in 25 families.

Ibis at Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, Texas

Spanish moss drapes from trees and noisy chachalacas welcome the morning dawn as a malachite butterfly floats out from the shadows. Step into a rare tropical world at Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, a living museum of the lowland forested area of the Lower Rio Grande Valley. The refuge’s jungle-like vegetation provides habitat for over 400 species of birds and about one half of all butterfly species found in the United States.

Worth Pondering…

In every walk with nature, one receives more than he seeks.

—John Muir

8 Ways Wildlife Refuges Make Life Better

Rediscover your nature at a national wildlife refuge

We know COVID-19 (Coronavirus) is impacting RV travel plans right now. For a little inspiration we’ll continue to share stories from our favorite places so you can keep daydreaming about your next adventure.

Our lives are brighter because of national wildlife refuges. Even people who’ve never set foot on a refuge benefit from these lands and waters conserved by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge, Alabama © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

How could that be? Come along for a look.

Here are some key ways national wildlife refuges improve the lives of everyday folks.

1. Health

SAbine National Wildlife Refuge, Louisiana © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

We are hard-wired to need contact with nature. A large body of research shows that getting outdoors—on national wildlife refuges, for example—can improve peace of mind and physical well-being. Many refuges reinforce that health-and-nature connection by hosting family walks, runs, bike tours, even special events, to get people moving outdoors. 

2. World-Class Recreation

Bitter Lake National Wildlife Refuge, New Mexico © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Millions of people enjoy outdoor recreation each year on national wildlife refuges—where they are excited to spot wildlife while they refresh their minds and bodies. Some visitors enjoy birding, hiking, paddling, wildlife viewing, or nature photography. All these activities offer people a chance to unplug from the stresses of modern life and reconnect with their natural surroundings.

3. Wildlife Conservation

Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, Georgia © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

National wildlife refuges are dedicated to conserving America’s rich fish and wildlife heritage. Just five decades ago, bald eagles, alligators, grizzly bears, California condors, Louisiana black bears, and whooping cranes all were at risk of extinction. Refuges have helped—and continue to help—the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service save iconic American species (and many lesser-known ones) by providing healthy habitat on which they depend. For example, Georgia’s Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge supports American alligators.

4. Storm Resilience

Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

National wildlife refuges help to lessen the impact of natural disasters on local communities. More than 150 coastal refuges buffer cities and towns from storm surges. For example, during Hurricane Harvey in 2017, wetlands at Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge and McFaddin National Wildlife Refuge blunted the saltwater surge toward North America’s largest petrochemical refinery complex near Houston.

5. Access to Green Space

Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge, Washington © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

With four-fifths of Americans living in cities or suburbs, access to green space isn’t a given. Fortunately, there is a wildlife refuge within an hour’s drive of most major cities.

6. Reduced Fire Risk to Communities

Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, Florida © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Refuges help reduce risks from catastrophic wildfires. Refuge fire managers routinely burn, cut, or chemically treat overgrown brush, trees, and logging debris that can fuel wildfires. On Florida’s Merritt Island, home to the Kennedy Space Center as well as Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, refuge managers work to lower the risk of fire.

7. Biodiversity

Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge, Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Think of nature as a web, with each part depending on another. Take one part away, and other parts suffer. Biodiversity is “the variety of living things in a given place—whether a small stream, an extensive desert, all the forests in the world, the oceans, or the entire planet.” Refuges encourage biodiversity. Among the most biodiverse refuges are Santa Ana, Lower Rio Grande Valley, and Laguna Atascosa. Their south Texas counties contain 1,200 plant species, 300 butterflies, and 700 vertebrates (mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and fish).

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

8. Economic Benefits

National wildlife refuges add to the nation’s economic well-being. For every $1 Congress appropriates to run the Refuge System, wildlife refuges generate nearly $5 in local economies through visits for recreation. In fiscal year 2017, recreational spending by 53 million visitors to national wildlife refuges helped generate about $3 billion in economic activity and support 43,000 jobs.   

Lower Swanee National Wildlife Refuge, Florida © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worth Pondering…

Have you ever observed a hummingbird moving about in an aerial dance among the flowers—a living prismatic gem…. it is a creature of such fairy-like loveliness as to mock all description.

—W.H. Hudson, Green Mansion

Banking on Nature: Record Numbers Visit National Wildlife Refuges

A record number of more than 53 million people visited America’s national wildlife refuges

53.6 million people visited national wildlife refuges during fiscal year 2017 (2017-2018) which had an economic impact of $3.2 billion on local communities and supported more than 41,000 jobs. The figures come from a new economic report by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service titled Banking on Nature. The report is the sixth in a series of studies since 1997 that measure the economic contributions of national wildlife refuge recreational visits to local economies.

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

The National Wildlife Refuge System is a network of 567 national wildlife refuges and 38 wetland management districts located in all 50 states and five U.S. territories. There is a national wildlife refuge within an hour’s drive of most major metropolitan areas, and national wildlife refuges provide vital habitats for thousands of species and access to world-class recreation, including birding, photography, and environmental education.

The report contains economic case studies of 162 national wildlife refuges and other information. Following is information relating to four of these refuges.

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

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, New Mexico

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge supports one of the most diverse and unique assemblages of habitat and wildlife within the Southwest. The 57,331-acre refuge is located south of Socorro at the northern edge of the Chihuahuan Desert. Eleven miles of the Rio Grande bisects the Refuge. The extraordinary diversity and concentration of wildlife in a desert environment draws people from around the world to observe and photograph wildlife. A comprehensive visitor services program provides opportunities for people to connect with nature and enjoy the American great outdoors.

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

The Refuge had about 306,000 recreational visits in 2017 which contributed to the economic effect of the Refuge. During October through May, the Refuge conducts interpretive van tours and interpretive hikes for the general public and also offers over 100 interpretive programs during the annual Festival of the Cranes held annually the week before Thanksgiving (37th annual Festival of the Cranes is November 20-23, 2019).

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

Visitor recreation expenditures were $15.8 million with non-residents accounting for $15.5 million or 98 percent of total expenditures.

Green jay at Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge, Texas

Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge is located at the southern tip of Texas next to the Gulf of Mexico. Wildlife finds a haven within the refuge, the largest federally protected habitat remaining in the Lower Rio Grande Valley. Subtropical forests, coastal prairies, freshwater wetlands, and a barrier island support a mix of wildlife found nowhere else in the world. Laguna Atascosa has recorded an impressive 410 species of birds drawing birders from around the world. Several tropical species reach their northernmost range in south Texas as the Central and Mississippi Flyways converge here.

Curved bill thrasher at Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Refuge had about 485,000 recreational visits in 2017. Interpretation activities include bird tours, bird walks, and habitat tram tours. Visitor recreation expenditures were $30.0 million with non-residents accounting for $23.0 million or 77 percent of total expenditures.

Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, Georgia

The Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge was established in 1937 to preserve the unique qualities of the Okefenokee Swamp. The Okefenokee is the largest refuge in the east and includes over 407,000 acres. The Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge has many designations including being a RAMSAR Wetland of International Importance, National Water Trail, National Recreation Trail, an Important Bird Area, and is a proposed World Heritage Site.

Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Okefenokee is considered the largest intact freshwater wetland in North America. The Refuge is made up of a variety of habitats, and includes over 40,000 acres of pine uplands that are managed for longleaf pine around the swamp perimeter and on interior islands. Other habitats include open prairies, forested wetlands, scrub shrub, and open water (lakes). The Refuge has three primary entrances and two secondary entrances for visitor access.

Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Refuge had about 724,000 recreational visits in 2017. Visitor recreation expenditures were $64.7 million with non-residents accounting for $59.8 million or 93 percent of total expenditures.

Plain chachalaca at Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, Texas

Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge consists of 2,088 acres along the banks of the Rio Grande, south of Alamo in the Lower Rio Grande Valley where subtropical, Gulf coast, Great Plains, and Chihuahuan desert converge. There are over 400 species of birds, 300 species of butterflies, and 450 types of plants. The refuge was established in 1943 for the protection of migratory birds and is a great place to visit for birding and draws in people from all to look for birds like the Buff-bellied Hummingbird, Green Jay, and Altamira Orioles.

Great kiskadee at Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There are 12 miles of trails, visitor center, suspension bridge, and 40 foot tower for visitors to explore. Year-round educational programs, seasonal tram, and birding tours, special events, summer programs and more that are offered to the public.

Green heron at Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Refuge had about 196,000 recreational visits in 2017 which contributed to the economic effect of the Refuge. Visitor recreation expenditures were $2.2 million with non-residents accounting for $1.3 million or 58 percent of total expenditures.

Ibis at Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worth Pondering…
One touch of nature makes the whole world kin.

—William Shakespeare