Florida’s Pelican Island became the country’s first national wildlife refuge back in 1903. Today, every state and territory has at least one refuge within an hour’s drive of most major metropolitan areas. National wildlife refuges provide habitat for more than 700 species of birds, 220 species of mammals, 250 reptile and amphibian species, and more than 1,000 fish species. Wildlife viewing and photography opportunities abound and crowds aren’t near what you find in national parks. Many wildlife refuges are free to visitors, another plus.

In the last month, we visited three refuges (Rocky Mountain Arsenal near Denver, Colorado, Maxwell near Raton, New Mexico and Bosque del Apache near Socorro, New Mexico). Only Bosque del Apache required an entrance fee ($5 per vehicle). All three provided spectacular wildlife viewing and a true highlight was having Maxwell National Wildlife Refuge all to ourselves.

If you’re looking to explore the great outdoors in your home state or while traveling, don’t forget about national wildlife refuges. You just may find yourself among unbelievable congregations of birds, moose, manatees, bison, and sea turtles.

Below are several photo highlights from the three recent refuge visits.

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