Bison in Yellowstone, grizzlies at Katmai, gators in the Everglades. Without doubt, national parks are among the best places to see America’s iconic animals in the wild.
Yet another federal park system offers opportunities to get up close and personal with many land, air and water species — National Wildlife Refuges.
Managed by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, the system boasts more than 560 refuges from Maine to the Pacific Ocean, and Alaska to the Caribbean Sea.
While some of these are more focused on fishing and hunting, others revolve around spotting, watching and photographing wildlife in their natural habitats.
Here are eight of the best:
Wichita Mountains NWR (Oklahoma)
Rising from the mixed grass prairie of southwestern Oklahoma, the Wichita Mountains boasts two claims to fame.
Founded in 1901, it’s the oldest managed unit of the nationwide wildlife refuge system. And it helped save the American bison from extinction thanks to a herd of 15 relocated by train from the Bronx Zoo in 1907.
Bison are still the main attraction. But the reserve also boasts a sizeable elk herd and several prairie dog towns, as well as feral longhorn cattle and excellent bird watching.
Beyond wildlife, the refuge offers hiking trails through ancient granite mountains, lakeside campground, a great visitor center museum and nearby Medicine Park, a historic Wild West-era town with restaurants, shops and overnight options.
St. Marks NWR (Florida)
Located along the migratory path of monarch butterflies, this Florida panhandle refuge explodes with color come autumn as the vibrant black-and-orange insects make their way south for winter.
Perched along the gulf shore about half-an-hour’s drive from Tallahassee, St Marks safeguards a wide array of critters, from Florida black bears and alligators to nesting bald eagles, Atlantic Ridley sea turtles and river otters.
Trails and levees expedite hiking, biking and horseback riding. Between October and March, rangers lead guided wildlife tours.
Kenai NWR (Alaska)
Not to be confused with the national park of the same name that lies nearby, Kenai National Wildlife Refuge sprawls across a third of the Kenai Peninsula.
The visitor center and roadside campgrounds are easily reached from Highway One between Anchorage and Homer. But much of the refuge is backcountry, accessible only by foot, floatplane or a canoe/kayak system that stretches more than 100 miles (160 km) into the wilderness.
Like many Alaska parks, the brown bear (a.k.a. grizzly) is top of the food chain and anyone who ventures into the reserve wilderness should be prepared for bear encounters. Once called the National Moose Range, the park is also well-endowed with the world’s largest deer species.
Landscapes range from glaciers and snow-capped peaks to vast boreal forest, tundra that explodes with color come fall, several large lakes and coastal wetlands along Cook Inlet
Chincoteague NWR (Virginia)
Located on one of the barrier islands along the Virginia coast, Chincoteague is renowned for a non-native species: wild ponies that roam the reserve’s beaches, dines and maritime forest.
Immortalized in books like Misty of Chincoteague, the ponies have obscure roots. Some say they survived a Spanish shipwreck, others think that pirates might have left them, while modern scholars are more likely to say they were introduced by 17th-century British settlers.
Poised along the busy Atlantic Flyway, Chincoteague offers primo bird watching, as well as hiking, biking, crabbing and non-motorized boating.
Cabo Rojo NWR (Puerto Rico)
The rustic-colored cliffs that punctuate the southwest corner of Puerto Rico culminate in Cabo Rojo (Red Cape) and its historic lighthouse.
The beaches, lagoons, salt flats and mangroves behind the famous light are protected within the confines of a diverse national wildlife refuge that mixes outdoor recreation and endangered species protection.
More than 100 bird species are year-round inhabitants or regular visitors to Cabo Rojo and the reserve is one of the few spots in the world to view several endemic frog species.
Hiking trails lead to remote secluded beaches while the visitor center is both a museum and information source for all U.S. wildlife refuges in the Caribbean.
Bosque del Apache NWR (New Mexico)
Literal snowbirds, tens of thousands of sandhill cranes, geese, ducks and other migratory birds spend the winter in this warm, sunny reserve along the Rio Grande in central New Mexico.
Late October to late January is the best bird watching, but feathered friends inhabit the refuge wetlands and riverine forest year-round. The popular Festival of the Crane takes place in late November or early December.
An 11-mile (17.7-km) gravel bike trail is complemented by an auto-tour route, picnicking, ranger-led programs, and footpaths that lead into the desert terrain of the Chupadera and Indian Well wilderness areas.
Okefenokee NWR (Georgia)
One of the best wildlife refuges for paddling, the Okefenokee is a vast watery wilderness in southeast Georgia that is a National Natural Landmark and Wetlands of International Importance.
The largest blackwater swamp in North America is the headwaters of both the Suwanee and St. Marys rivers, and home to a wide variety of critters, from black bears, mountain lions and river otters to more than 230 bird species and more than 100 different types of reptiles and amphibians.
Nineteen trails expedite short day hikes in the refuge, while boat tours venture deeper into the swamp. But the most adventurous way to explore the Okefenokee is undertaking a multi-day canoe or kayak camping trip with overnights at several islands and elevated platforms.
National Elk Range (Wyoming)
Winter is far and away the best time to visit this refuge along the eastern edge of Grand Teton National Park.
That’s when the elk and other grazers (bison and bighorn sheep) migrate down from other parts of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem seeking food and shelter. They’re closely tailed by predators and scavengers like wolves and bald eagles.
Guided, horse-drawn sleigh rides are an excellent way to view the herds and photograph them against a backdrop of the snow-capped Tetons.
Accommodation is available in nearby Jackson Hole.