One of the reasons often given for keeping dogs off trails in National Parks is that dogs disturb wildlife. So you might be surprised to learn about some of the best lands our federal government maintains where you can hike with your dog - our National Wildlife Refuges.
President Theodore Roosevelt created America's first wildlife refuge on tiny Pelican Island in Floida in 1903 and a hundred years later there are now more than 500 national wildlife refuges. There is at least one in every state and one within an hour's drive of every major city in the country. In fact there are wildlife refuges in two cities: San Francisco and Philadelphia.
While the priority of National Wildlife Refuges is to manage lands for the benefit of wildlife, human visitors are welcome in 98 percent of the refuges. And most will welcome your dog in as well. Not all, so check the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for details on specific refuges in the areas you plan to travel - www.fws.gov/refuges/.
What can you expect when you take your dog to a National Wildlife Refuge? The first thing you will notice is that you may have the place to yourself - especially if you come in the off-season. I don't know if I've ever seen 10 cars in a National Wildlife Refuge parking lot.
The canine hiking is often of the Nature Trail variety - well-groomed paths usually clocking in at less than one mile. Most refuges will have several of these that highlight the diversity of the property. You won't often find trails of several hours' duration in a National Wildlife Refuge like are common in many recreation parks.
Don't limit your explorations with your dog to national wildlife refuges. Most states maintain their own conservation departments and have wildlife refuges open to the public. There are plenty of hidden gems for your dog to be discovered here. One of my favorites is in New Jersey at the Higbee Wildlife Management Area. Located at the very tip of Cape May, this is a place your dog can romp in large sand dunes and frolic in frisky waves from the Delaware Bay on wide, secluded beaches.
Occasionally you will encounter a National Wildlife Refuge that charges an entrance fee but it is not the norm. If you travel a vacation route often, it is easy to incorporate a wildlife refuge into your regular itinerary. One I have visited more than twice is Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge in Wells, Maine off of Route 1. It features a wooded walk into a quiet salt marsh, a very easy leg-stretcher for the dog. Another is Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge in Milton, Delaware, just off the main road down the Delmarva Peninsula. In addition to short canine hikes in salt marshes and scented pinelands there is a dog-friendly sand beach.
So when you plan your next vacation with your dog remember that America's wildlife refuges provide much-need refuge for you and your dog as well as wildlife.
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