Doggin’ America’s National Wildlief Refuges

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 Florida 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 -

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.

Eastern Shore of Virginia National Wildlife Refuge (St. Charles, Virginia)
The Eastern Shore of Virginia National Wildlife Refuge, located at the southern tip of the Delmarva Peninsula, was established in 1984 for migratory and endangered species management and for wildlife oriented recreation. The 1153 acres of maritime forest, myrtle and bayberry thickets, grasslands, croplands, and fresh and brackish ponds provide important habitat for wildlife.

Canine hiking in the refuge takes place on a pair of wide, grassy trails and lightly traveled sandy dirt park roads providing a pleasing mix of open air hiking and woodsy walking. The 1/2-mile Interpretive Trail loops through mixed hardwoods, past an old cemetery, and out to the salt marsh overlook. A 1/2-mile Butterfly Trail winds through a field of flowers, brambles, grasses and shrubs.

This was once a military installation, part of America’s coastal defenses during World II. Traces of its less idyllic past remain and you can scramble to the top of an old bunker with your dog that affords a panoramic view of refuge.

Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge (Seneca Falls, New York)
The name “Montezuma” was first used in 1806 when Dr. Peter Clark named his hilltop home after the Aztec Emperor Montezuma. Eventually the Marsh, the Village, and the Refuge all acquired the name. The wetlands survived the building of the Erie Canal to its north but the Seneca River was dramatically altered by the expansion of the Cayuga extension to the canal in 1910. The level of the river plunged eight feet and the water drained from the marshes.

In 1937 the Bureau of Biological Survey, which later became the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, purchased 6,432 acres of the former marsh and set about building dikes to restore the marsh habitat. In 1938, Montezuma Migratory Bird Refuge was established to provide resting, nesting, and feeding habitat for waterfowl and other migratory birds. Since its opening 320 species of birds have been identified here.

Unlike many wildlife refuges you can hike on more than park roads here. In fact, there is no walking on Wildlife Drive. The marquee dog hike is on the Esker Brook Nature Trail, actually a series of three parallel paths that combine into a 1.5-mile loop. Your dog will be trotting along a glacially formed ridge, through a long-gone apple orchard and down to the views across man-made ponds. This is easy going through light woods on natural dirt and gravel footpaths. For a sensuous open-air excursion, guide your dog around the .75-mile Oxbow Trail on wide mown paths in a refuge grassland. The route visits the edge of the water where you can see carp in the stream and canal.

St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge (St. Marks, Florida)
St. Marks NWR was established in 1931 for wintering migratory birds, and over 300 species of birds have been recorded on the refuge, with 98 species nesting on-site. There are 14 active bald eagle nests spread across the park’s 68,000 acres. St. Marks includes coastal marshes, islands, tidal creeks and the estuaries of seven Florida rivers. 

The star walk for canine day hikers is the Mounds Pool Interpretive Trail that dips in and out of woods around freshwater and salt marshes. Highlights include close-up looks at Cabbage Palms, the Florida state tree. At the lighthouse the Levee Trail and Cedar Point Trail introduce more hardy plants adapting to the whipping winds and salt spray. Your dog will only have to deal with the potentially harsh conditions for about one mile. 
There are several other short trails to sample on the St. Marks Unit or you can pull the car off to side and create your own routes on the open levees and old logging roads. You can wander for hours on these primitive walking trails and not see another trail user. Nearly 50 miles of the Florida National Scenic Trailsnakes through the wildlife refuge, traversing a greater variety of forest types and wildlife communities than any other North Florida stretch of the cross-state trail. In addition to several miles in the St. Marks Unit, you can travel west on US 98 to the Wakulla Unit and the Panacea Unit, each of which also have several miles of the Florida Trail.  

ACE Basin National Wildlife Refuge (Edisto Beach, South Carolina)
Long the domain of rice plantations and hunting retreats, the ACE Basin represents one of the largest undeveloped wetland ecosystems remaining on the Atlantic Coast. The centerpiece of the refuge is the Grove Plantation that was an original land grant to Robert Fenwick in 1694. The property descended through a parade of owners (one being Owen Winston, a president of Brooks Brothers) until the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service purchased the Grove Plantation in 1992. Along with another unit on the Combahee River, the ACE Basin National Wildlife Refuge encompasses 11,062 acres and is growing.  

For a day of pure hiking with your dog in solitude come to this refuge along the South Edisto River. Come with a mind to explore - these are not groomed trails. When you set out, you will never be sure what you will get. Maybe a rough dirt path. Maybe an old road. Maybe a former railroad grade. Maybe a woodland. Maybe old fields. Maybe a cypress swamp. Maybe a grove of old oaks. There are miles of roads and walking trails criss-crossing the refuge impoundments that will delight any level of canine hiker.

The white-faced Grove Plantation House is one of only three antebellum mansions in the ACE Basin to survive the Civil War. The Federal-style mansion was built around 1828 and is noted for its polygonal rooms and projecting symmetrical bays.

Patuxent Research Refuge (Fort Meade, Maryland)
A scrawl of the pen by Franklin Roosevelt in 1936 established the Patuxent Research Refuge as America’s only refuge to support wildlife research. The original 2,670 acres swelled to its current size of 12,750 acres with the addition of 8,100 acres formerly belonging to adjacent Fort Meade (visitors must sign a waiver regarding possible live ammunition encountered on the grounds - don’t let your dog dig in strange holes!). It is said that the Patuxent Research Refuge is the largest patch of undeveloped green space that can be seen from the air on the east coast between Boston and Raleigh. There are two sections of the refuge open to the public: the National Wildlife in Prince Georges County and the North Tract.  

There are some 20 miles of trails in the North Tract, including the paved 8-mile Wildlife Loop access road which is lightly traveled. Another 9 miles of trails are on former access roads closed to vehicular traffic. The hiking on these pebbly roads cuts through the woods and, while quiet and solitary, the scenery seldom changes on the long, straight stretches. The best hiking at the North Tract is on the Forest Habitat Trail, opposite the visitor center. The wide, soft trail contours pleasantly as it circles for 2.5 miles through mature forest with limited under understory. Two other hiker-only trails of less then a mile are available:  the Little Patuxent River Trail which loops through the moist ground by the river and the sandy Pine Trail. Several alluring ponds await canine swimmers including Rieve’s Pond off the Blue Trail and the Cattail Pond at Bailey’s Bridge. The Little Patuxent River a few feet from the pond has a deep pool at this point as well. 

G. Richard Thompson Wildlife Refuge (Cape May, Virginia)
The major portion of the management area’s two parcels, totaling nearly 4,000 acres, are located in Northwestern Fauquier County. Beginning at its lower reaches, the property rises in a series of steep inclines and benches to the crest of the Blue Ridge. Elevations range from 700 to 2200 feet. Though predominantly a hardwood forest, there is some open land at the lower elevations and at the top of the Davenport Tract. Other physical features of the area include numerous rock outcroppings, and several major streams and ecologically unique spring seeps. Parking is provided in 11 designated parking lots; two on the eastern slopes along Route 688.
Trails from both parking lots lead up to the Appalachian Trail although the most popular route is from the northern lot at Lake Thompson. This is not a mountain hike with stunning views, dramatic waterfalls or tumbling streams. You’ll actually get none of those. But if you are looking for a long walk in the woods with your dog, Thompson Wildlife Refuge is your destination. The climb to the Appalachian Trail - that crosses the park for seven miles - is moderately strenuous and the full loop will cover about eight miles. Abandoned homesites and the occasional apple tree from long-ago orchards provide a bit of diversity. The 10-acre Lake Thompson is a superb doggie swimming hole.

Higbee Beach Wildlife Management Area (Cape May, New Jersey)
Higbee Beach, the last remaining dune forest along the Delaware Bay, was acquired by the State of New Jersey in 1978, thwarting plans to build a campground here. The Higbee Beach Wildlife Management Area today is jointly administered by the state and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. For years Higbee Beach was known as the area’s “nude beach” but now your dog is the only visitor legally allowed to hit the beach without a swim suit.

You can’t beat the canine hiking at Higbee Beach for diversity. From the parking lot at land’s end on the Cape May Peninsula you have your choice of open fields, woodlands or dune forest. Of course, your dog will want to sample all three. The sandhills are not covered with windswept grasses as is seen along most of the Jersey shore but with resilient red cedars and holly trees. There is about a mile of trails meandering through this dunesland. To stretch those leg muscle there are several miles of more trails behind the dunes that reaches all the way to the Cape May Canal.

The swimming for your dog is the best in New Jersey on the Delaware Bay. The beach next door to Higbee is the similarly dog-friendly Sunset Beach, famous for its Cape May Diamonds. The “diamonds” are actually pieces of quartz crystals that have been eroded from the Upper Delaware River and been polished by a 200-mile journey of churning and jostling that can last a millennium or two. The stones, that can be cut and faceted to do a passable imitation of a diamond, are found in abundance here because the tidal flow bounces off a unique concrete ship that rests offshore. The SS Atlantus was built to transport soldiers during steel-short World War I. The reinforced-concrete ship worked but the recovery of post-war steel supplies made her obsolete and the SS Atlantus was being towed to Cape May to serve as a ferry slip when an accident dumped her on a sand bar where she remains today.

Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge (Wells, Maine)
The refuge remembers the work of Rachel Louise Carson, a product of southern Pennsylvania farms who lived in Silver Spring, Maryland. After her schooling Carson came to Baltimore to study and teach at Johns Hopkins University and eventually she joined the zoology department at the University of Maryland. She indulged a lifelong love of the sea by leaving for a post with the Bureau of Fisheries in Washington as an aquatic biologist in 1936. She began writing and editing for the government before leaving to write about biology full-time in 1952, summering on Southport Island, Maine. By this time she had gained world fame with the award-winning book, The Sea Around Us. Her seminal work, Silent Spring, was published a decade later and introduced Americans to the dangers inherent in widespread use of chemical pesticides. Rachel Carson died of breast cancer shortly thereafter and is buried in Rockville, just south of the conservation area.

The refuge is scattered along 50 miles of rocky Maine coast. The Rachel Carson Trail in Wells is the only place dogs are permitted. It is a one-mile loop located at refuge headquarters. It meanders through pine woods and offers views of quiet tidal salt marshes, a very easy leg-stretcher for the dog.