Best Tropical National Wildlife Refuges

In the cold, dark days of winter, it’s hard not to dream of sun, sand and tropical breezes! Good thing for us as America’s national wildlife refuges offer plenty of tropical escapes.

Many people know and love J.N. ‘Ding’ Darling National Wildlife Refuge, a mecca for birders – and snowbirds – on Sanibel Island, Fla. It’s an incredible wildlife refuge along the Florida Gulf Coast. But have you heard of Vieques, or Kilauea Point? Whether you love beachcombing, birding or boating, we give you some of best tropical escapes that also double as the best places to view wildlife!

Vieques National Wildlife Refuge, Puerto Rico

Discover Secluded White-Sand Beaches and Bioluminescent Waters

A short flight from Puerto Rico’s bustling capital of San Juan is a tropical paradise undisturbed by throngs of tourists that flock to nearby Caribbean islands. Once a Navy bombing range, today Vieques features secluded beaches, wild horses and one of the world’s best underwater light shows at the bioluminescent Mosquito Bay.

One of dozens of remote beaches found within the Vieques National Wildlife Refuge | Christine McGowan
One of dozens of remote beaches found within the Vieques National Wildlife Refuge | Christine McGowan

Key West National Wildlife Refuge, Florida

Snorkel Among Sea Turtles

What says winter vacation more than Key West? Key West National Wildlife Refuge is a string of uninhabited ‘backcountry’ islands accessible only by boat. Some of the best snorkeling can be found among these remote islands, which are breeding grounds for four species of sea turtle: green, loggerhead, hawksbill and Kemp’s Ridley.

Hawksbill Sea Turtle | Caroline S. Rogers/NOAA
Hawksbill sea turtle | Caroline S. Rogers/NOAA

Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge, Hawaii

Photograph Stunning Vistas and a Historic Lighthouse

For more than 100 years, the Kilauea Point Lighthouse on the island of Kauai has stood tall above massive cliffs, guiding ships around the island’s rough seas. The surrounding refuge is a birder’s paradise, with some of the largest congregations of migrating seabirds, and a chance to spot Hawaii’s state bird, the endangered nene or Hawaiian goose.

Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge, Hawaii | Megan Nagel/USFWS
Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge, Hawaii | Megan Nagel/USFWS

Ten Thousand Islands National Wildlife Refuge, Florida

Kayak Through North America’s Largest Mangrove Forest

Deep in the heart of the Everglades is a 35,000-acre maze of black, red and white mangrove islands that host thousands of wading birds roosting here in the summer. Accessed most easily by boat, this refuge offers excellent opportunities to spot manatees and dolphins, and also allows beach camping.

A kayaker approaches a clump of reeds | ‪Joel Zatz
A kayaker approaches a clump of reeds | ‪Joel Zatz

Breton National Wildlife Refuge, Louisiana

Go Crabbing Along the Chandeleur Islands

Breton National Wildlife Refuge is an incredible story of resiliency. The refuge is a series of barrier islands that constantly shift, and most recently were hit hard by Hurricane Katrina and the Gulf oil spill. However, today the refuge reports the largest numbers of brown pelicans and terns breeding here since before Katrina. Hire a local guide to take you out to the refuge where fishing and crabbing are permitted year-round.

Royal terns on Breton National Wildlife Refuge, La. | Donna A. Dewhurst
Royal terns on Breton National Wildlife Refuge, La. | Donna A. Dewhurst

Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge, Texas

Search for the Last Remaining Ocelots

Just across the bridge from the Texas Spring Break Capital of South Padre Island is an incredible patch of wilderness. The thorny brush of Laguna Atascosa is one of the last stands for the endangered ocelot, a small wild cat once common in the South. Fewer than 50 remain in Texas, but in 2014 biologists discovered new ocelots on the refuge, a promising sign for this striking feline.

Ocelot | USFWS
Ocelot | USFWS

Palmyra Atoll National Wildlife Refuge

Go Diving Among Whales and Dolphins

One of the most remote of all national wildlife refuges, Palmyra Atoll offers some of the world’s best diving opportunities. But getting there won’t be easy. The Nature Conservancy owns the only runway and sailing here will take 5-7 days from Honolulu. But those fortunate enough to gain a special use permit to visit will have a once-in-a-lifetime chance to observe pristine coral reefs, marine mammals and rare seabirds.

Palmyra Atoll National Wildlife Refuge | Erik Oberg/Island Conservation
Palmyra Atoll National Wildlife Refuge | Erik Oberg/Island Conservation

What is your favorite tropical wildlife refuge?


Permanent link to this article: https://www.refugeassociation.org/2016/02/best-tropical-national-wildlife-refuges/


  1. Mary Swihart says:

    I have visited the Vieques National Wildlife Refuge and it is absolutely amazing. The beaches are fantastic. The water is clear the coral is gorgeous and the luminescent organism put on a fantastic light show at night. It is a truly spectacular place.

  2. Paul Gamer says:

    Cabo Rojo National Wildlife Refuge in Puerto Rico is another wonderful place. The walking trails always have a variety of birds to view.. The salt flats and the road to the lighthouse are one of my favorite places to bird and enjoy a small beach. The staff there is bilingual and have been wonderful in helping me identify birds. Nearby are several other wildlife viewing sites. It is a great place off the beaten path!

  3. MaryKay Fox says:

    I add too that I love the Vieques National Wildlife Refuge. Wild horses greet you often at the entrance or throughout the Refuge, welcoming beaches great for snorkeling or relaxing on the beach are on both ends of the island. Huge Iguanas hang out in the palms and land crabs search in the shady creeks. An occasional free-spirit, free-living chicken will cross your path as you drive through the refuge. A truly unique experience!

  4. Rick Teter says:

    Laguna Atascosa NWR (LANWR) is the last bastion of south Texas habitat which has not been destroyed by man. At nearly 100,000 acres, it is constantly being threatened by additional surrounding habitat loss. Brownsville Navigation District is proposing multiple Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) processing plants be built in the Brownsville ship channel, which would disastrously affect the survival of the Ocelot and Aplomado Falcon along with the additional wildlife which would be further endangered IF these LNGs are allowed to bisect the LANWR. Less than 5% of the native habitat of the Rio Grande Valley currently exists, with more than half of that represented by LANWR. We must stop the proposed LNGs in order to pass down a living legacy of nature as seen in LANWR.

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