A Guide to River Recreation on National Wildlife Refuges

The mighty Missouri. The mighty Mississippi. The mighty Yukon. The U.S. has a mighty lot of mighty rivers. The main stems, or trunks, of 38 rivers in the United States are at least 500 miles long. They and other rivers bring clean drinking water, economic health, food for many native people, transportation and a mighty lot of recreation — especially on national wildlife refuges.

While not all of the nation’s legendary rivers are protected as Wild and Scenic Rivers, this year’s celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act is a great time to get onto a river to fish, hunt, boat or just see the greatness of America.

Here’s a snapshot of some river recreation on America’s national wildlife refuges, managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.


U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Bill Carter shows off a sheefish he caught on the Selawik River in Alaska’s Selawik National Wildlife Refuge. Photo: Dan Prince/USFWS

“In northwest Alaska, the rivers teem seasonally with fish of various kinds: salmon, sheefish, whitefish, northern pike, Dolly Varden,” says Susan Georgette, manager of Selawik National Wildlife RefugeI often tell people that living here is like seeing North America in its primordial state.”  The 2.15-million acre Selawik Refuge is on the Arctic Circle to the east of Kotzebue Sound and extends east to the headwaters of the Selawik River and the Continental Divide. The heart of the refuge is a vast complex of wetlands and lowland, rich habitat for wildlife.

The refuge gives visitors a chance to explore and discover the nature of Alaska on their own. Here you might see moose or muskoxen. The Western Arctic caribou herd is the largest in Alaska and seasonally roams through the refuge. Spring brings birds to the Arctic to nest, including some Asiatic species rarely seen anywhere else in the United States. Fish some 22,000 ponds and two large river deltas for Arctic char, chum, whitefish and grayling and northern pike. Bringing in a 40-50 pound inconnu is not uncommon.

“This state, and all its refuges, are so huge, yet there are very few roads,” says Heather Bartlett, acting deputy manager of Yukon Flats National Wildlife Refuge, which is bisected by the Yukon and Porcupine rivers. “Because of this, rivers become the roads. People use them as primary travel corridors. In the summer, travel is by boat and raft. In the winter, people travel by snow machine, skis and dog teams.” The Sheenjek River is among the refuge’s major rivers.

A remote 8.6-million-acre wetland complex nestled between the White and Brooks Mountain ranges, Yukon Flats Refuge is a challenging destination in any season. But oh the rewards: chances to see dall sheep, moose, bear, wolves, wolverines and caribou. You can fish on some 20,000 lakes ponds and wetlands for northern pike, chinook, coho and chum salmon and Dolly Varden, among other species.


A great blue heron hunts for fish along Canal Run Trail at Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge in Georgia. The refuge is the headwaters for two famed Southeast rivers.
Photo: Steve Brooks/USFWS

“What makes the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge so unique is that you travel into the beating heart of two of the Southeast’s most pristine rivers — the Suwannee River and the St. Marys,” says Refuge Manager Michael Lusk. “Both are important for wildlife and people. For example, the Suwannee River serves as important habitat for the threatened Gulf sturgeon, while the St. Marys River provides habitat for the endangered Atlantic and shortnose sturgeon. Both of these rivers, because they are so pristine, offer excellent fishing and boating.”

A day or an overnight paddling trip through the Okefenokee is the experience of a lifetime. Alligators glide through tea-colored water. Herons and egrets wade through tall grasses and water lilies. Bears roam through hammocks and islands. The refuge has seven overnight shelters and three islands available for wildlife viewing and exploration in the swamp’s interior.

You can hunt seasonally in three areas: the Suwannee Canal Recreation Area (Eastside), the Pocket (Westside) and the Cowhouse Unit (Northside). Depending on where you choose, you can hunt for deer, turkey and small game or take your try at feral hog hunting.


Participants in the annual Great River Rumblepaddle their canoes and kayaks along the Mississippi as it passes through Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge. The multi-day event celebrates the Mississippi’s role in outdoor recreation.
Photo: John Fitzgerald

The Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge, along 261 miles of what may be America’s most celebrated river, is a hub of outdoor recreation and a boon to the area’s economic vitality. Divided into four districts, the 240,000-acre Upper Mississippi River Refuge runs from the confluence of the Chippewa River in Wisconsin to near Rock Island in Illinois. Observation decks and canoe and bike trails are just some of the ways that visitors can view wildlife. Boating may offer the most intimate look at the river system. The refuge is known for its waterfowl hunting, and has year-long fishing, including famed ice fishing.

Marked canoe trails wind through the refuge’s marshes and backwater areas. The annual Great River Rumble July 28-August 4 takes paddlers from Keosauqua, Iowa, to Hannibel, Missouri, down the Des Moines and Mississippi Rivers. The route passes through Upper Mississippi River Refuge.


Great flocks of Canada geese and snow geese gather in the wetlands of Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. The refuge wetlands are fed by the Blackwater River.
Photo: Mary Konchar

The Blackwater River and its marshes attract tens of thousands of waterfowl each winter along the Atlantic Flyway. “In the dead of winter, you will find wildlife watchers and waterfowl hunters alike attracted to the overwintering flocks,” says Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge manager Marcia Pradines.

Winter is hardly the only time to visit the refuge. The number of migratory songbirds peaks in late April and early May. You can see white-tailed fawns, usually twins, and eaglets fledge from late May to mid-June. Osprey have returned in the spring from their wintering grounds. Autumn colors peak in October, and November brings tundra swans from Northwest Canada.

You can bike several routes, some of which are perfect for novices, others for experienced cyclists, all on a loop route along the paved Wildlife Drive. You can hunt for deer, turkey and waterfowl on some areas of the refuge. Fishing and crabbing from boats are allowed seasonally.


Say Parker River National Wildlife Refuge and people think Plum Island. The barrier beach island is just part of the refuge’s approximately 4,700 acres that include sandy beach and dune habitat, cranberry bog, maritime forest and the Great Marsh, the largest continuous salt marsh north of Long Island Sound. The refuge attracts hundreds of songbirds, shorebirds and waterfowl. Spring and fall are favorite paddling seasons because migratory birds are plentiful and mosquitoes and horseflies are not. Waterfowl hunting is available in designated salt marsh areas of the refuge during state seasons, and the refuge offers some of the area’s finest surf fishing.


Photo: Missouri River Institute

The Missouri River, at more than 2,400 miles, is the longest river in North America. People have depended on the river and its tributaries for sustenance and transportation for more than 12,000 years. Big Muddy National Fish and Wildlife Refuge encompasses more than 17,000 acres of riverine habitat along the river and consists of 15 units, most of them along the lower Missouri River. What recreation it offers!

Hunting opportunities abound: deer, turkey, waterfowl, upland birds and small game. Scour lakes and ponds created and replenished by Missouri River give you the chance to fish for crappie, bass catfish, carp and more throughout the year. See migratory birds in the fall and spring. Beaver, bobcat and other secretive wildlife travel along the shore and in the water, especially in early morning or late evening. Trails bring you to the perfect places to watch what the river reveals. Don’t forget to take photos!


Nebraska’s Niobrara River
Photo: Nebraska Game & Parks Commission

Thousands of people each year, especially kayakers and canoeists, use the nine miles of the Niobrara River that flow eastward across Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge. Designated a National Scenic River, National Wilderness Area and a National Recreation Trail, this portion of the river brings people from around the world to relaxing float trips that can be completed in just a few hours. They find the deep canyon and river full of native vegetation and animals refreshing for the soul. They often drive the 3.5-mile Wildlife Drive to see bison, elk, deer and prairie dogs. In April and May, male sharp-tailed grouse and greater prairie-chickens display on courting areas known as a lek.


The 4.5- mile segment of Darby Creek at John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge at Tinicum winds through the largest freshwater tidal marsh in Pennsylvania before flowing into the Delaware River. See migratory birds, including warblers, herons, egrets and sandpipers, as well as bald eagles, kingfishers and waterfowl. Enjoy great fishing along the way. Refuge waters are tidal and navigable only within two hours before and after high tide. Seasonal kayak tours let you see what a freshwater tidal marsh looks like from the vantage point of wading birds. You can see numerous points of interest from a canoe as you head from the launch site to the creek’s deep water lagoon.


The Friends of Trinity River Refuge helped raise funds and build a 500-foot boardwalk for the public to view beauty of the Trinity River at Trinity River National Wildlife Refuge in Texas.
Photo: USFWS

Within the heartland of Caddo culture, Trinity River National Wildlife Refuge was established in 1994 to protect a remnant of the bottomland hardwood forest found along the Trinity River. The refuge’s cypress-studded lake and bottomland hardwood forest are important breeding, wintering and stopover habitat for wildlife. More than 275 species of birds live in or migrate through the bottomland forests and wetlands in eastern Texas, including some 100 species that breed here. Wood ducks spend their summers on the refuge, where they nest in the cavities of large cypress trees. See white-tailed deer, coyotes, bobcat and an estimated 400 types of butterflies and moths.

You might get your hiking boots muddy, but you have several easy-to-traverse trails to explore. Champion Lake is the largest for fishing. The refuge has a variety of hunts.


A bull moose crosses a side channel of the Green River at Seedskadee National Wildlife Refugein Wyoming. The Green River is one of the major tributaries of the Colorado River, which fuels economies downriver.
Photo: Tom Koerner/USFWS

“Rivers are the lifeblood of a landscape,” says Tom Koerner, manager of Seedskadee National Wildlife Refuge, speaking of the Green River, a major tributary of the Colorado River. “In dry climates, like Wyoming’s, almost 80 percent of wildlife species need wetlands and rivers at some point in their lifecycles.”

In the shadow of the Wind River Mountain Range, Seedskadee Refuge and the Green River are vital for more than 250 species of resident and migrant wildlife. See birds in their bright breeding plumage as spring begins to melt the ice on the river. Mid-June through early September, sage-grouse hens lead their young to the refuge’s wet meadows and riverine areas; hummingbirds arrive in late June and stay into the fall. Kayaking is a popular way to see the refuge. Drift boats and canoes are also perfect for fishing and wildlife watching. Don’t forget to look for moose.