Americans love their wild spaces. Designating large swaths of land for preservation and enjoyment is proudly woven into their cultural heritage. America’s National Parks attract travel lovers from all over the world, eager to experience her natural beauty and wildlife watching opportunities first hand. While all this love for Mother Nature is great, peak travel season in some of these places can be a little crowded.

If you crave that wilderness experience without having to sit in a traffic jam to get it, here’s the secret: National Wildlife Refuges. When designating wild places for protection, Americans didn’t stop at National Parks. They set about protecting everything from sea shores to grasslands to animal habitats! Because of this environmental foresight, the flora and fauna have a safe place to thrive and we have opportunities to truly commune with nature.   

While wildlife refuges can be found throughout America’s many diverse regions, there are four refuges in the Great Basin region of America’s west that are a must-see for anyone searching for a travel adventure off the beaten path – and they’re idyllic spots for wildlife watching.   

What the heck is the Great Basin?

“Basin” is the key term here. In this arid region that covers most of Nevada, as well as parts of Oregon, California, Wyoming, Idaho, and Utah, much of the rainfall doesn’t drain to rivers or oceans. Instead, what doesn’t evaporate absorbs into the ground, creating seasonal lakes and swamps that become a reliable habitat for fish, plants, mammals, and most importantly, migrating birds. 

Due to its challenging climate-picture mountains, grasslands, rocks, sagebrush, hot days, and cold nights, this area is populated mostly by cattle ranches. Which means it can be remote. Very remote. But also great for camping, hiking, and wildlife watching.

Great Basin Scenery

The scenic Great Basin region. Photo: Bob Wick via Flickr

Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge, Oregon

Jutting up abruptly from the floor of Warner Valley, Hart Mountain carves a dramatic scene across the sky. Driving up the long, steep road to the refuge offers panoramic views of the seasonal wetlands below and the sheer expansiveness of the Oregon backcountry. 

Created in 1936 to protect the threatened pronghorn antelope, the Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge is a high desert paradise of grassy meadows, shallow lakes, gorges, canyons, and rolling hills. It’s home to over 300 species of protected wildlife such as bobcats, coyote, golden eagles, sandhill cranes, and of course, pronghorn. A perfect addition to your Oregon trips to-do list.  

Hart Mountain

Hart Mountain. Photo: Sean Bagshaw, via Flickr

Sheldon National Wildlife Refuge, Nevada

Due to the banning of livestock grazing, Sheldon provides travel lovers an opportunity to see the natural, lush state of one of the last sagebrush ecosystems in the Great Basin region.

Established in 1931 with the goal of protecting migrating birds and native plants and wildlife, it protects 2,330 km2  (900 m2 ) of grasslands, cliffs, valleys, and narrow canyons. This provides plenty of space for the pronghorn, North America’s fastest land mammal, as well as pygmy rabbits, bighorn sheep, the sage grouse, and mule deer to roam free. 

While visiting, you can peer into the 1,000 Creek Gorge, search for wild opals, camp in a place called Virgin Valley… or maybe even catch sight of a wild mustang.

Pronghorn Antelope

Pronghorn Antelope. Photo: Tom Shoemaker via Flickr

Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, Oregon

It’s difficult to choose the best part about Malheur: the seemingly endless flocks of birds that travel through, or the striking view of the jagged Steens Mountain. It was designated in 1908 after plume hunters devastated bird populations starting in the 1880s due to the demand for pricey feather accents in high fashion. 

Malheur’s numerous ponds, marshes, and lakes provide habitat to over 320 species of birds.  Because of its strategic position on the Pacific Flyway Route, a migratory path for birds, Malheur is one of the most imperative breeding areas for waterfowl in the United States. But it’s not just for bird lovers. Over 50 species of mammals can be spotted among the 12 different habitats – including desert, grassland, and rimrock – that comprise this refuge.


American Avocet at Malheur NWR. Photo: David Renwald via Flickr

Upper and Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuges, Oregon and California

A little closer to civilization and situated on the northern and roughly southern end of Upper Klamath Lake, these two smaller refuges host diverse wildlife watching experiences. If hiking and grasslands aren’t exactly your thing, you can still enjoy the raw natural experience of a wildlife refuge. Upper Klamath is only accessible by canoe or kayak and offers travel lovers a 15 km (9.5 m) water trail through marsh and open lake, all against the backdrop of a forest of Ponderosa and Doug Fir trees.  

About 30 miles to the south, the first waterfowl refuge established in the U.S. and a National Historic Landmark, Lower Klamath has hiking trails and wildlife watching areas situated in the shadow of the picturesque California peak, Mt. Shasta.


Lower Klamath NWR. Photo: Michael McCollough via Flickr

 If you’re craving a peaceful adventure in places so remote the night sky will steal your breath away, your cellphone won’t find a signal, and wildlife is plentiful, add these wild life refuges to your list. 

The remote, challenging nature of the Great Basin region is part of its allure, but also requires extra preparation. Weather in these areas can be unpredictable, leading to possible road closures and unfavorable conditions. Check the websites to see which season is the best for travel, both for peak wildlife sightings and safety.

Also read:

How National Refuges Protect our Wild Lands and Wildlife

12 Lesser Known National Parks in America to fall in love with

Check out our Travel Ideas section for more ideas that’ll inspire your next vacation!