TAKE REFUGE: San Luis National Wildlife Refuge Complex

A tule elk herd travels across California plains.

Every refuge has a unique calling card. But the San Luis National Wildlife Refuge Complex in the heart of central California is extraordinary because it consists of three separate wildlife refuges which means, three-times the thrills for visitors.

Merced National Wildlife Refuge

Oldest of the three refuges, the Merced National Wildlife Refuge was established under the Lea Act in 1951. Merced is comprised of more than 10,000 acres of wetlands and grasslands originally set aside to attract wildlife away from adjacent farms. Now, tour routes along the river provide breathtaking scenery, including glimpses of blue heron as they fly south for winter. Naturalist and founder of the Sierra Club, John Muir, once called the Merced River valley the “floweriest part of the world” because of its colorful fields of wildflowers and colusa grass, a flowering tall grass native to California.

San Luis National Wildlife Refuge

In 1966, Federal Duck Stamp funds were used to purchase the San Luis National Wildlife Refuge, which began as a 7,000-acre safe haven for migratory fowl in the San Joaquin valley in central California. Today, the refuge has expanded to cover nearly 27,000 acres.

During summer, tule elk can be seen rubbing the velvet from their antlers, and you can spot giant herds grazing along one of the complex’s three vehicle trails. During midsummer, male tule elk lock horns in battle for mates during dangerous sparring spectacles.

San Joaquin River National Wildlife Refuge

Established in 1987, the San Joaquin River National Wildlife Refuge boasts more than 7,000 acres of wetlands and forest. Several threatened and endangered species, including Aleutian cackling geese, have recovered over the past decades thanks to concerted conservation efforts within the refuge.

To the delight of many waiting naturalist and observers, the Pelican Nature Trail, a 4-mile loop through restored woodlands and marsh, opened this spring. Here, Swainson’s hawks can be seen perched in the canopy during the spring and summer. And in the winter months, once rare Aleutian cackling geese are now a common sight.

A blue heron.

What to Do?

Your trip should begin at the San Luis Complex Visitor Center. Here, you’ll be able to pick up maps, find out about special events and decide which refuge to explore first.

There’s no better place to take photographs and watch wildlife. From observation platforms, you can catch stunning views of the refuge and spy some captivating critters — from eagles, geese and pelicans to coyote, brush rabbits and even ibis, a long-legged wading bird.

Even if you’re not the type to go exploring alone, you can make an appointment with a tour group. To experience the beauty and the excitement of nature in central California, TAKE REFUGE this summer at the San Luis National Wildlife Refuge Complex. Or find a national wildlife refuge near you.