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At one wildlife refuge in the Willamette Valley, you might spot the rare Fender’s blue butterfly, which isn’t usually found anywhere else in Oregon — or the planet. At another refuge, on the Oregon Coast, you’re bound to spy seals, shorebirds and migrating gray whales along 2,000 rocks, reefs and islands on one tiny stretch of protected coastal shoreline alone.
Today 18 national wildlife refuges occupy every corner of Oregon, offering safe habitat for hundreds of species of birds as well as fish, mammals, reptiles, amphibians and insects. Best of all: Visitors can hike and watch for wildlife in a tranquil space, free of crowds.
Like many conservation efforts, Oregon’s wildlife refuges were born of necessity. In the early 1900s, extensive hunting decimated once-thriving bird populations throughout North America. Hunters sought out colorful breeding feathers to feed the high-end hat industry and were reckless in their pursuits, leaving several species on the brink of extinction. A national outcry followed, spurring the creation of national wildlife refuges throughout the western United States.
In Oregon, President Theodore Roosevelt responded to the crisis in 1908 by establishing Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Southeastern Oregon, the state’s third refuge — and, at the time, one of only six west of the Mississippi River. More than places for bird nerds, wildlife refuges offer an easy, accessible nature escape — a chance to slow down and appreciate the sights, sounds and feels of the changing seasons.
Before heading out, though, a friendly reminder: Trails may be closed seasonally to protect wildlife, and pets are generally not allowed at wildlife refuges — so check your preferred refuge’s website for the most up-to-date, accurate information. Here’s a primer on what to do (and what you’ll see) at notable refuges around the state.
Rare Bird, Butterfly Species in the Willamette Valley
Baskett Slough National Wildlife Refuge sits about 14 miles west of Salem and was established in 1965 to help protect the dusky Canada goose. The iconic bird, noted for its slender black neck and white patch around its neck, winters almost exclusively in the Willamette Valley; keep an eye out for the bird on the refuge’s farmland all winter long. When the weather warms up, ascend the refuge’s Baskett Butte via the 2-mile Rich Guadagno Memorial Loop Trail to spy the rare Fender’s blue butterfly — thought to be extinct as recently as the 1980s. Today the bright-blue butterfly (which lives in the Willamette Valley and nowhere else on Earth) flutters through prairies covered in colorful wildflowers between mid-May and early June. Also in the Willamette Valley, William L. Finley National Wildlife Refuge sits just 12 miles south of Corvallis and is renowned for its resident herd of Roosevelt elk. The mammals can be seen around the refuge year-round but graze in its fields each fall, during the animal’s annual mating season. Listen for the high-pitched whines of bugling male elk in search of a mate.
Rocks, Reefs and Islands Along the Oregon Coast
Oregon Islands National Wildlife Refuge comprises nearly 2,000 rocks, reefs and islands between Tillamook Head near Seaside and the state’s southern border. If you’ve ever spied seagulls or sea lions resting on offshore rocks from viewpoints along the Oregon Coast, chances are good you’ve enjoyed the refuge without even knowing it. Coquille Point in Bandon is one of the refuge’s few mainland units accessible to visitors; its paved path showcases tide pools and overlooks offshore rocks that host tufted puffins, common murres and harbor seals. Farther north, the tranquil Siletz Bay National Wildlife Refuge makes it easy to connect with nature just outside Lincoln City. The estuary — marked by marshes, mudflats, beaches and open water — invites visitors to paddle the peaceful waters of Siletz Bay, so bring your own nonmotorized watercraft. You can also hike the short, flat Alder Island Nature Trail and fish for chinook salmon in spring. Shorebirds arrive in large numbers every spring and fall (and feed in salt marshes and mudflats). Waterfowl frolic in the waters of Siletz Bay throughout the year, and a variety of mammals (from elk, deer and otters to bobcats and even black bears) call the refuge home.
Flocks of Migrating Birds in Eastern Oregon
Nowhere in Oregon are refuges so singularly focused on protecting birds as they are in Eastern Oregon. A pair of refuges in the region date back to the early 1900s and, roughly a century later, offer some of the state’s best bird-watching opportunities. McKay Creek National Wildlife Refuge, established in 1927, sits just south of Pendleton and is both a popular fishing hole (in spring and summer) and a wildlife-watching outpost. Keep an eye out for osprey nesting in the refuge’s riparian forests, great blue herons in exposed mudflats and pheasants in the grass-covered uplands. Keep in mind that parts of the refuge are open March through September, while other areas are closed between late January and the end of February to protect wintering waterfowl; check with the refuge before visiting to ensure it’s open and accessible. In Southeastern Oregon’s Harney County, Malheur National Wildlife Refuge is noted for the more than 320 species of birds that flock to the region all year long. Spring brings swans and northern pintails; summer and fall bring waterfowl and migrating shorebirds (including large populations of sandhill cranes); and winter means small populations of swans and sparrows. Perhaps the best way to explore Malheur is to drive the refuge’s auto tour route; the 42-mile gravel road passes through a variety of habitats and offers several opportunities to see resident flocks.
Flyways and Pronghorn of Southern Oregon
The national wildlife refuges of Southern Oregon showcase a variety of diverse landscapes — from massive freshwater lakes to arid steppe land — and, as a bonus, offer a wide range of options for outdoor recreation as well. Upper Klamath National Wildlife Refuge, for instance, consists mostly of marshland and Upper Klamath Lake, the largest freshwater lake in Oregon. It’s best known as a stop along the Pacific Flyway, the migratory bird path that stretches from the Arctic tundra to the wetlands of South America. More than 1 million birds pass through the refuge every year, dazzling birders along the 9.5-mile Upper Klamath Canoe Trail and at viewpoints throughout the refuge. The American white pelican, several species of heron, bald eagles and osprey are just some of the birds you might see. Farther east, Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge covers a swath of dry, sagebrush-covered high desert between the arid Oregon Outback and Steens Mountain. As the name implies, Hart Mountain was established to protect dwindling herds of pronghorn antelope, known as the fastest land animal in North America. Other species residing within the high-desert refuge include California bighorn sheep and the greater sage grouse. You can pitch a tent for rustic overnight camping at the refuge. Hiking is allowed on seasonal roads, typically open between June and December. Visitors should arrive prepared for emergencies and be self-sufficient.
Wildlife Watching Near Portland
In Sherwood, a short drive southwest of Portland, Tualatin River National Wildlife Refuge has the rare distinction of being a refuge within an urban setting. It’s an easy escape from city life as you explore the wide range of habitats throughout the Tualatin River floodplain. Visitors have several options for spying some of the nearly 200 species of bird (and 50 species of mammals) that can be found around the refuge. A roughly 2-mile round-trip nature trail is open all year long, heading to the banks of the Tualatin River and ending at a viewpoint overlooking the refuge’s wetlands. From May to September, visitors can walk on 3 miles of flat, accessible service roads. Don’t forget the binoculars. In recent years, the refuge has become an increasingly popular stop along the Pacific Flyway: Thousands of waterfowl including Canada geese descend on the refuge each winter, while osprey and breeding songbirds frequent the refuge in summer. Great blue herons can be seen year-round.