Thanksgiving Hikes for City Lovers

Some Nature Walks Are Close to Downtown – at National Wildlife Refuges

Assabet River; National Wildlife Refuge
Assabet River; National Wildlife Refuge
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Washington, DC -( Celebrating Thanksgiving in the city needn’t mean giving nature the slip.

Either pre- or post-stuffing, you’ll feel better if you get out and move. But where? Head to a scenic walking trail on a national wildlife refuge – many cities have one closer than you might think. Entrance is either free or almost. While you walk off your feast, you might even spy some wilder birds than the ones around your table.

National wildlife refuges, managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, are part of America’s rich natural heritage. They have been so since 1903, when President Theodore Roosevelt established the first national wildlife refuge on Pelican Island in Florida.

Refuges offer chances to see an almost unparalleled array of wildlife, including many of the nation’s most beloved and spectacular species. Check out scores of refuge trails here:

Denver, CO: Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge (6550 Gateway Rd., Commerce City, CO):

  • Drive time: 30 minutes from downtown. Less than 10 miles west of Denver International Airport
  • Try this: Rod and Gun Club Trail, 2.4 miles round trip, passes through cottonwoods and locust trees, ending at small ponds with a viewing blind.
  • Keep an eye out for: Hawks, eagles, great horned owls, ducks, migratory songbirds, white-tailed and mule deer.
  • Keep in mind: No bicycles or pets. Service dogs are welcome.
  • Other options: 10 miles of nature trails on the refuge

Minneapolis, MN: Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge (3815 American Blvd., East Bloomington, MN):

  • Drive time: 40 minutes from downtown. Who knew you could find a quiet nature walk a few blocks from the Mall of America?
  • Try this: Hogback Ridge Trail from Bass Ponds Trailhead, 1.8 miles through a flat river bottom forest and meadows. Wetlands and ponds along the trail offer prime bird viewing opportunities.
  • Keep an eye out for: Red-headed woodpecker, red-shouldered hawk and wood ducks; up to 25 species of migratory songbirds.
  • Keep in mind: Pets on leashes are welcome.
  • Other options: Over 35 more miles of trail on the refuge with many connecting local and regional trails.

New Orleans, LA: Bayou Sauvage National Wildlife Refuge (61389 Hwy. 434, Lacombe, LA):

  • Drive time: 30 minutes from the French Quarter
  • Try this: Ridge Trail Boardwalk – an easy 2/3 mile. Cross the marsh without getting wet on a raised boardwalk. Two marsh overlooks provide unique vantage points during November’s peak migration. The newly planted cypress trees you see along your walk should one day restore this area that was significantly damaged by Hurricane Katrina.
  • Keep an eye out for: Wigeons, canvasbacks, white and brown pelicans, great blue herons, snowy egrets, turkey vultures, bald eagles, red-tailed hawks and great horned owls.
  • Keep in mind: Pets are welcome.
  • Other options: Visitors can also hike along the 2-mile levee trail or enjoy another short boardwalk hike at the Madere Marsh unit, just a quarter mile southeast of the Ridge Trail.

Newark, NJ: Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge (241 Pleasant Plains Rd., Basking Ridge, NJ):

  • Drive time: 36 minutes from Newark, about an hour from midtown Manhattan
  • Try this: Wildlife Observation Center Trail, 1.3 easy miles of boardwalk and gravel, takes you over the wetlands while keeping your feet dry.
  • Keep an eye out for: Canada geese, mallards, pintail, warblers
  • Keep in mind: No pets. Service dogs are welcome.
  • Other options: About 10 more miles of trails on the refuge

Olympia, WA Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge (100 Brown Farm Rd., Olympia, WA):

  • Drive time: 20 minutes from Tacoma, 60 minutes from Seattle
  • Try this: The Nisqually Estuary Boardwalk Trail – 4 miles round trip of flat, easy walking – provides stunning views of the Nisqually Estuary. It has a viewing tower and two viewing platforms.
  • Keep an eye out for: Thousands of geese and ducks that use refuge habitats during winter. Look also for raptors including bald eagles.
  • Keep in mind: No jogging, bikes or pets. Service dogs are welcome. Entrance fee of $3 covers four adults. Kids under 16 are free.
  • Other options: For a shorter walk, try the 1-mile accessible Twin Barns Loop Trail, which travels through a variety of habitats. Stop by the Norm Dicks Visitor Center, open Wednesday through Sunday (except federal holidays) from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Got kids? Check out the Nature Explore Area, an outdoor space designed for the younger set.

Philadelphia, PA: John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge at Tinicum (8601 Lindbergh Blvd., Philadelphia, PA):

  • Drive time: Inside Philadelphia city limits, 3 miles from airport. Accessible via SEPTA buses and trains.
  • Try this: Impoundment Loop, 3.5 flat miles on dirt and gravel roads surrounding a 1,200-acre marsh.
  • Keep an eye out for: More than 20 species of waterfowl, including shovelers, pintail and mergansers, along with woodpeckers, raptors and sparrows.
  • Keep in mind: Pets welcome.
  • Other options: Another 7+ miles of refuge trails.

Portland, OR: Tualatin River National Wildlife Refuge (19255 SW Pacific Hwy., Sherwood, OR):

  • Drive time: Less than 30 minutes from downtown by bus or car.
  • Try this: Main Trail, 2 gentle miles on gravel. Trail leads past ponds and oak savannahs and through the forest to a wetland observation deck. Interpretive exhibits offer information on local wildlife.
  • Keep an eye out for: >From November to January, vast flocks of pintail and mallard ducks, joined by cackling Canada geese, are easily observed from the parking lot overlook. Watch for bald eagles hunting over the wetlands.
  • Keep in mind: No running, cycling or pets. Service dogs are welcome.
  • Other options: Warm up in the Wildlife Center (closed Thanksgiving and Mondays). Enjoy the exhibits, visit with friendly volunteers, and start your holiday shopping in the nature store.

San Diego, CA: Tijuana Slough National Wildlife Refuge (301 Caspian Way, Imperial Beach, CA):

  • Drive time: 30 minutes (15 miles) south of downtown San Diego.
  • Try this: North McCoy Trail, a short 0.3 miles out-and-back trail from the visitor center. Too short? Try the South McCoy Trail, about 4 miles long, closer to the Tijuana River mouth where there are hundreds of birds to see and hear. The Tijuana River National Estuarine Research Reserve, a federal-state partnership that links the Service with another agency and California State Parks, describes both trails:
  • Keep an eye out for: Migrating waterfowl such as blue and green-winged teals, pintails, buffleheads, snowy, great, and reddish egrets, yellow-crowned night herons and Northern harriers (marsh hawks).
  • Keep in mind: No bicycles or pets are allowed on the North McCoy Trail. On the South McCoy trail, you can take your bike and leashed dog.
  • Other options: How about a gorgeous beach walk? Drive to the south end of Seacoast Drive to walk the North Beach Trail and view the wildlife on the dunes and slough, all the way down to the river mouth; 0.75 miles long.

San Francisco, CA: Don Edwards San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge (1 Marshland Rd., Fremont, CA):

  • Drive time: 26 miles from Fremont, 11 miles from San Jose, 2.1 miles from Highway 237.
  • Try this: Mallard Slough Trail, 4 miles, meanders along levees and around restored salt ponds and tidal salt marsh with views of the historic ghost town of Drawbridge.
  • Keep an eye out for: Sandpipers, shovelers, egrets, herons, mallards, buffleheads, grebes, migratory golden-crowned sparrows and yellow-rumped warblers.
  • Keep in mind: No pets. Service dogs welcome.
  • Other options: Another 20+ miles of trails.

Worcester, MA: Assabet River National Wildlife Refuge (680 Hudson Rd., Sudbury. MA):

  • Drive time: 30 minutes from the city.
  • Try this: Begin on Petapawag Trail and follow to Towhee Trail. Take a right onto Towhee Trail, follow to the end and turn right onto Harry’s Way. Follow a short distance and turn right onto Tri-Town Trail and follow back to parking area. This is approximately 3.5 miles.
  • Keep an eye out for: white-tailed deer, wild turkeys, beavers, red-tailed hawks and an occasional bald eagle.
  • Keep in mind: No pets. Service dogs welcome.
  • Other options: About 15 more miles of trails on the refuge.

About the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service:

The mission of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is working with others to conserve, protect, and enhance fish, wildlife, plants, and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American people. We are both a leader and trusted partner in fish and wildlife conservation, known for our scientific excellence, stewardship of lands and natural resources, dedicated professionals, and commitment to public service. For more information on our work and the people who make it happen, visit Connect with our Facebook page, follow our tweets, watch our YouTube Channel and download photos from our Flickr page.

For more information on our work and the people who make it happen, visit