Fall in Love with Wild America

Staff Pick Their Favorite Hidden Gems

In honor of Valentine’s Day, National Wildlife Federation staff members are sharing favorite wild places and hidden gems – from national parks to national forests to wildlife refuges.

As naturalist David Mizejewski says, “What a gift.”

Not only do they inspire and amaze millions of visitors, America’s wild public lands provide habitat for an extraordinary range of rare and vulnerable wildlife species.

Explore some of these special places through the eyes of National Wildlife Federation naturalists, scientists, and educators.  Go ahead and fall in love!



Island fox. Photo by Tim Coonan, National Park Service.

My family has visited many national parks over the years, but one of my favorites is Channel Islands National Park off the southern California coast. It’s a true gem for many reasons, and since you can only get there by boat or small plane, it’s one of the least visited national parks. Special memories from our day trip include taking a guided hike which led to stunning coastal views, along with a snorkeling adventure and several sightings of the island fox, only found on the Channel Islands.

-Kath Race, K-12 Program Coordinator, Education



Black-tailed jackrabbit_Mohave
Black-tailed jackrabbit at Mohave National Preserve. Photo via the National Park Service.

My favorite national park is the Mojave National Preserve, CA. Why? Hole-in-the-Wall Rings Loop Trail and group campsite. It’s a short hike, compared to most. Nevertheless, magic surrounds its trail and it’s transformative. I remember my first visit, walking through a small valley and its walls filled with holes. Over millions of years, eruptions spewed layers of lava and uneven cooling and gases captured during the eruption formed the “holes.”  They make for great photos. Looking at pictures, I came to realize that I don’t have a favorite park, but that I have a favorite realization. On my first visit, I came to realize the power of the wild.  The wild brings us together and surrounds us like a warm embrace.

-Tony Bautista, California Environmental Education Manager



Gallison Lake, CA
Gallison Lake. Photo by Beth Pratt, National Wildlife Federation.

I call Yosemite my North Star — it’s a place that always centers and guides me and has since I first stepped foot in the park almost thirty years ago. I worked in the park for over a decade, got engaged and married there, and have explored much of its 1,169 square miles. Half Dome and Yosemite Falls usually dominate the scenic photos you see of the park, but the most beautiful place in Yosemite for me sits far in the backcountry, a lovely turquoise gem of a lake placed within the glacier-carved setting of the Cathedral Range. I’ve never known such absolute peace as when I relaxed in the embrace of its soft meadows, gazing at the rich blue Sierra sky, and listening to the chirping of my favorite critter, the pika, echo off the rocks.

-Beth Pratt, California Executive Director



Masked boobies, a species unique to Papahānaumokuākea. Photo Kaleomanuiwa Wong.
Masked boobies, a species unique to Papahānaumokuākea. Photo Kaleomanuiwa Wong, NOAA.

Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument is one of the largest protected areas in the world — encompassing 583,000 square miles of ocean waters, including 10 islands — and there’s no other place like it. The Native Hawaiian people consider it the place where life begins. It is also part of the seascape used by wayfarers in traditional ocean voyaging by canoe. As a protected area, it helps to preserve top predators such as sharks and jacks. It includes the migratory routes of many threatened and endangered marine species, including whales, Hawaiian monk seals, sharks, sea turtles, and seabirds. Its rich biodiversity is amazing, and new species are discovered every time scientists explore the area. It is truly a world heritage site set aside for our children and generations to come.

-Marjorie Ziegler, Executive Director of NWF affiliate Conservation Council for Hawai’i



Shawnee National Forest
Photo Gill Poole/flickr.

Shawnee National Forest in southern Illinois is a hidden gem. I grew up in Carbondale, Ill., just north of the Shawnee. Hilly and wooded, unlike most of Illinois, it is also the confluence of wildlife ranges: east and west, north and south. It has remarkable sandstone outcroppings and even cedar swamps. It spans nearly the entire southern tip of the state. It is a remarkable recreational resource for hiking, birding, hunting and fishing.

-Bob Harper, Executive Publisher, Magazines



Turtles at Barataria Preserve. Photo National Park Service.
Turtles at Barataria Preserve. Photo via the National Park Service.

Just a short drive from New Orleans lies the Barataria Preserve, the only “wild” part of the Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve. The trails of the preserve snake through a cypress-tupelo swamp and down into a marsh, giving you a glimpse of what southern Louisiana once looked like. During the warmer months, alligators are abundant, lurking in the water or sunbathing on the shore. I’ve also spotted prothonotary warblers, armadillos, and the occasional swamp rabbit. The National Wildlife Federation’s efforts in Louisiana focus on restoring the Mississippi River Delta — I frequently visit this preserve to remind myself of just how special this place is and what we’re working toward.

-Alisha Renfro, Ph.D., Staff Scientist



Assateague Island
Photo by Cindy Olson, National Wildlife Federation.

It’s not really a hidden gem, but we love Assateague Island. What could be better than a national park at the beach? The rangers at Tom’s Cove have the best educational programs. We have kayaked, seine netted and identified fish, gone bird watching, and examined all kinds of sea life. They make science come to life. It is also special to me because it was the first national park that we visited with our “4th grade park pass” and one of my daughter’s favorite junior ranger programs.

-Cindy Olson, Art Director, Ranger Rick Magazines



Heron at Blackwater National Widldlife Federation.
Photo by Kaila Drayton, National Wildlife Federation.

Blackwater is the site of the largest density of breeding bald eagles north of Florida. It’s a great place to spot wildlife at any time of year, and a favorite go-to for birders. The driving loop takes you around the marshes, where you can spot pairs of bald eagles, wading blue herons, and hovering northern harriers. There are also a few short walking trails that offer a chance to stretch your legs and watch the wildlife activity.

-Kaila M. Drayton, Manager of Operations, Programs



Parker River National Wildlife Refuge
Photo by Matt Poole, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Parker River is one of the most important migratory bird stopover sites in New England. Over 350 species of birds have been seen on the refuge, and no matter what time of year you visit, there’s always lots to see. During the fall, shorebirds, terns, and herons congregate in spectacular numbers before migrating south. In the winter you can often see snowy owls hunting over the marsh. When spring finally arrives, the snow disappears, the marsh fills with ducks, and the trees are alive with warblers. And if you visit during summer months, keep your eye out for federally threatened piping plovers that nest on the beach and dunes.

-Taj Schottland, Coastal Adaptation Specialist



Elk at Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge. Photo USFWS.
Elk at Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge. Photo via USFWS.

My pick is the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge, a 1.1-million acre refuge that encompasses Fort Peck Lake. NWF is actively marking fence to prevent sage-grouse deaths, as well as working to restore bison to the area. It is one of the most remote areas I have ever encountered, and is teaming with fauna — elk, bighorn sheep, antelope, deer, mountain lions, and many other prairie bird species. There is also an active black-footed ferret recovery program, and a lot of native American history (buffalo jumps), as well as the accounts of the Lewis and Clark expedition through the area.

-Hayley Newman, Field Project Coordinator



Red Rocks National Wildlife Refuge
Red Rocks Lake National Wildlife Refuge. Photo by Erin Clark, USFWS.

Montana has many great national wildlife refuges, but two stand out, Red Rock Lakes NWR in southwest Montana and the Charles M. Russell NWR (CMR) in the north central part of the state. The two Red Rock lakes — Upper and Lower — and the surrounding marshes provide habitat for thousands of waterfowl and shore birds in a breathtaking setting of high mountain peaks and the vast sage steppe grasslands of the Centennial Valley. The remoteness of Red Rocks is matched by the vast grasslands and badlands of CMR, where elk, mule deer, pronghorn, and sage grouse find plenty of habitat along with myriad other wildlife. The Big Sky of Montana is truly found at CMR.

-Tom France, Northern Rockies Executive Director



Photo National Park Service.
Photo via the National Park Service.

Most of the wilderness lies in Santa Fe National Forest, with a portion in Carson National Forest. There are a few private in-holdings in the area. The Chama River is a favorite paddling destination. The mesa above the river, Golondrina Mesa, is full of wonderful wildlife like black bear, elk and mule deer, and the periphery is lined with wonderful ruins of the Gallina culture.

-Debbie Anderson, Senior Production Coordinator



White Sands National Monument
Photo Karen Bishop, National Wildlife Federation.

Described by the National Park Service as “Like No Place Else on Earth,” White Sands is an enchanting place. A trip in January shows you the true color of the “white” sands, as they appear sandy brown when surrounded by snow. Many animals survive in camouflage among the ever-shifting gypsum dunes, but their footprints attest to their presence. The few plants that live here are highly adapted to the unique environment. The sound of the Rio Grande cottonwood’s (Populus deltoids wislizeni) rustling leaves can be heard with such clarity; the only voice willing to disturb the tranquility. Set to a backdrop of mountains, White Sands offers many trails and even sledding opportunities… take the detour to White Sands on your next road trip to stretch your legs and take in an entirely different landscape than your normal forested, coastal, or urban area… it’s entirely worth it!

-Karen Bishop, Education Outreach Coordinator



Summer blue azure
Summer azure butterfly at Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge. Photo by Pamela Chasek.

A national park in New York City that I have come to know and love is the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge (JBWR) in Queens, New York, not far from JFK airport and some 25 miles from the heart of the bustling city. To get there, one must travel over Cross Bay Bridge to Broad Channel, a strip of road that leads to the Refuge and makes me feel that I’ve escaped to another place, a wild place. Once in the Refuge, I’m amazed that this serene sanctuary exists so close to NYC. In spring, purple balls of swamp milkweed and New England aster flowers bloom in the pollinator garden, attracting bees and butterflies. Birds fly overhead; osprey nests rise up from the marsh on stilts. Somewhere, I know that terrapin turtles and horseshoe crabs are making their homes here. Dense vegetation flanks the trail to the West Pond. As the view opens up and I look across to see houses, I’m reminded that civilization is not far away.

-Emily Fano, Senior Manager, NYC Eco-Schools



Zoar Valley MUA, NY
Photo by Ben Kota, National Wildlife Federation.

My pick is not a national park or national public land – it’s land set aside by New York State. I try to go to Zoar Valley when I am back in western New York. The Cattaraugus Creek flows through a very large gorge, with steep 400+ foot cliffs having absolutely beautiful scenes. There are waterfalls, white water rafting, an old growth forest hidden away (locals keep the location hidden to protect the trees), and the fishery is really good with steelhead, rainbow trout, brown trout, smallmouth bass and catfish. Last time I was there, I parked at the Deer Lick Nature Preserve and there was a diverse array of native plants including milkweed, and monarchs!

-Ben Kota, General Counsel



Kemps ridley sea turtle. Photo via the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

This refuge is a hot-spot for birders, who come from thousands of miles to catch a glimpse of the critically endangered whooping crane. Many people may not realize that today’s whooping crane population, recently counted at 329 individuals, are descendants of the last 15 birds found wintering in Texas in 1941. Refuge visitors may also be unaware of the fact that the refuge contains the Matagorda Island unit, a barrier island extending down the Texas coast, which serves as nesting grounds for sea turtles such as the endangered Kemp’s ridley. The refuge also contains many miles of trails for the outdoor enthusiast, which provide for an array of wildlife watching!

-Ryan Fikes, Staff Scientist, Gulf of Mexico Restoration Program



Green Mountain National Forest
Photo by Zach Cockrum, National Wildlife Federation.

This picture was taken at a stream — exactly which I will not reveal — outside of Granville, Vermont in the Green Mountain National Forest. It is a tributary to the White River, which has three major tributaries. The other two meander through valleys that have been impacted from farming and grazing for two centuries. The headwaters in the Green Mountains are the healthiest and contain the most plentiful brook trout.

-Zach Cockrum, Regional Representative, Northeast Regional Center


ROCK CREEK PARK (Washington, D.C.)

Monarch at Military Road Meadow, Rock Creek Park. Photo Katja Schulz/flickr.
Monarch butterfly at Military Road Meadow, Rock Creek Park. Photo Katja Schulz/flickr.

Rock Creek Park is my hidden gem of a national park. As a resident of Washington, D.C., what a gift it is to be able to escape the hustle and bustle of the city by immersing myself in the woods, stream valleys and fields of our only urban National Park.

-David Mizejewski, Naturalist


Sadly, the wild public lands we love – and the wildlife we cherish – are in grave danger. Many in Congress want to “dispose” of public lands by selling them to private interests, and even open the lands and waters up widely to harmful oil and gas development.


Urge your members of Congress to defend national parks, forests, monuments and wildlife refuges!