Next week, after 40 years of delays, Virginia's Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge is opening a proper visitor center. And according to refuge manager John Schroer, it's going to be a hit.
"This will instantly become the most visited center in the entire refuge system," says Schroer, standing amid the buzz-saw bustle of last-minute work on the $10 million Bateman Educational Center. With state-of-the-art displays and the eco-urbane look of a hip coffee bar, the barrier island museum will be a crowd pleaser when it opens Oct. 25. But Schroer speaks not from pride so much as demographic certainty. More than 1.5 million people a year visit Chincoteague's unspoiled beaches, trails and marshes. A lot of them are going to stop by. "The idea is to give them a better understanding of our natural resources," Schroer says, "particularly our wildlife."
Teaching people to appreciate wildlife is not the main mission of the National Wildlife System, which is 100 years old this year. Its first job is helping wildlife itself by preserving some healthy habitat. From the Arctic Circle to Key West, refuges are 540 places where nature can have its way. But they are also where nature lovers can have a look, as more than 35 million visitors a year well know. Some refuges are simply undisturbed woods or wetlands with little infrastructure (200 refuges have no full-time staff), while others -- like Chincoteague -- are full-fledged destinations with trails, tours and gift shops. Here, we list a dozen nearby refuges worthy of a break, whether from an annual migration or a daily commute. (Info: National Wildlife Refuge Association, www.refugenet.org.)
1. CHINCOTEAGUE NWR, Chincoteague Island, Va. For the fourth most heavily visited refuge in the country, the beaches, dunes and marshes remain vibrant and unspoiled. Almost all the habitats are viewable along several nature trails, as well as a three-mile wildlife drive. And a worthy visitor center opens Oct. 25. Weekly entrance fee is $10 per vehicle. Lodging in Chincoteague, Va. Info: 757-336-6122, chinco.fws.gov.
2. GREAT SWAMP NWR, 152 Pleasant Plains Rd., Chatham, N.J. Only 26 miles from Manhattan, this 7,500-acre complex of open grasslands and swamp is home to more than 240 species of birds, plus abundant mammal and marine life. Almost nine miles of forest trails, a wildlife drive and observation blinds make for good viewing. Morristown is about 10 miles away. No entrance fee. Info: 973-425-1222, greatswamp.fws.gov.
3. CANAAN VALLEY NWR, Route 32, Davis, W.Va. At 3,200 feet, this is the highest valley east of the Rockies, a habitat described as a little bit of Canada in West Virginia. The valley floor is meadow, but above are unusual upland bogs, home to the black bear, American woodcock and northern flying squirrel. More than 40 miles of hiking trails line this 15,000-acre refuge, some placid, some mountainous (and some open to mountain bikes). Small visitor center and gift shop. Two miles from Canaan Valley State Park Lodge. No entrance fee. Info: 304-866-3858, refuges.fws.gov/profiles/index.cfm?id=51630.
4. GREAT DISMAL SWAMP NWR, 3100 Desert Rd., Suffolk, Va. This 111,000-acre swamp is temporarily closed to clean up from Hurricane Isabel. Managers hope to reopen, at least partly, by the end of October, but check before you go. Visitors will find a classic southern swamp of grand baldcypress , shady creeks, barred owls, otters, bats, raccoons and bears along more than 140 miles of hiking and biking trails. Canoe and kayak access to Lake Drummond is via the Feeder Ditch near Chesapeake, Va. No entrance fee. Motels in nearby Suffolk. Info: 757-986-3705, greatdismalswamp.fws.gov.
5. BOMBAY HOOK NWR, 2591 Whitehall Neck Rd., Smyrna, Del. The annual invasion of snow geese is beginning, and up to 100,000 will winter here before heading farther south in January. The other big show is the twice-yearly horseshoe crab spawn along the Delaware Bay -- millions of eggs attracting countless birds. There's a visitor center, small gift shop, seven miles of trails and a driving loop with audio tour. Daily entrance fee is $4 per car. Dover is 15 minutes away. Info: 302-653-6872, bombayhook.fws.gov.
6. PRIME HOOK NWR, 11978 Turkle Pond Rd., Milton, Del. Of Prime Hook's nearly 10,000 acres, 4,500 are freshwater marsh, and 2,300 are tidal, a rich, mixed habitat of shorebirds and migrants. Ducks are beginning to arrive now, and up to 85,000 blue-winged teals, mallards and other species will be arrive by mid- to late November. In addition to four hiking trails, a seven-mile canoe trail laces the freshwater marsh. No entrance fee; about 15 minutes from both Milford and Lewes. Info: 302-684-8419, primehook.fws.gov.
7. BLACKWATER NWR, 2145 Key Wallace Dr., Cambridge, Md. One of the best places to see the American bald eagle. Paddle 20 miles of marked canoe trails, drive the 6.5-mile wildlife loop or walk amid tidal marshes and forest trails. Highlights include migrating peregrine falcons. The visitor center is under renovation but there's an small information station at the entrance with maps. $3 per car, $1 per pedestrian. Lodging in Cambridge. Info: 410-228-2677, blackwater.fws.gov.
8. EASTERN NECK NWR, 1730 Eastern Neck Rd., Rock Hall, Md., This 2,285-acre island refuge is the place to experience the dazzling fall tundra swan migration. Plant a tree and dedicate a time capsule at the Centennial Celebration, Oct. 25, 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Come spring you can crab at the Ingleside Recreation Area, on the northwest side of the refuge. No entrance fee. Nearby accommodations in Rock Hall. Info: 410-639-7056, easternneck.fws.gov.
9. BACK BAY NWR, 4005 Sandpiper Rd., Virginia Beach. Pick up a bird list before exploring the refuge's 8,000 acres, two-thirds of which are marshlands. Come here for waterfowl and loggerhead sea turtles and barrier beach ghost crabs. There are self-guided walking and bicycle trails and fishing opportunities. Visitor center closed on Saturdays Nov. 1-Mar. 31, but entrance fee waived then. Otherwise, it's $5 to park, or $2 per family to walk or bike in. Info: 757-721-2412, backbay.fws.gov.
10. EASTERN SHORE OF VIRGINIA NWR, 5003 Hallett Circle, Cape Charles, Va. The tip of the Delmarva Peninsula has a variety of habitats ideal for migrant birds. Warblers and other songbirds join raptors on their journey south, peaking around mid-November. Peak monarch butterfly migration goes through October. There are trails and a photo blind; call ahead for Saturday tours to Fishermans Island. No entrance fee. Info: 757-331-2760, easternshore.fws.gov.
11. EDWIN B. FORSYTHE NWR, Great Creek Road, Oceanville, N.J. Migrating waterfowl and shorebirds are the attraction here . . . as is a view of Atlantic City 10 miles in the distance. There's an eight-mile driving tour (watch out for turtle crossings), walking trails and two 35-foot observation towers with free spotting scopes, the better to see the tidal salt meadow and marsh and the more than 100,000 ducks and geese expected in November. Big Oct. 25 centennial celebration. Visitor center open weekdays. $4 per car, pedestrians $2. Info: 609-652-1665, forsythe.fws.gov.
12. CAPE MAY NWR, 24 Kimbles Beach Rd., Cape May Court House, N.J. Migrating songbirds, raptors and woodcocks rest up on this five-mile stretch on the Cape May Peninsula before winging their way south. Restricted Two Mile Beach open October through March. Thousands of red knots and ruddy turnstones and other shorebirds make it to the annual "Feast on the Bay," the bacchanal of birds feeding on horseshoe crab eggs during the spring spawning. Small headquarters open weekdays only. No entrance fee. Abundant lodging in Cape May, 15 miles south of the refuge. Info: 609-463-0994, capemay.fws.gov.
-- Steve Hendrix and Anne McDonough