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Two National Wildlife Refuges Just A Day Trip From San Francisco

This article was first published in the Epoch Times on January 8, 2023.

Just a day trip beyond the San Francisco Bay Area are two national wildlife refuges (NWRs): the San Luis NWR in Los Banos and the Merced NWR. They are easy to tour and provide a wonderful break from the hustle and bustle of the bay area.

Located in the northeastern side of the San Joaquin Valley, the two wildlife refuges, along with the San Joaquin River NWR, form the largest remaining area of native grassland and wetland habitats in California’s Central Valley.

The San Joaquin Valley stretches from Stockton to south of Bakersfield, California. Map courtesy of the U.S. Geological Society website.

Wintering Habitat for Migratory Birds

Over the winter, more than a million ducks, geese, and Sandhill Cranes inhabit fields and wetlands within the San Joaquin Valley. Visitors can see thousands of these birds themselves by touring either the San Luis NWR or Merced NWR. Both refuges have five-mile auto tours, short nature trails, and observation decks for viewing birds. You’ll want to bring a good pair of binoculars, however, because flocks can be located a far distance away. And to see the best action, stay until sunset.

An observation deck allows viewing access to flocks of geese and swans.
Snow Geese, Greater White-fronted Geese, and Northern Shoveler ducks shelter in the fields and waters of the San Luis NWR.

An Incredible Sight Occurs After Sunset

Just after sunset they fly in from the fields: thousands upon thousands of Sandhill Cranes, Snow Geese, and Ross’s Geese. They fly in V-formation, flock after flock, honking all the while. For spectators it’s like being in your very own nature movie.

At sunset, flocks of Sandhill Cranes fly in from distant fields and pastures to shelter in wetlands at the Merced NWR.

From experience, it seems the best viewing locations are near the second observation deck along the southeast portion of the Merced NWR auto trail. From the surrounding trees, hooting owls can also be heard as they awaken for the night.

A telephoto lens captures the beauty of these Sandhill Cranes flying within the Merced NWR.

A Public/Private Success Story

National Wildlife Refuges comprise a network of publicly and privately-owned lands. At both the San Luis and Merced NWR, much of the acreage is supported by conservation easements between private landowners and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. These public/private contracts give farmers, ranchers, and other private landowners the ability to sell development rights to their land, to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

As a result, private landowners can not sell to real estate developers who might want to build houses, a shopping mall, or industrial complex on that land. The conservation easements exist in perpetuity, meaning persons who inherit or buy the land must abide by the same contract.

Though landowners maintain ownership and pay property taxes, they are restricted to the use of that land. For example: farmers can only grow crops that are beneficial to wildlife. Beneficial crops include grains like wheat, rye, corn, rice, and alfalfa. Crops like trees, nuts, and cotton are not allowed, as these do not benefit wildlife. Farmers can, of course, profit from the crops they grow.

Tundra Swans are one of the many species that benefit from conservation easements at the San Luis NWR.

Ranchers can set aside permanent pasture for grazing livestock. Ranchers can breed and sell their livestock, while knowing that their pasture also benefits migratory birds.

Private landowners who run waterfowl hunting clubs also gain by contracting with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The conservation easement gives them upfront money and allows them to run a private business. At the same time, they are helping conserve wildlife who inhabit their land.

Black-necked Stilts are easily seen from the waterfowl auto-tour route in the San Luis NWR.

Other Wildlife

Besides birds, the San Luis and Merced NWRs support many types of mammals. Driving or walking, visitors might encounter coyotes, black-tailed deer, rabbits, raccoons, skunks–even river otters. Other species, such as opossum and bats, are present but not often seen.

A coyote is spotted from an auto-tour route in the San Luis NWR.

A significant animal group at the San Luis NWR is the Tule Elk. Because of a major highway (HWY 55) and the surrounding agriculture, the elk must live in a 780-acre enclosure. However, this thriving elk herd is a back-from-the-brink success story.

Tule Elk

In 1974, the Tule Elk–native to California–were on the brink of extinction. An elk enclosure was built at San Luis NWR and “seeded” by eighteen elk from the Detroit and San Diego Zoos. As the San Luis herd grew, wildlife managers were able to move some of the elk out to other preserves in California. Now there are over 4000 Tule Elk living wild in California. Most of them roam free. There are only two enclosed herds: one in San Luis and one at the southern end of the San Joaquin Valley.

A male Tule Elk in the San Luis enclosure gazes at the photographer.

Tule Elk are named after the tule plants that grow in the wetlands of their natural habitat. Tule elk feed on aquatic plants, grasses, and shrubs. They are the smallest of three species of North American Elk, including the Rocky Mountain Elk and the Roosevelt Elk. Though they are the smallest, Tule Elk can go the longest period of time without drinking water. This is important as  areas in California (like the Central Valley) can go six months or more without rainfall and reach temperatures well over 100 degrees Fahrenheit.

Visitors can drive a 5-mile auto tour route in the San Luis NWR around the elk enclosure and have a good chance of spotting Tule Elk. Breeding season, from late July through November, is an exciting time to see the elk. Bulls with fully grown antlers bugle to proclaim their dominance and readiness to mate. If a viewer is lucky, they might see two bull elk locking antlers and pushing against each other. It is not a violent fight, just a test of strength.

If You Go:

Both the San Luis NWR and Merced NWR can be visited on the same day. There is no entrance fee.

The San Luis NWR includes 26,609 acres of wetlands, native grassland, vernal pools, and riparian habitat within a 15-mile long area. Be sure to bring sunscreen, walking shoes, a hat, water, binoculars, and a camera. Dress in layers for the heat or cold, and make sure you have plenty of gas in the car. The refuge is located within farm country; gas stations are not close-by.

A walking trail beckons in the San Luis NWR.

The large and informative visitor center makes a good first stop on your tour. No food is sold, but you can bring a picnic. There is a waterfowl auto-tour route of 8.5 miles, tule elk auto-tour route of 5 miles, and short nature trails (1/2 mile to 1 mile in length), also some observation decks, picnic tables, and restrooms.

The Visitor Center of the San Luis Refuge Complex has interactive exhibits and knowledgeable rangers.

The Entrance and visitor center are located at
7376 S. Wolfsen Rd, Los Banos, CA 93635,
(209) 826-3508.

The 10,200-acre Merced NWR includes a 5-mile auto tour, three nature trails, two observation decks, and restrooms. There is no visitor center.

The address given for the entrance is at
7430 West Sandy Mush Road, Merced, CA, 95341.
Be aware that google maps might say you’ve arrived before you actually get to the main entrance. Keep driving on Sandy Mush Road until you see the large entrance sign.

For more information on both parks visit their websites:






  1. Jeannine Jeannine

    Your first picture in this article “grabbed me” with its beauty causing me to look forward to reading about the other treasures these NWRs hold. A telephoto lens captures wildlife incredibly well. And, I’ve never heard of Tule Elk. I wonder how they compare to camel in their ability to go without water for long periods of time?
    Thank you for providing me a glimpse of these protected West Coast habitats. You’ve inspired me to seek out an East Coast walking trail to enjoy this weekend, weather permitting.
    All the best,

    • KarenGough KarenGough

      Thank you G9! I walked some Audubon trails back east, and they are just as beautiful! I am glad I’ve inspired you to go out and enjoy them. Thank you for commenting.

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