Island Vacations – Easy on the Pocketbook

See a National Wildlife Refuge

When vacationers think of islands, many envision far-off and expensive destinations.  Yet, the National Wildlife Refuge System – a network of public lands that spans about 97 million acres – offers a range of island destinations.  From Alaska’s remotest islands in the Arctic Ocean to the subtropical “Spanish Virgin Islands” of Puerto Rico – as well as others scattered across the country — the Refuge System’s islands provide essential habitat for a vast array of birds and other wildlife.  They offer enhancement to visitors who venture off the beaten path to experience them.  The National Wildlife Refuge System is composed of 548 national wildlife refuges, with at least one in every state.
Ohio River Islands Refuge, Pennsylvania
It’s only 35 miles from Pittsburgh, but a world apart.  Phillis Island, in Ohio River Islands National Wildlife Refuge, is a popular stopping place for recreational boaters to picnic on the sandy beach, fish for bass or simply watch the river go by.  In fall, hunters pursue waterfowl or archery hunt for deer that swim to the island.
Ohio River Islands National Wildlife Refuge stretches 362 miles of the upper Ohio River, from Pennsylvania to Kentucky, with 22 scattered islands and three mainland properties.  While most of the islands are accessible only by boat, Middle Island, near St. Marys, WV, has a bridge with road access.  This is the most commonly visited island in the refuge, and the largest at 235 acres.
The refuge, created in 1990, aims to “protect the Wild Ohio” by conserving habitat for migratory birds, freshwater mussels and other wildlife along the river.  “The Ohio River has been regarded as a resource for industry, not so much a resource for wildlife.  Now we see it has multiple dimensions,” says Visitor Services Manager Janet Butler. The Clean Water Act of 1972 improved the Ohio River’s water quality, reviving wildlife populations on and along the river, and making it more appealing for recreation, she says.
The islands of Ohio River Islands Refuge are among thousands within the National Wildlife Refuge System.  For more information about the Ohio River Islands Refuge see

Here is a sampling of some of the Refuge System’s other island jewels:

Oregon’s Spectacular Coast

From nearly every viewpoint on the Oregon coast, colossal rocks jut out of the Pacific Ocean creating postcard images.  These rocks are protected as part of Oregon Islands National Wildlife Refuge.  The refuge includes 1,854 rocks, reefs and islands and two headland areas spanning 320 miles of the Oregon coast.
From April to August, the rocks and islands are covered with birds. The majority of Oregon’s estimated 1.2 million seabirds, including 13 different species, breed on the refuge.  “They pack on any available space during breeding season,” says Visitor Services Manager Dawn Grafe. Seals and sea lions also use the rocks as “haulout” sites for resting and pupping.  Simpson Reef near Charleston frequently hosts 6,000 seals and sea lions.
The birds and marine mammals found on the offshore rocks, reefs and islands are extremely susceptible to human disturbance, so the rocks are closed to the public year-round.  But visitors get phenomenal views of the refuge and its wildlife from many state parks and other open spaces along the mainland.  Mainland sites with viewing decks overlooking seabird colonies include Ecola State Park, Cape Meares State Scenic Viewpoint, Yaquina Head Outstanding Natural Area, Heceta Head State Scenic Viewpoint, and Harris Beach State Park.  Coquille Point, a unit of Oregon Islands National Wildlife Refuge, is also open to visitors.
One unit of the Oregon Island Refuge that is open to visitors is Cape Meares National Wildlife Refuge, where people can see one of the few remaining stands of coastal old growth forest in Oregon and the state’s largest Sitka spruce, estimated to be 700 to 800 years old.  Visit Cape Meares Refuge between April and June each year, and see the fastest animal in the world – the peregrine falcon – raising chicks along the rocky headland.  A pair of peregrine falcons has nested on the refuge since 1987.  Hikers can enjoy several trails that wind through the headland and old-growth forest.
Also open to visitors is Haystack Rock at Cannon Beach, the best known island of Oregon Islands Refuge, which juts 235-foot out into the ocean.  At low tide, visitors can nearly walk up to it and explore nearby tidepools while tufted puffins fly overhead.  Spotting scopes are available so visitors can get close-up views of the puffins.
For more about Oregon Islands National Wildlife Refuge, see:

Cape Cod’s Nesting Grounds. Massachusetts

Off the elbow of Cape Cod, the shifting eight-mile barrier islands of North Monomoy and South Monomoy host numerous birds and seals throughout the year:
More than 10 species of seabirds, shorebirds, and waterbirds nest on the islands, including the federally threatened piping plover and endangered roseate tern.
The refuge supports the second largest nesting colony of common terns on the Atlantic seaboard with more than 8,000 nesting pairs.
5,000 to 6,000 grey seals gather and pup on the islands in summer; around 8,000 harbor seals in the winter.
Monomoy islands and Morris Island make up Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge. In the summer, ferries depart from Morris Island, which is accessible by road, to Monomoy islands. Some circle the islands; others drop off visitors. (Portions of the islands are closed to visitors to protect nesting sites during some spring and summer months.)  Bass fishing is also popular around the islands.
For more information about Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge, visit on the Web at:

Pelicans’ Desert Oasis, Nevada

Pyramid Lake stands out against its desert backdrop in western Nevada. About a quarter mile from the eastern shore stands Anaho Island National Wildlife Refuge, a nesting ground for more than 8,000 American white pelicans.
Anaho Island is managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, but the Pyramid Lake Paiute Indian Reservation owns the lake and island.  Pyramid Lake, a natural lake at the end of the Truckee River, is open for day use, subject to a visitor’s fee.  Anaho Island is closed to public access, but easily visible from the lake’s eastern shore and by boat.
Adult pelicans start arriving on the island to feed and nest in February, and by late July most of the adults and their young have moved on.  The peak time to view them is in May, when pelican parents perform impressive aerial acrobatics as they trade off feeding and caring for their young, says refuge wildlife specialist Donna Withers. “They come in and do their mate swap between 11 in the morning and 1 in the afternoon. That’s when you’ll see a lot of flight. They will spiral in the air, and soar, sometimes just a foot above the water.”
The refuge was established by President Woodrow Wilson in 1913 as a sanctuary for colonial nesting birds, primarily the pelicans. “Pelicans have been nesting on Anaho Island since before recorded time,” Withers notes, adding that pelican bones have been found in nearby archeological sites.  
For information on visiting Pyramid Lake, see the Pyramid Lake Paiute Web site:, or call the Pyramid Lake Tribal Ranger Station at 775-476-1155.

Caribbean Secret  

At Vieques National Wildlife Refuge in Puerto Rico, white sand beaches meet the crystal clear Caribbean.  The islands of Vieques and nearby Culebra, home to Culebra National Wildlife Refuge, are sometimes dubbed the “Spanish Virgin Islands.”   
Vieques is east of the main island of Puerto Rico.  Natural beaches and rare sub-tropical dry forest on the refuge offer a glimpse of a Caribbean ecosystem with minimal development.  Only a handful of buildings from the land’s use as a Navy training ground dot the landscape.
While there are dozens of beaches on Vieques Refuge, two are by far the most popular, says refuge manager Matt Connolly: Playa Caracas and Playa la Chiva, stunning beaches near coral reefs that snorkelers can explore.  Both are accessible by car or public taxi (“publico”) from Vieques’ port city, Isabel Segunda. The dirt road to the beaches is scheduled to be paved in 2009.
Hawksbill and leatherback sea turtles nest on opposite sides of the refuge, at different times of the year. Off the southwestern side of the island, expanses of sea grass provide feeding grounds for manatees. It is not unusual for boaters, snorkelers and scuba divers to catch sight of them, Connolly says. The refuge’s wet and dry subtropical forests provide habitat to native species such as seven varieties of bats, and a variety of frogs and lizards.
For more information about Vieques National Wildlife Refuge, see

A Key Spot for Manatee, History in Florida

During the early 1900s, Fort Dade Military Reservation was built on Egmont Key in Florida’s Tampa Bay to fend off the Spanish during the Spanish-American War. (The Spanish fleet never arrived.)  Now, Egmont Key National Wildlife Refuge is a strategic spot to fish, hike, loll on the beach, or explore remnants of the fort. The island has more than 160,000 visitors a year.  It is a 10-minute ferry ride from St. Petersburg, and easily accessible by boat from Hillsborough, Pinellas and Manatee counties.
Hikers can walk the island’s centuries old brick carriage road or explore a nature trail. Gun batteries and a lighthouse dating back to the 1850s still stand.
About 60 acres of seagrass grow in the shallow waters east of the island, providing critical feeding grounds for manatee and habitat for a variety of fish.  Snorkelers and scuba divers can enjoy exploring underwater ruins from the 17th century fort, says Ivan Vicente, visitor services specialist.
The refuge’s beach and upland habitat support more than 117 species of birds. Two bird sanctuaries protect nesting brown pelicans, royal, sandwich, and least terns, laughing gulls, black skimmers and shorebirds such as oystercatchers. Thirty to sixty loggerhead sea turtles nest on Egmont Key each year. Many gopher tortoises and box turtles inhabit the island as well.


Alaska’s Vast Expanse of Islands

Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge is the most remote and far flung unit of the National Wildlife Refuge System. Because it is spread out along most of the 47,300 miles of Alaska’s coastline, the sheer span of this refuge is difficult to grasp.  It encompasses  more than 2,500 islands, islets, spires, rocks, reefs, waters and headlands extend from Forrester Island, to the north of Canada’s Queen Charlotte Islands deep in the southeast tongue of the state, to the westernmost tip of the Aleutians (and of America!), and north to Cape Lisburne on the Arctic Ocean. Traveling between its farthest-flung points would be the equivalent of taking a trip from Georgia to California.

Alaska Maritime Refuge’s seashore lands provide nesting habitat for approximately 40 million seabirds, or about 80 percent of Alaska’s nesting seabird population.  Clouds of seabirds, rare birds from Asia, species found nowhere else, velvety green tundra ablaze with flowers, World War II battlefields, dramatic coastlines, sand beaches of every color, and steaming volcanoes are just some of the delights awaiting visitors to the Alaska Maritime Refuge. Most of the islands in the refuge are difficult and expensive to access, but there are a few easier-to-reach locations where visitors can peek into this amazing world:

·       The Alaska Islands & Ocean Visitor Center in Homer is accessible by road on Alaska’s Kenai Penninsula. The visitor center, opened in 2004, takes you on a dramatic journey through the refuge’s past and present … Surrounds you with the sights, sounds — and even the smells of a seabird colony … And invites you to follow biologists as their research ship sails to remote islands each year.

·       The most popular way to access the refuge is on one of the numerous day-tour boats that leave Seward bound for the refuge’s Chiswell Islands.  Visitors can see puffins, sea otters, sea lions, whales and swarming seabirds around the aptly named Beehive Islands.  Seward is just three hours south of Anchorage.

·       In the summer, a refuge naturalist rides the state ferry M/V Tustumena on the Southwest Alaska route to educate visitors about the marine wildlife, scenic coastlines, remote villages, World War II history and the natural wonders of coastal Alaska along the way. The M/V Tustumena travels from Homer to Seldovia and Kodiak several times a week, passing through the seabird and sea lion habitat of the Alaska Maritime Refuge’s Barren Islands and arriving at the home of the largest brown bears in the world on Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge.  Monthly, the ferry follows the Alaska Peninsula southwest to Dutch Harbor, on the Aleutian Island of Unalaska through a seldom-seen paradise for seabirds, rarely visited Alutiiq and Aleut villages, and Izembek National Wildlife Refuge.

·       From Sitka, AK, also accessible by state ferry, a day-tour-boat provides tours to see the marine animals around St. Lazaria Island, 15 miles away.

Tour boats, small cruise ships and airplanes also provide access to refuge islands.  For more information, visit

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The National Wildlife Refuge System is a program within the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, part of the Department of the Interior.  Established in 1903, the Refuge System administer a national network of lands and waters for the conservation, management and where appropriate, restoration of the fish, wildlife and plant resources and their habitats within the United States for the benefit of present and future generations of Americans.   For more information about the Refuge System, go to:

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

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Ellen Barone has been creating words and images for travel and tourism since 1998. She co-founded and publishes the group travel blog and is currently at work on her first book "I Could Live Here".