Our stop here was really an afterthought.

Susie and I were on our way to the Hite Cove Trail in the Sierra National Forest and decided to layover in Merced the evening before so we could get a fresh start in the morning.  Checking Google Maps for the best way to Merced I noticed a big green geometric splotch in the middle of the San Joaquin Valley, just north of our route into the Sierra NF.

That big green splotch is the San Luis National Wildlife Refuge.

My exposure to the San Joaquin Valley has been limited to driving up I5 to the Chico area or from an airplane window on approach to San Jose airport.


Either view is pretty much the same: acres and acres upon miles and miles of farming.  The scale is astonishing.

So when I saw the map of the partitioned green acres of the refuge with only two roads running through it I reasoned that this might be a stop worth looking into.  So we made a left in Los Banos, headed up Hwy 165, which led to a farm road, which turned into a dirt road, which in turn led us to the refuge’s first pleasant surprise:  The visitor center.


The San Luis NWR Complex Visitor Center is a delightful structure (LEED Certified, thank you) that houses an exhibit hall full of informative, hands-on displays and museum artifacts that explain the history and natural history of the entire 45,000 acre complex.  The visitor center is a must-do first stop for a visit.  It’s the best way to fully grasp what’s going on here: a wildlife restoration project being carved out of one of the most intense farming systems on earth.  The exhibits gave us a far greater understanding of the complexity of the work being done here.  Restoring native species, securing conservation easements and management of an extensive network of canals, pumps and wells that support controlled irrigation of essential wetlands are just part of the ongoing effort to provide habitat for up to 1 million migratory birds each winter.


The center also explores the efforts to restore the nearly extinct tule elk, which at one point was reduced to only 20 to 30 animals.  Although we didn’t see any of the herd, now numbering around 4,000 animals, they roam the refuge year round and can be seen from observation platforms and the auto tour routes that give visitors access to the refuge’s plant and animal life.


Walking on the boardwalk just outside the visitor center we managed to capture a few decent pix of waterbirds in spite of being here in May during one of the worst droughts in California history.  Being here with a camera in the middle of winter migration must certainly be a feast for the eyes… and the lens.


Susie and I then moved on to the Kesterson Unit a short drive away from the visitor center.  As often happens often in our travels in the state with 37 million other people, we had the place entirely to ourselves.  At this location you’re able to ‘free-roam’ hike for miles through grasslands, but only from February 15th to September 15th.  The balance of access time over the winter is designated for waterfowl hunters.


As we walked here, we came on dried wetlands with staff guages completely exposed.  Of course, our first instinct is to blame the drought. But a little further reading explains that these areas are flooded and left to drain a few times over the dry season to promote growth of plants that will be a food source for birds that will return in the fall.


Sure enough, these areas are full of plant life growing in the dried and cracked mud of these waterless pools.

So, for what started out as a curious side trip to a big green splotch on a Google map has morphed into a discovery of a place where science and nature have combined to restore the historical home of millions of birds and dozens of other endangered species.  There are no snow capped peaks or dramatic rocky shorelines here, which are a wonderful feast for the eyes. Instead you find a living, breathing natural wonder contained in a managed effort to put things back to the way they were… which is certainly a feast for the soul.


Kid Factor: (+) Please start your visit with kids at the visitor center. Lots of fun ‘kid friendly’ exhibits, and the grownups will learn a lot too. Easy boardwalk trails, hiking trails and auto tour roads. (-) As always, think about the bright sun and hot weather (read: sunscreen and water). Could be mosquitoes and other flying bugs at certain times of the year.

Fitness Factor: (+) Ready access to boardwalks and hiking trails. Also designated ‘auto tour’ roads, so there’s something for any fitness level. The trails are flat for the most part, so they’re virtually ADA compliant. (-) Bright sunlight midday, and it can be very hot in the valley during the summer.

Photo Factor: (+) OK, bird photo lovers, here’s a chance to see just how good you are. There’s a million birds passing through over the winter, so your odds a better when it’s colder. A 300mm lens or longer is pretty essential. Shoot raw so you can enlarge what you shoot to make it at least look like you’ve got a longer lens! Tripod or monopod is good to at least have around, but sometimes those tools get in the way and you just have to up the ISO, up the shutter, turn on the VR and let it rip. Most of the bird pix you see here were shot with an old Nikon 500mm reflex lens on DX cameras, with little or no cropping. (-) Like most wildlife refuges, there’s a designated hunting season and the calendar restricts certain areas to licensed waterfowl hunters only.