National wildlife refuges -- protected lands managed by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service -- offer many of the same recreational opportunities as national parks at a fraction of the cost. Some are even free, unless you plan to hunt, fish, or camp. We love these (mostly) gratis activities for experiencing the wilderness in a whole new way:
Pony swim: Wild horses, the descendants of 17th century domesticated animals, roam Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge on Assateague Island off the coast of Virginia. On the last Wednesday every July, you can watch them swim across the Assateague Channel to Chincoteague Island. The next day, the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company auctions the foals, before the rest of the herd swims back to the wildlife refuge on Friday. The event is free, but of course, you’ll have to pay extra if you want to view the ponies from a tour boat.
Sugar cane boil: Held each November at the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge in Georgia, Okefenokee Pioneer Day gives you a glimpse into how early settlers survived in the area. In addition to learning how they made soap, brooms, butter, quilts, and baskets, you’ll have the chance to participate in a traditional sugar cane boil at the Chesser Island Homestead. When it’s ready, don't forget to sample the sweet cane juice. This year’s free event takes place on November 22.
Morel mushroom hunting: Although no events are led by official visitor centers here, you can hunt for seasonal, prized morel mushrooms in several national wildlife refuges, including DeSoto National Wildlife Refuge in Iowa, Squaw Creek National Wildlife Refuge in Missouri, and Seney National Wildlife Reserve in Michigan. Before you go, purchase several books to cross reference and ensure that the mushrooms you pick are safe for consumption and not poisonous. Or, go with an experienced mushroom hunter from local clubs in these areas. Typically, these refuges have restriction on where and when you can harvest, so you’ll want to contact the visitor center before you go.
Archery lessons: Channel Katniss Everdeen as you learn to handle a bow and arrow at Audubon National Wildlife Refuge in North Dakota, Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge in Minnesota, or Wallkill River National Wildlife Refuge in New Jersey. While these free introductory programs won’t turn you into a marksman overnight, you will come away with the basics of form and stance. Class format and age requirements vary; check the refuges’ online calendars for details.
Wildlife encounters: Many national wildlife refuges offer opportunities for close encounters with wildlife. At the Moapa Valley National Wildlife Refuge in Nevada, you can go on a nighttime scorpion hunt -- while at the San Diego National Wildlife Refuge, you can see and even touch reptiles at special events. In North Carolina, you can hear the howl of a red wolf at the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge (free during spring and fall, $10 in the summer). Or, you meet a live alligator at Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge in Florida. Visit your local refuge’s website to find information about similar activities near you.