Visit National Wildlife Refuges this mud season |

This mud season, visit National Wildlife Refuges

A double rainbow at Browns Park National Wildlife Refuge.
Rachel Portwood (USFWS)

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Closing Weekend at Steamboat Resort has come and gone, tiny blades of new grass are peeping out of any leftover snow and its coat of dirt, and the smell of spring is in the air. We’re officially in the thick of mud season.

Half the fun of this period of quiet is relaxing at home, recharging our bodies and brains from a nonstop winter and sticking around town to stuff ourselves with glorious two-for-one specials. But now is also a prime opportunity to drive down roads — less crowded and less icy than they’ve been in a while — and explore new horizons.

Here’s a list of several National Wildlife Refuges great for exploring, hiking, wildlife-viewing, outdoor education and other forms of spring recreation. All are within a 3 1/2-hour drive of Steamboat Springs.

Browns Park Wildlife Refuge
132 miles / 2 hours, 21 minutes from downtown Steamboat Springs

Browns Park Wildlife Refuge is composed of seven wetlands, 1,700 acres of grassland habitat and 7,600 acres of semi-desert shrub land, with a diverse set of wildlife to match.

“The refuge was established for the wildlife first, then for the people to come out and enjoy,” said Refuge Manager Daryl Magnuson.

The area is kept quiet and natural for these species, with no off-roading or motorized boat usage allowed; this is a draw for many human visitors as well.

“People are here for the nice solitude, for the peace and quiet,” Magnuson said.

Visitors’ favorite activity — birding: Browns Park is home to at least 223 species of birds, with more stopping through during their spring migration. At this time of year, one can find bald eagles, peregrine falcons, swallows, hummingbirds, ducks and geese, to name a few. The appeal of seeing these birds lures many birdwatchers to Browns Park.

Wildlife viewing: In addition to birds, Browns Park also hosts 68 species of mammals and 15 of reptiles and amphibians.

Boating and fishing: Nonmotorized boats are allowed in the refuge, and fishing may be accessed by shore or boat. Visitors may also apply for permits to float down the Green River from Browns Park to Dinosaur National Monument’s Gates of Lodore.

History: Beyond the wildlife that the refuge serves, human visitors may also visit areas of historical relevance, including old homesteads and remnants of several colorful Colorado characters like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (born Robert Leroy Parker and Harry Longabaugh, respectively) who infamously robbed banks, trains and ranches across the West and South America in the 1890s and early 1900s. “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid supposedly spent time here,” Magnuson said. “They’d ride up to Rock Springs and rob, then come back to the Browns Hole area of Browns Park. They stayed friendly with folks around here, not robbing them, so no one would turn them in.”

Camping: The refuge’s primitive Swinging Bridge and Crooks campgrounds are free and open year-round.

More information:

A bobcat in Browns Park National Wildlife Refuge.
Rachel Portwood (USFWS)
A cloudy sunset at Browns Park National Wildlife Refuge.
Rachel Portwood (USFWS)

Arapaho National Wildlife Refuge
52 miles / 1 hour, 10 minutes from downtown Steamboat Springs

Arapaho National Wildlife Refuge is the highest refuge in the lower 48 states, sitting south of Walden in an intermountain glacial basin at between 8,100 and 8,700 feet. The refuge includes habitats of irrigated meadow, riparian, sagebrush steppe uplands and wetlands.

Visitors’ favorite activity — auto tour: “We have a 7-mile long auto tour route that goes right through the middle of our largest wildlife complex,” said Refuge Manager Tara Wertz. “Visitors can see the whole fleet of water birds on any given day.”

Wildlife viewing: Humans who visit the refuge early in the morning or late evening may also get to see the 40 or so moose foraging through the area, Wertz said. Come winter, the refuge will see 1,000 to 1,500 elk as well. On a smaller scale, humans may be delighted to find river otters swimming (at up to 12 miles per hour) or playing on land within their family groups, known as “romps.”

Boating and fishing: No boats — motorized or nonmotorized — are allowed on the refuge. Fishing is permitted at the refuge along the Illinois River south of Jackson County Road 32 until May 31.

Camping: Camping is prohibited anywhere on the refuge; all visitors must leave the refuge by closing time, 30 minutes after sunset.

History: The Ute Indian Tribe traveled in the summer months to the North Park area, which they called “Cow Lodge” and “Bull Pen,” for bison hunting. In 1820, Frenchmen explored the area to try their hand at beaver trapping, and in the 1870s, miners began to explore the area’s potential for minerals.


Waterfowl at Arapaho National Wildlife Refuge.
Tom Koerner (USFWS)
A moose at Arapaho National Wildlife Refuge.
Tom Koerner (USFWS)

Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge
161 miles / 3 hours, 17 minutes from downtown Steamboat Springs

Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge is one of the newer refuges, established in 2007 as part of the Colorado Front Range National Wildlife Refuge Complex, which also includes Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge and Two Ponds National Wildlife Refuge. The prairie site is bordered by urban development to the northeast and southeast and open space to the north, east and west, so the refuge serves as a protected passageway for migrating animals around Golden and Boulder.

Visitors’ favorite activity — “What’s outstanding about Rocky Flats is the variety of plant species,” Supervisory Refuge Ranger Cindy Souders said. “There’s over 600 species of plants here. Things are blooming from April to October.” These include native wildflowers, most notably bergamont and large swamp milkweed, which both attract Monarch caterpillars and butterflies starting around June.

Wildlife viewing: The refuge often sees a free-ranging elk herd, coyote, porcupines, chorus frogs, prairie rattlesnakes, Western painted turtles, tiger salamanders and the Preble’s meadow jumping mouse, a federally threatened species.  

Hiking and biking: A year-round trail system welcomes hiking, cycling and horseback travel. In the future, the Rocky Mountain Greenway trail system will connect Rocky Flats to the complex’s other two refuges.  

Camping: Camping is not available in Rocky Flats.

History: The site was one of 13 U.S. nuclear weapons production facilities during the Cold War and was added to the EPA’s Superfund List — or National Priorities List — in 1989. The Department of Energy held a $7 billion cleanup, overseen by the EPA and the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, which was completed in 2005.

More information:

An elk herd at Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge.
Ryan Moehring (USFWS)
A monarch butterfly in Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge.
Tom Koerner (USFWS)
A tiger salamander in Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge.
Gary Nafis (USFWS)

To reach Julia Ben-Asher, call 970-871-4229, email or follow her on Twitter @juliabenasher.

Start a dialogue, stay on topic and be civil.
If you don't follow the rules, your comment may be deleted.