Just off Highway 165 in southwest Merced County sits an opportunity to see wildlife up close, and autumn is one of the best times to visit.
The San Luis National Wildlife Refuge includes a variety of recreational options, ranging from driving around in your car to hiking through wetlands to a visitors center with interactive displays so fun that any children along for the ride won’t realize they are learning about local wildlife and habitat.
Arguably the best part: It’s all free.
Roughly 75,000 to 80,000 people visit the refuge each year, said Jack Sparks, outdoor recreation planner for the San Luis National Wildlife Refuge Complex, which also includes sites near Merced and Modesto. But many of those folks are from outside of the area.
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“There are so many local residents who don’t know we’re out here,” Sparks said.
Visitor Ed Bettencourt said he was very impressed – and surprised. “Awesome place to go,” he wrote on Facebook. “I never knew as long as I’ve lived around this area that there were elk living in the very same area.”
And it’s a shame more people aren’t aware of it, because there are opportunities for education, recreation and exercise all in one spot.
Heading south on Highway 165, visitors first come upon the West Bear Creek auto tour route. This 2.25-mile route is open year-round, though the busiest time of year is late winter and early spring, when visitors are likely to see scores of duck species, as well as the occasional swan and any number of migratory birds. “Black-tailed deer and river otter may make surprise appearances along the route,” a brochure available at the tour start reads.
A few miles to the south, a turn east on Wolfsen Road will take visitors to a couple of other auto routes, and, eventually, to the visitors center.
One of the auto routes circles the 800-acre elk enclosure, where majestic Tule elk live, and, around this time of year, love.
Autumn is the rutting season for the species, which nearly died out in the 1800s, when their numbers dwindled to as few as 20 because of hunting, loss of habitat and encroachment of other livestock. Now, there are more than 4,000 Tule elk among 22 herds throughout the state.
And this time of year, they can be loud.
“The males are active,” Sparks said. “You can hear the mating call for dominance, and they will ram each other.”
That lasts through about mid-October. But even a drive during warmer months yields a “98 percent chance of an elk sighting,” Sparks said.
After what can be a disappointing beginning of the route, there’s an observation deck with a telescope mounted to it. Visitors can walk to the deck and look through the telescope – after only a few moments of searching, the herd becomes apparent.
Another, longer waterfowl auto route begins near the visitors center. Along this 8.5-mile stretch, also open year-round, drivers and passengers might see anything from a bald eagle to a black-tailed deer. Several hiking trails are accessible off of the auto route; a sign warns that mountain lions have been spotted in the area over the years and encourages hikers to stick together.
Closer looks at many of the features of the refuge are available at the visitors center, where exhibits allow people to pet a badger pelt and lift an elk antler (it’s pretty darn heavy). One display invites visitors to “Explore underground,” opening drawers and doors that show off species ranging from the California king snake to the burrowing bumblebee.
It’s all very impressive, and the refuge reinforces a quote from famed naturalist John Muir, memorialized on the trail leading to the visitors center. Of California’s San Joaquin Valley, Muir said, “I drifted separate many days, the largest days of my life … Never were mortal eyes more thronged with beauty.”
If you go
The San Luis National Wildlife Refuge is headquartered at 7376 S. Wolfsen Road, Los Banos. That’s where the visitors center is, and there are several trails and auto tours. The refuge also has units near Merced and Modesto. Authorities offer the following tips for visitors:
▪ Bring binoculars, spotting scopes, and cameras to enhance your visit.
▪ Visit the refuge with a friend to share the experience.
▪ Attend a group program or tour.
▪ Contact the complex for information and recent wildlife sightings.
▪ Respect other refuge visitors’ viewing opportunities.
▪ Minimize disturbance to wildlife
▪ Remain in vehicles on auto tour routes for optimal viewing.
▪ Keeping noise levels to a minimum will enhance wildlife viewing.
▪ Bring water, sunscreen, hats, and appropriate clothing for weather conditions.