We took in the briny smell of the sea, the sound of surf, and the sight of a soaring eagle as we walked the shoreline of the scenic Great Bay National Wildlife Refuge in southern New Hampshire. It was bitter cold and the footing was icy, yet the stark, stunning beauty all around us was undeniable. Summer here at the refuge is bright and lively, but we love it best in winter when drifts of snow litter the rocky coastline and sparkling ice covers the meadow grass and salt marshes.
In winter New England’s 32 refuges (two are shared), set aside to conserve and protect fish, plants, and wildlife, are transformed into places of hushed beauty. Here are five we love to visit at this time of year.
RACHEL CARSON NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE, Maine
We imagine that Carson, the renowned environmentalist, would love her namesake refuge, a watery wilderness stretching 50 miles along the coastline of southern Maine. This protected area features barrier beaches and dunes, coastal meadows, tidal salt marshes, boreal forest, and the distinctive rocky coast, with 11 separate parcels between Kittery and Cape Elizabeth. There are five developed trails on the refuge, including the one-mile Carson Trail at the Wells headquarters. This short loop walk is perfect for all ages, following an interpretive trail and boardwalk, with 11 numbered stops along the way (maps are available at the kiosk near the trailhead). You’ll have views of tidal creeks and rivers flowing through the salt marsh and low-lying salt pannes before ending in an upland forest of towering pines and hemlocks. For open ocean views, head to the Timber Point Trail in the Little River Division at the end of Granite Point Road in Biddeford. The 1.25-mile walk travels through forests and meadows to the Atlantic Ocean. 321 Port Road (Route 9) Wells, 207-646-9226,www.fws.gov/refuge/rachel_carson/
GREAT BAY NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE, New Hampshire
Keep your eyes cast in the tall pines or overhead for bald eagles as you walk the trails in this scenic shoreline preserve. This is a wintering habitat for bald eagles and black ducks, as well as a variety of migratory birds. Wildlife is plentiful too. On our snowshoe hikes we’ve seen wild turkey, white-tailed deer, and red fox. The refuge, which protects more than 1,000 acres and 6.5 miles of shoreline along the picturesque Great Bay, has two main hikes. A short, half-mile trail meanders gently through woods to picture-perfect Upper Peverly Pond. We especially like this easygoing route after a snowstorm when the woods are cloaked in winter white. The longer Ferry Way Trail, however, is our favorite. The 2-mile hike takes about an hour and travels through woods, along intertidal mud flats, frozen ponds, bogs, and beaver dams to the open waters of Great Bay. End of Arboretum Drive in Pease International Tradeport, Newington, 978-465-5753, www.fws.gov/refuge/Great_Bay/
PARKER RIVER NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE, Massachusetts
Birders and nature enthusiasts flock to this 4,662-acre refuge along the Atlantic flyway, home to more than 300 species of resident and migratory birds. Fall and spring migration seasons are busy times at the preserve, but winter has its benefits. “The refuge in winter is a very peaceful place. It has a beauty all its own,” says Matt Poole, visitor services manager. “While there may be a lower abundance and diversity of wildlife, it’s still there to be witnessed, particularly for the visitor who knows where to look.”
Your best bet is to join the two-hour “Behind the Scenes” tour, offered year-round. You’ll travel by van with a refuge ranger to areas that are often closed to the general public, and learn about the refuge’s unique habitat, cultural history, and preservation efforts. The refuge also offers a variety of other special tours and programs throughout the year. For an overview of the refuge, take a self-guided tour along the 6.5-mile Wildlife Drive through salt marshes, dunes, and forests, and then walk the Hellcat Interpretive boardwalk. Before you leave, walk a portion of the 6-mile-long refuge beach, which is closed in summer to protect the federally threatened piping plover. This is a good place to spot eider and scoter sea ducks feeding in the ocean. 6 Plum Island Turnpike, Newburyport, 978-465-5753, www.fws.gov/refuge/parker _river/
NINIGRET NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE, Rhode Island
The more than 400-acre preserve was once an airfield used to train World War II pilots. Today it’s a mosaic of swamps, bogs, ponds, marshes, and waterways, providing a lovely destination for a quiet winter walk. Start at the Kettle Pond visitors center to watch a short film on the refuge system. Young kids will enjoy the nature puzzles, discovery drawers, and the live kettle pond tank. There are also arts and crafts tables and scavenger hunts, and the refuge offers a variety of winter programs, like crafts days that might include making walking sticks. Outside is an observation deck and two easy trails, one leading past kettle holes left behind by melting glacial ice to the Atlantic Ocean, and the other to Watch-aug Pond. The Watchaug Pond trail also connects to the Kimble Wildlife Sanctuary and Burlingame State Park. Along the way, look for animal tracks such as deer, grey fox, and weasels. For a longer hike, take the Cross Refuge trail to the Salt Pond area, where trails lead to pretty Ninigret Pond, the largest salt pond in southern Rhode Island. The pond area is a great place to spot wintering waterfowl such as hooded mergansers, lesser and greater scaup, ruddy ducks, common golden eye, and canvasbacks. 50 Bend Road, Charlestown, 401-364-9124, www.fws.gov/ninigret/
SILVIO O. CONTE FISH AND WILDLIFE REFUGE, various states
This large preserve stretches across Connecticut, Massachusetts, Vermont, and New Hampshire, protecting the 7.2 million-acre Connecticut River watershed. It covers more than 34,000 acres and includes seven divisions. Start at one of the refuge education centers. At the Great Falls Discovery Center, housed in a historic mill building in Turners Falls, you’ll find a variety of exhibits on the habitat and wildlife of the watershed, a walk-through diorama, and an introductory video. There’s a short trail leading into the historic town of Turners Falls and four acres of gardens and lawns along the river. Families particularly love the refuge education center at the Montshire Museum of Science in Norwich, Vt., with hands-on exhibits and trails crisscrossing the 110-acre site set along the upper Connecticut. Visitors centers are also located in Colebrook, N.H., and at the Nulhegan Basin Division headquarters in Brunswick, Vt., where you can pick up information on audio and driving tours and refuge hiking trails. Snowmobiling is popular in the northern sections of the refuge, while snowshoe and cross-country trails lead into the back woods. “Some people really enjoy the quiet and solitude of winter in the refuge, especially after a recent snow,” says Mark Maghini with the Nulhegan Basin Division. “Others may enjoy snow-tracking mammals, and lots of folks like the access afforded by snowshoeing to areas that might not be as accessible other times of year.” 103 East Plumtree Road, Sunderland, 413-548-8002, www.fws.gov/r5soc/