Day Trips: Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge

Old growth forest survives on the Rio Grande

Photos by Gerald E. McLeod

Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, south of Pharr, is clothed in a thick tangle of native forest right up to the steep cliffs that enclose the muddy waters of the Rio Grande.

The first thing I noticed in the parking lot of the headquarters was the noise. The roar of cicadas was almost disorienting. The tone of the buzzing insects was different enough from what I was used to that I had to ask what was making that infernal racket.

On the trail through the woods, a symphony of birdsongs filled the thick, humid air. I was surprised at how noisy this heavily wooded, out-of-the-way place was. This is one of the best birding spots in the country, with more than 400 species spotted.

Unlike the land around it, the 2,088-acre refuge was never cleared for agriculture. Beginning in 1943, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service set aside this spot where ecosystems merge as a rest area for migrating birds and a corridor for endangered animals. The preserve is an island in a rising sea of development. Currently, there are no plans to build the "border wall" through the park.

With nearly 14 miles of trails, most of the refuge's tangled forest is accessible. The most beautiful walks are along the banks of the resacas – ponds left behind when the river changed course. Hiking across the swinging bridge to the observation tower puts you in the treetops.

Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge is about a dozen miles south of Pharr and I-2. The fall and spring migration seasons are the best times to visit. It's a good idea to use bug spray and carry plenty of water on the trails.

1,459th in a series. Follow “Day Trips & Beyond,” a travel blog, at

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Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, Pharr, Rio Grande, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, birding

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