“A loop combining the multi-use Auto Tour and the hiking-only Nature Trail to explore the Wildlife Refuge.
— Zander Göpfert
Birding · Views · Wildlife
The Nature Trail is a great loop option, while the Auto Tour can be added on for additional mileage. All with great signage to learn about the wildlife.
This loop combines the Nature Trail
and Auto Tour
to make for the best and most easily accessible route through the Wildlife Refuge. With a well-maintained, flat surface and informational signs along the way, this hike is a great option for the whole family.
Be aware that the final mile is on or near CO 15. The Auto Route starts at the Visitor Center and loops around to the south with no connection back to the parking area. That said, there is a side, dirt road that takes you off the main, paved road, which is much more pleasant to walk along back to the Visitor Center.
Need to Know
This area is dry and exposed so bring lots of water. It's also a great place to spot wildlife and birds.
To start this hike, head to the Monte Vista National Wildlife Refuge Visitor Center and Parking area. There are two restrooms and an information kiosk. The Visitor Center office is run by volunteers and was closed on the day (Friday) that we were there.
As the signs make clear, the Auto Route is multi-use and can be walked, biked, or driven. For this route, park in the Visitor Center parking area and head east along the wide, dirt road.
After a few hundred yards, you'll arrive at the Nature Trail
on your right. The signage is good and shows the entrance clearly. This is a short, singletrack loop with informational signs along the way that describe the wildlife (primarily birds and mammals) that live in the area. For families with younger children, this loop would be a great option by itself.
After returning to the dirt road, continue north and east along the perimeter of the refuge. Keep an eye to the sky for various bird species like Rough-Legged Hawks, Red-tailed Hawks, Redwing Blackbirds, and even Golden Eagles if you're lucky.
The road will then turn to the right and head south and west eventually coming to a pond with a short, boardwalk spur to look out across the pond.
Continue heading southwest until you arrive at CO 15. Turn right and head along the road for a few hundred yards. There's no great way around this section, but it isn't very long and there aren't very many cars on this stretch of road. Look to the right (east) side of the road for a pull-off, dirt road. Cross CO 15 and use this dirt road for the final stretch back to the parking lot.
This last section has a few trees along the road which make for great perches for hawks and other birds. Bring some binoculars and scan the canopies and telephone poles/wires.
Flora & Fauna
Raptors, owls, geese, cranes, ducks, and less frequent sightings of coyotes, foxes, and small mammals.
History & Background
Each year in the beginning of March, an estimated 30,000 Greater Sandhill Cranes migrate from Arizona, New Mexico, and areas near the Mexican border through San Luis Valley. The Monte Vista Crane Festival
takes place each year, using the Wildlife Refuge as its base.