Wildlife Auto Tours

Great Egret at Sacramento NWR Auto Tour Entrance

In the U.S. we have wildlife auto tours all over the country. They are useful for close-up viewing and photographing of wild birds and mammals, especially in inclement weather. Associated with national wildlife refuges, the routes are one-lane roads traversing the refuge.


I have been on auto tours in many parts of the country in every season. We’ll focus here on one of my favorites, the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge Auto Tour in California’s Central Valley. This complex covers 10,819 acres (43.78 km2).

American Bittern

Every year in the Central Valley, migrating birds descend from the frigid northern climes. The birds overwinter here, in the Pacific Flyway corridor, from November to February. There are 5 million ducks, geese, and swans that overwinter in California, and 1.5 million shorebirds. It is not uncommon to experience flocks of snow geese numbering in the thousands.  Wikipedia overview. 


I have visited the Central Valley every winter for 27 years, and each year I am freshly enchanted by the avian visitors. There are over 300 species of birds and mammals.

Red-tailed Hawk, Sacramento NWR

Flock of White-faced Ibis

The auto tour is self-guided, costs a few dollars to enter. Visitors are allowed to get out of their car only at the designated “Park-and-Stretch” spots, where there is a small parking lot, viewing deck, and bathroom facility.


By staying in the car, visitors are essentially driving around in their own viewing “blind.” Birding and photography are done through your car window.

Athena photographing, Sacramento NWR

All the photos here (except one, the sunny one) are from our visit last winter to the Sacramento and nearby Colusa auto tours. It was a very rainy day. You can see how unperturbed even the most skittish creatures were, like the bittern and the brush rabbit.

Brush Rabbit


The Sacramento auto tour is six miles (9.6 km) long, and we usually spend about six hours here, averaging one mile per hour.

Loggerhead Shrike preying on a praying mantis

Pintails at Sacramento NWR

Snow geese, Sacramento Nat’l. Wildlife Refuge, CA

Winters here are relatively mild, so we don’t get snow; but there is often rain. Some years the rains are so torrential that getting out of the car is like stepping into a tornado. Other years there are mild winters; the sun is shining, all the windows are open and not only can we bird by ear, but there is great visibility.


Auto tour passengers include elderly and pre-school ages, and all ages in between. This is great for people who cannot walk far, too. Some people drive through for a pleasant afternoon with the family. Others–geeks like us–are equipped with all the opticals we own, field guides, snacks and meals, and we linger at every turn.

Flock of White-faced Ibis, Colusa NWR


Whatever American state you’re in, look up the national wildlife refuge or Fish and Wildlife services for the nearest auto tour.


It’s a wonderful way to enjoy wildlife in the worst weather of the year.


Photo credit: Athena Alexander unless otherwise specified

Black-crowned Night Herons, Colusa NWR

Jet (L) and Athena (R), Sacramento NWR


93 thoughts on “Wildlife Auto Tours

  1. Great photos, Athena! There is something similar here in Vegas, it’s a thirteen mile drive, a Scenic Drive they call it. But no birds like that! 😎🌴🌵

    • I’m glad to hear there’s a scenic drive in LV, John. I can imagine there’s a few beautiful birds there in the Mojave Desert. Many thanks for your visit, and I’ll pass on your compliments to Athena.

    • I think the pintails are so pretty, too, Craig. I was happy to come upon this big flock. I like pintails so much that I actually have a small oil painting of one on my wall. Cheers, my friend–

  2. What a way to spend a day – wonderful! Slow down, though, you wouldn’t want to dash through and miss something…
    Thanks for this, and I hope you and Athena have a great weekend!

    • Chuckled at your comment, PC. Yeah, one mile of driving in one hour, it doesn’t get much slower. lol. Looking forward to the weekend, we plan to hike on a small mountain here in our temporary digs that we haven’t been to in decades. It’s always nice to re-visit places. I hope you and Mrs. PC have a great weekend too.

  3. Thanks for this post. I looked to see if there is a similar auto tour in my area. There doesn’t seem to be, but I did find a wildlife refuge I wasn’t aware of about 50 miles away. Can’t wait to visit it! Your photos were fabulous!

  4. I learned something from your lovely post. I had no idea that there were such tours. What a wonderful thing to do and in such a fabulous area. I particularly love the ‘Flock of white faced Ibis’ and the Snow Geese….pure magic. Also lovely to see a photograph of you and Athena together. have a beautiful weekend…and am hoping that things are moving in the right direction. Janet 🙂

    • Always a pleasure to hear from you, Janet, thank you. We were very excited to see so many of the ibis, they are such a cool bird with that long, curved bill. They pose a particularly beautiful silhouette with their unique bill. You’re right, it is pure magic. Thank you for your good wishes. And yes, things are moving in the right direction…yay! Sending warm smiles your way….

  5. Pingback: Wildlife Auto Tours — Jet Eliot | huggers.ca

  6. It could be Wales with all that rain lol – I’d feel at home if I ever get there. Not with the birds though, and on that point – the “White-faced Ibis” isn’t very white-faced is it! Is it winter plumage or are they just in a thunderous mood with the weather?

    • It was a very wet day…yes, it could’ve been Wales. lol. Good observation about the ibis. No, they’re not white-faced in the winter, and it can be confusing. When they’re in their breeding plumage there is a little white on the face, owing to the name; though I have never seen them in this stage. But I think I’ll adapt your version–that they’re in a thunderous mood due to the rains. lol. Always a treat to have you stop by, Alastair, thank you.

  7. You always have great suggestions, Jet. And your intrepidness (?) allows this fan to escape the “frigid Northern clime” to sit on the beach and read about your hardy experiences! Mahalo.

    • Yes, it is a huge variety of species in that NWR Complex, we are fortunate to have something like this. I thought those were cute signs too, there were several of them, entertaining and accurate too. I hope your new year is going well, Ingrid.

  8. An interesting idea Jet, a safari in your own country! I don’t think we have anything like that here – the only thing close is that there was a lion park which was open until 1980, the lions and other animals roamed around and you drove around the park, with baboons jumping on the cars – I vaguely remember going as a child.

    • It is a marvelous and rich resource, funded by many organizations, toward the protection and proliferation of wildlife species. It really is like being on safari, you got that right, Andrea. In fact, we have gone on safari in many U.S. places that aren’t auto tours, after spending so much time on the auto tours and seeing how convenient the auto is for sneaking up on wildlife. We have our best photos of pronghorn by driving slow down a back road with the moon-roof open. Great to hear from you, as always.

    • That’s a very good point, Cathy, we can all see more when we slow down just a wee bit. Glad, too, that you liked the shrike photo. She caught the beauty of the sharp bill that the shrike has, and the preying mantis was a joy. Thank you.

  9. Drive-thru wildlife watching sounds like a horrendous idea, but I can tell you that when my son was a baby who enjoyed an afternoon nap in the car seat, the drive-thru with coffee, cake, binoculars and camera was a life saver for me! 🙂

    • Thanks very much, Val. That photo captures how much fun we always have there. Somehow we got started taking a selfie in that same spot, and now we have a string of photos of us over the span of 2.5 decades. That’s special. Cheers, my friend, I hope you’re having a fun weekend.

    • The details of the praying mantis didn’t appear until Athena was sitting down at the computer looking at the photos. We were excited just to see the shrike because they’re not commonly seen, and we knew it was wrestling with an insect, and then what a delightful surprise to see the praying mantis, yes, fighting ’til the last. Thanks very much, Eliza.

  10. Thank you for the tour, Jet and Athena! Thank you for letting us know about the auto tour. Athena took some cool photos, especial the snow geese.

    • I’m glad you liked the photos from the auto tour, Amy. It is really fun to spend the day driving around observing wildlife and recording their rumpus. Thank you, my friend, for visiting today.

  11. The Snow Geese photo is out of this world. Love it! I smiled when I saw your title and theme because I just published a similar (but more pedestrian) post. Much of my winter photography involves the use of my truck as a blind (and shelter from the elements). Envious of you journey to this wildlife smorgasbord!

    • Oh how I enjoyed seeing the wild birds you photographed in your wintry setting, Nick. I am smiling too, at our similar theme; and much appreciate your photographic mastery. The snowy owl is delightful.

  12. This looks like so much fun. We haven’t decided on a route yet when we head south, but might just try to include this NWR. I’ve never seen a shrike or a bittern. Hope they’re still around if we do head that way. Loved the selfie and particularly the one of Athena with the big lens stuck out the window. I remember sitting in the back seat when we visited the Bosque del Apache so I could shoot out of either side of the car (blind!) 😀 I’m guessing that’s what she was doing?
    Good to hear that things are moving along with plans to return home once again!

    • You and your husband would love the Sacramento NWR, Gunta. Another one that you may’ve already visited is Klamath, they have a 10-mile auto tour. I have been to the Bosque del Apache one, too, and it is glorious. And yes, you guessed right about Athena in the back seat. I drive while she sits in the back seat by herself, with both windows open. We take down the extra headrests and any other obstructions, and the car serves as a blind, tripod, and shooting gallery. As the safari driver, I position the vehicle in the best way for light and avoiding tall grass and other natural obstructions, and turn the motor off quickly so she can snap away. It is a blast. Warmest thanks for your visit, interest, and support.

      • Looks like we’re planning to include the Sacramento NWR near the start of our trip south. Are you familiar with any camping opportunities anywhere near by? Our ultimate destination will be Eric’s old neighborhood near Bosque del Apache, but we plan to take it slow and easy. We’ve visited the Klamath area a number of times. It was where I saw my very first Snow Goose blizzard and first sightings of Sandhill Cranes. It was a sight I’ll never forget with Mt Shasta for a backdrop. Another fond memory was camping right at the edge of Upper Klamath Lake with nary another soul in sight. That spot resulted in seeing Ibis, Avocets and Grebes. I’m learning so much from a partner who not only spots these magnificent creatures, but can identify them, too! 😀

      • Gunta, I’m delighted you and Eric will be visiting SNWR, I know you will like it. When you go depends on the bird populations. You will see a snow goose blizzard (like that word you gave) if it’s not after Jan./Feb. Don’t know about camping opportunities, but staying in or near the town of Williams, CA is a good place to catch both the Sacramento and Colusa NWRs. We stay at Granzella’s Motel, eat there too, like many birders. Here’s their link. Feel free to contact me via email for more info or questions, which I am happy to answer.

  13. That NWR must be teeming with birds. I’ve never been to one Reserve that you can’t leave your car. Must be extremely uncomfortable to be handling long lenses inside the car, especially if you have birds on both sides. You’re looking good my friend… 🙂

    • Hi HJ. That NWR really is teeming with birds, even on the rainiest days there is plenty of activity. Athena’s got long and short lenses flying everywhere, and a rag nearby to keep wiping off the rain droplets. She has the whole backseat, which helps, but yes, there is confinement. I’ve seen when someone gets out of the car, thinking they can just sneak out, snap a photo, and get back in unnoticed. And all the birds lift in the biggest cacophony imaginable!! Hope you’re enjoying a pleasant weekend, HJ–

    • Oh how wonderful, Hien. With all your experience and enjoyment with photographing birds, you really should try hard to set aside at least four hours to be there. This is the prime time of year, and no matter what the weather, you will have plenty to see…though it goes without saying that the nicer the weather, the more you will see. And you’ll have fun with the mild weather to thaw your bones after the frigid temperatures you’ve been experiencing there in NJ. Stop in at the visitor center before you start the drive, to see what unusual birds have been spotted recently. And take food, because you won’t want to stop and there’s nothing nearby. Happy travels, my friend.

  14. I’ve never heard of these auto tours before, but it sounds like a great way to spend a day.
    The picture with all the snow geese gives an indication of just how many birds really take up residence there. I can imagine that not only is it an amazing sight, but the sound must be incredible!

    • The sound is indeed incredible, Joanne. There’s a huge whooshing sound when they all lift simultaneously. In addition, the coming and going of so many thousands and thousands of geese makes for an unbelievable amount of goose honking. It is absolutely glorious. Thanks for your visit and comment.

  15. Nice post and great photos, especially the one with the praying mantis and the one of you and Athena! It’s great to be a ‘viewer’ of your dedication the wildlife:)

    • Always a joy to have you visit, Bertie, thank you. That preying mantis is very cool, isn’t it?, I’m glad you like it. Thanks so much for your warm and thoughtful comment and visit today. 🙂

  16. Thank you so much for sharing this wonderful wildlife auto tours post! As soon as I finished reading, I checked on tours in our state and found one that I plan on visiting in June when it opens for the year. Wonderful photos, especially the red-tailed hawk and the egret by the entrance sign, and I can’t wait for another new birding experience this summer.

    • Thanks so much, ACI, for your enthusiasm and interest. I love that you looked up and found an auto tour to visit in June. Michigan is one of the birdiest states in May and June, for all the migrating songbirds returning and travelling north after wintering in Central and South America. You will have a grand time. Athena was excited when the egret stood beside the entrance sign, glad you liked that one; and the RTH was also one of the images she especially liked creating. Your eye for photography and your enthusiasm for life will carry you far in happiness…my warmest wishes to you.

    • Thank you, Helen. Yes, that bittern was a really rare opportunity, because they usually are deeply hidden in the marsh. They point their heads to the sky as a means of trying to camouflage from perceived predators. We were driving so slow and making no noise, I am sure that is why we got to see him or her. So glad you enjoyed the post.

  17. I was surprised most of all by the number of commenters who weren’t familiar with auto tours. Of course, I’m surrounded by refuges and wildlife management areas that have auto routes, and there’s hardly a nice weekend that I don’t visit one. It’s perfectly acceptable to get out of the car, as far as the regulations go: hiking trails abound, and parking’s available. Still, as you noted, one step outside and you can flush the birds in an instant. Sometimes, I’ll simply pick a place and prepare to wait, since birds, like dragonflies, often will come back to a spot they’ve flown from.

    Do you know the work of Mia McPherson? Her website, “On The Wing Photography is a treasure trove. I use her galleries to help with ID, and she posts a good bit of information about light, weather conditions, and camera settings, so it’s useful from a technical standpoint, too. And don’t miss the page devoted to her “photo noodle” — an utterly creative way to help deal with the problems associated from shooting from a mobile blind.

    It’s been a little cold and entirely too windy for good shooting here recently, as most of the birds are hunkered down. When we get some sunshine and warmth, it could be extraordinary, because there’s a lot of breeding plummage blowing around in the wind.

  18. Athena took great photos! LOVE the one of the Loggerhead Shrike and the Mantis 🙂 And it was nice to see you both. I did an auto tour with Dylan recently to the Fort de Soto park, but mostly I just hike the trails.

    • That shrike and mantis photo was great, I’m glad you enjoyed it, Helen. We just went up there again yesterday and unlike you, we had never done the walking trail there before; but yesterday one of the rangers was being very kind to us, and she told us a little secret (she whispered it) about a possum she knew of, nesting in a tree hole. So we walked on the trail and found the possum asleep. So it was great to be on the trail too, like you do. 🙂

    • How nice to have you visit, Annika. I agree, the auto tours are great–an inexpensive way to safari, fun for all ages, and they host large volumes of birds. Thanks for your comment and visit.

    • I enjoyed your comment, Indah, and am glad to have introduced you to the wildlife auto tours in this country. It is definitely a treat for the photographer if there is a driver to manage the auto. Thanks very much, Indah–

    • Animals in every country flee quickly when the car stops and the windows go down. The key to good photos on these auto tours is keeping your windows down and moving with minimal noise. Thanks for stopping by, bergarbeiter.

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