Colorado Hidden Gem: Arapaho National Wildlife Refuge

Arapaho National Wildlife Refuge is the hidden gem that travelers dream of. Located in an intermountain glacial basin, this secluded refuge provides a welcoming habitat for 203 species of postcard-worthy wildlife.

By: Staff Writer
Updated: April 17, 2024

What to See & Do

This high-mountain (8,200 feet above sea level) oasis east of Steamboat Springs is unlike any other area in Colorado and is an ideal location for wildlife photographers and naturalists wanting to revel in the quiet beauty of untouched wilderness. Wetlands and meandering streams reside in the lower portion of the 24,804-acre park while the upper portions are covered in sweeping grasslands and sagebrush. 

Arapaho National Wildlife Refuge was established in 1967 as a safe harbor for waterfowl being pushed out of the Midwest wetland regions by development. The meadows at the refuge seem unlikely for Colorado’s dry climate, which is why the Illinois River is responsible for irrigating the marsh lowlands.

The water creates a perfect breeding ground and habitat for waterfowl, ducks, geese and other marsh birds. If you’re lucky, you’ll spot a Virginia Rail hiding in the dense vegetation or catch the glistening blue-gray under feathers of the Sora — two of the many special birds (198 species are recorded) that birdwatchers flock the refuge for. 

A camera is essential here. Snap intimate photos of pronghorn antelope, elk, golden eagles, hawks, deer, beavers, moose and migratory birds (just a few of the animals hanging around these parts). But don’t take just our word for it! The refuge’s website describes the essence of this unique destination best:

“One can sense the vibrance of life here; the faint whirrings of insects, the murmur of moving water, the comings and goings of mammals, and the flights of birds set against the brilliant sky at dawn or dusk.”

Open from sunup to sundown, there is no entrance fee for Arapaho National Wildlife Refuge. The 6-mile guided driving tour is a must for visitors wanting detailed information about the complex ecosystem and hundreds of animals that call the refuge home. Make sure to stop at the Broker overlook for interactive displays and the nature walk trailhead.

Getting There

Arapaho National Wildlife Refuge is 1 hour northeast of Steamboat Springs, 1 hour east of State Forest State Park and only 20 minutes from the town of Walden.

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