The Rio Grande Valley's Nature Site

Photos of Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge

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Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge is 7.5 miles south of the city of Alamo, Hidalgo Co., TX.  To get to the Refuge, take US-83 to Alamo to FM-907; go south onto FM-907 for 7.5 miles to US-281 (Old Military Highway); turn left (east) onto US-281 and drive for 1/4 of a mile. The Refuge is on the right (south side) of US-281 (Old Military Highway). 

From McAllen, you can take TX-115 (23rd St.) or TX-336 (10th St.) south to the city of Hidalgo, turn left (east) on US-281 (Old Military Highway) to the NWR (there are plenty of signs).

Birding and Dragonflying are excellent at Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge. 

Butterflying is POOR at best.  ALL Refuge designated Butterfly Gardens (Front Garden, Headquarters Garden, Old Residence Garden--try to find it, and the Old Cemetery Garden) are in terrible shape and have not been trimmed in the past 3 years, at least.  Refuge Staff and Management should be thoroughly embarassed about the shape the Butterfly Gardens are in.  Butterfliers should spend there time at any other LRGV wildlife watching site, not wasting their time at Santa Ana. 


The Refuge is open seven days a week (except Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's) from dawn to dusk, but the Vistior Center is open from 8:00 am to 4:00 pm.  After you park, go into the covered area with restrooms on your right and the Headquarters on your left.  If you arrive before the Visitor Center is open, you can display a current Federal Duck Stamp or appropriate Pass on your dash.  Or, you can get a gold Refuge envelope at the stand as you enter the covered area, fill it out and put your fee in the envelope, then the envelope in the box, and display the flap portion on your dash.

There are 12 miles of foot trails and access roads that are open to hiking in addition to the 7 mile long Wildlife Drive. These trails vary in length from ½ mile (paved and wheelchair-accessible) to the 7 mile Wildlife Drive.

The 7 mile Wildlife Drive, open on weekends during the summer, provides excellent opportunities for exploring the more remote areas of Santa Ana. The Wildlife Drive is open from 9:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m., Saturdays and Sundays from May through November. Please call the Visitor Center at (956) 784-7500 before arrival to confirm that the Wildlife Drive will be open.

A 60-passenger interpretive tram is in operation from Thanksgiving to the end of April. Available seven days a week, the 1.5 hour tour departs the Santa Ana Visitor Center three times daily.

Tram Tour Schedule: 
November – April (closed for Thanksgiving, Christmas Day and New Year’s Day)
Departure Times:  9:00 a.m, 12 noon and 2:00 p.m.
Cost:  $4.00 per adult (12 years and older); $3.50 for Seniors (55 and older); $1.00 for children (two to 12 years old); and $1.50 for participants on Field Trips. Free for children under the age of two.

Bicycles and hikers are welcome on the Wildlife Drive daily from sunrise to sunset.

The Friends of Santa Ana NWR (aka the Friends of the Wildlife Corridor) offer Canoe Trips on the Rio Grande. Seasonal trips are offered during the winter months:
  Depart at 8:30 am and return by 12:00 noon
Cost:  $20 per person. Covers the guide, transportation, canoe and necessary equipment.
Reservations: To make reservations, please call (956)784-7500
What to Bring: sunscreen, sun protection, insect repellent and shoes you don’t mind getting wet. 
Please keep in mind that canoeing can be a physically demanding sport. You will be required to paddle and getting in and out of the canoes can be challenging.


On the left (east) side of the Entrance Walk down to the Main Trailheads, a water feature is between the sidewalk and the Office.  Take a little time to check for birds and odonata.  On the right (west) side is the only bird feeding station in the Refuge.  Benches face the feeding station, so sit and observe the birds. Water fountains are to your right, and bottled water is available inside at the Nature Store.  BE SURE YOU CARRY PLENTY OF WATER WITH YOU, before starting your hike, as THERE IS  NO WATER AVAILABLE INSIDE THE REFUGE.  If you are planning on birding more than a few hours, a pint of water is not enough.

Inside the Visitor Center, you can pay your entrance fee and pick up a map of the trails and checklists of the birds and dragonflies.  Be SURE to sign-in, because the Refuge can use this information in all kinds of ways.  There are plenty of interpretive displays and log-books with reports of what others have seen at the Refuge. 

The Friends of Santa Ana Refuge maintain a great Nature Store with cold drinks, snacks, books and tapes, t-shirts and other items.

As you walk down to the Main Trailheads, go slowly and watch for birds.  When you are about to cross the canal, take a little time to look down at the water's edge on both sides of the sidewalk, for damselflies.  Also, watch for some of the unique Lower Rio Grande Valley lizards that can often be seen on the walk.



Just a short walk from the Visitor Center, you will come to the Main Trailheads.  If you are unfamiliar with the Refuge or if this is your first visit, the choice of which of the 5 trails to take can be somewhat daunting.  Our best suggestion is to take the Chachalaca Trail (middle, cement and curbed) trail to your right (west). 

This mostly shady trail takes you to Willow Lakes-3 Observation Deck.  Going slowly, look and listen for the birds, and watch for all the other creatures that you can see.  When you reach the shady, mossy area, watch for Zebra Heliconians, Malachites and other butterflies that prefer this habitat.  Pause near the wooden bridge to look and listen for Tropical Parula, as they nest in the hanging Spanish Moss.  You should find Long-billed Thrasher and Clay-colored Thrush, lurking in the leaf litter.  Chachalaca Trail is about a 0.5 mile loop trail back to the Main Trailhead.


Having taken the north loop of Chachalaca Trail (middle, cement and curbed) from the Trailhead (and remember Chachalaca Trail is about a 0.5 mile long, loop trail that can take you back to the Main Trailhead), you will pass through an area of Spanish Moss-covered trees, before reaching reaching this Observation Deck that looks into Willow Lakes-3.  Pause for a while under the moss for passerines.  Tropical Parula nest in the Spanish Moss.  Since this area is very shady, Zebra Heliconians and Malachites are some of the spectacular LRGV specialty butterflies that can be seen in the area, particularly near the short, wooden bridge you crossed. 

Besides the birds, watch for lizards, butterflies, and odonata on your way from the Main Trailhead to the Observation Deck.  Look in the shady areas for hanging Darners, in paricular.  About 15 yards before the Observation Deck, is a short trail (50 yds.) that "tees" into Willow Lakes Trail.  The shady area on the right side of the Observation Deck and back towards the beginning of the short trail is where Blue-striped Spreadwings, Crream-tipped Swamp Damsels, Caribbean Darners and other Darners have been easily seen.

Again, at the end of the above mentioned short trail, you can go right onto Willow Lakes Trail and head back 0.5 miles to the Main Trailhead.  Shortly after you turned to the right, Cattail Lakes Trail starts off to the west for an almost 1 mile hike to Cattail Lakes, but passes beside Willow Lakes West.  The Willow Lakes West area is worth checking out for birds and butterflies; a Rufous-backed Robin was photographed by many, a few years ago in Willow Lakes West.  You can go to the left on Willow Lakes Trail and go south down the west side of Willow Lakes-4 & 5, then turning east to the Fire Tower parking area (~0.75 mile).

From this Observation Deck, go east on the southern loop of Chachalaca Trail and you will come to the 2nd Observation Deck which is a huge Photo Blind that looks into the middle and east end of Willow Lakes-3, and is excellent for seeing many bird species.  Just a little further down and you will come to a small wooden bridge that the Refuge refers to as an Observation Deck.  Very close to this point, you can go to the left, back to the Main Trailhead (~0.15 mile), or continue a few feet and turn to the left on Pintail Lakes Trail back to the Trailhead (~ 0.15 mile). 

You can, however, not take either trail to the Main Trailhead, but continue on south to the Old Residence area and Fire Tower Parking lot, after passing between Willow Lakes-2 on your right (west) and Willow Lakes-1 on your left (east).  This is a superb area to watch for Green Kingfisher, Clay-colored Thrushes and many other birds.  Be sure to pause and check out Willow Lakes-1 for many great birds and for dragonflies.  Many very rare dragonflies have been seen in Willow Lakes-1.


Having gone about 175 yards east of the Observation Deck, you come to the Willow Lakes-3 Photo Blind and Observation Deck.  Least Grebes and Black-bellied Whistling Ducks are just about guaranteed.  Keep an eye out for Ringed and Green Kingfishers and the many wader species that can be seen.  Look in all the trees for passerines.  Great Kiskadee and Green Jay will surely be seen.  Once again, check for odonata in this area.


If having continued east on Chachalaca Trail and then turned south toward the Old Residence and Fire Tower area, you will pass between Willow Lakes-2 on your right and Willow Lakes-1 on your left.  Here at Willow Lakes-1, be sure and pause and look east into this small pond for many species of birds.  We have always found Clay-colored Thrushes and Olive Sparrows in this area.  Many dragonflies can be found here.  You should see several flycatchers and passerine migrants in this area, also.


Less than 15 yards south on the trail, from where you looked into Willow Lakes-1, you will cross a caliche (gravelly) road and be at the Old Residence.  Check for all kinds of birds and butterflies around the Old Residence, including the caliche road.  If you have yet to see Chachalacas since starting your hike at the Main Trailhead, you should see them here.  The Fire Tower/Canopy Rope-Bridge parking area is just a few yards south.  Wildlife Drive is here, and the walk back to the Visitor Center is north on Wildlife Drive, just 0.25 miles.

  The walk you just completed, from the Main Trailhead to the Old Residence by way of the Chachalaca Trail loop, was 0.5 miles. 


The 7 mile Wildlife Drive begins at the Visitor Center parking area.  The walk down to the Old Residence area and Fire Tower parking lot is about 0.25 miles and is a two way road to this point; the remainder of Wildlife Drive is one-way.  Whether walking or driving, go slowly and watch both sides of the road for both birds and butterflies.

 The Wildlife Drive is open from 9:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m., Saturdays and Sundays from May through November. However, you should call the Visitor Center at (956) 784-7500 before arrival to confirm that the Wildlife Drive will be open.

Wildlife Drive is ALWAYS open to hikers and bicycles.  If walking or riding a bike, take plenty of water (at least a quart) with you.


Having gone 1/4 mile since starting down Wildlife Drive, the entrance to the Old Residence area is just past the "Keep Right" sign, the start of Pintail Lakes Trail is to your left, the Fire Tower parking lot is down and to your right at the "One-Way"sign, and the end of Wildllife Drive being a two-way road is at that point, also.


The entrance to the Old Residence area/Fire Tower/Canopy Rope-Bridge Parking area.  At this point, you can turn around and drive back to the Visitor Center.  Otherwise, you are committed to continue on the one-way, 7 mile Wildlife Drive.


The Fire Tower is 40 ft. tall, and an excellent location to watch for raptors or to look down on the birds.


From the Fire Tower you can see for miles, since you are above the tallest of trees in the LRGV.  This is a view towards McAllen, about 15 miles away.


The 25 ft. tall, 100 ft. long Canopy Rope-Bridge is just to the left (east)of the Fire Tower.  It is really fun to look down onto the backs of birds or to look directly into their nests.


There is very little bounce or sway to the Canopy Rope-Bridge, making it easy to traverse.


The view to the east of the Canopy Rope-Bridge from the 15 ft., taller Fire Tower.


The entrance to the Pintail Lakes Service Rd. Trail is almost directly across the street from the Fire Tower parking lot.  The entire Pintail Lakes Trail loop is 2.0 miles, making this trail the longest in the Refuge.


The Pintail Lakes Service Rd. Trail will take you down between Pintail Lakes-3 (the largest of the 6 Pintail Lakes) and Pintail Lakes 5&4.  Watch for birds and butterflies the entire length of the Trail.  This is another great place to watch for raptors.  Many waders, ducks, kingfishers, and other birds can be found here.  A few years ago, a Gray-crowned Yellowthroat was seen by many birders in the northeast corner of Pintail Lakes-3.  Recently, a Masked Duck was photographed in Pintail Lakes-4.

If you continue as far east as you can go on this trail, it makes a sharp bend to the south (right), then another sharp bend to the west (right), and takes you back west to the Wildlife Drive.  On the walk back to the Wildlife Drive, the trail passes right beside the bank of the Rio Grande River, giving you a great look into the River and  Mexico.  Check the River view for kingfishers, flaycatchers and other birds.


Pintail Lakes-3


Pintail Lakes-4


Pintail Lakes-2


The 0.5 mile drive towards the southwest, between the Fire Tower parking lot and the east-side trailhead of Bobcat Trail.


Bobcat Trail's east trailhead.  Bobcat Trail runs west-northwest for 0.6 miles to the west-side Wildlife Drive and ends directly across the road from Cattail Lakes-2, after crossing the Jaguarundi Trail.  It is 1.0 miles from this point back to the Visitor Center.


The 0.5 mile drive between Bobcat Trail and the Old Cemetery and Owl Trail's trailhead. 


The entrance to the Old Cemetery and the east-side trailhead of the Owl Trail.  It is 1.4 miles from the Old Cemetery parking lot back to the Visitor Center.


There are many, very old graves in the Old Cemetery.  The large cross marks the grave of Thomas W. Jones, born in 1827 and drowned as a surveyor during a River flood on July 23, 1858.


These are about a third of the marked graves in the tiny (~50 ft. x 50 ft.) cemetery.


Owl Trial starts on the side of the Old Cemetery and runs just 0.3 miles to the southeast end of Resaca Loop Trail.  This short walk can be quite good for butterflies, especially Portrillo Skippers, since their host plant is all along the Owl Trail. 

A very dry area of the Refuge, look for the tree snail, Striped Rabdotus-Rabdotus alternatus, that can be found in good numbers along Owl Trail .  Rabdotus alternatus is the main food source for Hook-billed Kites.


Vireo Trail's trailhead is 0.25 miles southwest from the Old Cemetery parking lot and 1.6 miles from the Visitor Center.  Vireo Trail starts on the south side of the Wildlife Drive and goes south for 1.1 miles, all the way to the Rio Grande River.  Look for the many bird species that can be found along Vireo Trail and at the River.


The 0.3 mile drive from Vireo Trail to the Resaca Loop trailhead and parking area.


Resaca Loop Trail's trailhead on the north side of Wildlife Drive.  Resaca Loop Trail  is 1.4 miles long.  It is ~1.9 miles back to the Visitor Center.

The Resaca Loop Trail is one of the most beautiful of all the Santa Ana NWR nature trails.  Always good for birds, it can be fantastic if there is water in the Resaca.  On the east side of the Resaca, from Owl Trail to Oriole Trail, the Resaca Loop Trail can be fantastic for finding Darners and other dragonflies and this portion of Resaca Loop trail is the best place in the LRGV for finding Malachites.  Ruella is the host plant for this butterfly and there are loads of Ruella on this side of the loop.

The 1.2 mile long Oriole Trail starts at the very north end of the Resaca Loop Trail, and runs west for ~0.3 miles to cross Jaguarundi Trail.  Here, Oriole Trail continues west for another 0.3 miles to cross Mesquite Trail, then goes toward the northwest for 0.6 miles to Wildlife Drive.


Owl Trail starting at at Resaca Loop Trail and going back towards the northeast for 0.3 miles to the Old Cemetery/Owl Trail parking lot.  Owl trail is about 0.2 miles west of the Resaca Loop Trail's trailhead.


This is the southern trailhead of Jaguarundi Trail.  Jaguarundi Trail starts here and runs north-northeast for 1.3 miles to Cattail Lakes Trail.  Southwest across Wildlife Drive, Jaguarundi Trail goes 0.2 miles to the Rio Grande River.  Jaguarundi Trail is the longest, straight trail, with no bends, in the Refuge (the 0.6 mile Bobcat Trail is the only other straight trail, with no bends, in the Refuge).  Numerous species of birds will be found along the Jaguarundi Trail.  It is 2.2 miles from this trailhead back to the Visitor Center.


The Jaguarundi Trail Overlook into the Rio Grande River.  This view is towards the southwest, looking into Mexico.  The parking area at Wildlife Drive and the entrance to this portion of Jaguarundi Trial is back about 0.2 miles.


The Jaguarundi Trail Overlook into the Rio Grande River.  This view is towards the southeast, looking into Mexico.  The parking area at Wildlife Drive and the entrance to this portion of Jaguarundi Trial is back about 0.2 miles.


The drive from Jaguarundi Trail to Mesquite Trail.


The southern end of Mesquite Trail at its trailhead.  It is 2.8 miles back to the Visitor Center.  Mesquite Trail is only 0.4 miles long and runs from this point, northeast, crossing Oriole Trail, to the west side of Wildlife Drive.  This short trail can be very productive for finding birds.  The Honey Mesquite in the photo is ~60 ft. tall, maybe one of the tallest Mesquites I have ever seen.


The drive from Mesquite Trail to the Oriole Trail parking area and trailhead.


Oriole Trail at its trailhead.  Oriole Trail runs 1.2 miles back to the north end of Resaca Trail Loop.  Just a few yards up the trail is a Photo Blind.  Oriole Trail is great for birds and dragonflies.


The north end of the 0.4 mile long Mesquite Trail, facing south.


The west end of Bobcat Trail at Wildlife Drive, facing towards the east-southeast.  Only 0.6 miles long, Bobcat Trail is straight as a board, and very good for birds.


Just a few yards north of Bobcat Trail, Cattail Lakes Trail is only about 10 yards towards the west, then heads off about 1.6 miles northeast towards the Main Trailhead at the Visitor Center.  At the time of this photo, the lakes had been burned to help reduce the cattails. 


When the Lakes have not been drained, numerous species of ducks, shorebirds and waders can be found here.


Cattail Lakes are probably the least birded area of the Refuge, since it is a long walk to get here and is towards the end of the Wildlife Drive.  However, if you are into ducks and shorebirds, don't pass up the opportunity to bird, here.


Cattail Lakes Trail on the back side of Wildlife Drive, facing east.  This will go all the way back to the Main Trailhead, and the birding on this trail can be excellent.


The final portion of the paved area of Wildlife Drive.


Wildlife Drive at the Levee Road.  Spend time checking out the birds on your drive from Cattail Lakes to this point, as the shady areas are always productive for birds.


As you begin the ~1.25 miles drive back to the Refuge parking lot, be sure to check the fields on your left and the trees on your right.


The trees on your right as you near the Visitor Center can have a neat raptor perched.  Be sure to watch for them.


Be careful and obey the stop sign, before crossing the path that goes towards the Main Trailhead on your right.  Watch the power lines for swallows.


After you think you have finished with your visit, go back inside the Visitor Center and write down the critters you have seen.

Then, go and park in the very north end of the parking lot and check out the Front Pond.  The Front Pond can be superb for dragonflies and damselflies.  Several very rare odonata have been found here.  This past May, a new-to-the-U.S. damselfly was discovered here.  Several species of birds can be found here, also. 


The area on your left that has the Front Pond is the last habitat you will see as you as you leave the Refuge. 

The Butterfly Garden at this site has been allowed to go to ruin.  You will see lots of useless weeds and broken drip lines, but very few butterflies.  This Garden was  once extremely productive...your tax dollars and donations at work.

As you probably noticed in the photos, the Refuge is extremely parched, as this area has been under a drought for the past couple of years.

I know you have realized that it is just about impossible to adequately bird the Refuge in one, even two days.  There are lots of miles of trails you could never traverse in one day, so come back to this wonderful gem in the Refuge System.