For birdwatchers, this 115,000-acre refuge is the premier site on the Texas coast. Although only 15 whooping cranes remained in the wild in 1941, more than 500 now winter here each year. Total bird numbers peak during March and November migrations but remain high all year, and you may also spot ground-based animals including collared peccary, alligators, bobcats and more. There’s a ranger station to the right as you enter, across from the hurricane-damaged former–visitor center.
A 5-mile walk or drive beyond, a 40ft observation tower overlooks much of the refuge. It has free telescopes, though during migration season their double purpose as a bird perch may keep you away. The Auto Tour Loop covers 16 miles, so allow two to four hours. Among several looped walks, the 1.4-mile Heron Flats Trail is less visited, with some nice shady portions and beach frontage (though the second half of the loop is prone to flooding), while the 1-mile Dagger Point Trail hilltop section offers excellent views of the bay.
Easily the best way to see rare birds is on a boat tour of the estuaries, which run between mid-November and mid-April, with whooping cranes as their prime target. Bikes are a good way to explore the many hiking trails.