There is so much to see and do at Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge in southeast Texas! If you’re in the Rio Grande Valley or traveling through, come check out the 2,088 acre refuge in the town of Alamo. There’s 14 miles of trails, tons of species of birds, a rope bridge, tree tower, observation decks, visitor’s center, nature tram, and historic cemetery. See my favorite photos below from my past two adventures at the refuge, including how I conquered my fear of heights and also thought I got locked inside the refuge at night!
One of my favorite moments upon first visiting the refuge back in March was hiking the trail that runs along the Rio Grande River (the natural border between Texas and Mexico). Standing on the cliff and looking across the river at Mexico was unreal. It was so close! And there was nothing on the other side except trees. It was beautiful. I’m glad I got to experience this when I did, because I may not have the chance again. Unfortunately, plans are set for a border wall to be built right through the refuge. Not only will this destroy the natural beauty and scenery of Santa Ana, it will displace all the native animals that are accustomed to freely roaming the area. It will bring lots of noise and people to the peaceful refuge during construction, as well as trash and big machinery. There’s been a lot of protest down here in South Texas about it, but I’m not sure it will be enough to save the refuge from a big, ugly wall.
My recommendation is to take a ride on the Nature Tram. It’s only $2 for an hour and half tour. The guides will give you plenty of interesting information and since the refuge is so big, it gives you a chance to see parts of Santa Ana that you may not have gotten to on foot. One of the first stops is the The Old Cemetery or El Cementerio Viejo. Long before it was a refuge, Mexican ranchers owned the property and there’s about 30 people buried on site.
One of the many aspects of Santa Ana that I enjoy is that there is wide array of biodiversity. You’ve got the river, forest, open grassland, desert, resacas (water channels specific to the region) – a little bit of everything! There’s a shady corner of the refuge that is full of Spanish moss. As you walk below it, you hear all types of bird calls.
Speaking of birds, if you are a bird lover, you will love Santa Ana 🐦 This is where I first discovered the Green Jay, a beautiful green and blue bird that is abundant in the region. I also spotted some bunny rabbits, an armadillo, and lots of lizards and butterflies 🦋 Apparently there are still ocelots in the refuge, though they are elusive and usually only park rangers will spot them early in the morning. The ocelot is highly endangered due to habitat loss, so I’m worried that building the wall will dwindle their numbers even more.
Okay, so hear comes one of my adventure stories! The very first photo at the beginning of this post is of the Canopy Walk, a rope bridge that is suspended between two towers. It’s only about 20 feet off the ground, so I attempted the climb the spiral staircase upon my arrival – except that I’m deathly afraid of heights 😱
I made it about halfway up the staircase, stood there for a minute, and climbed back down. I also tried to climb the Tree Tower, but that’s 40 feet up so that didn’t go well either…. The good thing about this tower is that is has more of a building structure, with the staircase enclosed mainly inside, so you feel a bit safer. Still was a big fat no for me, but I gave it a shot.
It was really bothering me that I was being such a weenie about climbing up some stairs, so I decided to give it another try before I left the refuge that evening. I got halfway up the spiral staircase of the bridge and the same thing happened. I watched a man my age climb up the stairs and cross the bridge with no problem, so I asked him if he’d been to the Tree Tower. He said “No, come on!” I tried to explain that I was scared of heights and couldn’t do it, but he kept encouraging me to take one step, then another, and he distracted me from being scared because he was talking so much. Before I knew it, I was at the very top of the tower!
But being at the top was the scariest part because it’s completely open, and since it’s above the trees, it’s really windy 🌬 I literally crawled the last couple of steps and then sat down because I was too scared to stand. Eventually, with my new friend’s help, I stood up and (very, very slowly) walked around the tower. I started to feel dizzy after a few minutes so we went back down. After conquering the tower, however, I was ready to walk across the bridge. I ran up the spiral staircase and walked across, stopping in the middle of the bridge to enjoy the view. I was pretty proud of myself for getting past my fear of heights and thankful that someone was nice enough to help me.
Because this man helped me conquer my fear, I went into tour guide mode and showed him around some nearby parts of Santa Ana. It started to get late and I knew the park rangers would be locking the gate soon, so we raced back to the main entrance and luckily we made it and the gates were still open. Whew! We decided to meet back at the refuge the following week so I could show him the rest of the trails.
We ended up meeting on a very overcast day, late in the afternoon. It started to rain on us while we were hiking deep in the refuge. Luckily, my new friend brought an umbrella but it didn’t stop us from getting drenched. We headed back towards the entrance, but we were so far out that it was going to take us at least an hour! To save time, we cut through the forest, but the dirt trails were soooo muddy and my Converse sneakers weren’t cutting it. I was wet, muddy, hungry, it was getting dark, and I knew we wouldn’t make it before they locked the gates. Yikes! Oh, also, because the refuge lies along the international border, I didn’t get any phone service. So I was mentally preparing to spend a lovely night in Santa Ana with the coyotes and other night critters 🙈
Obviously, I made it out alive otherwise I wouldn’t be writing this, but oh was I panicking! We made it to our cars, and slowly drove to the front entrance to see if the gate was still open or if it had been closed and locked. My heart sank.. the gate was closed! We inched up to take a closer look and it must have had a motion sensor because it miraculously opened! Whew!
It seems as though every time I visit Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, adventure awaits me. And I’m okay with that. Although I should probably start visiting earlier in the day so I don’t risk getting caught there after hours anymore 😜
Santa Ana is a beautiful, peaceful refuge not just for the people who visit everyday, but first and foremost for the animals that naturally habitat the region. They deserve to be able to freely cross the borders as they have for thousands of years without human interference. Hopefully, they will be able to continue to do so. If you live in Texas or happen to be traveling through the southern tip of the state, be sure to stop by for a visit so you can experience this magical place for yourself!