An Insider’s Guide to Tule Lake National Wildlife Reserve

The Klamath Basin is a wildlife lover’s paradise, home to a whopping six National Wildlife Refuges. One of the six—the Tule Lake National Wildlife Refuge—is a major reason why the basin is considered one of the best birding locations in the West. Just over the California border, the “Everglades of the West Coast” occupies 39,116 acres spread out across open water, wetlands, uplands, and, believe it or not, farmland.

The basin is unique. There are only a few high desert wetlands in the world, and this is one of them. Roughly 400 species of birds reside in or migrate through the reserve annually. During the peak of fall migration, somewhere in the ballpark of 1 million geese, ducks, swans, and numerous others populate the area. The refuge also serves as a fine location for spotting raptors, bald eagles, an array of mammals, as well as reptiles and amphibians. The flora is as varied as the fauna and the landscape, all continuously morphing with the changing seasons.

The refuge is also home to some captivating geology and human history. In addition to birding and wildlife viewing, hunting, hiking, and photography are all pursuits that can be enjoyed at Tule Lake. For all these reasons and more, the basin is always worth a visit, year-round.

A Historic Landscape

Tule Lake has come a long way since the first settlers arrived on the wetland scene. – Cary Bass-Deschenes

The first settlers in the region enjoyed 350,000 acres of wetlands, lakes, marshes, and fish-filled rivers. And a lot of birds. Migrations during that time seem unimaginable by today’s numbers. Even half a century ago, during the peak of fall migration, over 7 million waterfowl and 1,000 wintering bald eagles would regularly respite in the basin simultaneously.

In 1908, President Theodore Roosevelt designated 81,000 acres of marsh and open water in Lower Klamath Lake as the first National Wildlife Refuge for waterfowl. Twenty years later, President Calvin Coolidge authorized the protection of 37,000 acres of what was then Tule Lake.

Despite those protections, however, the Klamath Reclamation Project, initiated in 1906, led the way for gradual but extensive agricultural development of the area’s fertile farmlands, and the draining of much of what was Lower Klamath and Tule Lakes.

The Kuchel Act of 1964 ceased further development with the goal of wildlife conservation and waterfowl management, but with full consideration of agricultural use. It’s a delicate balance, but today almost half the refuge allows farming. A program called “Walking Wetlands” invites refuge managers and private landowners to work together in a balanced approach to land management producing impressively good results for all involved.

Exceptional Birding, Wildlife Viewing, and Recreation

A coyote along the banks of Tule Lake. – USFWS Pacific Southwest

A varied habitat benefits not only flora and fauna but recreational opportunists as well. The dry upland areas of the refuge nourish a variety of plant species including green sagebrush, rabbitbrush, and other native shrubs and grasses. These in turn feed a number of the animal species that roam the area, including rabbit, mule deer, coyote, the occasional bighorn sheep, and more.

For an area to be considered a wetland it must have 3 things: water, wetland plants, and wetland soils. There’s no shortage of all three at Tule Lake, producing the perfect habitat for beavers, raccoons, muskrats, river otters, and others. A number of avian friends find the wetlands with favor as well, including ospreys, hawks, kingfishers, and bald eagles.

Meanwhile, the grain crops of the farmlands provide a food source for migrating waterfowl, deer, and other birds. The refuge regulates how much land goes into crop rotation every year keeping a balance between seasonal wetlands and farm fields.

As you might imagine, it’s a spectacular area for hunters in search of waterfowl or pheasant. And though hiking opportunities in the refuge might not be extensive, the half-mile ascent on the Sheepy Ridge Trail provides a sweeping view of much of the refuge. And the interpretive auto tour route visits a number of viewing platforms, interpretive areas, and blinds, perfect for wildlife viewing, walking, and photography.

Quick Tips for Getting the Most Out of Your Trip

Check out the visitor center, read the signs, and make the most out of your Tule Lake trip. – Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife

If you’re visiting the refuge, here are a few things to keep in mind: The refuge is free to visit and open from sunrise to sunset. Dogs are allowed but must remain on-leash.

Stopping in at the Refuge Headquarters and Visitor Center is a must. Peruse informative displays and exhibits and glean helpful information regarding viewing opportunities, recent sightings, road conditions, and regulations from staff.

Consider taking the 10-mile Tule Lake Auto Tour Route which begins 4 miles south of the Refuge Visitor Center on Hill Road. Follow the numbered posts to learn more about the past, present, and future of Tule Lake National Wildlife Refuge. Note that an audio tour is currently in development as well.

A note about Bald Eagles: Although wintering birds at the reserve can reach upwards of 500 or more, remember that they are potentially dispersed over 39,116 acres. So while sightings are common, there’s no guarantee the eagles will find you on a given day.

The best times to observe wildlife are early morning and evening. Photographers can reserve bird blinds in advance for a $5 fee.

If you are planning on hunting on any part of the Tule Lake or Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuges, the pass is $25 for hunters 16 and older, or $12.50 for seniors 62 and older, those with a Senior Interagency Pass, an Interagency Access Pass, or full-time students.

Keep in mind, if an activity is not wildlife-related and doesn’t help in the protection or understanding of wildlife or their habitat, there are refuge rules governing the activity. Again, please check with the refuge management before participating in an activity that could harm the environment or yourself.

Please stay out of closed areas to minimize disturbance to plants and animals. And bicycling is allowed only on designated public access routes.

Written by Adam Sawyer for Matcha in partnership with Discover Klamath Visitor and Convention Bureau.