You don't have to spend a lot of money or travel far from home to enjoy a mini eco-vacation that hugely benefits you and Mother Nature.

June 10, 2013

Sure, you can do the eco-vacation that involves flying to an exotic faraway land to help save sea turtles. It’s a great cause and would be a memorable trip—but who has the time or money for it? Not to worry, you have plenty of great alternatives right here in the U.S., perhaps just a few hours from your home. And many are quite reasonably priced—even free. Another perk? These getaways are often located in national wildlife refuges, so you’re guaranteed to escape the hustle and bustle of typically crowded vacation spots. What’s more, you get to work alongside park staff and scientists doing important wildlife research.

Here are several great “mini” eco-vacations and event ideas to consider this summer and fall:


Birds and butterflies…
Fall marks an incredible migration of songbirds, raptors, and monarch butterflies, as they had south of the border to warmer climates.

Hawk Mountain Sanctuary, New Ringgold, Pennsylvania, open year-round. The Autumn Hawkwatch is open daily from Aug. 15 to Dec. 15, when an average of 18,000 raptors are expected to migrate through this hawk, falcon, and eagle hot spot in east-central Pennsylvania.

This amazing and historical sanctuary doesn't just focus on raptors, either. The Monarch Migration Celebration at Hawk Mountain is held in September, when you can scout out Mexico-bound monarchs at Hawk Mountain's Lookout. If you live on the West Coast, check out Pismo Beach in California between late October and February, when hordes of monarch butterflies flock to dance among the area's eucalyptus trees.

Birding in Cape May, New Jersey, year-round (prime time in October). The Delaware Bay is world-renowned for birding, and picturesque Cape May offers an extraordinary array of events for birders beginner to expert: walks along the shore, skimmer boat rides through marshes, and The Beanery, a nearby farm that leases birding rights to the Audubon Society. Enjoy special events for children, Q&As with naturalists and book authors, and sunset birding outings on your trip to this beautiful New Jersey coastal resort. Check the New Jersey Audubon and Cape May Bird Observatory calendar of events for complete details.

Midwest Butterfly Tagging, Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge, Iowa, Sept. 11. Citizen science at its best! Help the staff capture, tag, and release monarch butterflies as they head south on their great migration.

Shorebird ID Workshop, Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge, Delaware, Aug. 17. This half-day event involves classroom and fieldwork and will teach you how to identify shorebirds.

Bugs and other cold-blooded beasts...
Monitoring different bug species and other cold-blooded animals in your area can help researchers gauge and report on your community's biodiversity health. Plus, it’s fun!

Discover Cold-Blooded Creatures, Cypress Creek National Wildlife Refuge/Cache River Wetlands Center, Illinois, Aug. 24. Learn how to tell a harmless snake from a poisonous one while visiting this amazing refuge in southern Illinois. The event includes a hike to look for other reptiles around Heron Pond.

Get Your Bugs On, Noxubee National Wildlife Refuge, Mississippi. Here you’ll visit several black light collection sites and learn how to collect and classify bugs. Organizers promise that if you come across rare or unusual species—always a possibility—those will not be collected.

Twilight Marsh Walk, Don Edwards San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge, California. Discover the critters that emerge from the marsh—and all the wonderful sounds they make!—when the sun goes down. The walk spans the 1 1/3-mile Tidelands Trail. (This walk is not suitable for children.)

Food and farming…
The connection between the health of wildlife and what you eat is more profound than you may realize. The widely adopted methods of chemical agriculture poison critters, cause unnecessary flooding, and can destroy biodiversity. On the other hand, organic agriculture nurtures biodiversity, which makes the world a healthier place for all of us.

Rodale Institute's Annual Organic Apple Festival, September 21, Kutztown, Pennsylvania. Tour parts of the 333-acre experimental organic farm, pick apples from organic apple trees, sip on fresh apple cider, and—most important—learn all about organic farming.

Wild Berry Fun Day at Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, Kenai-Cook Inlet, Alaska, Aug. 24, 2013. Can I eat that berry? Refuge staff will take participants on a hunt for wild berries and teach you how to identify the different types that you should—and shouldn't—eat.

World-Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms, year-round, allows those interested in learning how to organically garden and farm to volunteer on organic operations.