Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge - North Carolina

In a list of the southeast's unknown beauties, it must be placed near the top. Known to most travelers as that long stretch of woodland standing between them and the Outer Banks, the Alligator River Wildlife Refuge receives startlingly few visitors each year when you consider the uniqueness of the environment and the important ecological role it plays in the survival of several American species.

Best known as the last home of the critically endangered Red Wolf, the refuge is also home to the Red-Cockaded Woodpecker, locally extinct in many southeastern states and notoriously difficult to spot even for the best birders. But what makes Alligator River most special is its proximity to the incredibly popular tourist destination of the Outer Banks, which attracts well over 2 million visitors each year. Very few of them, however, spend much time (or any at all) exploring the wildlife refuge.

This discrepancy underscores the truly powerful potential of tourism and travel. “A lot of people go to the Outer Banks and never even cross that bridge,” says Heather Clarkson, the Southeast Program Outreach Representative for Defenders of Wildlife. “They have no idea what beautiful landscapes exist in those refuges just down the road."

While it may at first seem inconsequential, every visit matters to these strongholds of wilderness. Heather explains the impact that our choices as travelers can have. "If you want to support conservation of an area, go see it," she says. "And tell people why you’re there."