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1. Birds that migrate long distances use stopover sites to optimize fuel loads and complete migration as quickly as possible. Stopover use has been predicted to facilitate a time-minimization strategy in land migrants as well, but empirical tests have been lacking, and alternative migration strategies have not been considered.2. We used fine-scale movement data to evaluate the ecological role of stopovers in migratory mule deer Odocoileus hemionus– a land migrant whose fitness is strongly influenced by energy intake rather than migration speed.3. Although deer could easily complete migrations (range 18–144 km) in several days, they took an average of 3 weeks and spent 95% of that time in a series of stopover sites that had higher forage quality than movement corridors. Forage quality of stopovers increased with elevation and distance from winter range. Mule deer use of stopovers corresponded with a narrow phenological range, such that deer occupied stopovers 44 days prior to peak green-up, when forage quality was presumed to be highest. Mule deer used one stopover for every 5·3 and 6·7 km travelled during spring and autumn migrations, respectively, and used the same stopovers in consecutive years.4. Study findings indicate that stopovers play a key role in the migration strategy of mule deer by allowing individuals to migrate in concert with plant phenology and maximize energy intake rather than speed. Our results suggest that stopover use may be more common among non-avian taxa than previously thought and, although the underlying migration strategies of temperate ungulates and birds are quite different, stopover use is important to both.5. Exploring the role of stopovers in land migrants broadens the scope of stopover ecology and recognizes that the applied and theoretical benefits of stopover ecology need not be limited to avian taxa.