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The Desert and Sheldon National Wildlife Refuges are worlds apart in the state, but each offers glorious solitude.
Photo: Mike Sevon, Mark Petterson (middle), Paula Riley (bottom)
Wild Nevada. It rolls off the tongue with such aptness and regularity we tend to forget that some parts of our state are protected in a manner that ensures the conservation and preservation of these lands and the animals that call them home. The National Wildlife Refuge System is one entity that works to keep these sanctuaries serene and gives humans guidelines to camp, fish, hunt, and tread responsibly.
Of the nine NWR-maintained areas in Nevada, the Desert National Wildlife Refuge in Southern Nevada and the Sheldon National Wildlife Refuge in extreme northwestern Nevada are the largest. Visits to either offer a wealth of land to explore, but be sure to respect the delicate balance of nature within.
Desert National Wildlife Refuge
Established in May 1936 to preserve wildlife—primarily desert bighorn sheep—and their habitats, the 2,300-square-mile Desert Refuge is more than twice the size of Rhode Island and comprises the largest wildlife refuge outside of Alaska. The main access is via the Corn Creek Field Station, about 23 miles northwest of downtown Las Vegas. From there, dirt roads lead to remarkable wildlife and wilderness, scenery and solitude, birds and beauty, forests and freedom, and the feeling of being a million miles from civilization.
From U.S. 95, about six miles north of the Snow Mountain exit, turn east on Corn Creek Road. Drive four miles on this well-graded gravel road to the Corn Creek Field Station and information kiosk. Corn Creek has springs that provide essential water to the desert and attract a great diversity of wildlife. More than 260 species of birds have been identified in the Desert Refuge, and Corn Creek draws a majority of them. This is a good place to see hawks, falcons, orioles, robins, tanagers, grosbeaks, and buntings. Many types of butterflies and dragonflies are also found in the area.
In the spring and summer, you may see warblers, sparrows, thrashers, flycatchers, and hummingbirds. In the fall, watch for migratory birds flying south. Winter is relatively quiet, but creatures are always flitting about. A trail around the ponds is popular among families, and a picnic area is nearby.
Many visitors to the Desert Refuge don’t venture beyond Corn Creek. That is a shame, because the backcountry is filled with soaring mountains (six ranges), deep canyons, diverse vegetation (more than 500 species), incredible wildlife (desert bighorns, mule deer, coyotes, badgers, foxes, and many rodents and reptiles), and historical sites such as agave roasting pits and a corral built by early ranchers or settlers.
The easiest thing to find, however, is glorious, peaceful solitude. Chances are good that during the week, you may not see another vehicle, which rewards you with tranquility, but it also means that you need to be well prepared for your outing.
The backcountry roads are rough in places and should be traveled in a high-clearance vehicle. The two main dirt roads that serve the backcountry are Mormon Well Road and Alamo Road, which start at the T-intersection just east of Corn Creek. These roads were built in the early 1900s by travelers and settlers. Mormon Well Road is a 47-mile-long expedition through breathtaking wilderness, eventually connecting with U.S. 93 about 43 miles north of Las Vegas. The road runs east through Yucca Gap, which feels like a portal into another world.
West of the gap are signs of civilization, but to the east is pure, absolute wilderness—a huge basin known as Yucca Forest is surrounded by mountains and filled with thousands of acres of yucca, Joshua trees, and creosote bush. The road winds its way across the basin to Peek-A-Boo Canyon (see photo at left), which gets its name from a hole in the south canyon wall. This is an impressive gorge of towering black and gray limestone cliffs, and desert bighorn sheep are often sighted here.
Beyond Peek-A-Boo Canyon, the road enters a high-desert landscape that looks like something from an old western movie. The vegetation transitions to junipers and pines, which dominate the view west toward the Sheep Range. A bit beyond the halfway point of the drive is the Desert Pass campground and picnic area. Located in a grove of tall ponderosa pines, this is a nice spot to take a rest, and vault toilets are provided.
Continuing north, from the road you can take a short walk to historic Mormon Well. “There is no designated hike, signage, or parking to the well,” says Angelina Yost, visitor services manager. “You just have to explore to find it.” At Sawmill Canyon, the road climbs a small hill and provides beautiful vistas with the banded ramparts of the Arrow Canyon Range in the distance. A few miles later, the road enters an area where a lightning-ignited fire burned 20,000 acres in 2006. Most of the yuccas and Joshua trees are either gone or burned into ghostly skeletons, and the quiet and desolation are absolute. A bit further east, incredible geologic forces folded the strata of the Elbow Range on top of itself horizontally, while just a few feet away, the layers are vertical.
Alamo Road heads north from Corn Creek and accesses a number of branch roads that lead to the western base of the Sheep Range and some interesting scenery and good campsites. The most notable branch roads are Cow Camp Road, which winds through narrow gaps in the Black Hills before it reaches the Sheep Range, and Hidden Forest Road, which leads to a trailhead with access to a historic backcountry cabin. Alamo Road is currently closed at Desert Lake (44 miles from Corn Creek) due to poor road conditions. For Desert Refuge road descriptions, visit the outdoors website, birdandhike.com.
Activities and recreation at the Desert Refuge include hiking, backpacking, horseback riding, bird watching, sightseeing, interpretive and educational programs, photography, and camping. Camping is free and permitted at Desert Pass campground and anywhere within 50 feet of a road and more than a quarter-mile from water sources. Use one of the many established roadside campsites. Limited bighorn sheep hunting opportunities are based on current population levels and regulated by the Nevada Department of Wildlife, in conjunction with Desert Refuge staff.
Before you visit, make sure you have plenty of fuel and water, a good spare tire, and notify someone of your travel plans. There are no services within the refuge, and don’t count on cell-phone service. Call ahead or visit the refuge website for current road conditions.
When you get there, sign the visitor register at Corn Creek to establish your destination. The visitor contact station is open Fridays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. and Saturday and Sunday from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m., from Labor Day through Memorial Day weekend. If it is closed, check out the information kiosk.—MARK PETTERSON
Sheldon National Wildlife Refuge
We’re lost. It’s one of the most painful truths for grown men to accept, but that was the reality for colleague Charlie Johnston and I during our visit to Sheldon Refuge last October. We’re still not sure how we got off course, but the moral of the story is that remote Nevada should never be underestimated—even with a detailed map in your possession.
After spending the night in an unknown location in the southern end of the Refuge, we eventually got on track and explored Virgin Valley Ranch, Virgin Valley Campground, and Thousand Creek Gorge over the next few days. Even though the hundreds of pictures we took would make you think otherwise, we barely scratched the surface of this half-a-million-acre playground. “The landscape is vast, rugged, and punctuated with waterfalls, narrow gorges, and lush springs among rolling hills and expansive tablelands of sagebrush and mountain mahogany,” reads the official website.
Sheldon Refuge was established mainly to protect high-desert habitat for large fawning and wintering herds of pronghorn antelope, but also for sage grouse and other wildlife dependent on sagebrush habitat. Pronghorn are commonly seen in large numbers in late summer and fall around Swan Lake and Reservoir (on our way out of Sheldon Refuge, traveling south on State Route 140 from Denio, we saw hundreds of antelope on either side of the highway). The antelope frequent Big Spring Table in the winter; during spring and early summer, they disperse in small bands. You may spot bighorn sheep along the rocky, steep walls above Thousand Creek, Hell Creek, and IXL Ranch or near the west approach to the former headquarters at Little Sheldon.
On our way to Sheldon, proceeding north from the Black Rock Desert, we ran across numerous wild-horse herds on lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management. Although less common within the Refuge, wild horses were a central theme of the roadtrip. Horse and burro populations are managed in Sheldon Refuge (for more information, and wildlife-viewing tips, visit fws.gov). Burros are often seen in the flats east of Thousand Creek and in Virgin Valley.
Even in a wildlife refuge one can find the eerie ghost-town feeling so prevalent in rural Nevada. At Virgin Valley Ranch, for instance, we spent a few hours photographing abandoned homes, sheds, corrals—even an old trailer. The lure of fire opals draws miners and rock collectors to the Virgin Valley mining district, which includes operations such as the Opal Queen Mining Company.
The highlight of our trip was hiking through Thousand Creek Gorge, a nearly five-mile-long massive gash in the earth located in the northeastern section of the refuge. While vehicle access to the gorge is easy, hiking within is anything but. There is no formal trail, and it’s slow going through the gorge. The payoff, however, is the scenery—around every bend is an out-of-this-world scenic mix of creek, brush, and rock magnified by the towering gorge. I’ve never been made to feel so insignificant by nature; once you’re in the heart of the gorge, there are only two ways out depending on which end you’re closest to. These are sensitive areas, so tread lightly.
If it isn’t dry (which was the case in early May), Big Spring Reservoir provides excellent trout fishing and ice fishing, while Catnip Reservoir has a one-fish limit (single barbless hook or artificial lures) with an open season from the second Saturday in June to November 15. Dufurrena Ponds claim bass, crappie, and other warm-water species. At Virgin Valley Campground, there is a designated fishing hole for children and seniors.
Hunting is permitted at Sheldon Refuge in accordance with state and federal regulations. A very limited number of tags are offered for deer, pronghorn, and bighorn sheep in late summer and fall. Tag drawings are administered through the Nevada Department of Wildlife, and application instructions are available in the agency’s annual hunting synopsis for big game or at its website, ndow.org.
Several species of upland birds may also be hunted. Hunting for sage grouse also requires a permit issued by NDOW. Waterfowl may be hunted except at Catnip Reservoir, Big Spring Reservoir, and the no-hunting areas (Dufurrena Ponds area and west of Swan Lake). Hunting and fishing licenses are not available at Sheldon Refuge, so plan ahead.
Camping is permitted only at designated camping areas, of which there are plenty to choose from. There is no fee for camping, and sites are on a first-come, first-served basis. Virgin Valley Campground is open year-round. There you will find pit toilets, picnic tables, drinking water, a warm springs pool, and a rustic shower house. All other camps are primitive; none have potable water, and some have pit toilets.
Other popular recreation activities at Sheldon Refuge include backpacking (permit required), horseback riding, and rock hounding. One Nevada stop for gasoline and groceries is Denio (14 miles from the east boundary).—MATTHEW B. BROWN & fws.gov
Anaho Island NWR
This rocky island refuge at Pyramid Lake was established for the benefit and protection of colonial nesting species and other migratory birds, including American white pelicans. It is closed to the public.
Established as a refuge and breeding ground for birds and wild animals, Fallon NWR is located in the Lahontan Valley at the terminus of the Carson River and comprises more than 15,000 acres of playa and wetland habitat in the Carson Sink.
Nestled in the Lahontan Valley, the Stillwater wetlands are well known to birders, as the area has been designated a site of international importance by the Western Hemispheric Shorebird Reserve Network because of its hundreds of thousands of shorebirds.
Ruby Lake NWR
At the southern end of the Ruby Valley and flanked on the west by the rugged and scenic Ruby Mountains, Ruby Lake NWR is one of the most remote refuges in the lower 48 states. The refuge encompasses 39,928 acres and consists of a marsh bordered by meadows, grasslands, and brush-covered uplands.
Ash Meadows NWR
Located 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas and encompassing more than 23,000 acres of spring-fed wetlands, Ash Meadows NWR is a desert wetland ecosystem that provides habitat for at least 25 species found nowhere else in the world.
Moapa Valley NWR
This refuge secures habitat for the endangered Moapa dace. This small fish, the sole member of the genus Moapa, is endemic to the Muddy River system. The modest refuge—117 acres—is located in Clark County, 60 miles north of Las Vegas. Currently, it is open Friday through Sunday, Labor Day through Memorial Day, from 9 a.m. to 3 pm. Days and hours could expand with increased staffing levels in the coming year. Call 702-515-5450 for updates.
Located in Lincoln County about 90 miles north of Las Vegas, this refuge sets aside 5,380 acres of habitat for migratory birds, especially waterfowl. Primary public use at the refuge consists of wildlife observation, hunting in the fall, camping, and picnicking.
WHAT IS THE NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE SYSTEM?
The mission of the National Wildlife Refuge System is to manage a national network of lands and waters for the conservation, management, and where appropriate, restoration of fish, wildlife, and plant resources and their habitat.
The Refuge System maintains the biological integrity, diversity, and environmental health of these natural resources for the benefit of present and future generations of Americans. In addition, the Refuge System manages six wildlife-dependent recreational uses:
• Wildlife Observation
• Environmental Education
Thousand Creek Gorge
Sheldon National Wildlife Refuge
photo by Matthew B. Brown