The Desert National Wildlife Refuge is a 1.62 million acre safe haven for plants and animals in the Southwestern United States. Located just north of Las Vegas in the Mojave Desert of Southern Nevada, Desert NWR is the biggest wildlife refuge in the continental U.S.
Within its boundaries are hundreds of animal species, making it a great place for wildlife viewing and nature photography. Among its residents are over 300 types of birds, 50 types of mammals and 30 types of desert reptiles. For many, the most exciting of these animal species is the desert bighorn sheep. There usually as many as 800 in the refuge at any given time, but they can be tricky to find.
Although it is all technically desert, the sheer size of the NWR means that it plays host to a wide variety of “life zones.” The astute observer can identify different biological characteristics according to elevation above sea level. The seven life zones (and their corresponding elevations) are as follows:
• Saltbrush Community (< 2400 ft. above sea level)
• Creosote Bush Community (2400 – 3600)
• Joshua Tree Woodland (3000 – 5000)
• Blackbrush Community (4200 – 6000)
• Pinyon-Juniper Woodland (6000 – 7500)
• Pine-Fir Forest (7500 – 9000)
• Bristlecone Pine (roughly 10000)
As the elevation increases, so does rain- and snowfall. The result is that the higher you go, the larger the plant life you will find. At the highest elevations are the bristlecone pines, which can live to be thousands of years old.
Common activities for visitors to this huge refuge include sightseeing, hiking, camping, photography and hunting. Hunting the desert bighorn sheep is permitted, but hunting tags for the animals are very limited, so don’t get your hopes up unless you’ve planned ahead.
For those ready to trek into the mountains, there are six unique mountain ranges to traverse. From east to west the ranges include the Las Vegas, the Sheep, the East Desert, the Desert, the Pintwater and the Spotted. The tallest and longest of these is the Sheep Range, with Hayford Peak maxing out at nearly 10,000 feet.
If you want to explore, but don’t have a ton of time for backcountry camping, you can also check out one of the refuge’s several unpaved roads. The Alamo Road is the longest (70 miles) and connects Desert NWR to the nearby Pahranagat NWR. Desert vistas and sweeping mountain views are the reward for anyone who ventures here. Check in with refuge officials before setting off, however, as the road is sometimes impassable.
A visit to Desert National Wildlife Refuge should definitely be in the cards for anyone visiting Las Vegas. It’s so close that, from the city, you can see its mountain ranges with naked eye!