Happy New Year to everyone from the Desert National Wildlife Refuge, our home for the past month. We’ll be here until the end of February and are enjoying this, our sixth US Fish & Wildlife Service volunteer location. The refuge is surprisingly the largest in the lower 48, yet just a few miles outside the growing (now 3 million) city of Las Vegas. It became a refuge in 1936 with the mission to shelter and protect Desert Bighorn Sheep which number between 600-800. And it’s not just desert – the Sheep Range which runs north-south has peaks over 9000’ with areas of Bristlecone, Ponderosa, and White Pine. At the lower elevations, the country’s 2nd largest Yucca forest (after Mojave) can be seen, and there are fossil beds, deep canyons, and remnants of the pioneer past. And all of it is open to the public for sightseeing, hiking, and camping…and it’s free!
We’re the visitor center hosts, augmenting the many local residents that volunteer here. The folks here are what we’ve come to expect at F&W locations – friendly, welcoming, and appreciative of our efforts. We have a great site with full hookups and a view of the Spring Mountains in the distance. Although it’s quiet and dark at night, we’re only 15 miles from the outskirts of town and great shopping.
The visitor center is beautiful; only four years old and well designed with great interpretive displays, interactive children’s activities, and a theater. Behind the center are well maintained trails that wander through the spring-fed Cottonwood, Desert Willow and Mesquite trees. This is a birder’s paradise due to the riparian environment – various sparrows, Northern Shrike, Phainopepla, Bluebirds, and others are seen daily. We maintain a bird feeder on one of the trail’s curves, and on most days you can find this Cooper’s Hawk in a nearby tree, waiting for the sparrows to grab a meal before he swoops down to get his. The trail also passes a cabin, built by the original ranchers son, constructed of railroad ties left by a bankrupt railroad. A bit further is the “refugium”, a large aquarium that houses a number of the very few surviving Pahrump Poolfish. Even now, with the trees mostly bare, the scenery is well worth a walk along the trail.
I had the chance to accompany a couple of the maintenance volunteers on a trip into the back country on one of the two roads (I use the term loosely) that traverses the refuge. Leaving the visitor center, the road slowly climbed into the mountain valley and gave us a great view of the mountains to the South.
After 21 miles we arrived at Desert Pass campground, the only campground on the refuge with six sites and two pit toilets. At 6600’, there was snow on the ground and a definite chill in the air. It’s a pretty place, with Ponderosa and Pinion pine providing shade. After disinfecting the toilets and emptying the fire pits, we were on our way, another 25 or so miles to the eastern edge of the refuge and paved highway.
One of the reasons we chose to stay here was that our daughter and her husband, who live in the L.A. area, could visit. We were fortunate to spend most of the Christmas holiday with them and about a million other visitors. We made a Christmas Eve visit to the heart of the strip to see the decorations at the Bellagio Conservatory. It was pandemonium – literally thousands of people crammed together, most with phones held high to take pictures or fixated on texting others about the great time they were having as they stumbled into one another. After the chaos we slowly made our way through the crowds to Caesar’s Palace and Joe’s Prime Steak, Seafood, and Stone Crab restaurant where we watched Kim’s husband Bill devour a 22-ounce Lobster tail while we worked our way through scallops, shrimp, and much smaller lobster tails. While we’ll never visit the “strip” again on Christmas, we’re glad we did it once.
So that’s it for now. Brenda and I want to wish you all the happiest, healthiest, and most rewarding New Year possible! And if your travel plans include Las Vegas over the next two months, let us know, we’d love to get together!