Our great Central Valley once had great herds of deer, elk, and pronghorn antelope. With a pre-Gold Rush population of less than 1 million distributed over the entire state and no dams to prevent flooding, it looked much different than it does today.
Some have described the valley in that time period as “California’s Serengeti.” Although those days have passed, there are still some places in the western states that compare with the best offered by the plains of East Africa.
Nevada’s Black Rock Desert (featured last week) is one of them. Its 1.2 million acres are joined on the north side by another half-million acres in the Sheldon National Wildlife Refuge. Adjacent BLM lands, Indian reservations, and private ranch properties extend this habitat. Further north, Oregon’s Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge’s quarter-million acres of high desert is another great spot to view wildlife. On the Black Rock Desert trip I described last week, we also visited Sheldon and Hart Mountain and saw prodigious numbers of pronghorn, mule deer, wild burros, and wild horses. Pronghorn are the fastest land animals in North America, with sprinting speeds that top 45 mph.
Black Rock Desert: On both our Black Rock trips we saw pronghorn several times – sometimes crossing the road and sometimes feeding alongside it. The best surprise was seeing them amidst the early morning steam of the hot springs at Soldier Meadows. High Rock Canyon is a great place to spot bighorn sheep (though unfortunately we didn’t have any luck). We saw mule deer in abundance, especially on privately owned irrigated lands within the desert and to the west in Eastern California’s Surprise Valley. We also saw a lot of wild horses and burros. For more information about visiting the Black Rock Desert go to http://www.blm.gov/nv or call (775) 623-1500.
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Sheldon National Wildlife Refuge: The antelope herds continued to amaze us as we headed north through the Summit Lake Indian Reservation into the Sheldon National Wildlife Refuge. This is also the place where we saw the greatest concentration of wild horses. Sheldon is home to mule deer, a herd of about 150 bighorn sheep, sage grouse, and waterfowl. There are 14 campgrounds, including one with a hot spring pool. For more information, go to http://www.fws.gov/sheldonhartmtn/Sheldon/wildlife.html or call (541) 947-4414.
Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge: This is a great place to see antelope, and also one of the best places to see California bighorn sheep. The refuge has several hundred of them. We saw a large herd of pronghorn along Frenchglen Road, about 2 miles beyond the headquarters. We followed them for quite a while, turned around, and were then treated to quite a show as another herd began a single file crossing of the road. Cars work as excellent wildlife blinds, allowing you to approach more closely than you would on foot. We saw quite a few mule deer in the higher elevations. Like Sheldon, it’s also a great place to see sage grouse and other birds. In the dry months, a wide range of 4WD roads and hiking trails are open for further exploration. The Hot Springs Campground has the bonus of nice hot soaking right next to the campsites. For more information, go to http://www.fws.gov/Sheldonhartmtn/hart/index.html or call (541) 947-3315.
Northern Nevada and Southeastern Oregon is frontier country, even today. Supply points are few and far between, even on the paved highways. Main roads in the refuges and the Black Rock Desert require high clearance and sturdy tires, and 4WD in bad weather. Side roads often require 4WD. We were surprised this year to find that Hart Mountain’s roads were still unblocked by snow in the week prior to Thanksgiving – last year they were mostly closed before Veterans Day. Usually late May through early October is the most reliable time to visit, especially if you plan to camp. No matter when you go, be prepared for all possible conditions and pack everything you might need including plenty of water and a spare tire. With a few days to explore the area, you won’t be disappointed.