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.
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.