Designated National Wildlife Refuge/Proposed Wilderness
Year Designated: 1936
Act or Law: Executive Order 7373
Acres: 1.6 million (1.2 million acres proposed as Wilderness)
State Region: Southern Nevada
County Region: Clark, Lincoln, & Nye Counties
Managing Agency: Jointly managed between U. S. Fish & Wildlife Service and the U.S. Air Force
Local District: USFWS Desert National Wildlife Complex & Nellis AirForce Base
Contact Info: USFWS: (702) 515-5000
4701 N. Torrey Pines Dr., Las Vegas, NV 89130
History of The Desert National Wildlife Refuge
The need for protecting the wildlife, habitat, and natural resources of what would become the Desert National Wildlife Refuge began in 1907 with the creation of the Vegas National Forest. This forest included the Sheep Range and the Las Vegas Range. The Vegas National Forest was Combined with the Mount Charleston National Forest to become the Moapa National Forest in 1908. The Sheep and Las Vegas Ranges were eliminated from Forest Service managment in 1918. By 1936, it became apparent that the bighorn sheep of the area needed special protection. The Desert Game Range was formed by executive order in 1936 and included nearly the entirety of the current Desert National Wildlife Refuge, most of Mount Charleston, and a substantial part of today's Red Rock National Recreation Area. The primary objective of this protection was to reserve habitat and forage for desert bighorn sheep and other wildlife. Beginning in the 1950's, substantial portions of the Desert Game Range south of US 95 were whittled away. In 1966 the Desert Game Range was abolished and a much reduced Desert National Wildlife Refuge was establish north of US 95. Approximately 600,000 acres of the southern portion of the Desert Game Range were stripped of primary wildlife management.
Unfortunately since portions of the Desert Refuge were temporarily withdrawn for military training during World War II, continued renewal and ever-escalating expansion of military operations has overtaken nearly half the existing Refuge. Public access is no longer allowed in the Desert-Pintwater Range, the Spotted Range, portions of the East Desert Range, and portions of the Hole in the Rock proposals. As of 2017, the military has a current proposal to expand even farther into the public access portions of the Desert Refuge and take primary jurisdiction away from the U. S. Fish & Wildlife Service for the areas they use for training. This will undermine the 85 years of protection for this important wildlife habitat. Wilderness destination will assure will stop the military from seizing comprehensive authority over the refuge and stop the incremental military expansion into areas current used for public access.
Honoring Native Lands
The Desert Game Range has stood at the nexus of an important crossroads for Native peoples for countless generations. The earliest indicators of human activity in the area include Clovis and stem spear points found in the Las Vegas Wash believed to date to a period of climatic transition between 12,000 and 14,000 years ago. Today the Desert National Wildlife Refuge is recognized as an area of cultural importance for Newe (Western Shoshone), Nuwuvi (Southern Paiute), and Nuwuwu (Chemehuevi), cultures that have historically relied on nomadic hunting gathering and limited farming.
In 1971, as part of a Wilderness review required by the Wilderness Act, 1.2 million areas of the Desert Refuge were proposed as Wilderness by the US Fish & Wildlife Service. The identified seven Wilderness proposals have protected the natural integrity of the Desert Refuge for the last 50 years and are still largely managed as Wilderness. The Wilderness proposals in the Desert Refuge include the: Sheep Range, Las Vegas Range, Gass Peak (collectively called the Sheep Range Complex); East Desert Range, Hole in Rock Range, Desert-Pintwater Range and the Spotted Range. Friends of Nevada Wilderness has long been a strong supporter of Wilderness protection for all of these qualified areas.
Going north on US-95 from Las Vegas, continue approximately 6 miles beyond the Las Vegas Paiute Golf Resort and turn right onto Corn Creek Road. Continue on Corn Creek Road approximately 4 miles to reach the Visitor Center on the left. From the Visitor Center at Corn Creek there are two main roads that provide access to the remainder of the Refuge.
Visitors may enter the Refuge from 4:00 a.m. and sunset. An automatic gate was installed on Corn Creek Road in January 2023, which opens at approximately 4:00 a.m. and closes at sunset. Visitors can exit the refuge after sunset by slowly pulling up to the gate to activate the sensor and open the gate. The refuge remains open for backcountry camping; however visitors must enter the refuge between 4:00 a.m. and sunset. If those who are camping on the refuge leave and cannot return prior to sunset, they will be able to reenter the refuge at 4:00 the next morning. Emergency services are able to enter the refuge 24 hours a day.
To access the northern part of the Refuge and avoid going through Corn Creek, take I-15 North and take exit 64 for US-93 North to go toward Alamo. Alamo Road is on the left, approximately 66 miles from the US-93 & I-15 junction in the middle of Pahranaghat National Wildlife Refuge the Alamo Road. If you drive beyond Upper Pahranaghat Lake, and certainly if you get into Alamo, you've gone too far.
CAUTION: All roads beyond the paved road to Corn Creek Visitor Center are rough dirt roads that are best traveled in a vehicle with high clearance and 4-wheel drive. The Refuge staff maintain the roads regularly but be prepared for any exceptionally rough patches of road you may encounter. Make sure you have spare tires, extra gas, a detailed map, and extra food and water in case you break down. There is no cell phone service in the area. Always be prepared for changing conditions, stay on designated routes, and practice leave no trace principles.
America's largest Wildlife Refuge, outside of Alaska, is less than a 10 miles from Las Vegas City limits. Despite it's proximity to 2 million people in the Las Vegas metropolitan area, very few people have heard of or even visited, the Desert National Wildlife Refuge. It's a bit of surprise given Mt.Charleston's popularity and the Refuge's juxtaposition and ease of access, to the visitor center at least. This well kept secret is some of the wildest country to be found anywhere in Nevada and it's well worth a visit.
The Desert National Wildlife Refuge's 1.6 million acres encompasses six mountain ranges and seven life zones and boasts elevations ranging from 2,500 feet to 9,912 feet. The Refuge was originally protected by President Franklin Roosevelt in 1936 as the Desert Game Range for its outstanding habitat for the desert bighorn sheep. It's former boundaries included the Refuge as we know it today, as well as the Spring Mountains National Recreation Area and Red Rock National Conservation Area. The much reduced Desert National Wildlife Refuge is jointly managed as a Refuge for sensitive desert bighorn sheep by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and by Nellis Air Force Base as the Nellis Test & Training Range.
In the 1970's, the US Fish and Wildlife Service reviewed the entire refuge for wilderness (as per the Wilderness Act of 1964) and formally recommended 1.2 million acres for wilderness designation. It has been largely managed as Wilderness since then, with the exception of two areas within the Nellis Test and Training Range. The other five areas within the Refuge are publicly accessible.
Trails & Destinations
The most frequented destination at the Desert National Wildlife Refuge is Corn Creek and the Visitor Center. They can be accessed via Corn Creek Road, a small paved road in between Kyle and Lee Canyon, on the east side of US-95. About 4 miles from the intersection of US-95 and the Corn Creek Road, the Corn Creek Visitor Center provides introductory and in-depth information about the Desert National Wildlife Refuge, its mission, and its wildlife. Corn Creek is a popular spot for bird watching and also home to the only remaining population of Pahrump Poolfish, although work on changing that is underway. Meander down one of the many small trails through Corn Creek and you'll find a small house with an even smaller fish; the Pahrump Poolfish Refugium.
The Refuge is vast beyond Corn Creek and can be accessed via two main roads, Mormon Well Road and Alamo Road. Both of these roads are rough dirt roads requiring high clearance and sometimes 4-wheel drive. The quality of the road depends on how recently it was maintained and recent weather events. Both of these roads eventually lead to US-93 many miles to the East, though there's much to see along the way.
Mormon Well Road skirts around the South end of the Sheep Range and goes right by Fossil Ridge. From this road visitors can access Fossil Ridge, Gass Peak, John Day Peak, Long Canyon, Desert Pass Campground, the Joshua Tree Forest, and plenty of open desert. For a more detailed description of each of these trails and backroads, it is suggested visitors reach out to the Fish & Wildlife Service or plan ahead using the maps above.
Alamo Road travels north along the face of the Sheep Range. From this road visitors can access a variety of backroads, including Cow Camp Road, and other destinations such as the Hidden Forest trail head, Hayford Peak, the dry lake bed, the sand dunes, and eventually the town of Alamo. Again, for a more detailed description of each of these trails and backroads, it is suggested visitors reach out to the Fish & Wildlife Service or plan ahead using the maps above.
The Desert National Wildlife Refuge is the desert bighorn sheep's largest protected continuous habitat. If visitors take the time to travel by foot through some of this rough terrain they may be rewarded with a glimpse of a sheep. More likely, visitors will notice traces of what the sheep have left behind; scat, flattened spots, and maybe even bones. If you are lucky enough to see a sheep, be respectful and keep your distance as they are wild animals.
Also, do not be alarmed if you see a large "necklace" one some of the animals. The U.S. Geological Survey and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service are gathering data about sheep's behavior and distribution in order to better understand the pneumonia that plagues our local populations.
Hayford Peak stands nearly 10,000 feet above sea level but is dwarfed by surrounding ridge lines connecting the competing mountain tops. It's a beautiful hike leading the hiker through different vegetation life zones, starting in Creosote low lands and climbing up to the Bristlecone Forest. The trail to the Hidden Canyon is well-worn and easy to follow. The push to Hayford's peak requires more route finding skills as the route is not well-worn. The view from the top is rewarding! The picture above shows a hiker descending Hayford Peak and looks west to the Spring Mountains and Mt. Charleston's snowy peak.
This photo is looking North at the Sheep Range from Gass Peak Road.
The Desert National Wildlife Refuge is well worth a trip. The Desert Pass Campground, located along Mormon Well Road, features vault toilets, picnic tables and tent pads. At an elevation of nearly 7,000 feet, this campground offers comfortable camping in the shadows of towering ponderosa pines in all but the hottest days of summer. Backpack is open and dispersed throughout the Refuge, although dependable drinking water sources can provide logistic issues. Or, if you prefer, just pull off the side of the road, set up a tent, and enjoy the play of light and shadows across this magnificent wild Nevada landscape as the day cycles between sunshine and the dark of night.