In the early 1970s, as a result of the mandates of the the 1964 Wilderness Act, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) evaluated the Desert National Wildlife Refuge (Desert NWR) to recommend Wilderness proposals for the Refuge. The Draft Wilderness Study Report determined that 1,646,000 acres of the Refuge were suitable for Wilderness; the 1971 Wilderness Proposal dropped the number of suitable acres down to 1,443,100 acres; and the 1975 Final Environmental Impact Statement reduced that number further and proposed 1,398,900 acres as suitable for wilderness within the Refuge. These Wilderness proposes were identified as seven separate units:
Unit I Gass Peak 40,900 acres
Gass Peak is part of a vast complex of wilderness areas and is immediately adjacent to the Las Vegas Range and the Sheep Range proposed wilderness areas (collectively known as the Sheep Range Wilderness Complex). Together, these three areas maintain a high degree of ecological connectivity, assuring a healthy future for the genetic diversity of wildlife and plant communities within the Desert national Wildlife Refuge. The Gass Peak proposed wilderness area is dominated by the southernmost rampart of the Las Vegas Range. With elevation ranging from 2,400 feet to 6,943 feet at the summit of Gass Peak, this area presents a wide diversity of vegetation and habitats for wildlife. Separated from the greater portion of the Las Vegas Range by a fault valley, Gass Peak creates an outstanding prominence in its own right, though the highest point of the range lies 9 miles northeast at Quarzite Mountain. Ecological systems range from broad alluvial fans dominated by the Creosote Bush Community to the upper alluvial valleys which support a wide diversity of cacti and yuccas, including Joshua trees. The highest elevations of Gass Peak are cloaked in vegetation that characterize the Blackbrush Community. Paleozoic limestone formations paint Gass Peak with bold, contrasting bands of color and create steep and rugged cliffs.
The summit of Gass Peak provides outstanding vistas, including a raptors-eye-view of urban Las Vegas. The proximity of this area to Las Vegas provides visitors with an expedient option to leave the city and immerse themselves in wilderness. Two of the most interesting wildlife species found within this unit are the Townsend's big-eared bat and pallid bat.
Unit II Las Vegas Range 163,640 acres
The area boasts elevations ranging from 2,400 feet along it's US Highway 93 border, to 7,300 feet adjacent the Desert Pass Campground. Pinion/Juniper Woodlands dominate the upper plant community throughout most of the areas higher elevations, although there is a small stand of Ponderosa Pines near Mormon Pass. The lower elevations in the eastern portion of the area is characterized by a diverse Creosote/Yucca/Cacti Community, while the Joshua Tree Woodlands spread throughout the middle elevations. The Joshua Tree Woodlands find the best expression in the western portion of the area, along Mormon Well Road in Yucca Forest. The Mormon Well Road defines the west and north boundary of the area and provides access to several of the more its spectacular landmarks. These include the Yucca Forest, the spectacular Peek-a-Boo Canyon, Desert Pass Campground, Mormon Well, and Sawmill Wash.
A short, 1-mile walk from Desert Pass Campground takes visitors to the high point of the Las Vegas Range. A more challenging 6-mile round trip hike to the summit of Quartzite Mountain awaits visitors with the skills to navigate the rugged, trackless country east of Peek-a-boo Canyon. US Highway 93 provides access to Frozen Toe Road, Wamp Springs Road, and the Gunsight Hiking Trail on the east side of the area. Gass Peak Road offers access for hiking Fossil Ridge and Quail Springs, and for exploring the rugged and remote southern portion of the area. Along with Gass Peak and the Sheep Range proposed Wildernesses, Las Vegas Range proposed Wilderness comprises an integral part of the Sheep Range Wilderness Complex. Notable wildlife include desert bighorn sheep, mule deer, kit fox, collared lizard, mountain lion, roadrunner, king snake, desert tortoise
Unit III Sheep Range 400,900 acres
The massive Sheep Range Proposed Wilderness is one of the most topographically and ecologically diverse wilderness areas in the country. The stunning exposed limestone-spine of the range creates dramatic walls and ever changing colors as the hours, weather, and seasons change. Managed and protected as proposed wilderness since 1974, this area is unique in providing the visitor with the ability to experience the full spectrum of the seven life-zones that characterize the area, uninterrupted by human modification. These diverse habitats host approximately 320 bird species (including the Golden Eagle, Roadrunner, and Pygmy Owl), 53 mammal species (including the kit fox), 35 reptile species, and 4 amphibian species. The varied elevations and climate support nearly 500 plant species. Located on the eastern side of the expansive Desert National Wildlife Refuge, the Sheep Range runs over 60 miles, paralleling Highway 93 through Clark and Lincoln Counties.
The Saltbrush Community, found in the lowest reaches of the proposed wilderness, populates the saline valleys surrounding the area with salt tolerant vegetation. These hot and dry valleys see temperatures as high as 117 degrees in the summer and can sustain ephemeral pools of water after rare, extreme precipitation events. From 2,400-3,600 feet, the Creosote Bush Community dominates the area featuring Mojave Yucca, Bursage, and Range Ratney. This scrubland community sees less than 5 inches of rain per year. The Joshua Tree Woodlands add mysterious forms across the landscape in elevations ranging from 3,000-5,000 feet. The Blackbrush Community, characterized by various species of Yucca, Mormon Tea, and Cholla Cactus, intermixes with the Joshua trees in areas above 4,200 feet. But at 5,000 feet, the Joshua trees thin-out and the Blackbrush Community dominates steep rolling hills in a region typified by shallow soils. In a narrow zone at an elevation of 6,000 feet, scattered Joshua trees thinly scatter the lowest reaches of the Pinyon-Juniper Woodland. Above 6,000 feet, the open-canopy Pinyon-Juniper Woodlands see precipitation from 10–15 inches per year with much of this precipitation falling as snow. From 7,500 to 9,000 feet, reclusive Pine-Fir Forests, characterized by Ponderosa Pines and White Firs, develop closed-canopies in canyons and on northeast facing slopes where the rains are more frequent and the snows linger. And upon the highest summits of the Sheep Range where elevations reach nearly 10,000 feet, conditions become extreme. From multiple days of sub-freezing temperatures in the winter to long and dry sun-irradiated days in the summer, only Bristlecone Pine Trees survive this climate. These enduring trees are the crowning glory to the extreme diversity in terrain and ecosystems found in the Sheep Range proposed wilderness. The persistence of Bristlecone Pines in the face of such adverse conditions is an appropriate symbol of resistance against the challenges and threats that have plagued the natural integrity of the Sheep Range since it was first protected as a National Wildlife refuge in 1936.
Though not as well known as the Mt. Charleston area and Red Rock Canyon NCA, the Sheep Range is loved by many and is a haven for those looking for less crowded recreation in a stunning setting. It is easily accessed with a four wheel drive from the Corn Creek Visitor Center in the NW corner of the Las Vegas Valley. The Sheep Range offers outstanding opportunities for primitive recreation and solitude. Trails provide access into the deepest heart of this magnificent wilderness. Many of the trailheads of this trail system lie at the end of challenging dirt roads that provide access to many of the most scenic areas for those not able to hike or backpack. Trails lead the visitor through the extraordinary series of life zones. Elevations range from as low as 3,000 feet to nearly 10,000 feet on Hayford Peak, and plants range from saltbrush in the lowest levels of the wilderness to Bristlecone Pine in it's highest areas. The Sheep Range hosts an amazing diversity of ecosystems including eight species of conifers. Beyond the parking areas and trails, 460,000 acres of unexplored and untracked wilderness beckon to visitors with the skills, stamina, and determination to explore deep-wilderness.
Unit IV East Desert Range (Rug Mountain) 41,700 acres
The East Desert Range provides crucial transitional habitat for bighorn sheep as well as supporting a multitude of other Mojave plants and animals. Paleozoic limestone and quartzite create dramatic cliffs and colorful formations in the higher elevation of the East Desert Range. The dramatic banding in the north part of the range earned the area the nickname “Rug Mountain.” While rocky ledges and colorful geology characterize the upper elevations of the area, the broad alluvial slopes surrounding the range support extensive stands of Joshua trees and a wide variety of cacti. The highest, north and east facing slopes provide a micro-climate capable of sustaining a small Pinon and Juniper woodland.
The well-traveled Alamo Road forms the western boundary of this area, making it one of the most readily accessible wilderness proposals within the refuge. From the Alamo Road, hikers can explore the 7,000-foot Dead Horse Ridge, which includes Saddle Mountain and the highest point of the area. Sheep Pass provides access to Snow Canyon. North of Sheep Pass, the Alamo Road provides hikers with opportunities for short hikes into Snow Basin, Twin Caves Canyon, Pocket Canyon, and Chowderhead Canyon. Along with the Hole-in-Rock proposed Wilderness, this area forms part of the Desert Lake Wilderness Complex. Notable wildife include: desert bighorn sheep, mule deer, kit fox, collared lizard, mountain lion, roadrunner, king snake, desert tortoise.
Unit V Hole-in-the-Rock 115,700 acres
The Hole-in-the-Rock Wilderness is part of the Refuge that is half within the area jointly administered by U.S. Air Force and the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS). The area within the joint administered part on the west (45,700 acres) is closed by the Air Force to public entry. The eastern portion (70,000 acres) administered sole by the UFWS is open for public use. The Hole-In-The-Rock Wilderness is characterized by vast, low-relief country. The broad Desert Valley and the terminal Desert Dry Lake dominate the southern portion of the area and provide the sediment for the sand dune systems east of the lake bed. From the floor of Desert Lake at 3200 feet, to the 5200-foot summits of the volcanic hills in the northern part of the area, the portion of wilderness proposal open to the public sees only 2000 feet in vertical relief. Shallow, intrusive rocks create rugged ridges and canyons throughout the northern portion of the area, while the tufts and air-fall component of this Tertiary volcanism gives rise to flat-topped mesas and colorful ash formation. The colors and forms of these volcanic rocks contrast dramatically with the Paleozoic limestone that make-up the majority of the Desert National Wildlife Refuge. Colorful cliffs, walls, and isolated boulders carved by the ceaseless processes of erosion populate the northern portion of this area. Along with East Desert Range proposed Wilderness, this area is part of the Desert Lake Wilderness Complex.
Despite the rather limited extent of elevation within this region, the area supports four distinct plant communities. Although the playa of Desert Lake support virtually no vegetation, the alkali soils immediately surrounding the playa support plants of the Saltbrush Community characterized by extensive stands of greasewood. Where the soils rise above the alkali clays and become sandy, the Creosote Bush Community takes hold. On the higher alluvial slopes, Joshua Tree Woodlands appear. On the highest elevations of this area, the Blackbrush Community intermixes with scattered Joshua trees.
The Alamo Road forms most of the south and east borders of this area and provides access for adventurers to explore this magnificent wilderness. The westernmost 40% of this wilderness has been closed to public use by the military and is inaccessible to visitors. The 60% of this wilderness proposal still open to the public offers outstanding opportunities for visitors to experience the same challenging terrain and conditions our ancestors faced in the age before mechanized travel. There are no trails in this area. Primitive desert travel is not easy and requires skills, stamina, and determination. Notable wildlife include: desert bighorn sheep, mule deer, kit fox, collared lizard, mountain lion, king snake, desert tortoise.
Unit VI Desert-Pintwater Range 339,500 acres
The unit consists mainly of the upper elevations of the Desert and Pintwater Range mountains located east of the Groom Lake Road. Bighorn sheep are spread thinly throughout the unit because vegetation is sparse and water sources far apart. Both the Desert and Pintwater Ranges comprise important bighorn lambing areas. The extensive Desert-Pintwater Range Proposed Wilderness lies within the joint U.S. Air Force and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service administration area and is therefor closed to public entry. The entire area is managed primarily for wildlife habitat and, as a proposed wilderness, has effectively repelled the creeping incursion by military training activities. None of the area has been used for road and landing strip construction, permanent installations, or for bombing and target practice and associated contamination by shrapnel and explosive debris is minimal. Formal wilderness designation will assure this extensive area will remain ecologicallly intact and continue to be manageable for wildlife into the future. Friends of Nevada Wilderness staff had an opportunity to participate in an inspection tour of the joint management area. The Gallery West tab has extensive photographs of the natural resources and stunning scenic resources of this area.
Unit VII Spotted Range 300,700 acres
The extensive Spotted Range Proposed Wilderness lies within the joint U.S. Air Force and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service administration area and is therefor closed to public entry. The entire area is managed primarily for wildlife habitat and, as a proposed wilderness, has effectively repelled the creeping incursion by military training activities. None of the area has been used for road and landing strip construction, permanent installations, or for bombing and target practice and contamination by shrapnel and explosive debris is minimal. Formal wilderness designation will assure this extensive area will remain ecologicallly intact and continue to be manageable for wildlife into the future. Friends of Nevada Wilderness staff had an opportunity to participate in an inspection tour of the joint management area. The Gallery West tab has extensive photographs of the natural resources and stunning scenic resources of this area.
See the Additional Resources Tab on the left side for more on the conservation of Desert National Wildlife Refuge.