Desert National Wildlife Refuge, administered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, forms the northern boundary of the Las Vegas Valley (map). The Wildlife Refuge stretches for some 59 miles northward from town and is about 50 miles wide. Encompassing 6 mountain ranges and 2,200 square miles of land, this is the largest wildlife refuge in the lower 48 states. About half of the Wildlife Refuge (1,320 square miles) is used by the U.S. Air Force and generally is off limits to public access. Despite the closure, the public portion (about 1,000 square miles; 59 miles by about 22 miles; 3 entire mountain ranges) is a vast amount of land that is entirely wild and open to hiking. There are only two main dirt roads and one campground on the Wildlife Refuge, and much of the land is managed as a wildness area.
The primary purpose of the Wildlife Refuge is to protect desert bighorn sheep. Wildlife Managers actively enhance bighorn habitat, largely by constructing or improving year-round water sources. These activities also benefit other wildlife such as mule deer, mountain lions, and many species of birds. Managing portions of the Wildlife Refuge as if it were designated wilderness area further protects wildlife habitat.
Recreational activities on the Wildlife Refuge primarily are orientated towards bird watching, off-highway driving, sightseeing, hiking, and a little deer and sheep hunting.
This is relatively high desert with elevations ranging from about 2,500 feet in the lowest valleys to 9,912 feet at Hayford Peak. Because of the elevation, temperatures here are cooler than in Las Vegas. Thus, outdoor activities on the Wildlife Refuge are pleasant when other areas get too hot, although hiking and birding still should be limited during the hottest parts of the year (e.g., not during July and August).
The great range in elevation on the Wildlife Refuge results in vegetation that is diverse and varies regularly with altitude because of local climatic conditions. At the lowest elevations where temperatures are the hottest and evaporation rates are the greatest, the dominant vegetation is composed of widely spaced creosote bush, white bursage, and a few Mojave yuccas. Some areas on the west side of the Sheep Range are so dry that the shrubs are smaller and more stunted than almost anywhere else that I know of in southern Nevada. Above the valley floors, there is more precipitation and less evaporation, the shrubby vegetation is more diverse, and there are more cacti. At still higher elevations (but within the desert zone; about 4,000 to 6,000 feet), blackbrush and Joshua trees are common, and the shrubs and other vegetation are even more diverse. In the Yucca Forest (on the Mormon Well Road), the vegetation is amazingly diverse and the Joshua trees are so abundant that it looks like a forest. At about 6,000 feet, you start getting into desert woodlands dominated by single-leaf pinyon pine, Utah juniper, and sagebrush. At Mormon Pass (about 7,000 feet), the road passes through the edge of a coniferous forest (Ponderosa pine and white fir) that runs up to about 9,000 feet. At the highest elevations in the Wildlife Refuge, the forest is composed of Bristlecone pines.
For More Information on Getting to the Desert National Wildlife Refuge, Hours of Operation, Entrance Fees, Camping, Hiking Permits, Precautions, Rules and Regulations, and Links to More Information, visit my Desert National Wildlife Refuge Overview Page or the official government website.