Great Basin Desert, NV
Wildhorse Crossing Campground, Humboldt-Toiyabe NF, NV
Jarbidge Wilderness, Humboldt-Toiyabe NF, NV
Cabin Field, Mary's River, NV
Santa Rosa Range, Humboldt-Toiyabe NF, NV
Soldier Meadows, Black Rock Desert, NV
Sheldon National Wildlife Refuge, NV
Steen Mountains, OR
Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, OR
In past years for our spring desert trips, we’ve gone to the Mojave and Sonoran Deserts. This year we decided to save a little money on airfare by driving to the Great Basin Desert. We usually lose a day just by traveling so why not just do it by car and possibly see more along the way. We picked out a few places in the northern Nevada mainly national forests and wildlife refuges so I didn’t really know what to expect in the terms of places to camp or things to see.
The drive down to Nevada wasn’t too bad or as long as I thought it would be. We drove over 650 miles the first day from Seattle to Wild Horse Crossing Campground in the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest near Mountain City in the northeast corner of Nevada. It took us about 10.5 hours including a couple of gas stops and a lunch break. Some of the drive was rather boring going through residential/rural sprawl, but there was a rather nice marsh right before we crossed into Nevada from Idaho.
We arrived at the campground, which was rather deserted, with plenty of time to set up and walk around the campground before dusk set in. The campground was nestled in a canyon along the Owyhee River. Aspen trees and willows provided cover for the many singing Warbling Vireos, Lazuli Bunting, and Yellow Warblers as well as offered some privacy for the camp sites.
The next morning we awoke to the cacophony of bird songs. After a stroll around the campground to enjoy the morning songs, we packed up and headed out to our next destination: Jarbidge Wilderness.
On the way out, we passed the Wild Horse State Park, which we opted not to stay the night before because it was essentially open sagebrush next to the reservoir not much privacy or wildlife. We turned up Forest Road 37 and were immediately greeted by two pronghorns, our first for the trip. They scampered up the hillside as we traveled past on the dirt road. We past many cattle ranches (most looked abandoned and were managed off-site) and many cows that were standing on the road only moving when we rolled up toward them.
We stopped at the Charleston Reservoir and took a look at the Avocet, Phalaropes, various ducks, and a couple of Sandhill Cranes before continuing up toward Jarbidge. We had originally planned to stay at the campground Pine Creek, but had some concerns as to whether it was truly open. The road up to the pass was beautiful. There were many scenic stops to admire the view or the wildflowers. We even found a small Short-Horned Lizard. The road was a bit questionable at times it was nicely groomed except for the occasional large rock in the road or tree leaning over the road.
When we reached Coon Creek Summit, our answer to whether we’d reach Pine Creek was realized. Beyond the summit, a foot or two of melting snow covered the road. In the distance we could make out the road along the mountain side it was highlighted with snow. This was the end of the line for us.
We turned around and decided to see if we could stay at the Camp Draw Trailhead, which we pasted on our way up, for the night. We arrived at the trailhead fairly early. After lunch, we gathered our day packs and hiked out to Mary’s River. The hike was pleasant though up hill the first couple of miles. There were wonderful views of the valley below and many wildflowers were still in bloom. We spotted a couple more Short-horned Lizards along the path. The trail went through open sage brush, alpine forests, open meadows, aspen grooves (have to look for carvings in the tree trunks to keep to the path), and rocky canyons. There were several small stream crossings, but keeping our shoes dry was easy.
We reached Mary's River where we enjoyed a snack and listened to the strong rush of water. While heading back to the trailhead, we were stopped by the unfamiliar calling of a bird. We ran up a rocky hillside to get a better view of the treetops across the creek. The bird continued to call and fly from tree top to tree top. We got very brief looks, until it finally settled on a visible tree top. I was pretty excited to identify it as a Northern Goshawk. It flew off again continuing to call as it went through the trees.
Back at the trailhead, we set up camp and settled in for the night.
In the morning, we packed up early and headed back down the mountain. We stopped again at the Charleston Reservoir and Bruneau Meadows just south of the Reservoir to check out the bird activity.
Continuing down the road, we past through a lot of sagebrush, open desert, and by grazing cattle. We made a detour out to Cabin Field along Mary’s River. There were many pond and marsh birds at Cabin Field including Black-necked Stilts and Willets.
After the brief stop, we joined up with I-80 at Deeth and drove west toward Elko. At one point along the interstate we came within ½ gallon of running out of gas. That was a very stressful and tense moment as I tried coasting into the gas station. The gas station along I-80 (and in northern Nevada in general) seemed pretty far part. Something to remember for next time get gas when you can.
We made it to Battle Mountain and turned south up toward our next stop the Santa Rosa Range. We again drove by a lot of cattle (a reoccurring theme of the trip) and up the canyon to the Lye Creek Campground. Though the sun was shining and there were only a few passing clouds, but it felt extremely cold to me. The elevation wasn’t any higher than the previous night, but the wind gust seem to blow any of my body heat away. After settling upon a camp site (they were all empty when we arrived), I had to bundle up before walking up the jeep road past the campground.
There were many wildflowers in bloom here as well, including the beautiful and subtle Western Peony. The birds sang loudly from the aspen grooves many Yellow-rumped and MacGillavary’s Warblers and a few Black-headed Grosbeaks rejoiced in the arrival of spring. After sunset, we watched the stars appear, counted space junk, and saw one amazingly bright and large-tailed shooting star streak across the sky.
We awoke to a thin layer of frost on the ground. As we thawed out a little, we packed our day bags and walked up the jeep trail. When we neared the top of the hill, I noticed a badger walking across a patch of snow. It stopped to investigate a hole in the ground before continuing into the sagebrush. A few minutes later a coyote following the same path of the badger walked into view. It paused and looked in the direction of the badger before walking up to where the badger was still sniffing around in the sagebrush. The coyote stopped on the other side of the sagebrush where the badger was. The badger finally looked up to realize the coyote was standing right here the badger ran back behind the bush. Meanwhile the coyote seemed unconcerned and uninterested in the badger. After the badger took off, the coyote moved off slowly as well. It was interesting see different species interact. According to the book, Mammal Tracking in North America, badgers and coyotes are sometime seen hunting near each other if the prey takes a wrong turn then either the badger or coyote has a better chance of catching the prey.
We walked the jeep trails a little more, trying to stay out of the strong winds that whipped along the ridges. After having our fill was exploring the area, we headed back to camp to move to another site. As we were walking down the road, we spotted another badger walking up to road toward us. It continued to walk up even though we were in plain sight. A slight breeze came from behind us toward the badger. Suddenly the badger stopped and looked up before turning tail and running down the road. Guess our 4-day stench gave us away. I’d run too if I smelt something so bad!
After packing up, we saw another badger on the road out don’t know if it was the time of year or the place having a high population of badgers, but it seemed pretty unusually to see so many in a short period of time all within a short distance.
We stayed within the Santa Rosa Range and turned down a dirt road that lead out to Cabin Creek. It’s one thing to drive down a dirt road in a rental car; it’s another to drive down with your own car. Every scrap and scratch from the sagebrush made me tenser as I tried to navigate down the narrow dirt, rocky road. That’s one reason to a rent car for a road trip.
When we finally reached the end of the road, we got out to look around. Whether or not it looked like a good place to stay we were staying, I wasn’t ready to drive through the sagebrush again quite yet. We didn’t have to worry about the place being interesting. The creek was still running strong, willows grew along the banks of the creek and an aspen/cottonwood groove grew further up the creek. There would be plenty here to keep us occupied.
We put on our boots and walked up the creek toward through the aspen. When it became too difficult to navigate through the trees, we walked along the edge of the groove. The walk became steeper, along a hillside. When we tired of walking along the groove, we scrambled up to hillside toward some large boulders. As we began hiking back toward our camp, we noticed an approaching large dark cloud that filled the horizon. We had yet to set up our tent, so we acted quickly once we reached the car. As soon as we had the rainfly on, the storm was in full force. Snow/hail pelted the rainfly as we took shelter inside. When we emerged an hour later, the sky had cleared up and the only evidence of the storm was the ice sheet on our tent.
Not wanted to waste the rest of the evening, we continued our hike down the creek toward the road. We flushed a Black-crowned Night Heron along the way, but didn’t see much else hiding in the willows.
The next morning everything was covered with frost. There was a thick layer of frost on the car, the grass, and the tent. Thankfully the sky was clear and the sun was quickly heating things up. We had a good opportunity to thaw out and dry off the tent.
After we had warmed up and gotten everything dried and packed, we headed out of the Santa Rosas toward Black Rock Desert. Originally we didn’t plan on going to this section, but our planning had been changed since Coon Creek Summit was snowed in. So essentially we had an extra day and decided to check out Black Rock since we had already driven so far.
There were a lot more dirt roads and some bad sections. Coming out of the Summit Lake Indian Reservation, there was a particularly bad section of road. The road was somewhat steep and rocky. I must have hit a rock too fast/hard, but once we had turned into the Soldier Meadows Area of Environmental Concern, I had realized the driver’s front tire was flat.
Worse case scenario: flat tire in the middle of Black Rock Desert with the closest town being 60 miles away… We tried to fix the tire with a can of “fix-a-flat” and pumped it up with our small air compressor. We decided to stay at the Hot Creek Springs Campground only 5 miles away. With our flat tire we hoped the fix-a-flat would work and we’d be able to drive out tomorrow to have it properly patched. But the bumpy dirt road probably didn’t help the fix-a-flat process and the tire was still leaking badly.
Still we didn’t go any further for the day. We had the donut spare if all else failed… At the Hot Creek Springs Campground, we walked down a trail along the creek to look for the desert dace, an endemic freshwater fish. Soldier Meadows was an “area of critical environmental concern” even though it didn’t look like much. There was an endemic fish, an endemic snail, and an endemic flower (at least that I found out about). So there is something special about the meadows, though most people just come to bathe in the hot springs. Or to ride their ORV… didn’t seem like the BLM was taking the “critical” part too seriously.
So we walked down the creek and found the fish and a snail in a cooler part of the creek. They were difficult to see, but at least we saw them. We also saw the flower the basalt cinquefoil.
With the stress of the flat tire and what tomorrow would bring, we turned in for the evening.
The next morning we packed up early, hoping to get an early start toward the closest town Gerlach, 60 miles away. The tire was still leaking, but we hoped it would get us part way there at least. A BLM ranger, who was at the campground with a bunch of volunteers who were working on the trails, told us about the playa of Black Rock and how we could go 80 mph out there. I think this is where the difference between BLM and National Parks stands out.
So we continued back down the road to Gerlach. We got about 5-7 miles before deciding the tire was leaking too quickly. We put the spare tire on and white-knuckled it out of Black Rock. We didn’t stop to do donuts or go 80 mph on the playa (max speed on a spare is 50), so we missed out on that opportunity. But we thankfully made it to Gerlach (felt so good to get back on pavement).
There was one gas station with a service station and the most beautiful sight the small town mechanic. Bill (as we later found out his name from some local ATVers) was a bit grumpy, but we were just happy that we could get someone to work on patching the tire. Our backup plan was to drive to Reno 100+ miles away at 50 mph on the donut if he couldn’t patch the tire. It was like the waiting room of a delivery ward in the hospital, we were eagerly awaiting the news on the tire.
What a beautiful sight to see the mechanic roll the tire out… We topped off our gas tank and once again hit the road. We were heading toward Sheldon National Wildlife Refuge (sister refuge of Hart Mountain National Wildlife Refuge). I was gun shy about dirt roads so we took a paved one up to California through Cedarville before cutting over to Sheldon.
As we entered Sheldon, a horse came running up beside the car (going 40 mph). As I slowed the car down, the horse ran in front of us to the other side… Show off. But it was a good start to the refuge. We made it to Badger Camp in the southwest corner of the refuge. It was a nice campground near a canyon wall and an old corral. The living quarters for refuge workers were located on the other side of the hill. It was quite a nice place to stay. We had also checked out Bateman Spring Camp, which was open and essentially just a pull off. There wasn’t much of anything to it.
So Badger Camp was a welcoming sight considering the past two stressful days. We walked around the campground and noticed the large piles of horse crap marking their territory? A couple of locals came to the camp on their ATV/dirt bike looking for a camp site. They were kind enough to look for another site once they realized we were staying for the night. We ended up talking about Bill the mechanic in Gerlach guess he’s famous… though it is a small town. The locals were nice and hopefully they found a good camp site for the night.
In the morning, we headed down to Cottonwood Canyon about 3-4 miles by dirt, rocky road. I’m glad we walked, some of the road was pretty rocky in places, plus we see more when we’re outside of the car. We saw another wild horse, pronghorn, and mule deer. While walking off trail, a couple of times we flushed a Brewer’s Sparrow from its nest in the sagebrush.
At Cottonwood Canyon, there were quite a few birds singing Olive-sided Flycatcher, Yellow Warblers, and House Wrens. There used to be a camp site here, but I think the canyon is on the Indian Reservation, so that was the end of camping there. Still it’s a nice place to visit, especially to see the birds.
We walked back to Badger Camp. Wanting to see more of the large refuge, we packed up and headed out. We drove to Devaney Camp. On the road between Badger and Devaney Camp, we saw many large groups of wild horses on the mountains. It was the largest concentration we saw in the entire refuge (though we didn’t spend a lot of time in most of the refuge). The road, however, was very bumpy and high clearance was a must. Some of the road goes through wet meadow so going along the road later in the season is also important.
Devaney Camp was very open though a spring with willows and aspens was close by. The camp had great views of the surrounding mountains and canyons. We decided that the camp was a little too far from a quick exit, which we required if we were to get to the Steen Mountains in Oregon (our next destination) at a reasonable time. So we drove out and up the road 8A. We glanced at Fish Spring Camp, which looked too open and crappy more for fishing folk than nature seekers. Gooch Spring was taken by an RV, probably because it’s so close to the road and easily accessible. Along road 34A West Rock Spring was taken as well, though it didn’t look very interesting. We drove out to Catnip Spring Camp, which was 3 miles off the road, but very rocky. At Catnip Reservoir, we finally settled down. Even though it was on the fishing reservoir and easily accessible, no one was there.
I did a little digascoping as the light fade behind a thick curtain of clouds. From the reeds in the marsh many Yellow-head Blackbirds called and argued. From a small circular nest made of grass reeds in the thick marsh, I could hear peeping probably a marsh wren. Not a bad place to stay for the night.
We awoke to a beautiful sunrise over the reservoir. I tired taking a few more pictures of the ducks and grebes on the lake before we headed out. We drove through the rest of the refuge via hwy-140. It would have been great to spend a little more time on the other side of the refuge and perhaps look for big horned sheep, but there’s always next time. As we left, we saw more wild horses and a couple small groups of wild burros. We pasted through Denio Junction for gas (an odd place).
Entering Oregon, I strangely felt a little better (out of an alien world). We drove up to the Steen Mountains via the South Steen Road and went to the South Steen Campground, which was surprisingly not too busy (considering the 3-day weekend). With the afternoon stillahead of us, we hiked the Big Indian Gorge trail that started from the campground. There were quite a few people on the trail (but not super crowded). The first mile was the worst part of the trail. It was uphill (which wasn’t bad), but it was rocky and hard to walk on. After two miles, the trail crosses the stream for the first time. Unlike other hikes, this stream crossing is pretty major. We stopped for lunch while debating what to do. Others had gone in front of us, but we had foolishly forgotten to take our tevas with us.
After lunch, we checked out the crossing and decided to go for boots and all. The water was cold and fairly fast moving. The water went up to my knees. We made it across and knew we had two more crossings ahead. We continued up toward the gorge and after the third crossing, we were rewarded with the beauty of the gorge. Massive walls stood on either side of us as we hiked along the gorge bottom. The beauty of the place is beyond description and impossible to capture on film. Bird sang from the scattered cottonwoods along the gorge bottom. The wildflowers were still strongly in bloom here. White-line sphinx moths feed on the blooming larkspur. Unfortunately we visited the gorge during the hottest time during the day, so wildlife was not apparent. There were some great places to camp in the gorge and it would have been great to be able to do so.
We hiked back to the campground. The stream crossings were a little more tricky as it was a hot day more snow had melted making the streams even more powerful, but we made it back. And after climbing down the rocky last section of the trail, we were grateful to be back at the campground.
Our last day and the day to travel back. We headed out early, hoping to drive around the Steen loop and make a brief stop in Malheur before heading home. As soon as we left the campground, a terrible high pitched scraping noise came from the passenger front tire. Now having been shaking up by the flat and recently having the brake replaced for the passenger front tire (after a seized brake), I went into high alert mode pretty quickly. We ended up taking off the tire and trying to see what the problem was. After the tire was replaced, the noise thankfully went away (maybe it was just a rock that got stuck in the brakes), though I was still shaken up (again). We started to drive up the loop, but turned around when the road got rough and rocky. If the road wasn’t as in good condition it was going to take too long and we were still wary of getting stuck due to our car problems.
So we headed back down the way we came and turned up toward Malheur NWR. Since we had extra time, we drove through the bottom half of Malheur to enjoy what it was like during the “on” birding season. What a difference! There were more birds and they were so much easier to see! Having previously gone in June and September, we were surprise and perhaps disappointed in how easy it was to see things. Then again, if we had more time and were able to get out of the car more, I’m sure we would have seen even more.
We skipped the northern half of the auto tour and drove up to the headquarters, where we saw the most birders we’ve ever seen at the hq. They were pretty much everywhere looking at every bush from every angle. It was amusing in some aspects. But we did see a Barn Owl, which another birder pointed out, so that was good. We stopped at the “narrows” on the way out and watched the many Phalaropes, Stilts, and Avocets probe the shallow waters.
Finally we decided it was time to head back home. This time we were going to go though the Oregon Cascades and up I-5, which turned out to be a mistake as many of the highways have turned into sprawl (i.e. traffic) plus it wasn’t the most scenic route. But before we could start the journey, we stopped in Burns to check the tire and get the car up to snuff. Unfortunately the tire began to leak again though this time it was much slower, but still requiring occasional stops and fill ups.
So we traveled home, with the stress of hoping to reach it… Not the most relaxing trip, but gladly we did make it home. And we came back with great memories and at least some stories to tell.
Many flowers were seen on the trip.
Western Grebe - M
Clark's Grebe - M
Earred Grebe - S
Pied-billed Grebe - S, M
American White Pelican - M
Double-crested Cormorant - M
Great Egret - CF, M
Cattle Egret - M
Great Blue Heron - M
Black-crowned Night-Heron - SR, M
American Bittern - M
White-faced Ibis - M
Canada Goose - W, C, S, M
Trumpeter Swan - M
Mallard - C, CF, B, S, SM, M
Gadwall - C, CF, S, M
American Widgeon - C
Cinnamon Teal - C, CF, S, M
Green-winged Teal - C, S
Ruddy Duck - S, M
Redhead - S, M
Canvasback - S
Northern Shoveler - C, S, M
Northern Pintail - C
Ring-necked Duck - C
Lesser Scaup - C, S
Common Merganser - W, C
Golden Eagle - W, SR
Prairie Falcon - J, S
American Kestrel - SM
Cooper's Hawk - SR, S
Northern Goshawk - J, was vocalizing and flying from tree top to tree top
Northern Harrier - C, J, CF, B, S
Red-tailed Hawk - J, SR, B, S, SM
Swainson's Hawk - S
Turkey Vulture - SR, S, SM, M
Chukar - W, CF, SR, S
Gray Partridge - SR
California Quail - S, M
Ring-necked Pheasant - M
American Coot - C, B, S, M
Virginia Rail - S
Sandhill Crane - C, CF, S, M
Killdeer - C, CF, B, S, M
Wilson's Phalarope - C, M
Black-necked Stilt - CF, M
American Avocet - C, M
Wilson's Snipe - CF, SR, B, S, M
Willet - CF, M
Long-billed Curlew - M
Spotted Sandpiper - SM
Ring-billed Gull - M
Franklin's Gull - M
Caspian Tern - M
Forester's Tern - C, M
Black Tern - M
Morning Dove - W, J, CF, SR, SM
Barn Owl - M
Common Poorwill - S, SM
Common Nighthawk - S
Belted Kingfisher - C, J
White-throated Swift - SR, S
Calliope Hummingbird - W, SR, SM
Rufous Hummingbird - J
Black-chinned Hummingbird - M
Northern Flicker - J, SR, S, SM
Hairy Woodpecker - J, SR
Lewis' Woodpecker - SR
Red-naped Sapsucker - J
American Crow - W, CF, SR, M
Common Raven - J, SR, B, S, M
Black-billed Magpie - SR, S, SM, M
Clark's Nutcracker - J
Western Scrub Jay - S
Western Kingbird - M
Eastern Kingbird - M
Olive-sided Flycatcher - S
Dusky Flycatcher - W, J, SR, S, SM
Gray Flycatcher - J, SR, SM
Willow Flycatcher - M
Loggerhead Shrike - CF, S, SM, M
Warbling Vireo - W, SR, SM
Horned Lark - SR, B, S
Northern Rough-winged Swallow - W, CF, M
Violet-Green Swallow - W, CF, S, M
Cliff Swallow - C, CF, S, M
Tree Swallow - J, SR
Barn Swallow - B, S, M
Purple Martin - M
Bushtit - S
Mountain Chickadee - J, SR, SM
Red-breasted Nuthatch - J
House Wren - W, J, SR, S, SM
Marsh Wren - C, S, M
Rock Wren - SR, S
Ruby-crowned Kinglet - J
Townsend's Solitare - J
Mountain Bluebird - J, SR, S
American Robin - W, J, SR, S, SM, M
Hermit Thrush - J
Varied Thrush - J, SM
Sage Thrasher - S
Cedar Waxwing - M
European Starling - SR, S, M
Common Yellowthroat - C, CF, S, M
Yellow Warbler - W, C, J, SR, S, M
Wilson's Warbler - S
Yellow-rumped Warbler - J, SR, SM, M
Orange-crowned Warbler - SR
MacGillvary's Warbler - SR
Lazuli Bunting - W, SM
Western Tanager - J, SR, S
Song Sparrow - W, SR, S, M
Fox Sparrow "slate-colored" - SR
Brewer's Sparrow - W, CF, SR, S
Vesper Sparrow - J, SR, S, SM
Chipping Sparrow - J, SM
Savannah Sparrow - M
White-crowned Sparrow - J, SR
Lark Sparrow - SR, B
Green-tailed Towhee - SR, S
Dark-eyed Junco "gray-headed" - J, SR, SM
Red-winged Blackbird - C, CF, B, M
Yellow-headed Blackbird - C, CF, S, M
Brewer's Blackbird - C, S, M
Brown-headed Cowbird - W, SR, SM, M
Western Meadowlark - CF, SR, B, S, SM, M
Bullock's Oriole - W, S, M
Black-headed Grosbeak - SR
Cassin's Finch - J, SM
Pine Siskin - M
English House Sparrow - M
W = Wildhorse Crossing Campground, Humboldt-Toiyabe NF, NV
C = Charleston Reservior/Bruneau Meadows, NV
J = Jarbidge Wilderness, Humboldt-Toiyabe NF, NV
CF = Cabin Field, Mary's River, NV
SR = Santa Rosa Range, Humboldt-Toiyabe NF, NV
B = Black Rock Desert & Soldier Meadows, NV
S = Sheldon National Wildlife Refuge, NV
SM = Steen Mountains, OR
M = Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, OR
Other Critter List
American Badger - SR (3, coyote seen following one of the badgers)
Muskrat - C
Piute Ground Squirrel
Merrium's Ground Squirrel
Western Harvest Mouse
Aligator Lizard - SM
Long-nosed Leopard Lizard
Short-horned Lizard - J
Pacific Tree Frog - S
Desert Dace - B
Mormon Cricket - W
White-line Sphinx Moth - SM
Elongate Mud Meadow Spring-Snail - B
Mountain Death Camas
Basalt Cinquefoil - B
Tansy-leaved Evening Primrose
Wildhorse Crossing Campground
Santa Rosa Range
Soldier Meadows Area of Critical Environmental Concern (map), Black Rock Desert
Sheldon National Wildlife Refuge
Malheur National Wildlife Refuge