Tucked off of the very busy Highway 93, 80 miles north of Las Vegas, you’ll find Pahranagat National Wildlife Refuge. This Nevada oasis seems horribly overlooked by the cars and trucks hurtling by.
I’m sure they see it. There’s really no way to miss it. The lush landscape is a startling contrast to the Nevada desert surrounding it.
I myself have passed it by in my rush to be elsewhere. But slide off onto the access road to Upper Pahranagat Lake and the frenetic pace of the highway becomes only a distant rumble. This avian haven becomes your haven as well.
Getting started at Pahranagat…
I always recommend a stop at the visitor center in order to best acquaint yourself with the offerings. Unfortunately for me, I arrived on a Tuesday when the center was closed and would not open again until Friday when I was departing. Great timing, eh?
What I discovered when I popped in on Friday though, was a brand-new facility ready to invite visitors to discover the wonders of Pahranagat. The exhibit includes many interactive features that appeal to kids and adults alike. Much of the focus is on wildlife but the it also includes a look at human history in the area.
Like many of our public lands visitor centers, Pahranagat offers a short film you can watch to better understand the refuge before setting out to explore it. I highly recommend taking the time to watch. This is also where you can pick up brochures and guides, as well as an extensive bird list for the refuge.
History and importance…
Pahranagat National Wildlife Refuge was designated in 1963 and straddles the boundary of the Mojave and Great Basin deserts. At over 5,000 acres, this “Valley of Shining Water” is fed by thermal springs. It is truly an oasis that is a critical stopover for migrating birds. All told, this refuge plays host to over 200 species in varying frequencies.
This diverse environment is not just for the birds, though. Because Pahranagat includes lakes, wetlands, riparian habitat, meadows, and desert uplands, you can find a variety of wildlife and plants here year-round. Everything from desert tortoises and mule deer to willows and wildflowers. Obviously Pahranagat is a popular destination for birds and its stewards manage water levels to maximize habitat for various species throughout the year.
Your explorations aren’t limited to flora and fauna. Pahranagat is also home to human history. It has been used by natives for thousands of years. Pictographs and petroglyphs can be found here as well as the Walden House, a relic of pioneer times.
Things to do…
With the natural and cultural resources Pahranagat offers, you have a lot of choices how to spend your time. While most of the action is at Upper Pahranagat Lake, don’t overlook other areas for opportunities to explore.
Because of the importance and diversity of this refuge, you’ll find something to do and see year-round.
- Bird and wildlife watching
- Horseback riding
There are 14 campsites nestled on the eastern banks of Upper Pahranagat Lake. They are free and first-come, first-served. They span the length of the lake, giving ample space between sites. The various sites accommodate back-ins and pull-throughs. A few are “buddy” sites that allow a larger group of visitors.
I thoroughly enjoyed my stay at Pahranagat. It’s now one of my favorite camping spots. There are a few things to keep in mind if you’re considering a visit:
- There is no potable water and no electric connections.
- Vault toilets are scattered along the campground but I often found them without paper since I was visiting during off-days. Fortunately I’m a seasoned camper… I always bring my own.
- There are no fire pits and ground fires are not allowed.
- Sites are equipped with picnic tables and hibachi grills.
- This is a wetland. There are mosquitoes. Plan accordingly, especially in the dawn and dusk hours.
- You will experience some road noise from Highway 93 which runs along the refuge border, above the campsites. I didn’t find it to be too obtrusive to keep me from enjoying my stay.
Tips and tidbits…
Some other things to keep in mind for your visit:
- There is a covered pavillion at the entrance.
- Again, there is no potable water. Remember to bring an adequate supply, even for a day trip.
- Always educate yourself on park rules. In the case of Pahranagat, it’s important to note there is no swimming allowed and no motorized boats or off-road vehicles are permitted. Refer to the Pahranagat National Wildlife Refuge website for current and complete information.
If you’d like to visit but don’t want to camp, you’ll need to head north a few miles to Alamo, Nevada. That’s where you can secure fuel and basic supplies. This is a fairly remote area but there are a few lodging and restaurant options in Alamo.
The most popular spot for lodging and dining in my experience is Windmill Ridge, another five-ish miles north of Alamo on Highway 93. Geocachers may recognize this as the premier spot to use as a base for tackling the lower section of the E.T. Highway power trail.
I’ve seen a lot of wonderful places in my time traveling around North America and I have fond memories of them. Then there are places that have a deeper impact. Maybe it was the combination of place, timing, and my emotional needs that came together to cement Pahranagat National Wildlife Refuge as one of those special places.
I love our national park system, of course. But I always encourage people to explore the lesser-known public lands like Pahranagat or other refuges, national forests, and monuments. They’re just as fabulous and typically don’t have the crowds and chaos of the marquis parks. In these places, you get a better understanding of our public lands and a better chance to find peace.
Finally, here’s a YouTube video of my time at Pahranagat… several days of exploring and photography boiled down to two minutes. You can find more images in my Pahranagat album on Flickr. Enjoy!