Sheldon National Wildlife Refuge: A View from the Top
On Nevada’s northwestern edge, refuge offers historic splendor.
BY SHEVAWN VON TOBEL
Nevadans can be proud of our unbelievable access to wide-open spaces, expansive views, and plenty of room to roam. From the rugged mountains of central Nevada to the colorful rock arrangements in the south, to call these places the “great outdoors” is an understatement. One such place is the Sheldon National Wildlife Refuge, located more than 300 miles from Reno and tucked in Nevada’s northwest corner.
Defined by its remoteness, visiting the Sheldon takes some careful planning and effort, a 4WD vehicle, and maybe a flat tire or two. However, those who put in the effort are rewarded with an incredible experience in the heart of wild Nevada.
HISTORY OF THE SHELDON
For how remote the Sheldon is, the refuge itself—like most of Nevada—is steeped in history. Twenty million years ago, the pronghorn evolved here on the ancient prairies and are the sole survivor of the Pleistocene extinctions that wiped out most of the large mammals 11,000 years ago. Subsisting on pronghorn and other mammals, the Northern Paiutes carved out a life here, living in a landscape far different than the one we see today. Ample lakes, springs, creeks, marshes, and forests (seen from the prehistoric logs found throughout the refuge) sustained wildlife and the humans that depended on them 10,000 years ago. Over time, as drier conditions set in and many bands were pushed out by homesteaders, winter villages moved to larger valleys to the west.
In the 1800s, this remote corner of Nevada would go through a new chapter in its history—the ranching and homesteading era had begun. Men, women, and livestock came in droves to establish ranches and homesteads amongst the sage. Unfortunately, as a result, the pronghorn’s numbers started to steeply decline. In 1920, a U.S. Biological Survey biologist, E.R. Sans, lit the pronghorn-conservation torch that burns to this day. Concerned that the pronghorn would quickly become extinct, Sans became a staunch advocate for wildlife protections and because of his efforts, hunting regulations in northwestern Nevada were established. Sans kept up his advocacy efforts and convinced the Audubon Society and the Boone & Crockett Club to purchase private holdings in the area that became the Charles Sheldon Antelope Range, named after a long-time Boone & Crockett member and avid outdoorsman. President Herbert Hoover designated the Charles Sheldon Wildlife Refuge by executive order in 1931.
A LITTLE HELP
Meanwhile, the nation was sliding into the Great Depression. President Franklin Roosevelt—inspired by the success of Hoover Dam to provide jobs—created the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), a nation-wide public relief program mainly consisting of young, unmarried men. These men were sent far and wide across the nation to complete conservation and natural resource development projects. More than 1,000 CCC workers served in Sheldon between 1936 and 1942 and built the main infrastructure of the refuge—roads, fences, buildings, and water control structures. Their impeccable craftsmanship can be admired to this day.
In 1936, President Roosevelt designated the Charles Sheldon Antelope Range and in 1976 the range and the refuge were combined and renamed the Sheldon National Wildlife Refuge (NWR). In the past 26 years, intensive habitat restoration work has been done. Nonprofit conservation groups like Friends of Nevada Wilderness have worked with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to remove substantial amounts of non-functional developments and barbed wire fencing. This new chapter of the refuge is building a more healthy and cohesive habitat for native wildlife and widely expanding their migration routes, no longer impeded by fences or dangerous metal debris.
THE HEART OF THE HIGH DESERT
Although originally established as a refuge to protect the pronghorn, the Sheldon National Wildlife Refuge now provides a haven for a variety of wildlife species: 270 different species to be exact. And that doesn’t include the 75 pollinator species and more than 600 species of plants.
The staggering diversity of the landscape—from high basalt tablelands and deep canyons to vast sagebrush valleys and meadows—supports a wide range of animal habitats. With more than 350,000 acres to roam, iconic Nevada wildlife like pronghorn, Greater Sage-Grouse, desert bighorn, and golden eagles thrive. In addition, the Sheldon NWR plays a critical role in a larger wildlife migration corridor between the Hart Mountain National Wildlife Refuge (just across the Oregon border) and the wilderness areas in the Black Rock Desert-High Rock Canyon National Conservation Area. Combined, this region protects one of the best remaining tracts of the sagebrush-steppe ecosystem. Driving down State Route 140 through the refuge may at times feel like you’re on safari.
FIND YOUR NEXT ADVENTURE
It would take a lifetime to explore the Sheldon’s nooks and crannies, especially those hidden gems that lie beyond where the pavement ends. Nearly 60 percent of the refuge has been proposed for wilderness protection because of the abundant opportunities to enjoy hiking, hunting, camping, and plenty of solitude. The Sheldon offers a brush with the wild heart of Nevada and a true wilderness experience. Its great expanses afford an excellent view for spotting wildlife, as well as incredible vistas stretching across California, Oregon, and Nevada. In contrast, hiking through the many deep canyons that cut across the refuge provides a calming sense of isolation and solitude (and a respite from the desert sun).
The Sheldon is like the “Disneyland” of Nevada’s backcountry. The variety of outdoor recreation you can revel in here is like no other. Virgin Valley should be one of the first spots on your list to check out, especially if you’re new to the area. Located next to the refuge sub-headquarters and housing the only developed campground, this is a good spot to get the lay of the land before venturing to more remote and wild backcountry. Built by the CCC and open year-round, Virgin Valley hosts a campground, space for RVs, drinking water, vault toilets, picnic tables, fire rings, and a geothermal warm springs pool and a rustic shower house, which makes for perfect soaking after a long day of hiking. From here, drive a short distance to gaze into Thousand Creek Gorge—a dramatic canyon with sheer rock walls towering over a seasonal stream.
From Virgin Valley, let your interests guide the rest of your experience. There are 12 semi-primitive campgrounds throughout the refuge, along with two other prime fishing spots—Catnip and Big Springs Reservoirs. Of course, there’s endless opportunities for backcountry camping; just be sure to practice Leave No Trace principles and obtain the proper permits.
Historical and archaeological buffs will keep busy in this corner of Nevada since remnants of the refuge’s past are still intact. Kinney Camp in the Sheldon rates up there with other more well-known historical sites. What sets these homesteads apart is the unique pink sandstone, quarried in Virgin Valley and used to build these structures, giving them an iconic and picturesque look.
From learning about Sheldon’s history to observing the abundant wildlife, the Sheldon National Wildlife Refuge is truly a must-see for those intrepid adventure seekers and wild Nevada enthusiasts.