Keeping tabs on all the cool stuff to see and do in the Silver State is, without a doubt, an impossible mission, but one feature that always seems to be top of the class is the rivaling northern and southern landscapes. Both desertscapes are mesmerizing—that much is a no-brainer—but to come to the realization that Nevada is home to TWO of the four American deserts? Game changer. The Basin and Range situation up north brings an entire new meaning to just how mighty Nevada’s Great Basin truly is, while the cholla cactus, joshua trees and yuccas down south fall nothing short of straight-up exotic. This diversity in landscape means copious amounts of wildlife flock to Nevada for the particular biodiversity they need to thrive. This alone makes Nevada the lucky recipient of all kinds of wildlife that isn’t typically found in other states—at least not collectively—including some, which aren’t found anywhere else in the world. Peep this lineup to figure out where you can get deep into some Nevada backcountry to scope some Nevada wildlife of your very own.
ROCKY MOUNTAIN ELK - MT. MORIAH WILDERNESS AREA
If you’ve ever had the luxury of crossing paths with a Rocky Mountain Elk, you just get it. They’re some of the most enchanting, magical creatures in the entire animal kingdom, making any encounter impossible to forget. And guess what? There are so many sections of northern Nevada—on public land, to boot—where you can score a chance at spotting some. Rocky Mountain Elk are found throughout many states in the American West, mainly sticking to high elevation mountain ranges, but of all the animals spelled out below, probably inhabit the most diverse collection of landscapes. They can live anywhere from higher-latitude temperate rainforests and boreal forests, to alpine meadows and desert valleys, but thrive best in elevations that range from 6,000 to 9,000 feet.
Most of Nevada’s big game animals, the Rocky Mountain Elk included, all hang around the northeastern chunk of the state—places like Jarbidge, Elko and Ely. But one of the best places to check these beauties out is the Snake Range, found on the eastern side of Nevada… the same range Great Basin National Park perches in. Aside from the high elevation, Rocky Mountain Elk [along with a whole lot of other animals], flock to this specific section not only due to its remoteness, but because of the darkness. Regarded as one of the last bona fide dark-sky regions in the United States—something scientists now consider an endangered resource—lots of animals that depend on a true nocturnal environment post up in this range.
Male elk are called bulls, while females are known as cows. Only the bulls grow antlers, and amazingly enough, they shed them each and every year. Plus, of all those types of elk out there, Rocky Mountain Elk have the largest antlers. So, even if you’re on the lookout and can’t spot one, keep your eyes on the ground, too, because you may score some seriously cool “sheds.” Another cool thing about Rocky Mountain Elk is that their top two canine—or “eye teeth”—are made of pure ivory. Hunters straight-up call them “ivories” and use them as a separate trophy or memento of sorts when they bag one of these creatures.
You might catch a few hanging in or around Great Basin, but the real-deal place to scope these magnificent creatures is Mount Moriah, which lies directly to the north. As the third tallest peak in Nevada, they’re known to bask in the sun on Moriah’s table, particularly during the fall months before hunting season opens. And get this: the timing is perfect because it also aligns with mating season which opens up a serious opportunity to hear them bugle. Elk are considered to be the loudest of the ungulate family, making a variety of squeals, barks, chirps and mews, but that bugle is the most impressive. A weekend spent studying the stars, bagging Nevada’s second- and third-tallest peaks, and following the echo of bugling elk? Sounds like my kinda getaway.
CHUKKAR - BLACK ROCK DESERT
If, while out smashing through a rangeland of sagebrush, you’ve ever been surprised by a bunch of birds at your feet, swirling up around you, it was prrrrobably none other than a bevy of chukar. Part of the pheasant family, this small bird adores hanging out around the base of sagebrush plants, underneath a rock outcropping, or near a dip in a hillside. They usually hang together in convoys of about 10 or so and, when disturbed, they’ll either scatter around you on the ground or fly up in your face. Even though they can actually fly, the funny thing about these guys is that they instinctively run and, when one gets startled, it can be quite the funny fluster.
These avian babes mostly hang out in northwestern Nevada, starting in Reno all the way up to Denio, and as far east as Paradise Valley and Midas. Anywhere around the Black Rock is a pretty good bet, and the Santa Rosa range will almost certainly be a slam dunk. Chukars breed during the summer months, and have some pretty hilarious breeding habits. A male may bend down to eat and, if a female accepts, she’ll give him a little [literal] peck in response. The male may also perform a high, stiff walk while making a special call; if the female accepts, then she’ll crouch down in acceptance. During these summer months when breeding is going down, pay attention to the variety of calls they’ll make in the mornings and evenings. This loud call is known as a “chuck” [shocker, right?], and they may even make duetting rallying calls.
Male chukar are monogamous, but perhaps the most charming thing about the chukar the one that earned them the title of the national bird of Iraq and Pakistan. The reason? They’re thought to be a symbol of intense, unrequited love. That, and their upward-facing posture is interpreted as “being in love with the moon.” Pretty sweet, right? So the next time you’re taking a sunset, dip in a middle-of-somewhere hot spring under a full moon with your S.O., listen for that sweet chukar call… it might just set the tone for that perfect summertime date.
WILD HORSES - VIRGINIA CITY
Is there anything more American than a wild horse? Nah, didn’t think so. For decades, the wild horse—more specifically, the mustang—has been a boldface symbol of the entire American West, swiftly summing up what it means to be wild and free. And guess what? You can see herds upon herds of wild horses just about anywhere in Nevada, considering about 50% of the entire nation’s wild horse population resides in the Silver State. And honestly, with Nevada being the ultimate untamed state, I couldn’t imagine any better a stomping ground for this steed.
There’s a bit of a debate surrounding the whole notion of “wild,” but in most circumstances is used to describe a free-roaming herd of feral horses, like the mustang. When you really start to split hairs here, the word “feral” means that the now-untamed animal has descended from a domesticated version of itself. But were these horses once a truly wild, native species to the United States? Mmmm, no. Actually, the Spanish reintroduced the horse to the Americas in the late 15th century, some of which escaped and formed feral herds. IMO, I think this detail makes Nevada’s wild horses that much cooler. Because who really cares if they had domesticated ancestors or not—they’re running around all untamed and free today. Totally majestic in every sense of the word.
One particularly well-known herd of Nevada wild horses is the Virginia Range Herd, which is protected, along with all the other wild horses in the state. The Virginia Range Herd is usually ranging widely somewhere between Virginia City, south Reno, Washoe Valley, Dayton, Silver Springs and Fernley. BUT, I triple dog dare you to travel through Nevada and try to avoid seeing a wild horse… they’re everywhere! And, if you visit Nevada and find yourself troubled at the thought of departing the Silver State the state without one, you can always adopt one of your very own.
The American West feels a whole heck of a lot wilder in Nevada for some reason—maybe due in some part to the presence of wild horses or the state’s mantra “Dont Fence Me In” or both. Nevada really is a bit of an untamed state—just the way we like it. So, no matter how you cut it, consider us to be all in. #DFMI
DESERT BIGHORN SHEEP - VALLEY OF FIRE, SLOAN CANYON & ALTA TOQUIMA
Of all the wildlife mentioned on this list, there’s something about the Nevada Desert Bighorn Sheep that seems to have this ancient, pre-Ice-Age sorta vibe going on. Maybe because out of most of the other animals on this lineup, the desert bighorn sheep has managed to survive in some of the bleakest conditions for the longest periods of times. Get this: they’re such resilient creatures that they are able to live in super hot and extremely cold climates, and can go an astonishingly long time with little or no water. That, and they can even lose up to 30% of their total body weight and stilllllll survive. They are such extreme masters at managing off the bare minimum that the very act of outlasting predators in crazy conditions counts as an official survival mechanism. Incredible, right?
There is quite a variety of bighorn sheep in the world, but the Desert Bighorn Sheep is the main subspecies you’ll find throughout Nevada, doubling as the official Nevada State Animal. The Desert Bighorn is a subspecies of Bighorn Sheep that are native to the deserts of the southwestern United States and northwestern Mexico, but the largest concentration are found in the Mojave Desert, which sprawls into southern Nevada. Your chances of seeing a Desert Bighorn on your southern Nevada jaunt is pretty high, but it wasn’t always that way. We’re actually still on the rebound, compared to the millions of bighorns that used to roam the country. By the 1920s, the Desert Bighorn population had dwindled to less than 10,000 and, if you can believe it, got even worse by the 1990s, plummeting to less than 300 in existence. The problem? Disease, hunting, and drastic habitat change. But there’s good news: the population count is on the mend, thanks to the hard work and watchful eye of animal conservationists.
These herbivores are undoubtedly impressive creatures in many ways, but the minute it really goes zero to a hundred is when you see them nimbly climb a sheer vertical rock wall. Despite being super stocky, they’re not just exceedingly agile creatures, oh no. The secret is in their hooves—their conclave elastic hooves, to be exact—which allow them to quickly scale Nevada’s rocky terrain. Plus, they’ve got extraordinary eyesight compared to most other wild animals, which helps them spot their mountain lion, coyote, and bobcat predators, before calling on their crazy climbing ability to escape. Don’t think I forgot the horns, either. The wild thing about their horns is that they’re basically just like our fingernails—nearly the same material—except wayyyyy more thick and elaborate. Changes the way you think about it, right? Rams most definitely compete for dominance (and for ewes) by having head butting competitions. The intensity here? They charge each other at 30 miles an hour, and the clashing of their horns can be heard as far as a mile away.
Valley of Fire, Sloan Canyon and Walker Lake are primetime places to spot these babes. [Don’t forget to look up! They’ll assuredly be clinging to the rocks above you.] And for a landscape as extreme as the Desert Bighorn itself, most definitely head for the Alta-Toquima wilderness. An area known for its extreme alpine conditions, it also boasts the largest known population of bighorns at such high altitudes, meaning you can spend the weekend spotting Bighorns, and Basque arborglyphs in the canyon of Nevada’s fourth tallest peak.
COYOTE - WASHOE LAKE STATE PARK
One of the smartest and most adaptable creatures you’ll find in Nevada is the endlessly savvy Coyote. Dan Flores describes the Coyote howl as the “original National Anthem,” and as yet another tried and true badge of the American West, it is something that couldn’t resonate more with me. The Coyote is a deeply rooted character of American folklore— a brave and heroic against-all-odds kind of character that I downright adore. American Indian stories credit Coyote for bringing the element of fire to humanity, releasing bison [a major source of food and materials] into the world, and thought so highly of Coyote that they deemed him the ultimate companion to the creator. The Coyote was such a hero in their eyes that he was linked to the morning star. So wait… the bringer of heat and food, the brightest beacon in the sky, and their higher being’s best friend? I’m seeing eye-to-eye with all this folklore, but the thing I can’t quite wrap my brain around is this: how did the Coyote become such a menacing character?
You’ve got the European colonization of America to thank for that one, friends. Yep, it was the early Anglo explorers who villainized the coyote, slandering him as a cowardly and an untrustworthy threat. The bummer part is that Coyotes are very much still perceived as a nuisance, when they’re basically just wild, resilient dogs who can live among us (or not, up to them) without any legit difficulty.
Coyotes are found in almost all states [most places in Nevada are no exception] and are a member of the dog family. It’s easy to spot them when traveling through Nevada’s basin and range; just look for their light grayish coat, sharp pointed ears and nose, and long bushy tail. They look like actual dogs. It’s a common mistake to confuse the Coyote with wolves, but if you know what you’re looking for it’s a total night and day difference. While the Coyote and wolves are in the same family, wolves are straight-up larger in size and have a much darker gray coat. That, and wolves have basically disappeared from America altogether, with such a low population count that it’s crazy-uncommon to actually see one, especially in Nevada. When wolves were over-hunted and dropped off the radar, the coyote population boomed. For that reason, the Coyote is currently an unprotected species. Coyote or wolf, fear not. There have been less than 5 recorded cases in North America resulting in an actual death to humans.
Coyotes have comfortably redefined resiliency, as they have not only survived human-driven decimation, but thrived in the midst of all human activity. They’ve totally rolled with the punches, adapting to a variety of scenarios—both metro and rural—and will take what they can get in terms of diet, settling for rabbits and other rodents, insects, plants and flowers. Compared to lots of other animals, the Coyote takes breeding seriously, usually hosting an annual litter of 3-9 pups. Despite a reputation for rolling solo, they often run in a pack, which is typically centered around a reproductive female, and are territorial and aggressive only when breeding because they’re protecting their den, duh.
In addition to their not-at-all picky approach to scrounging up food, they’re also resourceful when it comes to their dens, reusing the same den year after year. Plus, like the same dang dog in your house, the Coyote is an excellent swimmer and is a very smart creature overall. Of all these likable qualities, perhaps the best is this: the Coyote is considered to be the most vocal of all North American mammals. Equipped with 11 different vocalizations comprised of woofs, growls, huffs, barks, yelps and whines, no other sound in existence stacks up to the Coyote howl—especially when lulling you to sleep in beautifully remote backcountry Nevada.
LAHONTAN CUTTHROAT TROUT - PYRAMID LAKE
Whether you’re dreaming of reeling in a 20-pounder any day of the week, or merely coming in contact with a fish that’s managed to survive thousands upon thousands of years, search no further. Pyramid Lake’s Lahonttan Cutthroat is where it’s at. Aside from being the largest variety cutthroat trout, the other reason why the LCT is worth talking about is because it’s Nevada’s State Fish. Woo! Aside from those titillating stats, here’s where the whole thing gets mega-interesting…
Today, you can find the LCT in all 17 Nevada counties and a whopping 112 streams and small lakes peppered throughout the state. BUT, in as little as less than 45 years ago, this was totally NOT the case. The thing about Pyramid is that it is one of the only remnants of a prehistoric glacial lake. ‘Tis true, this thing stems from what was once an ancient sea of sorts, covering the majority of northern Nevada entirely….we’re talking like over 20,000 years ago. As the climate changed and water levels receded, the majority of the lake dried up, leaving pockets of water in various valleys throughout Nevada. Pyramid Lake is the primary example of this, but Walker and Lake Lahontan stemmed from this prehistoric body of water too. One of the creatures that was found was, you guessed it, the Lahontan Cutthroat Trout. That is, up until the 1940s when it became totally extinct.
I know what you’re thinking: this fish managed to hang on for thousands of years, but was suddenly completely wiped out? Yeah. Cause what was going on during that time? Gold fields and the mystique of the American West called thousands of early explorers this way. Pyramid Lake was totally overfished and distributed to mining camps in the region, and the LCT population was decimated by 1943.
This area was massively inhabited by Paiute American Indians, and a vital force of life they very much depended on. Luckily, some LCT were discovered in a tucked away alpine lake in northeastern Nevada that had the exact same genetic match as the prehistoric strain. After careful cultivation, they were reintroduced into Pyramid Lake during the 70s, and despite being deemed as ‘federally threatened’ to this day, they were bumped from the endangered list. And, besides from basically coming back from the dead, a fascinating truth about the LCT is that they’re an endemic species - meaning Pyramid is the very place they are native to and exist nowhere else on Earth. You’ll know you’ve got one on the line if you see a greenish, grayish fish with unmistakably yellow sides. Sometimes, they even have a bright strip of red or pink along the belly, too. Aside from all that, they can live in alkaline lakes like Pyramid which differentiates them from every other trout out there.
Bottom line: there’s an unmistakable presence you’ll relish when visiting Pyramid, and angler or not, make sure you get out there for a sunrise experience. That, my friends, is something I’ll stand by any dang day of the week.
PRONGHORN ANTELOPE - SHELDON NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE
I’m going to give it to you straight here: the pronghorn antelope is nothing to wince at. The reason? It’s been meandering America’s rolling hills, mountain ranges and wide open topography for thousands of years, annnnd is the second fastest land animal after the cheetah. NBD. As a matter of fact, the Pronghorn Antelope can reach speeds up to 60 miles per hour… only 15 mph slower than the cheetah. The kicker here is this: though they are a smidge slower than the cheetah, they have way more endurance meaning not only are they wicked fast, but they can run at high speeds for extended periods of time. That, and they cover some serious ground with a 7.3 meter stride. And guess what? An entire refuge - the Sheldon National Wildlife Refuge - was set up to protect the Pronghorn exclusively.
Like some of the other species mentioned here, the Pronghorn population was completely compromised during the early 1900s… as in total mach-five emergency state of affairs. When there were once hundreds of thousands of Pronghorns, the population suffered drastically, amounting to a dismal 13,000 by the 1920s. Realizing that they had been over hunted to the max and by they time they took action the Pronghorn population was basically a glaring afterthought, the waning population was addressed in the 1930s thanks to a dude named Charles Sheldon. Together, with the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, they selected the upper northwestern portion of Nevada because of it’s unique landscape and already-existing variety of wildlife. That, and the fact that the majority of the area was already federally owned. The main objective in establishing the Sheldon National Wildlife Refuge was simple: to provide a habitat for the Pronghorn, but to also protect other endemic plants and wildlife living here.
And hot damn, it worked. This tucked away chunk of very remote northwestern Nevada proved to be an ideal home for the Pronghorn, stabilizing the population to a healthy status again.
Were these animals worth saving? Uhhhh YEAH. No brainer. Ok, they’re fast, but what else is cool about these buff colored dazzlers? At first glance, you may not see them playing in Nevada’s open range because their tan hides blend into the sage shockingly well. Males have a black cheek patch that extends to their muzzle and forehead, which is sometimes called a mask. It’s less pronounced in females, but you can still see their masks most of the time, too. A TravelNevada pro tip when trying to spot these lovelys is this: look for their white butts. I kid you not, this is how I’ve landed eyes on them every. Single. Time. And it’s not just a coincidence - when they’re caught off guard, the hair on their back end sticks straight up, making their booties so visible that they can be seen for miles. Both males and females have horns and, just like the Rocky Mountain Elk, shed them annually, and get this: their eyes are located so far back on the sides of their heads, the Pronghorn has nearly a 360 degree view. Plus, here’s another amazing truth: does will give birth to one fawn, but will have twins every other time thereafter.
Its incredible that they can run so fast - a singular characteristic that has me laser focused. But do ever wonder how they can do this? The answer is this: they have disproportionately large hearts and lungs, as well as a gigantic windpipe, which gives them an astounding respiratory and circulatory system. That, and they have two long cushioned, pointy toes that help them absorb the shock when running. And, if you’ve ever heard a hunter saying that they’ll shoot any animal that is too stupid to jump over a fence [like the Pronghorn] you can sass them with this verity: they physically can’t. They’re built for speed, and actually can’t jump. BOOYAH.
So the next time you’re fantasizing about running away for the weekend, hightail it to the deliciously remote Sheldon with the ‘Lopes, where you can let all of those inhibitions legitimately run free. #NVRoadTrip
SAGE GROUSE - SMITH CREEK VALLEY, NEAR AUSTIN
When trying to imagine exotic animals in Nevada, I wouldn’t bat an eye if the Sage Grouse immediately pops into your head. Because seriously, look at that dang picture! You can’t unsee something like that, it’s memorable and alluring, and if you’re anything like me you just want to know allllll the facts. As the largest grouse variety in North America, these extravagant birds are found in 15 of Nevada’s 17 counties and are probably most well known for their crazy-elaborate mating rituals… because that’s when you might actually see one that looks like the one pictured above.
During this time, males form this circular strutting display, or forming a very complex Lek. This thing is usually like 30ish feet in diameter, and the alpha male posts up dead center, with the other males circling him in order of importance. [Side note: sure you’ve heard of alphas in other breeds...but a bird? This one was a first for me.] They strut around, puffing out two yellowish sacs on their neck that seem to inflate. Plus, they spread out their spiky tails into a fan formation and do their strut for several hours either in the early morning or evening during the spring. But get this - despite such a complicated and detailed mating ritual, only the alpha and maybe one other top dog in the roost will actually breed. That means that allllll of the hens in the whole roost will only mate with one or two dominant males. Crazy right?
And their very picky and particular habits don’t end with mating, either. The Sage Grouse was extremely threatened, more so than any other critter on this lineup, which is basically because of how persnickety they are. Between 1988 and 2012, the Sage Grouse population declined by 98%. Let that soak in: NINETY EIGHT PERCENT. Completely extinguished from 5 states altogether, the USFWS basically declared this a full on emergency in order to protect them. Their population plummeted mostly because of loss of habitat, but remember how alarmingly particular they are when it comes to? Yeah, the same goes with creating their habitats under a very specific sagebrush plant. They depend on the sage for nesting and it’s a main component of their diet, but they’ll only settle for a very particular type of sagebrush - mountain sagebrush to be exact. They can’t even digest certain types of seeds due to a non-existent muscle in their throats, and will even seek out very specific, hard-to-find plants right before laying their eggs.
I don’t mean to ruffle any feathers here, but i do wonder if they weren’t so finicky what their population status would look like. Though considering adding the Sage Grouse to the endangered species list in 2000, massive conservation efforts led to decent stabilization. As it stands, the Sage Grouse is a protected game bird in Nevada and still considered to be a threatened species on an international level.
While you can technically find them in most places throughout the Silver State, these feathered friends are pro status when it comes to blending in with the landscape. They’re pretty tough to eye down, making a successful spotting that much more gratifying. Buckaroos in Nevada’s Smith Creek Valley received an award for their stewardship efforts, restoring miles and miles of rangeland that proves to be an ace habitat for this eclectic brood. If it were me, I’d think this is a mighty fine place to dial in that spotting scope.
TravelNevada BONUS POINTS: AMERICAN WHITE PELICAN - STILLWATER
When traveling through the quiet agro community of Fallon, I’d be willing to make a high stakes bet that you’d never, in a million years guess that a mega-important national wildlife refuge lies just to the north. Yep, Stillwater National Wildlife Refuge is only about 20 minutes away from Highway 50, and such a critical habitat that it’s ranked of global importance for migratory birds. There are over 230 bird species found here, one of which is none other than the enchanting American White Pelican. You can totally bet on seeing American White Pelicans at Stillwater during their long distance migrations, but the amazing thing about this NWR is the fact that it’s a three-part complex. Another section - Anaho Island at Pyramid Lake - is another portion of Stillwater and one of the largest breeding colonies in the United States. A staggering 8,000 - 10,000 pelicans typically cruise over to Anaho once they’ve returned from their wintering grounds in southern California and Baja, Mexico. A bit pterodactyl-esque at first glance, it won’t be a surprise when you figure this out: their wingspan is a whopping 9.5 feet.