Ash Meadows a haven for native plants, animals

A beautiful destination for a cool-season excursion, Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge offers hiking, picnicking and wildlife watching. It encompasses 23,000 acres of desert uplands and streams, ponds, reservoirs and wetlands created by more than 50 springs, mostly warm water.

The largest oasis remaining in the Mojave Desert, Ash Meadows is home to diverse species of animals and plants, including 300 kinds of birds, both resident and migratory. It is one of several refuges in Southern Nevada collectively administered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as the Desert National Wildlife Refuge Complex.

Ash Meadows is about 100 miles from Las Vegas, by either of two approaches, in southern Nye County near the Nevada-California border. Las Vegas residents living in the northern part of the valley save time by following U.S. Highway 95 north to the junction with state Route 373, the Amargosa Junction. Drive south nine miles to the main refuge entrance and follow Spring Meadow Road east five miles to refuge headquarters at Crystal Spring.

Those who live in the southern part of the valley can follow state Route 160 west over Mountain Springs Summit and down into the Pahrump Valley. Drive north through Pahrump and watch for the turnoff onto Bell Vista Road three miles from town. This road takes you to the refuge’s southern entrance. You can follow a gravel road north through the refuge about 10 miles to Crystal Spring or continue on pavement to the main entrance. To remain on the paved approach, stay on Bell Vista Road for six miles to Death Valley Junction, then turn north and go eight miles to the entrance.

You will pass the historic Amargosa Opera House and Hotel at Death Valley Junction. Stop to see the murals that decorate the interior hotel walls. Occasionally open for performances, the opera house is also adorned with paintings by resident dancer and artist Marta Becket. Just over the state line in Nevada, the Longstreet Casino and Hotel offers a cafe and a small RV park, the closest place to the refuge for overnighters.

Open daily from dawn to dusk the refuge offers several points of interest, including three areas located in fragile terrain that are reached by boardwalks. A small information center and gift and book shop welcomes visitors at Crystal Spring. It is open weekdays from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. and on weekends when staff or volunteers are available. The facility will one day be replaced by a larger visitor center now in the planning process. An informational kiosk near the parking lot provides an introduction to the refuge. A picnic area and restrooms are located nearby.

Follow the boardwalk as it meanders toward Crystal Spring, where warm water fills a beautiful aquamarine pool. It overflows into a little stream, reached by several detours from the main boardwalk. Flitting about in the water, tiny silvery fish thrive in the natural flow. The 2-inch aquatic residents are Amargosa pupfish, one of 12 endangered or threatened species — the highest number for any refuge in the country — protected at Ash Meadows since the refuge’s creation in 1984.

Because of its isolation, the refuge is home to at least 30 plants and animals adapted to this unique area and found nowhere else. The stream feeds into Crystal Reservoir. Reached by a gravel road, it is a good place to watch many kinds of waterfowl, shore birds and various hawks.

Three miles north of Crystal Spring, another boardwalk accesses Longstreet Spring and the restored cabin of Jack Longstreet, a pioneer rancher and gunhand of mysterious origin and dubious reputation. The third boardwalk takes visitors into the history of the native people who inhabited the area long before white settlers arrived. Many generations of native cultures occupied Point of Rocks. They raised corn, beans, squash and sunflowers and harvested mesquite beans and other plants.

Watch for the turnoff to Point of Rocks and King’s Pool as you follow the road south of Crystal Spring. Intertwining boardwalk trails, wildlife-themed sculptures on sign pillars, decorative ironwork, picnic shelters and restrooms enhance the area.

Margo Bartlett Pesek’s column appears on Sundays.

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