The visitor center for the Desert in National Wildlife Refuge at Corn Creek is a modern, large building, which is usually closed in the summer. To the south of the visitor center is the Richardson ranch and stagecoach buildings, along with additional structures needed for the park service. Established in 1936, the wildlife refuge covers land of historical use and significance to the Nuwuvi (Southern Paiute) people, and petroglyphs from this culture dot areas of the refuge. The lower elevations are made up of arid desert environments, with the Corn Creek and visitor center area built around a series of springs bringing rare water to the landscape, forming an oasis. At the higher elevations, pinyon, juniper, and bristlecone pine grow. Wildflowers and over 320 species of birds are other features of the refuge.
Trails and Birdwatching
Even though the visitor center is usually closed during the summer, the bathrooms are open, there is a fountain to refill water bottles and the side awning is cool and a good place to enjoy breaks and lunch. You have to pass though this area to access the paths and orchard behind the visitor center.
Most of the attractions around the visitor center are accessible within a very short distance of the visitor center. For birdwatching, the most important areas are the old fruit and nut orchard, the pond and associated streams and finally the short named hiking loops where you can find otherwise unusual birds, an eagle nest and a variety of other interesting lizards, bugs and plants.
The pond represents one of the park service’s oldest mandates, together with Spring Mountain Ranch, Ash Meadow’s Devils Hole and a few other locations around Las Vegas. That mandate is to preserve the highly endangered Pupfish (Cyprinodon) and Poolfish (Empetrichthys) that live in springs, streams and pools in the Mojave Desert. Corn Creek is the last place in the world where the endangered Pahrump Poolfish (Empetrichthys latos latos) survives. In 1971 the last of the Pahrump Poolfish (Empetrichthys latos latos) were moved from Manse spring in Pahrump to Corn Creek since the population growth in Pahrump had lowered the water level, drying out Manse Spring. Originally, the corn creek pond had been more natural body of water with a dirt bottom and reeds around the edge. In 1976 the poolfish were removed, the pond drained and the cattails burned to improve the environment for the fish. Eventually the pool became the concrete bowl you see today. Maybe better for the fish, not so much for the birds.
As a result, the birds more often use the stream above and below the concrete basin for water. Supposedly, there are Poolfish in the stream and there are signs encouraging visitors to not “ditch a fish” (not to dump pet goldfish) into the water.
If you are a bird watcher, you will spend a good amount of time here. The old orchard is split in two by a wooden fence. Visitors are allowed only on one side, resulting in some significant issues for bird photography. When you photograph birds in the orchard and especially on the two mulberry trees at the end, you will be shooting into the sun. For that reason, I always use a fill flash in the orchard to get better photos.
Several easy to moderate walking and hiking trails begin immediately behind the visitor center and can be accessed at anytime. These are the Jackrabbit Loop, Bighorn Loop with Whispering Ben Trail spur, Coyote Loop, and Birdsong Loop. None of the walking loops are far from the visitor center and all are easy hikes. The farther you stray from water, the fewer birds you will see and the more you will see lizards. Some of the highlights of the back side of the Coyote Loop are bird nests, including a large nest that is shared by ravens and Cooper’s hawks.
There is also a picnic area with 6 picnic tables. This is also a nice place to relax after walking around on the various hiking loops. It is shady and usually pretty cool even on a hot day. One nice thing is that this provides a comfortable place to see otherwise unavailable areas, particularly looking for ground birds. In particular, there is a Spotted Towhee (Pipilo maculatus) that is usually somewhere close to the picnic area.
Railroad Tie Cabin
Corn Creek was a private ranch from 1916 until 1939, when the federal government bought the property. As you walk around, seek out the Railroad Tie Cabin on a side trail off the Coyote Loop. It is estimated to have been built in the 1920s of railroad ties salvaged from a line that operated from Las Vegas to Beatty from 1906 to 1918. Railroad tie construction was a fairly common form of folk architecture in early Southern Nevada, but this is one of the few places you can still examine an example.
Pahrump Poolfish Refugium
Near the cabin is the Pahrump Poolfish Refugium. Here, you can look through the viewing windows at the small fish living in a man-made environment much like the spring where they originally lived. Honestly though, it is really hard to see anything. That spring ran dry, and this structure holds most of the world’s few remaining survivors of this species, Pahrump Poolfish (Empetrichthys latos latos). The refugium isolates and protects them from non-native predators such as crayfish and bullfrogs that were illegally introduced here at Corn Creek and many other places in Southern Nevada.
The Hiking Loops
As you venture farther away from the visitor center, you will begin to find yourself in a desert environment with pockets of greenery. The birds that you see will transition to desert birds, such as Phainopepla. Even though there may not be surface water in these locations, you will be able to see how easy it is to identify pockets of water below the surface, just as the Nuwuvi (Southern Paiute), did in the millennia before European conquest. Identifying vegetation associated with water in the desert can be the difference between life and death, if you are thirsty.
Desert National Wildlife Refuge
Only two roads lead away from the visitor center to the rest of the refuge. Both of these roads require four wheel drive vehicles and high clearance. The two roads are Alamo Road to the left and Mormon Well Road to the right, leading to the destinations noted on the sign. It is recommended that first time explorers start from this side of the refuge rather than attempting passage from Alamo. Desert National Wildlife Refuge encompasses over 1.5 million acres (more than 2,300 sq mi) of the southern Nevada desert, making it the largest national wildlife refuge in the continental United States. The refuge contains six different mountain ranges rising to over 10,000 feet in elevation and makes up one of the largest intact blocks of desert bighorn sheep habitat in the southwest. The land is of historical use and significance to the Nuwuvi (Southern Paiute) people, and petroglyphs from this culture dot areas of the refuge. The lower elevations are made up of arid desert environments, with the Corn Creek and visitor center area built around a series of springs bringing rare water to the landscape, forming an oasis. At the higher elevations, pinyon, juniper, and bristlecone pine grow. Wildflowers and over 320 species of bird are other features of the refuge.
How to Get There
The primary gateway for visitors wanting to step into the refuge is the Corn Creek Field Station and Desert National Wildlife Refuge Visitor Center, located about 30 miles north of downtown Las Vegas. To get there, you need to take either Interstate 95 or Interstate 215 to Durango in Centennial Hills. Continue northwest on Interstate 95 past Kyle Canyon and the tribal golf course to turn right after the sign to Desert National Wildlife Refuge. If you get to Lee Canyon, you have gone too far. Once you turn off onto Desert National Wildlife Refuge road, you will go about 2 miles straight ahead to the Corn Creek Visitor center. The first time, it is easy to miss the road, but once you find it the rest is easy.
Floyd Lamb Park
While visiting the Desert national wildlife refuge, you might also consider visiting Floyd Lamb Park in Centennial Hills. It is just off of Durango, with an entrance fee of $6 for a one time entry. They have ponds, a good selection of other birds, and as an added attraction, burrowing owls. Ask at the entrance for directions to the owls.