In the far west desert of Utah lies a beautiful oasis known as Fish Springs. This wildlife refuge is located about 100 kilometers (60 miles) south of US Interstate 80 near the Nevada border. It is not accessible directly from Interstate 80 and requires many miles of backcountry travel. The springs are fed from ancient natural aquifers that lie deep below the salty western Utah desert. In fact not many miles to the north, you’ll find the southern end of the Bonneville Salt Flats.
In September of 2007 I decided to take my Jeep out on the old Pony Express Road to visit Fish Springs. The journey is quite long – about 113 miles (181 kilometers) across unpaved roads and harsh, rocky terrain. This adventure was definitely suited for a Jeep. The low-range 4 wheel drive did come in quite handy a few places, more to control my speed on exposed downhill descents on washboarded dirt roads.
Fish Springs is an important nesting and breeding ground for many waterfowl, and it is also an important way-stop for some of the birds long migratory journeys from summer feeding locations in the northern US and Canada to their winter migration grounds far to the south. The area is so critical that it was protected as a national wildlife refuge in 1959! However, the springs are in grave danger as Nevada has plans to pump water from these ancient aquifers a few hundred miles down to Las Vegas to feed the continued urban sprawl.
For many years, Utah’s governors have prohibited any drilling under or across the state line to preserve these critical aquifers that feed not only Fish Springs but also numerous ranches and native homes in Utah’s western desert. But a few years ago, the current governor relented to Nevada’s pressure. So, who knows how long this desert oasis will survive? This is really sad because most of that water in those aquifers was deposited during the last ice age when ancient Lake Bonneville covered most of northern Utah west of the Wasatch Mountains clear into Nevada and southern Idaho. Once the water is gone; it is gone.
Fish Springs, the Great Salt Lake, and Utah Lake are remnants of old Lake Bonneville. The Salt Flats of extreme western Utah are salt deposits left behind by Lake Bonneville and are still being fed as the Great Basin has no natural water outlets. So, not only is Fish Springs an important wildlife habitat, it is also of great geologic and historic importance. Losing those aquifers would be a real disaster.
The journey to Fish Springs is not easy no matter what route you choose. The western Utah desert is a very harsh environment, and the roads are just as harsh. While one could probably take a two wheel drive passenger vehicle on the Pony Express Trail, I certainly would not recommend it. The roads are very rough and washboarded in many places. The west desert landscape has numerous ancient volcanic areas, and the roads through there are covered in very sharp rocks which can easily shred a normal passenger car tire. And 100 miles of that rough terrain may damage many normal cars. There are also places where after a rainstorm the road will be covered in deep sand, so getting stuck or stranded is quite possible. And, there are a few steep downgrades in extremely washboarded conditions that make a controlled descent quite tricky with limited traction.
For the journey I would definitely recommend a sold, off-road suitable vehicle such as a Jeep, truck or an off-road capable SUV like a Land Rover. Forget about the Honda CRVs, Toyota RAV4s, Kia Sorento, etc. Those are just glorified passenger cars. The first 50 miles of the Pony Express road is commonly trafficked as backcountry roads go, but after that, you may not see another vehicle for several hours. I would recommend carrying spare fuel and camping gear. There are no gas stations out there. Period.
Also, I would highly recommend a good backcountry navigation system and some good old-fashioned maps; and make sure you know how to use them. There are endless trails out there, and a lot of the route is very poorly marked.
Arriving into the Fish Springs oasis after that long, harsh desert drive is almost unbelievable. For more miles that you want to count is just endless desert — dried grass, mesquite, cactus and rock, and then suddenly you see this water — lots of water, marshes and green! Out there the green marsh grass just looks so incredibly vibrant and lush — green!
In the winter season, Fish Springs becomes a popular hunting ground for mallard ducks. The springs hosts a few duck species (mallards and pintails), egrets and avocets as well as many other birds.
While I was checking out some of the bird pond areas I saw this little coyote running along in the grass not far from me. He was definitely trying to hunt something. I never saw what he was stalking, but he did allow me a nice shot.
Unfortunately I did not get any decent waterfowl shots. It was my fault; they just turned out lousy. But I did take quite a few photos along the way on my journey. One of the things that I saw was this really strange flowering plant. I have no idea what it is, and if anyone can identify it, please tell me.
Due to the length of the journey, I decided to camp out in the desert near Fish Springs. I didn’t arrive out there until quite late in the afternoon and wanted to spend some good time exploring the refuge the next day before heading back to civilization. Actually, I drove westward out of the wildlife refuge and around another small mountain to find a nice place to pitch my tent a ways off of the trail.
Here are a couple of pretty good photographs of some pronghorns I found on the way back home closer to Simpson Springs — an old Pony Express station.
Pronghorns are known here in the US as antelopes, even though they are not. These are quite interesting creatures. They are incredibly fast runners, able to outrun all of their natural predators — cougars, wolves and coyotes. The thinking is that these animals are left overs from the time of the last ice age when much larger and faster predators roamed North America, such as saber tooth cats and dire wolves. No matter the history, they are really beautiful.
Here is another photograph I took near Lookout Pass which really separates the more remote west desert from the closer portions of the Pony Express Trail near the Wasatch Front and the Dugway Proving Grounds.
And as happens in the Intermountain West, weather can change rapidly. Here is a shot of an incoming rainstorm that I took near the eastern end of the Pony Express Trail not far from Faust, Utah.
This has been a fun trip down memory lane. It’s been nearly 13 years since I was out at Fish Springs. I really hope you have enjoyed my little tour of Fish Springs National Wildlife Refuge. If you go, bring your camera and be prepared to be awed!
Thank you very much for visiting my blog, and please remember to make time for your own adventures — it’s good for the soul.