Tucked in the northwestern corner of Nevada is a vast, rugged landscape where equestrians will find wildness, solitude, and good riding as far as the eye can see. Sheldon National Wildlife Refuge is 900 square miles of wildlife habitat in far northern Washoe County and Humboldt County along the Oregon border. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service manages this land, which is home to large herds of pronghorn antelope, mule deer, scattered bands of bighorn sheep, and a variety of other species.

The entrance to Badger Camp with the corral in the background.

Sheldon is big, open country. Rimrock tablelands and rolling hills of sagebrush and mountain mahogany hide dramatic gorges, rock formations, and lush springs. Elevations across the Refuge range from 4,100 feet to 7,200 feet and annual precipitation rarely amounts to more than a dozen inches. Despite the harsh, remote environment, Sheldon has a fascinating history. It was home to many Native American villages and later was a hotbed of activity for cattle and sheep ranchers.

Today, Sheldon National Wildlife Refuge is popular with hunters, wildlife photographers, rock collectors, and other outdoor enthusiasts. Horseback riding is allowed throughout most of the Refuge and is well worth the journey to this remote corner of the state.

Rock formations on the trail.

Camp

Horse camping is allowed at all designated campgrounds within Sheldon, but only two have stock facilities: Badger and Fish Spring. Both campgrounds have corrals available. Badger’s corral is very large, wood, with two gates, and is easily divided for multiple horses. Fish Spring’s corral is a little smaller, with three rows of heavy metal cable around the perimeter and one gate. Pelletized feed or certified weed free hay is required in Sheldon.

Badger and Fish Spring each have a pit toilet, fire rings, and several campsites. Technically, there is no water available at either campground. Badger does have a stock tank, but the pipe is broken. The Refuge Manager tells me they plan to fix it. Fish Spring does have a water spigot, but when I visited the flow was pretty minimal. There is no trash collection at either site, nor is there septic dumping facilities anywhere within the Refuge, so pack it in and pack it out.

Personally, I think Badger is the better of the two equestrian campgrounds. It is tucked back against a big rock wall with aspen groves and is quite lush because of the amount of water in the area. Badger is well off the main road. Fish Spring is more exposed. But, both campsites offer great access for riding.

If you plan to horse camp at sites other than Badger or Fish Spring you will need to bring panels or a portable electric corral to set up your own pen. Most of the other campgrounds in the Refuge offer fire rings and pit toilets, though a few primitive camping areas have only fire rings. The Fish and Wildlife Service also issues backcountry permits to camp off the road or outside of a designated campground.

Plenty of dirt roads throughout Sheldon make for good riding.

Ride

Equestrians will love the riding at Sheldon! There are no designated trails or routes per se, but dirt roads provide easy routes for riding through hundreds of thousands of acres of diverse terrain. This is the heart of the high desert. Sheldon’s sagebrush-steppe ecosystem features narrow canyons that empty into rolling valleys and broad flat tables that end abruptly in vertical cliffs. The Refuge is dotted with the remnants of old homesteads and ranches, along with cabins built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s and 40s.

Equestrians will find the riding to be enjoyable and interesting in every area. There is enough in Sheldon to explore on long or short rides. Footing is generally easy on roads, but boots or shoes are recommended in the backcountry.

Other Things to Do

Sheldon is well-known among rock collectors for its fire opals. The Royal Peacock Opal Mine is a private operation within the Refuge that is open to the public as a pay-to-dig mine. They offer bank digging along with tailings and mine dump digging. Elsewhere in the Refuge you can remove up to seven pounds of rocks per day for personal use, by hand from the surface only.

Geothermal warm springs are located at the Virgin Valley Campground. The pond is 35 feet in diameter with waist deep water. Temperatures in the pond hover around the middle to upper 80s. Next to the swimming pond is a shower house with two constant-flow showers using water piped in from the pond.

Boating is allowed at Big Spring Reservoir, Catnip Reservoir, and Dufurrena Ponds. Only non-motorized and electric motors are permitted. Fishing is allowed in Dufurrena Ponds, Catnip Reservoir, Big Spring Reservoir, and McGee Pond. Cutthroat may be caught during a limited season at Catnip Reservoir. The Dufurrena Ponds have bass, crappie, and several other species of warm water fish. Big Spring Reservoir is stocked with trout when conditions allow.

If You Go

There is no fee to access Sheldon National Wildlife Refuge or the camp. The Refuge is open year round, but winter is prohibitive for most activities. Nighttime temperatures typically start to drop below freezing in the fall. Dogs must be leashed or confined in the Refuge, except for dogs used for bird hunting.

The Refuge is easily accessible from Highway 140, north of Winnemucca. There are no services in the Refuge. Gas and sundries are available in Denio Junction, about 35 miles from the east boundary on Highway 140. Gas is also available in Adel, Oregon (23 miles from the west boundary), Lakeview, Oregon (60 miles from the north boundary), Cedarville, California (46 miles from the west boundary), and Gerlach, Nevada (70 miles from the south boundary).

There is no cell service in the Refuge. Be sure to carry backcountry supplies (shovel, spare tire, first aid kit, emergency food, and extra water).

Learn More: https://www.fws.gov/refuge/sheldon/

Get There

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Story and Photos by Samantha Szesciorka

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