Last Sunday, my new buddy Joseph and I drove the long and lonely road out to Fish Springs National Wildlife Refuge. The refuge surrounds a natural artesian spring that bubbles up in the middle of the desert creating a paradoxical lush wetland in the middle of the West Desert. I had not been so far down the old pony express road. I tried back in April – see previous post here – but we only made it as far as the Simpson Springs Pony Express Cabin because the road was quite saturated with snowmelt. The road still has the fossilized remnants of our very wet spring.
The refuge itself attracts a wide variety of migratory songbirds and waterfoul. Additionally, it also protects three species of fish – the least chub, the Utah chub and the speckled dace. There is also a large population of larger mammals including coyotes and antelope, we saw both loping through the reeds as we hiked. The water flows through the broad flat basin formed by the Fish Springs Range, the Dugway Range and the Drum Mountains; this is classic Great Basin topography with dry ranges rising from broad flats. The northern end of the refuge ends in a broad salt flat that marks the southern end of the Dugway Proving Ground.
The area makes for pleasant hiking because it is flat and even this late in the spring, the temperature did not get much above 80°. I did not expect to see much wildlife since we were hiking in the heat of the day and it is late in the migratory season. I was quite surprised to see as much birdlife as we did. We noticed several avocets running in the flats and probing the sand for insects. There were also a few species of ducks, egrets, and geese. We also saw a killdeer couple doing a strutting mating dance. There were also the usual suspects who are always gathered in any flat grassy area in the west. My favorite of these is the western meadowlark whose call is my favorite.
The trip out to Fish Springs reminds me how remote much of western Utah is. The entire expanse north of US 6 to I 80 is unsettled. There is some ranching that goes on, but there are not permanent settlements and very few roads. Services are also non-existent. I am using the opportunity of a mild spring and early summer to explore some of this region. The Great Basin offers some new landscapes for me to explore. I am far more used to the high alpine environments of the central Rockies or redrock canyon country of western Colorado and southern Utah. It is amazing that a large expanse of this continent is dominated by the repetitive landscape of the Great Basin. The continental undulation writhes from here in Salt Lake City all the way to the far side of Death Valley. The ranges around Fish Springs do not appear all that different from the ones I saw back in January in Death Valley.
It is almost impossible to imagine the great inland seas that once filled all of these valleys. The last remnants of these massive waters remain in places like Fish Springs, or Great Salt Lake itself. We live in this valley only by the luck of good timing and geology. In the longer history the remaining waters will either dry up or increase to once again flood the valleys.