Vernal wetlands, marshes, swamps, estuaries, and salt flats can appear (and smell) unappealing to the eye (and nose). But their value to the ecology, biodiversity, and therefore the wildlife biologist, public, and future generations is immeasurable. Wetlands of all types are the “tropical rain forests” of the temperate landscape. Unfortunately most of us do not have an eye for their value. I would say this is similar for having an eye for the beauty of the desert, the value of a sea of sagebrush. To train that eye I recommend getting out to Fallon, Nevada then venturing on to the Stillwater National Wildlife Refuge.
The roads switch from pavement to hard pack clay and gravel. There is a network of roads that guides visitors from pond to pond with frequent pullouts for wildlife viewing. The complex is divided into hunting/ no hunting areas as well as boatable and boat-free areas on the ponds. Maps throughout the park describe these regulations.
I used the main entrance and parking area to stage my loop through the park. The roads are flat. After 35+ miles of exploring the park I had climbed less than 200′. The main roads are very high quality. I would have even felt comfortable on my road bike with 700×25 tires. The less traveled roads in the north end of the park are a little rougher, passable on a road bike but more comfortable on the fatter tires of a gravel/cyclocross/touring bike. My route through the park was mostly haphazard with the idea of returning to explore my last intersection if the roads ahead did not hold my interest. The road ahead always holds my interest, I rarely make it back to passed up roads until my next visit. I worked my way through the center of the park then made a counter clockwise loop to back to my start.
My first impression was the smell of the ocean. The brackish water marshes on top of the alkali playas smelled like the wetland estuaries of the Pacific coast. Then there was the noise at the intersection of Hunter, Navy Cabin, and Center Roads. Here you are between Lead and Tule Lakes and you hear the birds long before you see them. Later on Center Rd a flock of herons flew over and it was absolutely stunning. These birds are beautiful standing solitary along rivers, borrow ditches, and other wetlands but I was not prepared for the view of a dozen or so flying overhead.
After my loop I continued on East County Rd between the refuge and the Stillwater Range. My plan was to make my way into the park at Nutgrass Lake. But I was distracted by a road sign leading me into the Stillwater Range through Mountain Wells Canyon. This road was considerably rougher and gained in elevation. Like so many mountain roads this last year it seemed to spend part of the year as a wash but overall the conditions were fine for a gravel bike. This canyon shows the diversity of geology for the area as well as demonstrates ranching in the area. I had ridden a canyon to the north of Mountain Wells and it too was used by a local rancher. I will definitely return to ride this road through to Dixie Valley.
On my return I stopped off at the Overlook park on Stillwater Point Reservoir. I am a sucker for interpretive trails, kiosks, and self-guided tours. They all appeal to my inner geek. From the parking area I road through an interpretive trail that gave a timeline for the area. Then I climbed to an elevated viewing deck that had even more information on what biology I could expect to witness. I was very pleased.
Looking at the big picture, the Stillwater National Wildlife Complex can be a stopping point for someone on a big west-east tour of northern Nevada along Highway 50. Now I am trying to conceptualize a big north-south Nevada tour. I imagine the East County Rd will be a segment from Lovelock to Fallon. Regardless showcasing a wetland in the desert with such importance to world bird populations has its intrinsic value.