Brake for Nature

Bighorn Sheep at Kofa National Wildlife Refuge

Desert bighorn sheep are elusive animals that live in extremely steep and rocky desert mountains of southwestern North America, and they blend in well with their environment. Populations have declined significantly over the past 100 years, due to competition with wild horses and burros for water and forage and diseases from domestic sheep and cattle. For these reasons, sighting a desert bighorn sheep is a rare and special experience.

In Search of Bighorn Sheep

Michael and I have been looking for bighorn sheep for years, in Anza Borrego Desert, at the Whitewater Preserve near Palm Springs, and in Kofa National Wildlife Refuge in Arizona. We were lucky enough to see a couple of bighorn sheep at a great distance high up on a mountaintop at the Whitewater Preserve several years ago. Michael also had a very special and unexpected experience when he worked on a job in Henderson, Nevada for a few months back in 2014. There he was able to get up close to a herd of bighorn sheep and get some amazing photographs, which I will share later in this post.

We visited Kofa National Wildlife Refuge in southwestern Arizona for a couple of days in January of 2012. We thoroughly enjoyed the beautiful desert and jagged mountains, but we were also hoping to see some bighorn sheep. Kofa, short for King of Arizona (a former gold mine on the refuge), became a national wildlife refuge in 1939 after a campaign by the Boy Scouts to save the bighorn sheep in the area, because their population was declining. Kofa NWR has since served as a source population for reintroducing bighorn sheep to other parts of Arizona and neighboring states where they have been extirpated. We thought we had a very good chance to see them here. However, we did not see a single one. They were probably high up in the mountains somewhere out of sight.

Boondocking in Kofa

Now that we are traveling full time for a little while, we decided to spend a full week at Kofa boondocking just off of Palm Canyon Road. This road leads into the middle of the refuge, where there are some of those jagged desert mountains perfect for bighorn sheep.

Daytime view of the Kofa Mountains from Palm Canyon Road

Kofa Mountains from Palm Canyon Road

View of a section of the desert at Kofa NWR with a dense stand of "Teddy Bear" Cholla cacti

“Teddy Bear” Cholla cacti at Kofa NWR

View of the expansive desert with the jagged Kofa Mountains in the distance and big, puffy clouds in the sky

Kofa Mountains from our campsite

Sunset on the Kofa Mountains causing the jagged peaks to glow a reddish orange

Sunset on the Kofa Mountains

Our truck and trailer parked at Kofa NWR with the Kofa Mountains glowing orange in the sunset in the background and a sky full of clouds Dramatic sunset lighting up rafts of clouds in pinks, reds, and oranges, over our campsite at Kofa NWR

Signs of Sheep in Kofa Queen Canyon

On our first day exploring the refuge, we drove a very slow five miles (it took us about an hour) down Kofa Queen Canyon Road, a narrow dirt road more appropriate for jeeps than our full-sized pickup truck. I had to jump out a few times to hold shrubs back to keep them from scratching the side of the truck. When we arrived at the canyon entrance, we parked and hiked about 2.5 miles into the canyon. The canyon is beautiful with brown jagged peaks and rock formations on either side and the bright green Sonoran desert plant life scattered across the canyon floor. We saw bighorn sheep tracks and scat, but no sheep.

Dark brown rock formations and bright green desert vegetation in Kofa Queen Canyon

Kofa Queen Canyon

Rock formation and saguaro cacti in Kofa Queen Canyon

Cactus growing out of rock with long needles glowing yellow and orange in the sun Rock that looks like a skull with a cave in its mouth in Kofa Queen Canyon

Female Costa's hummingbird sitting on a branch

Costa’s Hummingbird

Agave and cacti in Kofa Queen Canyon "Teddy bear" cholla with rock formations in the background in Kofa Queen CanyonChristina on the trail in Kofa Queen Canyon Balanced rock with intensely patterned sky behind it at Kofa Queen Canyon

Bighorn sheep track in the dirt with Michael's finger adjacent for size

Bighorn sheep track

Bighorn sheep scat (many "pebbles") on the rocky trail at Kofa

Bighorn sheep scat on the trail

We knew that our chances of actually seeing bighorn sheep were low, but we were still hoping at least one would pop its head over one of the peaks.

Exploring the Kofa Mountains after a Storm

After that first hike, we suffered through a full day and night of 30 mph winds with 40-50 mph gusts blowing sand at our trailer (the mountains were no longer visible with all the desert dust in the air), and then a full day and night of rain. Following the storm, we ventured out in the afternoon for a walk. It was a chilly day for this part of the world. We had enjoyed a couple of weeks in the mid-seventies in the deserts, but on this day, the high was 62 degrees Farenheit, and the wind made it feel a lot cooler.

We planned to hike up Palm Canyon, but since we had done that the last time we visited Kofa, we decided to instead take a trail that led us along the perimeter of the mountains. We had to sometimes squeeze past thorny cat’s claw shrubs and carefully step over cholla cactus bits, but the views of the desert and the cliffs next to us were amazing. Since it had rained, there were even a couple of waterfalls on the cliffs. We watched rock wrens bouncing up and down on the rocks and discovered desert woodrat (packrat) dens. We continued to scan the mountaintops just in case there were sheep.

Edge of the Kofa Mountains and the desert floor viewed from the perimeter trail Narrow waterfall coming down a crevice in the cliffside of Kofa Mountains Christina hiking the perimeter trail next to a steep cliff of the Kofa Mountains Desert floor and rock formations in the distance on the perimeter trail at Kofa Dark cliff of the Kofa Mountains reflecting sunlight

Barrel cactus with long red spines and the desert landscape in the distance at Kofa

Collection of branches and cholla cactus bits under a boulder making up a woodrat nest

Desert woodrat nest under a boulder (note the cholla spines for protection!)

Part of the desert woodrat nest under the boulder that is used as a latrine (pile of scat)

Desert woodrat nest and latrine

Bighorn Sheep!

Then we came to a place where the steep cliff gave way to a small canyon with a rock outcrop on the side. Michael was scanning with his binoculars and excitedly, but not too loudly, called out “bighorn sheep!” I looked up at the top of the rock outcrop with my binoculars, and there were several ewes and a couple of kids standing right there on the very top, their silhouettes against the sky. A mature ewe stood on a ledge just below the top. We were thrilled! The storm must have pushed them down to this lower elevation, and they were taking advantage of the calmer day to graze on the vegetation here.

Christina standing on the perimeter trail looking up at the bighorn sheep through her binoculars

Cliff where we spotted the ewes at Kofa

Can you spot the ewes on the rock outcrop in the middle of this photo?

We heard the sound of rock crunching or scratching off to the left, and all the ewes looked down into the canyon next to them. We looked over but didn’t see anything at first.

Landscape where we saw the rams, though you really can't see them without binoculars

Can you spot the sheep in this photo? They really blend in!

We picked up our binoculars again, and there were the rams. First, we saw three young rams, one with tags in its ears. Then we began to spot the fully-grown rams with their thick, curled horns. More kept coming into view from behind rocks and ocotillo. It’s funny how you don’t see them at first, and then suddenly they begin to stand out as you train your eyes. Some of the rams were rubbing themselves against the rocks and stretching out their long hind legs.

We felt lucky to see these desert mountains the way they should be, with these majestic creatures grazing along the rocky slopes. We couldn’t pull our eyes away. Our arms grew tired from holding up our binoculars! The only downside was that Michael didn’t bring his camera, but maybe if he had, we would not have been so lucky. He did get some photos with his iPhone looking through his binoculars. We kept taking one last look, and then finally we turned and walked our way back along the trail.

View through Michael's binoculars of the ewes and kids on top of the cliff at Kofa View through Michael's binoculars of the ewes and kids on top of the cliff at Kofa View through Michael's binoculars of one of the rams at Kofa NWR, Arizona

Lucky Day #2

The next day we hiked in the opposite direction along the perimeter of the mountains. Sure enough, there was a bighorn sheep (a ewe) standing on a ledge about halfway up one of the steep mountainsides, her silhouette against the sky. A little more investigation revealed several more ewes and a couple of kids up on top of a ledge above her. This time Michael brought his camera along, and he got some great photos of the sheep!

Bighorn ewe standing on top of a cliff peering down at us Bighorn ewe turning her head to look back Bighorn ewe standing on a lower rock staring at us Two bighorn ewes, one eating and one walking

Close-ups of Bighorn in Nevada

In addition to these photos from Kofa NWR, we also want to share with you the AMAZING photos Michael got of bighorn sheep in Nevada. That way you can get an up-close look at these majestic animals. You can learn more about the desert bighorn sheep at the California Department of Fish and Wildlife website. If you ever want to see some desert bighorn sheep yourself, make a trip to Kofa National Wildlife Refuge, and be sure to walk the trail on the north side of the Palm Canyon trailhead parking lot that skirts along the perimeter of the Kofa Mountains.  Have patience.  It may take a few trips and a few hikes to see them.

Headshot of a desert bighorn ewe

Desert bighorn ewe – note the lightweight, half-curl horns and more slender head

A group of ewes and rams standing on a rocky hillside Close-up of desert bighorn rams

Desert bighorn ewe and kid standing on a rocky outcrop

Desert bighorn ewe and kid

Desert bighorn ram walking on a rocky hillside

Desert bighorn ram – note the thick, fully curled horns

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