Shhh… Don’t tell anyone, but there is a spot close to Las Vegas where you are guaranteed* to spot wild Bighorn Sheep. And it’s only about a half hour drive from the bright lights of the Strip!
Many people head out to the Valley of Fire State Park to see the amazing rock formations and search for Bighorn, and of course you can often spot them there. But you’ll have no guarantee* of a sighting, like at most of the locations around Nevada where they roam. But at “Bighorn Park,” you are (almost) guaranteed* a chance to not just see Bighorn, but actually get quite near the animals!
OK, so technically, “Bighorn Park” is my personal, unofficial name! The official location is Hemenway Valley Park, and since we are getting technical, it’s actually located in Boulder City, Nevada, not Las Vegas (fun fact: Boulder City is just one of two cities in Nevada that bans gambling!). Like most city parks it has large trees, shaded grassy areas and covered gazebos to enjoy a picnic. There is a playground for the children, and basketball and tennis courts nearby. And it boasts a wonderful view overlooking Lake Mead.
But for wildlife photographers, or anyone wanting to spot Bighorn Sheep, it’s definitely worth a visit.
There is a large herd of Bighorn that comes out of the desert and lays in the cool grass and the shade of the large trees. It’s a perfect spot for them to cool off and enjoy a break from the desert heat. While you may get lucky and catch some of the Bighorn roaming the natural desert at the edges of the park or munching on the bushes, most of the time you’ll find them lounging in the grass which means you’ll need to get creative if you want to try and make your photos look like they were not taken in the middle of a city park!
Usually wildlife photographers will be shooting the herd in the shade, but this can fool a light meter as the bright desert sunshine at the edges of the frame can overexpose the image. Try spot metering so you don’t blow out background while shooting in the shadows from the trees.
I find it best to use a longer lens to allow more reach for more intimate, portrait style shots of the heads and horns, something you might not be able to capture if you see a herd far away in the desert. A 70-200mm type lens will work great, and if you have a teleconverter or even longer lens don’t be afraid to bring it. Parking is just steps away so you will have easy and quick access to your gear without any long hikes.
It can also be handy to have a medium wide angle or standard lens in the kit as well, something in the 28mm to 50mm range. This will allow wider shots that might include people sitting on a park bench with the Bighorn nearby. Of course, these shots will show more of the grass and park features, but it’s definitely an unusual image to capture and one that you won’t get in many other locations.
But please, remember, these are wild animals and not Disney characters. While the Bighorn are used to humans being nearby, they can still be unpredictable in their behavior towards people. For your safety, and theirs, don’t approach too closely or too quickly. Never try and pet one, or feed them. When taking a selfie, keep a safe distance away. Watch younger children and make sure they don’t run around and frighten the Bighorn. As with all wild animals, use common sense and watch your surroundings when taking photos so you, or a Bighorn, don’t get too close together.
As a side trip, because photographing wildlife can build up an appetite, I recommend a stop for food at the Coffee Cup, a fun diner once featured on Guy Fieri’s “Diners, Drive Ins and Dives” television program. The restaurant is located in the heart of the historic Boulder City district, and is a great place to grab breakfast or lunch! It’s less than a 10-minute drive from “Bighorn Park,” and well worth a stop.
*This is not a 100% guarantee of sighting Bighorn Sheep, though I have yet to visit the park and not see some. However, this is not a zoo, these are wild animals, and therefore subject to moving around on their own accord. But I will say that the odds of spotting Bighorn here are better than hitting it big on one of the nearby Las Vegas slot machines!