Elusive Desert Dwellers

Checking in on the Mohave Desert tortoises

By Rebecca Chavez-Houck

Every spring, we pull our RV View out of storage, clear the antifreeze out of its water lines and load up our linens and food. We feel like we’ve come out of hibernation.

Outreach coordinator Lura Snow shows off a tortoise egg

Spring is also the time when the Mojave Desert tortoises ease out of their burrows and start making their way through the red sands of southwestern Utah and southeastern Nevada in search of food and mates. They hibernate for up to nine months each year and become most active from March to June and September to October. While we didn’t see any in the wild during a trip to Phoenix this past spring, we took some time to learn more about them and their habitat by stopping at Red Cliffs Desert Reserve Visitor Center (10 N. 100 East, St. George, 435-634-5759, RedCliffsDesertReserve.com).

Desert tortoise hatchling

I can’t count the times we’ve driven through St. George, yet we’ve never known of or visited the center. We were fortunate to catch outreach coordinator Lura Snow when we were there, and she introduced us to the three tortoises who make the center their home: Tank, Shelly and Sid. At age 50, Tank is the senior of the three and easy to spot in the first exhibit just inside the interpretive center’s entrance. Shelly and Sid, each around 10 years old, were a bit more elusive, but we were able to see them, too.

The 62,000-acre reserve was established in 1996 to protect the desert tortoise and other delicate plants and wildlife (including the venomous Gila monster). It is located at the convergence of three regional ecosystems: the Great Basin, Colorado Plateau and Mojave Desert. Before exploring the area, look over the reserve’s informative website (and download their detailed brochure).

Depending on the time of year you visit, you might get lucky and see tortoises along the Turtle Wall Trail, but Snow cautions to avoid startling them. If they are caught by surprise, they are prone to voiding their bladders and that could lead to dehydration or death.

Red Cliffs Reserve Visitor Center | Camera-shy Tank, the tortoise

 

We also took a quick walk starting at the Chuckwalla Trailhead (located on UT-18, just north of the Red Hills/Snow Canyon Parkway) and found a large group of folks of all ages rock climbing there.

Another place to see wildlife in the area, especially osprey and eagles, Snow says, is Enterprise Reservoir in Dixie National Forest, a little over an hour’s drive north of St. George via Utah State Route 18.

After visiting the reserve, we spent our first night in Snow Canyon State Park (1002 N. Snow Canyon Drive, Ivins, 435-628-2255, StateParks.utah.gov/parks/snow-canyon), having grabbed the last reservation available. Unfortunately, it wasn’t Site 19, our favorite. The sites are reservable, but they go quickly.

The campground features a centrally located group site that has a large pavilion with tables. A bank of sites (1-14) in the middle of the campground each have unique lava-rock base pavilions and electrical and water hookups.

Sites in the north part of the campground don’t have hookups but are closer to the shower house. A playground near the entranceway was built in the memory of cyclist Dave Richardson. It features stone tortoises, a lizard made of stumps and a rope “spider web.” You can access the playground and picnic area for day-use from the road.

We arrived late and were glad that we had a dinner of slow-cooker beef stroganoff ready to eat. When we have a long and steady stretch of road to travel, we often use our slow cooker. We secure it in a plastic milk crate on our dinette bench seat and plug it into a portable inverter that runs off our 12-volt outlet while we’re driving. Just remember to turn the inverter off when the rig is turned off and turn it on when you get back on the road. It’s nice after a long day to skip the meal prep, and if you use a slow-cooker liner, it makes clean-up easy, too.

There are additional state park campgrounds in the area, including Sand Hollow State Park (3351 S. Sand Hollow Road, Hurricane, 435-680-0715, StateParks.utah.gov/parks/sand-hollow/) and Quail Creek State Park (472 N. 5300 West, Hurricane, 435-879-2378, StateParks.utah.gov/parks/quail-creek) that have been great for previous kayaking trips.

 

Instead, I wanted to stay at the Red Cliffs Campground (4½ miles from Leeds, 435-688-3200, BLM.gov/visit/search-details/202162/1). Its 10 primitive campsites were all filled by the time we arrived mid-afternoon on a Monday. Even with pit toilets and no hookups, it’s really nice. I love campsites that are inset into the red rock, and this place did not disappoint.

When heading to Red Cliffs Campground, you should know that we just barely navigated two low and narrow underpasses to access it from Old Highway 91. The clearance is only 11 feet 9 inches. I can see teardrop or tent trailers making their way to the campground more easily, but this is not a place for big RVs.

Mojave desert tortoise at Red Cliffs

You need to access this campground from Leeds (Exit 23). We found this out the hard way. Old Highway 91 from the south is under repair and not navigable for trailers or RVs. You can make your way from the south if you take Utah State Route 9, then SR-318 (Quail Creek Road) past Quail Creek Reservoir. But, again, do not try to drive on Old Highway 91 from the south.

There is a KOA Campground (5800 Old Highway 91, Hurricane, 435-879-2212, KOA.com/campgrounds/st-george/) that is just due east of Red Cliffs Campground for larger rigs. Even on their website, they tell you to not follow the GPS directions to get to this location.

The popularity and population of Washington County is booming, and as more people make their way to the area year-round, there’s a lot of competition for space and access. Plan ahead if you intend to camp and remember that these habitats are protected for a reason. Tread lightly.

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