Of all the things I’m obsessed with talking about in this amazing 110k square mile space (and we alllll know I can go on and on), I ain’t afraid to admit with loving confidence that all things wildlife is an “all in” sorta soft spot. I love all animals, I really do. But of all the animals out there—Nevada or not—my ultimate favorite is the lovely wild burro. But, before you start raking me over the coals with the jackass puns, hear me out on this one for a sec.
The reason this is such a clear winner for me? Aside from having the most kind-looking faces, being excellent companions and protectors for all other animals, and employing all kinds of smart, stoic, stable vibes, tell me this: is there any better animal that just screams out NEVADA? Wild horses? Sure, the whole wild and free thing. Bighorns? Ok yeah, their nimble yet brawny attributes could qualify. But the burro! Man. An icon of Nevada’s rich mining history, the burro’s ability to evolve and adapt to extremely hot and cold climate conditions, go long periods of time without food and water, outlast predators, form burro boi bands of their own and continue thriving despite some weird mining setbacks, all around hardiness... It just keeps going on in all the right ways and is just so Nevada. To me, there is nothing better than ripping down a dirt road in middle-of-somewhere Nevada and seeing a pair of those very distinctive ears pop up. And LAWD, those opportunities run aplenty in the Silver State. If you keep those lookin’ balls locked on that horizon, it really is too good to be true, lovies. Here are 9 ways to zero in on the illustrious wild burro scene in Nevada—trust me, you’re going to wanna get after it.
1. NEW TO THE SCENE? READ ON
In Nevada, wild burros are just about as common as ordering up a Pendleton at a backcountry bar. To us, they’re everywhere—right under your nose in most landscapes you’d chalk up to be dead, desolate and full of nothingness. And, you want to know the difference between a burro and a donkey? Absolutely nothing. Zip—zero—zilch. There may be a miniature variety here and there, but there is no difference between a burro and your typical barnyard donkey. So why go to great lengths to name them different things? Burro is just the spanish word for donkey, and though the donkey was originally an African species that evolved to thrive in arid climates, the Spanish first introduced the donkey to the Americas in the 1500s. And where does the jackass thing become a thing? Well, the burro’s scientific name is “asinus”... and well, you get the picture of how this whole thing played out.
Travel Nevada PRO TIP: If you’re new to this great big world of Nevada wildlife and want to ease in, here’s the ticket. You may be noticing that the burro in the image above is NOT wild… that’s because this is a celebrity burro. As the official mascot of Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area and the Spring Mountains, Jackson the Burro is kiiiiiiiind of a big deal. Just saying. To unveil more info about this babe or bask in the fact that you can actually get a serious head scratch in, you’re def going to want to check this out.
2. OK, SO WHY ARE THERE SO MANY WILD BURROS IN NEVADA?
Burros, or donkeys, are not exactly a rarity in the United States. But why so many left in Nevada, and wild ones to boot? After burros were introduced to the Americas in the 1500s, it wasn’t long before they made it into the regular pack animal rotation. Sure, they were used as work animals on ranching and farming operations, but were also very seriously used—along with oxen and horses—during Westward Expansion. Partly because of their strength… after all, one burro can carry up to 150 pounds of gear each. But also because they can withstand crazy conditions, like little food and water and hot and cold climates. That, and once early pioneers had in fact made it west, they were the ultimate animal to bring with you when prospecting because prospectors had to travel relatively light—often carrying all worldly possessions on the burro from mining camp to mining camp. That, and they played a GINORMOUS role in Nevada’s mining history, and managed to escape or were turned loose and have roamed Nevada all these years.
3. MINING AND WILD BURROS? YEAH, TOTALLY SYNONYMOUS IN NEVADA
Imagine what it must’ve been like, prospecting. Not the cute “come pan for cold and get a free beer” sorta stuff, but like, in the trenches, walking for hundreds of miles in the desert wandering around and picking up rocks kind of realness. I think about it a LOT when I’m out in the middle of Nevada. It’s a big state, bigger than entire countries and being in the thick of it can certainly overwhelm you in all kinds of ways at times. But it’s nothing compared to the life of a miner: living and working out in remote country without tons of resources (or at least the amenities we’re accustomed to), wandering around Nevada’s Great Basin until you pick up a rock that looks a little different than the others, wait a week to get it looked at to figure out if it has any valuable ore in it, then based on the outcome you either stay and set up shop or move on until you find another rock to have checked out. That was just normal for those guys. They relied heavily on their burros, and in serious mining camps like Virginia City, the burro was a miner’s most valuable tool. They could carry some serious supply loads, water, machinery and even ore in the mining camps and were vital to everyday life and overall long term productivity of the mines. Plus, I’d like to imagine that some of these guys just happened to form a friendship with their right hand burros, anyway. Who needs a dog in the 1860s when you got a burro?
4. IN TONOPAH, THE SILVER MINES BECAME AS LEGENDARY AS THIS BURRO TALE
Men wandering through the state with their burros chasing manifest destiny? This exact thing was happening all over Nevada starting in the 1860s and lasting for decades. But there is one tale that most certainly stands out among the others… the story of a prospector named Jim Butler and “the inquisitive burro.”
Jim Butler and his wife Belle were in it to win it, guys. They lived on a ranch not far from modern-day Tonopah in a town called Belmont. (That’s another story entirely, but if you haven’t been there, GO.) There were crazy-insano lucrative mining operations going on here, so much in fact, that it was the county seat and once had thousands of occupants. But, as most mines boom, they eventually bust. Belmont was in full swing for years, but eventually they couldn’t escape this common fate. So, Jim and Belle were on the prowl, lookin’ for their next big boom. Jim was a businessman and what has been described as a “sometimes prospector,” meaning it wasnt uncommon for him to basically hit the trail with his burro in search of the next big claim. That, and he was armed with the unique skill set of fluently speaking Shoshone American Indian language so he was basically unstoppable. This very thing happened in May of 1900—he set off from his ranch in search of a claim and got trapped in a storm about 60 miles south of Belmont. The area was undeveloped, but BONUS! Was what local Shoshone called “Tonopah.” Anyway, a gigantic storm suddenly rolled in and Jim set up camp for the night near a spring in the foothills.
Jim woke up the following morning to find that his burros had totally vanished. When he finally tracked their asses down, they weren’t super interested in hitting the trail. So, to get ‘em moving, he picked up a rock to toss at them (rude!), but noticed it was unusually heavy. Turns out, the thing was mostly pure silver, and they staked the claim almost immediately, naming it The Mizpah. And I’ll tell ya what, some think the discovery of silver in Tonopah was connected to a tip off from nearby American Indians, and others think Jim and his wifey Belle actually knew what they were looking for. But me? I’m stickin with the Burro Legend all the way baby. It’s too good not to.
5. AND YOU KNOW WHAT? CONTRARY TO POPULAR BELIEF (AND JIM'S STORY) THEY'RE NOT STUBBORN ONE TINY, LITTLE BIT.
Based on the Butler Burro Legend, it might paint a clear picture that burros are stubborn. Hash it up to pop culture, but there are two sides to every coin, right? Some might describe them as stubborn, but the fact of the matter is this: they’re incredibly intelligent beings. So instead of being stubborn, they’re actually standing their ground… instead of fleeing the situation entirely (I’m lookin at you, wild horses), they’re feeling it out. Plus, besides being able to carry something heavier than my entire body with a 30-pound pack without any problems, if they’ve misread a situation they’re equipped to protect themselves with a powerful force. They can stand from their front OR hind legs with a hefty punch. Thanks to this combo—their capability to intellectually feel out a situation before reacting and forceful defense mechanism—it has made the burro a perfect companion animal to dogs and other animals you might find on a farm or ranch. They’re lookin out for themselves and other animals, and have the chops to actually defend them too.
When you see their very distinctive ears pop up on that Nevada horizon, i get it. You might think they’re a wild horse. But, burro’s ears are almost twice the size of a horses, and stand on end, almost like a gigantic rabbit’s ear. Plus, they’re about half the size of a wild horse, and are usually a whole heckuva lot easier to see and hear than a horse. Just like horses, burros can vary in coat color—sometimes you’ll see burros that are so dark brown they seem black and others are so light they almost seem white—but they’re usually some shade of brown or gray. One characteristic that does separate them from any other species is a very distinctive feature: their dorsal stripes. Regardless of coat or color, wild burros will always have markings that look like a cross on their shoulders and back, along with dark earmarks, a lighter color around their muzzle and eye rings, and most usually have a white or lighter colored belly and inner legs. And, like wild horses, burros form bands (or groups) too. Usually there is a dominant male, called a Jack—and a lead mare, called a Jenny.
6. SO YOU WANNA SPOT ONE IRL? THE BURNER BYWAY IS A SOFT SPOT TO LAND
Like I was saying earlier, if there was mining in the area, there are probably some lingering wild burro bands going on. And you know what? Nevada has the most abandoned mining features of any other state out there, with ghost town sites exceeding 600. So ya, you should basically be on the burro prowl about everywhere in the entire freaking state. But for some reason—despite being able to withstand all types of climates—they reallllllllly like to hang out around dry lake beds some reason. Maybe because there’s usually some sort of natural cold or warm spring surrounding it, or who knows, maybe just easier to traverse and spot their other burro budz. You can definitely spot multiple burro bands up near the Black Rock Desert, and if you really want to get into some serious dirt road therapy, try the Smoke Creek Desert , Soldier Meadows or even up in High Rock. Remember that wild burros are typically drawn to natural water sources, and with a historic spring up in this neck of the woods that CA Trail Pioneers depended on, you can betcha booty some burros are probably going to be hanging around getting a drink. Whether it’s dozens you come across deep in off grid Nevada, or one or two just off the pavement as you make your way to Planet X, keep those lookin’ balls peeled for these lovies up in this northwestern chunk of the state. You’ll definitely see ‘em.
7. BABY BURROS IN THE SPRINGS IS DEFINITELY A THING
If you were to wager a bet, how likely would you say it is to find wild burros 20 minutes from the Las Vegas Strip? It’s a sprawling mega-metropolis, right? Odds are super low, with this area sprawling way into the desert. In most cases, you’d be right—burros wandering the streets of suburbia isn’t really a thing in Nevada. But when it comes to Red Rock and Spring Mountain Ranch State Park which ARE in that sorta proximity, you can bet on finding burros by the dozens. For some reason, this is a sweet spot for wild burros, lets just hope it’s unrelated to naughty visitors trying to feed them or something insane like that, and imagine that this is the perfect stomping grounds for breeding burro babies! In any case, it’s true: visiting Spring Mountain Ranch State Park and NOT seeing a burro is very unlikely. But, of all the Silver State locales boasting burro bands, the place you’re more likely to see a baby is right here. It’s like a baby burro breeding ground… a Mojave baby burro nest! I’ve seen droves of wild burros here—I mean, if you can’t see ‘em you will definitely hear them. Count on seeing them near Red Rock’s Backcountry Byway, and at Bonnie Springs Ranch, but true to burro form they’re drawn to the natural springs at Spring Mountain Ranch State Park, baby. Most wild burros in the Mojave flock to the area to get a drink and graze on the gargantuan lawn within the Park. Don’t believe me? Just ask Ranger Low. Better yet, zero in on Full Moon or Wildflower Hike to get outside the park’s crowded areas and into the Yuccas and Joshua Tree’s where the burro babies play.
8. THE BURROS OF BULLFROG
While we’re very closely flirting with the history of some of Nevada’s most famous mining camps, I think it’s history geek out time! Which—of all the storied boomtowns in Nevada is your favorite… the sexiest gunslingin’ mining camp? It’s a razors edge to walk with so many at play, but for me, it’s always so very clearly the Bullfrog Mining District. But why… isn’t a ghost town a ghost town? Because this area—which, mind you, is just on the outskirts of the still-existing mining camp of Beatty—wasn’t made up of one specific town, but included a whole handful of towns, like RHYOLITE. Yep, as in the most photographed (and probably visited) ghost town in the entire dang state.
Like Spring Mountain Ranch State Park, the likelihood of visiting Beatty, nearby Death Valley National Park, and especialllllllly Rhyolite without seeing a burro is just not even a thing. Get it outta your head. ‘Cause if you rolling out to any of these places, you’re definitely going to see a burro. It could be my imagination, but to me, either the burro bands are enormous, or several groups of separate bands like to hang out among Rhyolite’s ruins. Some natural hot springs lie on the edge of Beatty, so these bands tend to move in and out of all three of these regions. If the signs say 25 MPH, seriously, obey it. These babes blend in with the landscape more than you think, and finding an entire band strollin’ down the highway is not out of the realm of possibility.
Travel Nevada PRO TIP: Want to really seal the deal with the whole burro thing in Beatty? Head for some unreal photo opps in Rhyolite, which, lets be real here. Now that you understand the burro’s impact on Nevada’s mining history, there isn’t a better unplanned encounter to have in a ghost town than crossing paths with a real burro! Probably one that was a descendent from the area’s original mining boom to boot. But, to really round out the day, you’ve gotta beeline it straight for Beatty’s Happy Burro Chili and Beer. If this place doesn’t get you jacked up in the spirit of adventure, I just. can’t. help you. Known for their nationally acclaimed chili recipe, rest assured you’ll be getting your hands on some damn good chili, cold draft beer, and access to historic buildings originally belonging to Rhyolite that were relocated to downtown Beatty. Yeah, it’s that good, and all yours for the taking.
9. THE HICKISON BAND, AKA THE MOST FAMOUS CREW IN THE STATE
You know how I roll, babes. Best for last, always, and you know I’m not going to leave you hangin’ while when we’re talking burros. Not happening. Of the hundreds, if not thousands of burro bands roaming Nevada’s mighty basin and range, the most well known live right in the heart of the Big Smoky Valley… and for you newbs out there, this place is straight heaven on earth. One range over from the geographic center of the state, the valley packs a multi-faceted punch in all the best ways, serving up 10,000 petroglyphs, the best known example of pictographs in North America, some seriously tasty hot springs, and one of my favorite hideouts in the whole dang state. And the cherry on top? A friendly band of burros, known as the Hickison Burro Herd, that’s what. This group of fuzzy-faced friends has roamed in the area for ages—maybe even from the Tonopah, Manhattan, Eureka or Austin glory days. But, they’re so well known that this specific herd is monitored and also included on your standard Benchmark Map. Pretty cool, right?
When driving the Loneliest Road on the east side of Austin, which is where Big Smoky Valley is located, the likelihood of seeing this famed band is high. Be on the lookout, this herd—compared to the others—seems to cover the most ground. Maybe it’s because I know it’s a specific herd, or the fact that you can see for 60 miles. BUT, an absolutely surefire way to spot these lovies is to hang around Spencer Hot Springs at sunset. Man, as if you needed any more excuses to hit up this slice of paradise, but dang, this just changed the game.
There is some kind of magic going on in Big Smoky, and the place lights up at sunset in ways that are hard to describe. Truly. I don’t know if it’s that real haze that always exists in the valley (and the reason it was named Big Smoky… it always appears smoky for some reason,) but whatever is going on adds to the allure of the place. Aside from the playa—which bonus, you can see burros there too!—the sunsets Big Smoky serves up are the best I’ve ever seen. If you haven’t been, Spencer Hot Springs has three, sometimes four different source pools and is on public land, which means the more the merrier in more ways than one. Aside from these face-melting sunsets, most burros in the valley wander up to the springs during this time of day for a drink. If you haven’t been able to locate them during the day, be patient, get a good sunset soak in, and wait. They’ll show up. And when they do, you can almost be certain they’ll announce their presence with authority with that distinctive bray of theirs. It’s never really a good idea to approach OR FEED wildlife no matter the circumstance, but don’t be alarmed if they come right up to the tub itself for a drink.
Aside from the cowboy tub, there are several terraced overflow ponds at the source closest to the road. This creates a marshy, grassy area that a lot of the donkeys will hang out around. What a view, right? As tempting as it might be to try to approach the burros, remember that they’re wild. You’ve gotta treat them that way. No matter the circumstance, it’s never a good idea to approach wildlife to try to pet or feed them in any way. And, while this couldn’t be any better of a picture perfect view, remember you’re in or near their actual life source: water. The Hickison babes aren’t shy about coming up for a drink—there are usually people here and they’re used to it—but if you see them lingering, pack it up and head out. They need that water to survive! #NVWildlife
The Nevada wild burro. Man, what an emblematic animal that is a testament to the state’s rough and tumble history, an icon of hard work and perseverance, the ability to thrive in an unlikely environment, unsuspecting intelligence and an offbeat charm that will have you coming back for more burro spotting ops. The next time you’re rambling along those Nevada highways, keep ‘em peeled for those big ol’ ears and brays, they’ll be there. I know there’s a fence joke in here somewhere, but I just can’t quite find it… #DFMI