8 Reasons to Buck Up and Get To Know Nevada’s Wild Burros
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, 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 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 us, there is nothing better than ripping down a dirt road in middle-of-nowhere Nevada and seeing a pair of those very distinctive ears pop up. And those opportunities run aplenty in the Silver State. Read on for 9 ways to see wild burros in Nevada—trust us, you’re going to want to get after it.
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 kind of a big deal. To learn more info about this burro, and actually get a serious head scratch in, you’re def going to want to check this out.
1. New to the Wild Burro 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.
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. In Nevada, Wild Burros and our Sterling History are completely synonymous.
Imagine what it must’ve been like, prospecting. Not the cutesy “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. We think about it a LOT when we’re 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, we’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 lived on a ranch not far from modern-day Tonopah in a town called Belmont. Living in the then-booming Belmont, Jim was a businessman and what has been described as a “sometimes prospector,” meaning it wasn’t 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, and 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 awoke 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. Some think the discovery of silver in Tonopah was connected to a tip off from nearby American Indians, and others think Jim and his wife Belle actually knew what they were looking for. As for us? We’re 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.
Some might describe the burro 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 (we’re lookin at you, wild horses), they’re feeling it out. Plus, 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 those very distinctive ears pop up on that Nevada horizon, you might think what you’re seeing is 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.
If there’s a historic ghost town in the area, there are probably some lingering wild burro bands going on. Even though you can spot a wild burro just about anywhere in rural Nevada, for some reason—despite being able to withstand all types of climates—they really 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 buds. Keep an eye out for many burro bands up near the Black Rock Desert.
If you can believe it, you can spot wild burros 20 minutes from the Las Vegas Strip, and better yet, of all the Silver State locales boasting burro bands, the place you’re more likely to see a baby is right here, at Spring Mountain Ranch State Park. Count on seeing them near Red Rock, but true to burro form, they’re drawn to the natural springs at Spring Mountain Ranch State Park. Most wild burros in the Mojave flock to the area to get a drink and graze on the gargantuan lawn within the Park.
7. The Burros of Bullfrog
While we’re very closely flirting with the history of some of Nevada’s most famous mining camps, we think it’s history lesson time! Meet the Bullfrog Mining District, situated in the heart of Rhyolite—Nevada’s most photographed ghost town. Like Spring Mountain Ranch State Park, the likelihood of visiting Beatty, nearby Death Valley National Park, and especially 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. Some natural springs lie on the edge of Beatty—in fact, an enormous, ancient underground fossil water river—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
8. Meet the Hickison Burro Herd: The Most Famous Wild Burro Band in the Silver State
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—minutes south of the Loneliest Road in America. 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 year-old petroglyphs, the best known example of pictographs in North America, some seriously relaxing hot springs, and much, much more. But the cherry on top is certainly the friendly Hickison Burro Herd. 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.
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 the Hickison Burro Herd is to hang around Spencer Hot Springs at sunset.
Spencer Hot Springs has three, sometimes four different source pools and is on public land. 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? Aside from these face-melting Big Smoky 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 cool (or legal!) to approach, or especially wildlife, no matter the circumstance, but don’t be alarmed if they come right up to the tub itself for a drink.
Travel Nevada Pro Tip
So, you see? There’s no more 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 unmistakable charm than the wild burro. The next time you’re rambling along those Nevada highways, keep ‘em peeled for those big ol’ ears and brays, they’ll be there. We know there’s a fence joke in here somewhere, but we just can’t quite find it… #DFMI.