On a recent Saturday morning in downtown Mesquite, Nev., several thousand people came to see local artists, businesses, and musicians at the Gold Butte Days festival, the first of its kind. The inaugural celebration included numerous photos and paintings, as well as pottery, depicting a dramatic Mojave Desert landscape just 20 miles up the road that many here call Nevada’s piece of the Grand Canyon.
Tucked between the Grand Canyon-Parashant National Monument in Arizona and Lake Mead National Recreation Area in Nevada, Gold Butte is named for the historic mining town of the early 1900s. However, it is much more than the scattered remnants of early mining. It is 350,000 acres of mountains, Joshua tree and Mojave yucca forests, magnificent panels of petroglyphs and rock art, outcroppings of sandstone, and braided washes that form slot canyons.
For more than a decade, wilderness advocates in southern Nevada have been working to protect Gold Butte. From the Bureau of Land Management’s Black Ridge and Virgin Peak in the north, to Hell’s Kitchen—managed by the National Park Service in the southern reaches—these wild desert landscapes are only a few hours north of Las Vegas.
Gold Butte has been described as an art gallery with unique patterns and sculptures; it is known as the body, mind, and soul to the Moapa band of Paiutes, and has been called one of the most solitary places in America just a short drive from one of the most vibrant centers of pop culture.
Take a video tour of Gold Butte:
Native Americans have been associated with Gold Butte for more than 3,000 years, and the area is filled with stories of their past, told through artifacts and ancient writings. Evidence of earlier settlement is ever present, in rock shelters, grinding stones, and the remnants of ancient pottery and tools. Truly stunning rock art can be found throughout Gold Butte, with panels measuring up to 90 feet long.
Mining is thought to have begun in this area as early as the 1700s, then in 1906 gold was discovered and Gold Butte’s population boomed to 2,000. The town soon went bust, but mining continued, providing much of the copper needed for World War I. Ranching in the Mojave Desert was difficult in the early 1900s, but pioneers succeeded through ingenuity. Remnants of corrals, water improvements, and fencing are still evident.
Today, Gold Butte is a desert lover’s paradise. Opportunities abound to wander through Joshua tree and yucca forests, meander through slot canyons and along red rock formations, hike through braided washes, or bird watch in the Mesquite woodlands. As you trek to higher elevations among peaks of pinion and juniper, you can spy desert bighorn sheep along rocky slopes. In the spring, it becomes a garden of colorful wildflowers, with sand dune primrose, yucca, desert poppies and cactus in full bloom. In the winter blankets of snow cover the Virgin Mountains, Billy Goat Peak, and Bitter Ridge.
Gold Butte is a destination for big game and bird hunters and is also valuable habitat for other species, such as the threatened desert tortoise and many migratory birds. The region provides important connectivity of unfragmented habitat adjacent to the 600,000-acre Grand Canyon-Parashant National Monument.
Those wishing to experience Gold Butte on two or four wheels can ride over 500 miles of designated roads, including the 62-mile Gold Butte Backcountry Byway. From this perspective, visitors can experience vast expanses of rugged mountains, sweeping vistas down to Lake Mead, and colorful sandstone rock formations.
Unfortunately, the biological, cultural, and historical resources are threatened by overuse, coupled with insufficient management. The area lacks information signs and interpretation to inform visitors of its history and fragile resources. A shortage of law enforcement means that more artifacts are stolen or destroyed, and the fragile desert landscape is being damaged at an alarming rate.
Advocates are working hard to gain protection for Gold Butte. For more than a decade, supporters have been seeking designation as a national conservation area with wilderness, to protect the wildest and unroaded lands in their natural state while allowing for vehicular access on its roads. Gold Butte—Nevada’s piece of the Grand Canyon—offers a little something for everyone.