Borrego Sun - Since 1949

Visitor's View – Seeing Bighorn Sheep

 

Last updated 5/1/2023 at 10:18am

Let's begin with a spelling lesson.

Bighorn is one word when talking about wild sheep. They are not big horns; in fact, they don't make much noise at all.

That being said, seeing one of these iconic desert creatures is generally at the top of the list of things to do for people visiting Anza-Borrego Desert State Park.

I hear it from both visitors and residents alike.

"I've been out here for 40 years and have yet to see a bighorn sheep," many will say.

Spring is an excellent time to see bighorn sheep but knowing where and how to look for them is important. It's also lambing season and in addition to seeing a magnificent ram or proud ewe, you may be thrilled by the joyful antics of a newborn lamb.

There's a good reason that some people have never seen a bighorn. They were looking for bighorn sheep.

That may sound confusing, but many visitors expect to see a sheep standing out in plain sight. That's a rare event.

Instead of looking for a whole bighorn sheep, look for clues that will lead you to them.

The earthy colors of a bighorn's coat blend well with their environment. If they are feeding, or bedded down, you are not likely to spot one, especially if you are on the move.

But sheep have a white rump that is often brighter than anything else found naturally in the desert. Taking time to scan a hillside, looking for the white rumps will often result in the successful spotting of an animal.

Then, look closer. Soon you may begin to count three, four, five, or more sheep that were nearly impossible to see at first glance.

We reached out to a local bighorn sheep expert to get the best advice that will improve your odds of seeing a "Borrego."

Mark Jorgensen spent his career as a state park ranger in Anza-Borrego, retiring as park superintendent. He is the author of "Desert Bighorn Sheep, Wilderness Icon," and much of his career was dedicated to protecting the welfare of the bighorn.

His first recommendation was for visitors to watch the green slopes on the lower portions of Montezuma Grade coming down into Borrego Springs from Ranchita.

This winding highway is dangerous even when you are paying attention, so if you are looking for sheep, take advantage of the many pull outs along the way to stop and scan the hillsides.

"Everywhere from about milepost 12 down to mile post 16 is a good place to watch right now," Jorgensen said.

Again, remember, sheep may be bedded down or feeding in the rocks and not moving. Bring good binoculars and look for those white rumps.

Another area suggested by Jorgensen is along Highway S-3 near milepost 2.5 in the Yaqui Pass area, south of Borrego Springs and north of Highway 78.

"There are pull outs on both sides of the highway and sheep have been seen near the crest of the road just as it drops down the slope towards Tamarisk Grove," Jorgensen said.

And probably the most common locations to spot sheep are on the trails into Palm Canyon, west of the park visitor center.

In addition to the chance of seeing sheep, this is one of the more spectacular hikes in the state park with flowing water right now, and beautiful pools in the glorious palm groves.

"Palm Canyon Trail has been excellent this week with 27 sheep observed on the lower trail, just a half mile in from the trailhead. A dozen, mostly rams, were seen last week along the Alternate Trail where it drops off the steep slopes to the main wash," Jorgensen said.

He offered some additional tips to spotting the sheep.

"A sit, wait and listen often works for spotting sheep in Palm Canyon. You might glance or glass the hillsides and see no sheep. A minute later a look reveals a group of sheep feeding in plain view. Sit and be patient and listen for falling rocks, possibly kicked loose by the bighorn," Jorgensen said.

Seeing that first bighorn is the biggest challenge.

"Your first desert bighorn is the hardest one to find! After the first one, you discover how big they are compared to their surroundings and finally you see the scale of the vast desert country," Jorgensen said.

He admits it took him several trips over several years as a teenager to spot his first bighorn sheep.

"An adult bighorn is three feet tall. An agave stalk averages about 12 feet tall, so a sheep will be about a quarter the height of an agave, whether it's 100 yards away or a mile away," Jorgensen said.

The sheep are out there on the slopes. Watch for movement, watch for their gray or brown bodies against the spring greenery, look on ridge lines for their profiles and watch for white rumps, sometimes moving, magically fading into the landscape and reappearing.

No matter how many times you see them, the sight of a magnificent ram or herd of ewes never gets old.

"Many thousands of sheep sightings later, I can't seem to get away from them; even spotting them from my own backyard a mile away from the mountain slopes," Jorgensen said.

Let us know when you spot your first bighorn. It's something you won't forget.

You can reach the author at Ernie at Packtrain.com.

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