Sunset Park is situated in the south-central area of the metro area known as Paradise. It is adjacent to the very southeastern corner of Harry Reid International Airport. Major thoroughfares border the park; Sunset Road is at the north end of the park, and Eastern Avenue at its west end.
Sourced by well water, the artificial lake is a major attraction to geese, ducks, small grebes, cormorants and Ring-billed Gulls. Like most water bodies in the desert, the lake attracts unusual to locally rare species; it is always worth scanning the lake for species that look for open water in the desert. Black Scoter, Pacific Loon, Brown Pelican and Sabine’s Gull are among the most unusual birds to turn up at this lake. The lake is bordered by concrete and asphalt, and has no emergent vegetation or shoreline that would accommodate shorebirds or marsh species. A small island, however, hosts roosting cormorants and waterfowl. Neotropic Cormorants may mix with the more expected Double-crested. Among wild waterfowl are various breeds of domestic Graylag Geese and Mallards. In the winter, American Wigeon, Redhead, Ring-necked Duck and the odd Canvasback take advantage of handouts by well-meaning families that visit with bread. NDOW (Nevada Department of Wildlife) stocks the lake with catfish during the warmer months and trout in the cooler months.
Stands of pines bordering the lake attract Ladder-backed Woodpeckers, Anna’s Hummingbirds, Ruby-crowned Kinglets and warblers. Birds of prey can be found anywhere in the park; Cooper’s Hawks regularly make passes at groups of pigeons. Red-shouldered Hawks favor the open lawns with stands of pine trees, potentially attracted by abundant pocket gophers.
Check the Honey Mesquite grove east of the lake for songbirds, especially species that favor understory and desert scrub. This area, which borders the Safekey Building, often hosts Gambel’s Quails, hummingbirds, Phainopeplas, Verdins, Crissal Thrashers, and Abert’s Towhees. In the spring, fruiting mulberry trees near the Safekey building can attract impressive numbers of migratory songbirds. It is not unusual to find Cedar Waxwings, Swainson’s Thrushes, Western Tanagers, Black-headed Grosbeaks, Lazuli Buntings, Bullock’s Orioles, and Green-tailed Towhees here from mid-April to mid-May, when the mulberries are fruiting. Meanwhile, the thick understory harbors insect-eating Empidonax flycatchers, Western Wood-Pewees, vireos, warblers, and an assortment of sparrows. Cooper’s Hawks patrol this area year-round.
Moving eastward from this grove, you will pass a roundabout with a large Saguaro Cactus. Cross the street here and continue past a parking lot on your right, and into another parking lot to another path. Walk this path until you see the first of two foot bridges on your right. From here, you will see that there is a small drainage that runs through much of the northeastern section of the park. Water trickles year-round, and the water attracts the occasional Green Heron, Wilson’s Snipe, and American Pipit. In the late afternoon, you may stand on one of several small bridges and observe songbirds coming to drink water. Just to the north of the drainage, stands of Phragmites, invasive reeds from the Old World, provide habitat for Song and Lincoln’s Sparrows, and Common Yellowthroats.
The southern half of Sunset Park, like the northeastern quarter, is less trafficked. You will find walking trails that meander through natural dune systems with mostly native plants that are tolerant of well-drained soils. In these areas you can look and listen for desert residents such as Gambel’s Quails, Greater Roadrunners, Costa’s and Anna’s Hummingbirds, Phainopeplas, Verdins, Black-tailed Gnatcatchers, and Abert’s Towhees. In the winter, White-crowned Sparrows are one of the more abundant birds anywhere with understory.
The western portion of the park closer to Eastern Avenue is made up of ball fields and a disc golf course. Lawns and expanses of grass attract geese and blackbirds. There is little understory, but check pines for roosting Great Horned Owls, Ladder-backed Woodpeckers and sapsuckers, kinglets, vireos, and songbirds. Large cottonwoods also attract songbirds like Bullock’s Orioles during migration.
For its size and central location, the park accommodates an impressive diversity of mammals. In the southern and eastern portions of the park, where natural dunes have persisted through the years, mesquite and saltbush remain. Here you may find Round-tailed Ground Squirrels, White-tailed Antelope Squirrels, Desert Cottontails and Black-tailed Jackrabbits. Around lawns and ballfields, Botta’s Pocket Gophers are occasionally seen maintaining the openings to their burrows. Coyotes can be seen anywhere in the park when people and dogs are less active.
- Island on lake
- Mesquite grove
- Safekey mulberries
- Sand dunes
History of Paradise Valley and Sunset Park
The Southern Paiute people, or Nuwuvi, have lived across the Las Vegas Valley since 1100 A.D. They moved frequently throughout the Valley depending on the season, following water sources and the cycles of plant harvests. One important place they relied on for water was Duck Creek, which flows past the southern edge of present-day Sunset Park. The water in Duck Creek comes from seasonal rains and natural springs, allowing the Southern Paiute people to establish themselves in the region. They traded goods, such as pottery, extensively with other indigenous people in the Southwest. They hunted animals like black-tailed jackrabbits, desert cottontails, Gambel’s quail, and mourning doves for food. Plants like the screwbean mesquite were necessary to their survival, and they would grind screwbean mesquite seed pods into flour for cooking. Duck Creek still persists today, flowing eastward towards Clark County Wetlands Park.
The Southern Paiute people suffered when the Old Spanish Trail, a trade route that connected Santa Fe and Los Angeles, opened in 1829-30. During this time, the Spanish raided the Southern Paiute people, took them as slaves, and brought diseases. The Spanish Trail was founded by Antonio Armijo, who led 60 men and 100 mules up the Las Vegas Wash before camping along Duck Creek. Many Spanish caravans followed, opening up the region to trade.
In 1855, ranchers and Mormons began to settle the Las Vegas Valley. At first, the Southern Paiute people welcomed the Mormons because they offered protection from the Spanish raids. Mormons and ranchers claimed land along Las Vegas Springs, while the Southern Paiute people remained in the Paradise Valley camps. In the early 1900s, the Paradise Valley began to experience increased development with the arrival of railroad infrastructure, and the Southern Paiute people were forced to either leave or work on the new ranches. The Las Vegas Artesian Water Syndicate drilled the first successful well in 1907, and the underground waters in Paradise Valley were tapped in 1908. Many people came to farm the land, and by 1912 about 100 wells were dug. However, the wells could only irrigate 640 acres, so many ranchers lived in the city and used the ranches as weekend retreats. In 1940, the state ordered the wells to be capped.
One of those ranchers was John F. Miller, who owned the land that would later become Sunset Park. He was a prominent Las Vegas businessman and well-known for building Hotel Nevada, which opened in 1906 on the corner of Main and Fremont Street. Out on his 440-acre ranch in Paradise Valley, he drilled nine wells for agricultural use. Although the water from these wells flowed into three large reservoirs, only 100 acres could be irrigated, which limited his farming capability. By 1939, Miller Ranch was sold to Kell Houssels, part-time owner and business manager of the Tropicana Hotel. On this land, he developed the Vegas Stock Farm, a horse breeding and training facility. In 1961, Houssels tried to turn the land into a golf course, but the state would not grant water rights. Eventually, he sold the land to another group of investors.
Just East of present-day Sunset Park, horticulturist Yonema “Bill” Tomiyasu farmed the Duck Creek area. He immigrated from Japan to California in 1898, and in 1914 moved to Las Vegas and purchased some land along Duck Creek. Getting his crops to survive in this arid climate was a challenge for Tomiyasu, and it took 5 years of trial and error until he was more successful. Tomiyasu later sold his vegetables for workers at the Hoover Dam, but when grocery stores started coming to Las Vegas during the development boom of the 1950s, he started working in the landscaping instead. Tomiyasu died in 1969 but left a long-lasting legacy in Paradise Valley. Today, his plant list and plant calendar are still used by the Nevada Cooperative Extension office gardening programs.
As Las Vegas continued its rapid development in the late 1960s, McCarran Airport (now Harry Reid International Airport) expanded its size. Residents of Paradise Valley were concerned that the ponds and shade trees of the Houssels Ranch would be lost to development. The Paradise Town Board Chair, Mary Gravelle Habbart, had purchased 20 acres of the Tomiyasu property next to Sunset Park after WWII ended in 1945. As concern grew over the airport expansion, she campaigned to turn the Houssels Ranch into a public park for all to enjoy. By 1967, Clark County purchased the Houssels Ranch (325 acres) with a federal grant that was matched with Paradise Town funds. For the first time, the private ranch was a public park. Now, the Clark County Department of Parks and Recreation manages Sunset Park.