Monday, August 4, 2014

Nevada road trip

It takes only one forest fire to ruin a vacation.  In our case, we had to contend with "only" four wildfires in southern Oregon and northern California. Our original plan had been to spend a week exploring Lassen Volcanic National Park in northern California. However, as we drove down I-5, smoke from the Beaver Fire and the Day Fire made us feel like two strips of low-fat jerky drying inside a smoker. Visibility was extremely limited, the world was a dull gray color, and the air was thick even by California standards. 

Hello, Eiler Fire...bye, Lassen National Park
As we neared Lassen National Park, a massive plume of smoke rose from the nearby Eiler Fire which had burned about 32,000 acres at the time of our passing. By "our passing" I refer to our driving by the fire and not to our passing, although the two things can be related sometimes. As we neared the fire, the smoke plume was both awesome and fearsome to behold, just like me. The Eiler and Bald Fires were close to the Lassen Park's boundary and we made an impromptu decision to go anywhere else on our vacation and that is how we ended up at Great Basin National Park, near the Nevada-Utah border.

Sand Mountain, from the Loneliest Highway
The Great Basin is a large and vaguely defined geographical area encompassing most of Nevada and large parts of Utah, California, and Oregon. The basin consists of a series of short north-south oriented mountain ranges with very tall mountains. In between the mountain ranges are large valleys containing little or no modern day civilization. There are no river outlets from the Great Basin so what little water there is pools in shallow lakes that evaporate in the summer. Those lakes too large to evaporate completely tend to be salty or alkali.

The road to nowhere
Highway 50 crosses Nevada and is accurately billed as The Loneliest Highway in America. At various places along the highway, one can pick up a "Survival Kit" and get various stops signed off on. Upon completion, the governor of Nevada will then award a hand-signed certificate of survival. It's the closest thing there is to a Croix de Nevada medal of valor! The highway is aptly named, for in the 250 road miles between Fallon and Ely, there are only two other towns on the highway: Austin and Eureka, both historical mining towns. In between Fallon, Austin, Eureka, and Ely are wide expanses of open desert, tall mountains, and all the sagebrush you could ever want to look at. Amazingly, we saw cyclists attempting the ride across Nevada, made even more daunting by the numerous mountain passes that had to be pedaled up and over. The Loneliest Highway follows the Pony Express route and there are a number of historical and archaelogical sites along the way.

Life on the Loneliest Highway in America
So, we were driving in the desert and it rained all day. It was nice to leave the triple-digit smokefest of Oregon and enjoy the cool temps as it never got over 70 degrees during the entire week. In fact, we enjoyed rain showers and lightening displays during our entire stay in the Great Basin. It's like Nevada is the new Oregon.

Petroglyphs at Grimes Point
Just past Fallon, we stopped at the Grimes Point Archaelogical Area which consisted of several paths through some interesting rocks. Turns out, the valley which now contains Fallon used to be a large lake way back when. The Native Americans would camp at the water's edge and for whatever reason, carve petroglyphs into the rocks on the lake's shore. Nowadays, there is no lake of course, but the petroglyphs remain for visitors to admire.

Stokes Castle
Austin is an old mining town and much of the original buildings still exist on Main Street. As we entered the quaint town in the rain, we noticed what looked like a castle on a hill above the town. Well, that seemed interesting, so we took a dirt road to what turned out to be Stokes Castle. Built in the late 1800's by railroad magnate and local luminary Ansom Stokes, the castle was intended to be a summer home and was used for all of one summer. Now there's something you don't see everyday!

How we roll!
The rest of the day was spent driving across the great expanse with tendrils of black rain leaking from clouds and we stopped in Ely (which is pronounced "eely" for some reason). It was quite a departure from our original plan but hey, that's how we roll. 

Austin, Nevada
For more pictures, visit the Flicker albums:

Loneliest Highway

Grimes Point Archaelogical area

Austin, Nevada


  1. what a great diversion. I've been on that highway and didn't stop long enough to see the interesting things you did. I'll remember that for our road trip!