We have camped at over 8,000 feet for ten days or more and have been rained on, hailed on, and snowed on! So instead of heading further north, we decided the time had come to head west. California has a drought at the moment, so maybe if we bring only a little rain, they will be happy. Maybe we shall see the sun also! So, we set off on the Loneliest Road, US Highway Route 50. Nevada here we come!
Our road out of the campsite at Cathedral Valley proved to be very rocky in places but we made it without difficulty and found our way to Route 50 and our first stop, the Great Basin National Park. Crossing the desert, the landscape seemed amazingly green. Obviously it has been raining here also, in fact, there was some water in Lake Sevier, shown on the map as a dry lake bed. So we stopped to take a photo!
As we drove west, we watched fascinating thunderstorms developing all around us and we finally drove through one, which helped to remove some of the mud from the truck (remnants of the Hell’s Backbone drive).
After a quick stop at the Visitor Center for camping advice, we found ourselves a lovely spot in one of the more primitive campgrounds at about 7,500 feet, for two nights. We settled in with one small problem. The electric steps up to the camper no longer worked. Fortunately we hauled out our trusty step ladder and got ourselves organized as another thunderstorm hit. So much for arid desert. And so much for clear, starry skies. (http://www.nps.gov/grba/index.htm)
As it was sunny the next morning, we headed up the Mt. Wheeler Scenic Drive to the trailhead of the Bristlecone Pine Trail, which Denise wanted to hike. Ndeke Luka is shorter than the 24 foot limit fortunately, although the road was not, in fact, difficult. There were stunning views of the mountain and across the Basin on every curve. Mt. Wheeler is 13,065 feet and was well snow capped, and, to Denise’s disappointment, the Bristlecone Pine Trail was equally snow covered. We would have needed snow spikes to feel comfortable in the snow and ice, so we headed back down, stopping to make espresso at one overlook and taking photos as we went.
Our next stop was the Lehman Caverns Visitors Center. Rangers lead guided tours of the caverns under the mountain and we signed up for the next available 90 minute tour. (There are also 60 minute tours.) Having visited Carlsbad Caverns last year, Denise had to have her shoes disinfected, (a minor procedure), and Fred wiped his camera with disinfecting wipes. Then we set off. It was a fascinating tour with lots of information provided by a knowledgeable ranger. We saw the “shield” formations, which are rare, though apparently Luray in Virginia has them! It was also low key, lacking the enormous scale of Carlsbad. The passageways were narrow and it was hard to avoid touching a formation or hitting one’s head. It felt very personal and low key and allowed one to get much closer to the flowstone.
Needless to say, it was pouring with rain when we came out. We compensated by bolting to the tiny cafe for a piece of pie and a chat with the ladies who worked there.
Our next stop was Ely, Nevada for some essential camper steps maintenance, in order:
— Auto parts store for a new fuse for the steps. (We now have a lifetime selection.)
— Car wash. ($15 to spray most of Utah off of the truck.)
— Diesel station to top up.
— Coffee (and flower) shop for an espresso. (To restore the soul.)
— And finally, supermarket (the only one for 250 miles) for veggies and a re-grease of the steps and retractable running boards.
With our camper steps fully functional again, we took a wander down Ely’s main street. Like many small western towns, this was a flashback to the 1950’s and the end of the big mining operations in the area. Purely by accident, we stumbled upon a gem of a Chinese restaurant, the “Happy Garden.” Expectations to the contrary, all of the dishes were very fresh and served piping hot. (http://www.yelp.com/biz/happy-garden-ely) Chatting with the owner, we were reminded of the tremendous, but oft underreported, role of the Chinese in the development of the American west, especially the construction of the Central Pacific railroad. All in all Ely was a wonderful stopover.
The rest of our time on the Loneliest Road proved to be interesting! At times there was quite a lot of traffic so it was not lonely at all. At other times, it seemed like we were the only people on it. We camped at the Hickison Petroglyph BLM Recreation Area where we took the trail to see the petroglyphs and enjoyed a lovely free campsite.
We also saw the petroglyphs at Grimes Point Archeological Site, all inscribed on boulders and some dating back multiple thousand years. All are weathering. One wonders how long they will be visible. Grimes Point is right next to the Fallon Naval Air Station and there is quite a juxtaposition between ancient petroglyphs and modern jet fighters.
Everyone has heard of the fabled Pony Express, the Butterfield stage coaches, and finally, Wells Fargo and Company. (Remember all of those Westerns from the ’50’s and ’60’s, “Tales of Wells Fargo” and the rest?) We stopped at two sites to view remains of the stations dealing with the Pony Express and the Butterfield Stage at Cold Springs and Sand Springs.
Ruins of Butterfield Stage station and repair facility at Cold Springs. Looking West along US 50.
The ruins at the Sand Springs site were especially interesting as they were not fenced off and you can see the individual rooms. Sir Richard Burton, the famous African and Middle Eastern explorer had several uncomplimentary comments about the Sand Springs station. The amazing sounds of the Sand Mountain, a huge dune standing all by itself about a mile away, were inaudible as it was full of ATVs. (The dune is supposed to sing when vibrations are at the correct level.)
Our final visit in Nevada was to Virginia City, known for its gold and silver and as one of the settings for “Bonanza”, the TV show. Now a major tourist attraction, it still retains a certain amount of charm with wooden sidewalks, original buildings and saloons. At the same time, despite a population of under 700 (down from 28,000 at its peak), Virginia City boasts very impressive and modern looking schools and a public swimming pool. All in all, a fascinating visit, especially when you realize that the town is not a movie set, but was the epicenter of an enormous mining enterprise. All of the mountains for miles around are marked with piles of spoil and there are even mines right on the city streets.
Virginia City is the terminus of a short line, the Virginia and Truckee, opened in 1869 to take the ore down the mountain. (http://www.virginiatruckee.com) It ran 45 trains a day during the boom and the Virginia City sector was closed in the 1930’s. Reopened in 1975 they run tourist trains to Gold Hill, three miles down the track, using diesels, steam engines and 100 year old carriages.
Our train was pulled by a diesel, but the steam engine arrived shortly after our return after pulling a train from Carson City. N.B. The steam run to or from Carson City is the trip you REALLY want to take. Worth the effort to research the schedule.
After a great barbecue sandwich for lunch, (http://www.vcjerky.com) we headed for California.