Springtime in Nevada


For most of April I have been poised and ready to do a little road trip, but the springtime weather has extra-unsettled, so I’ve been in a little holding pattern waiting for a likely time, which finally …  is today, Friday 4/27!

Finally, this morning was different from the last three weeks of mornings. I did not lay in bed and think about starting, only to have a failure of will and lapse back in to the comfortable rituals of my Reno life.  I arose with purpose and commenced my leaving rituals – clean up a little in the bedroom and living room, run the dishwasher and clean the kitchen … because coming home to a messy kitchen is such a depressing way to re-start life.

Out the door by 2pm.  I got a reminder of how little I drive in regular life – my van clock was still on Standard Time, even though we changed to Daylight Time three weeks ago.

I escaped the I-80 construction zone, and headed east.  Leave I-80 at Fernley, fill up with relatively cheap diesel at the Indian station east of Fernley, get my groceries at the Fallon Safeway, and I’m ready to be mostly off the grid for four days and three nights.

East from Fallon, past the signs to Stillwater Wildlife Refuge – Stillwater was the proximate cause of this trip but lost out in my time crunch to be home for First Thursday.  Onwards to Grimes Point, past the Fallon Naval Air Station playa, right on 361 at Middlegate. (there’s also an Eastgate and a Westgate, which all sounds very Middle Earth, but they are all just piles of rock along the road.) Then, a little before Gabbs, left on 844 over the south end of the Paradise Mountains across the valley to the ghost town of Berlin and the Ichthyosaur diggings, nestled on the western flank of the Shoshone Mountains.

When you head to such a godforsaken place for the first time you make a little leap of faith that there really will be anything at the end of the road. Happily, it was all good this time — a very nicely laid out and all around pleasant state park campground. I found a nice spot, got back into the camping groove and walked the path over the hill to the fossil spot for something to do for sunset.


The park has fossil tours on weekends even in the off-season, and today is Saturday, so woo!  I rustle myself out of the van by 9:45 to wheeze up the same trail I wheezed up last night to make the 10AM fossil tour.  It was not much of a tour, we stay in the building, around the edges of the fossil bed, and the park dude stands in the bed and points at stuff.  It’s pretty interesting nonetheless, because looking at the fossil bed you have no idea what you’re looking if someone with a clue isn’t there to point to it.  It was pretty clear that that bunch of frozen spaghetti rocks could be Icky ribs, and those big flat doorstop thingies could be Icky vertebra, but the other 25 minutes worth of marked rocks, … ya can’t tell the rocks from the fossils without a guide.

Back to the van, make coffee and read some of the Great Basin books I brought along.  Eventually decamp and head down the hill to check out Berlin … then drive back up the hill because I forgot my camp chair, then drive back down the hill to take another swing at Berlin.  I didn’t spend a lot of time, but I quite enjoyed it.  I am a sucker for rusty old machinery and parts and their out of context geometry, especially when it’s scenically located on the side of a wide valley.  I took many pictures.

The park dudes assured me that the cutoff road was good, all 50-odd gravel miles of it, and it turned out to be so!  Much of it was as close to a gravel freeway as you’re going to find, wide and smooth.  I went up the Reese River valley, between the Shoshones and the Toiyabes.  Quite a dramatic drive.  The Reese has a lot of those willlow brakes that take on this lovely red-green hue.  They call to me so strongly whenever I see them.  They are one of the hallmark visual treats of this high desert environment for me.

Thence to Austin, where I followed the park dudes’ final recommendation and ate at the International Cafe.  The food was passable and the old timey vibe was great..  For the record, I want to try the Toiyabe Inn next time, just to know what the (only?) other Austin option is like.

It’s now 4-ish, and I am aiming for Spencer Hot Springs, but I don’t want to bake in the direct sun.  I stop at Bob Evans Campground and kill some time writing this blog in the shade of a rare tree.  This would be a very plausible place to pull off and knock back a few winks if you’ve done just too much US 50 and need to stop for a couple of hours or a night.

Thence to Spencer about 5-ish, by which time the sun had a much better angle.  I had a true blessing at this point, because I got to spend 2-ish hours soaking and drying and soaking and drying with not a single human visible,  There were RVs set up in both directions over the little hill, but nobody disturbed my solitude for the part of Saturday(!) afternoon that I was there.

Now I am at Hickison Petroglyphs Campgound – a sweet little BLM spot 1/3 a mile off of 50, 20-ish miles from Spencer and beautifully situated with a vista eastward down the next valley – the next Basin of the mind-numbing series of Basins and Ranges that comprise northern Nevada.  Then a short hike to the west past the petroglyphs pops you up to a nice view back to the Smoky Valley, where I had just been at Spencer.  I am happy to say that the cool things I set out to do out on this trip through nowhere, I am actually doing!  So I’m having kind of an epic time in my modest way.


My campsite was the bomb last night with its view right down a 40-ish mile stretch of US 50 that is arrow-straight to the horizon.  However in the morning, it’s right out in the unobstructed high desert sun.  Everybody else but me is back on US 5o going somewhere, so I warm up the ole diesel enough to drive around the loop to a nicely shaded spot between two pinon pines tall enough to provide shade for my 10 foot tall van.

I fully execute the petroglyph/overlook hike I sampled last night, and it was great!   Pretty taxing set of switchbacks to take me to a really excellent vista westward from whence I came.  Unusual for me to do such a thing in the morning, but great in this instance because the sun was at my back instead of in my face.   Speaking of sun, I covered myself up as well as I could, my pasty winter skin is just not ready for this stuff.

11-ish, back to the van and off we go to Eureka.  The fresh ingredient deli, darling of the Yelp crowd, was closed on Sunday, so it was the Owl Club for me.  I really dug the Owl Club – Eureka’s idea of a casino.  The food was OK, the casino cuties serving it were awesome, and the place was really cool – a nice bar and a huge dance hall room with a stage at one end.  They could have a mighty nice party at the Owl Club.

Onward.  Chunk off a couple of more Basins and corresponding Ranges, till I’m almost to my left turn for Ruby Lake.  But I take a right turn to check out another camping possibility, Illipah Lake.  Nice but treeless place, and even more gravel road.  There were some truly gigantic RVs there, towing all manner of boats and off-road toys, but there were a couple of spots that would be just right for my modest little Sprinter.

Back to US 50 for a while, till I do finally take a left on a very unassuming little road that will take me north through some truly desolate country, on another 100 miles of gravel road, past a gigantic strip mining operation, to lovely Ruby Lake.  The Rubies are among the tallest mountains in Nevada (12,000′).  Like all the ranges around here they slope gently up on the west side and drop off sharply on the east side, so with a nice snowcap on the high peaks the setting is quite dramatic – I expect the Army of Rohan to come charging down the plain.

My campsite has a wonderful vista.  I enjoy it for a while then head off for one of those Wildlife Refuge driving tours I love so much.  I saw a variety of wildlife – Northern Shovelers, Coots, a Sandhill Crane!, some kind of large bent-billed curlew (I think an American Avocet), Scaups (Greater or Lesser, who knows?), tons of muskrats, a black bird with a yellow head hanging out in the reeds singing his little heart out.  Quite a nice evening.  Sadly no exercise though…  From the heart-health point of view it’s just another hour sitting on my butt in the van.


Crazy spring weather continued…  Friday night was gloomy and cloudy, the last two days have been brilliantly, skin-threateningly clear (great stars after the moon went down), and today, clouds again.  I am happy about it, my exposed campsite is pleasant instead of baking.

On the way out of here I drive the first section of the Refuge tour that I missed last night, and I’m quite glad I did. I saw a ton more Scaups, which are very pretty, and two quite handsome duckish critters that I haven’t identified.  One had a blue bill and stuck it tail in the air, I think it was a Ruddy Duck, but this was quite a bit bigger than I remember them to be, and not very ruddy.  The other had a wide shoveler-type bill but a long, erect reddish neck. I cannot find him in my book at all [update: they were Canvasbacks!  a new bird for me, very impressive]

Up the east side of the Rubies, over the very pretty pass to the west side, where I finally reach pavement again for the first time since yeaterday afternoon. Then up the west side, through the Indian Reservation, through the tiny town of Jiggs, to lunch and ahhh… coffee … at the Scoreboard in Spring Creek, where I’ve eaten I think, every one of the 4-5 times I’ve even in my life passed by here.  It used to be pretty good, now it’s merely convenient.

On to Elko, to hook up with my friend Elton.  We had a great evening and morning.  Went to his house and had my first shower since Reno.  The hot springs dip had helped my grunge situation a little, but I truly needed a shower.  I had not quite factored in hygiene as I planned day after day in the waterless wilderness.  We headed out to “do” Elko.  First stop, happy hout at his favorite bar (the Gallery?) thence to dinner at an Italian place that had pretty good food, but an annoying style of too bossy service.  It was stormy and rainy, not what one expects in Elko.


Hang out with Elton’s excellent parents for a while, then off to downtown to soak up coffee and wifi at Cowboy Joe’s.  At his lunch break we end up eating at the Star, which is the Elko landmark for traditional Basque eating.  Sure enough, mess hall style seating and ridiculous quantities of food, and the steak sandwich was as advertised, the best ever!

Take a leisurely drive to Winnemucca.  On I 80, leisurely means doing 72 even though the speed limit is 75!  It just didn’t feel vacation-y to go any faster, and besides, I had my big Nevada Atlas spread on the steering wheel to read the names of the mountains and valleys and to keep track of where the Humboldt River was hiding.  There’s water in it this time of year, it looks like a real river!

Noodled around Winnemucca, drove up Water Canyon to check it out – will I stay or will I knock off the last 180 miles and go home tonight?  Water Canyon was beyond awesome, so I coasted back down the hill to the first grocery store I found, got a sando and went back!


Sitting here and the end of the road in the canyon the next morning, looking out at the aspen grove and the little creek.  Unbelievably pristine for six miles from downtown Winnemucca.  The BLM campground actually starts about four miles out of Winn., but snakes up the canyon for another two miles.  And on this particular Tuesday night I scored the sweetest spot, at the end of the road.  The best spot for actual camping is a few feet away, but the optimal spot to do my van thing is on the edge of the roundabout facing the aspens, with a straight visual shot to the happy burbling little creek about 18 feet away.  Could not have been a more excellent place to spend 30 hours.  Last night I took a hike up the canyon, which just kept getting prettier and prettier, then down the canyon a bit and up a little gravel path to crest the hill and get a panoramic view across Winnemucca, I 80, the whole huge valley, to the Jackson Mountains to the north.  Beautiful evening.  Well worth staying out one more night.

Back down to Winn for breakfast at the Griddle – good food, but their wifi would not allow me to download audio for today’s drive – dislike.

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