Front and Center
A hearty dose of Central Nevada is good for the soul.
BY MEGG MUELLER & ERIC CACHINERO | January/February 2015
A series of unexpected and delightful moments. This is the appeal of a ridiculously long roadtrip.
For our latest adventure, Associate Editor Eric Cachinero and I chose another ambitious trip. Last September, we wrote about our trip to Nevada’s remote northwest corner, so this time we decide to venture inward and drive 1,200 miles around the state’s south central portion, with the optimistically named Extraterrestrial Highway as our center point. Eager for an adventure with a hint of the incredulous, we have no idea we’ll find that before we drive a single mile.
Our itinerary includes dirt roads and remote towns, yet we find ourselves staring at a small compact car with what appears to be 4 inches of clearance. A snafu at state motor pool left us without a four-wheel drive, and it was either take the compact (did I mention the obnoxious decals?) or cancel the trip. Eric and I aren’t very good at being derailed, so we load up, promise to be as careful as possible, and hit the highway.
AN AUSPICIOUS START
As we’re driving out of Reno, the phrase “what are the odds?” is uttered about our bizarre little car. It won’t be the last time we say it. We head east on Interstate 80 and make a right turn on U.S. Route 95 in Fallon, on our way to Blair and Silver Peak. As we approach Walker Lake, we spy a herd of bighorn sheep 100 yards from the road; what are the odds? Apparently pretty good, as these sheep are well-known to pretty much everyone we mention it to. Our last trip we saw two from 700 yards; here it feels like we could feed them they are so unconcerned with our presence.
As we come around a bend, the sight of the Hawthorne Army Depot hits me and I feel like I’m thrust back to the Cold War era. Filling most of the valley, the 147,236 acres of row after row of buildings built in 1930 is impressive and slightly unsettling. The Gabbs Valley Range—like most in Nevada—is a gorgeous backdrop so we settle into the scenic drive to Blair, the trip’s first ghost town. We shoot south on State Route 265, and for miles there is nothing but vistas before us…unless you count the massive mining operation in the distance. The only lithium mine in the U.S., Rockwood Lithium can be seen from almost anywhere in this sweeping valley. We’re heading that way, but first we turn toward Blair on a dirt road just past the Silver Peak cinder cone, a massive formation of black volcanic rock that looks like it’s been dropped out of nowhere.
The road to Blair is graded, with just a slight berm between you and the structures. The slight berm stops our car, however, so we park and hike up the hill. Blair was born in 1906, and was quite prolific in its short life. Mining all but disappeared by 1916, and today you’ll find the remnants of stone buildings and the mining mill’s foundation. Still, we don’t see any other people or cars during our time here, and you can imagine the miners in this small town feeling engulfed by the magnitude of the valley and ranges before them.
Pictures taken, we fly down the road to Silver Peak, a speck of a town that is home to most of the lithium mine’s workers and little else, before we take another dirt road that will connect us back to 95 and the town of Goldfield. The road is very wide and graded smooth, taking you through the heart of some of the mining operation’s evaporation ponds. We haven’t hit the ET Highway, but driving through the mining area is a little spooky, what with the massive trucks barreling down the road toward you and signs that warn of possible sink holes ahead. We proceed with caution.
Goldfield, like Blair, had a brief mining boom plus tenure as Nevada’s largest city in 1903. By 1910 it was all but over, but unlike Blair, Goldfield refused to disappear. The Santa Fe Saloon and Motel—opened in 1905—is still in operation, but sadly the famously haunted Goldfield Hotel has been shuttered, and currently isn’t offering tours. Still, the town is showing signs of revival; trading posts and shops, hawking pieces of the past, have sprung up amid the gorgeously historical buildings. We stop and chat with Bill Vanderford at his eponymous store, and he confirms the town’s new life; he and his daughter plan to open a café onsite in the next year. Vanderford’s wares of gold nuggets, bags of dirt that may or may not contain gold, and jewelry lend themselves to the stories this longtime prospector tells as we window shop. Alas, our per diem doesn’t allow for any splurges, but Bill is an amiable and knowledgeable host and the stop is well worth it. We wander around, shoot more photos and talk about what life must have been like “back in the day” as we often do.
It’s been a full day of driving, photo shoots, rock hunting, and discoveries, and we’re ready for our last one of the day; the wondrous Mizpah Hotel in Tonopah. It’s a short drive north on 95 to the “Queen of the Silver Camps” and I’m excited to stay the night in this reportedly haunted hotel. The Mizpah—built in 1907—was revamped and reopened in 2011, and it’s a sumptuous step back in time. The building is replete with stained glass, rich mahogany, plush velvet, and friendly ghosts. My beautiful room is, alas, not on one of the floors frequented by spirits, but Eric’s room is smack dab in the middle of spook central. He seems less excited about his good fortune than I am, but declines my offer to change rooms.
I don’t know if it was the insanely comfortable rooms or the food-induced coma we found ourselves in after dining at the Tonopah Brewing Co. , but in the morning we both report no spectral sightings. Next time I’m going to ask for the Lady in Red’s room. But wherever you stay here, Tonopah exudes its rich mining history from every door.
ASPHALT, DIRT, REPEAT
To me, Nevada is a living, breathing being; a beauty as wise and seasoned as the ancient objects and artifacts that compose it. And it is through this beauty, that our Silver State marches valiantly on, and by the exploration and protection of this masterpiece that it receives its life. Much like blood cells that traverse the labyrinth of arteries and veins that fuel our bodies with life, our vehicles traverse the labyrinth of highways and dirt roads. Nevada needs Nevadans as much as we need it. It is this symbiotic relationship that fuels my desire to never cease exploring, respecting, and fueling this life force that we are so fortunate to share.
These thoughts swirl as I awake from a much-needed night’s sleep at the Mizpah. Maybe it’s the traditional Wild West decor that gets my Nevada pride flaring more than usual, but something in me knows I am ready for the road ahead. Mizpah means “watchtower” in Hebrew, but it also denotes an emotional bond between two people that are separated, so it’s maybe no coincidence that I feel very welcome within its walls.
With a scant breakfast in hand, we hit U.S. Route 6, destined for uncharted territory for both Megg and I. The drive begins as many typical Nevada road trips: a cooling cup of cheap, black coffee; the mellifluous drone of tires on pavement; and miles and miles of wide open spaces—a scene to which I’ve become accustom. Only in this part of the state there are even more wide open spaces, so we take our time driving, occasionally pulling our catastrophe of a state vehicle to the side of the road for photo ops.
Our first roadside destination is Warm Springs—a ghost town at the intersection of U.S. Route 6 and State Route 375. The site consists of an abandoned bar and café, a crude swimming pool and bathhouse, and several other formations and structures. The bathhouse sign displays a very rigid “KEEP OUT,” emitting a less-than-friendly welcome. The source of the springs can still be viewed, but be warned, it’s much too hot to enter.
After a quick drive north and about nine miles of dirt road, we approach Lunar Crater National Natural Landmark. Having not done our homework on what caused the crater (I want to believe it was an atom bomb), we arrive uninformed. We stumble upon an out-of-state couple named Florian Maldonado and Kerry Safford, who—unbeknownst to all four of us at the time—would end up being our exploring partners for the remainder of the day. After some conversation, we discover that Florian is a research geologist, and is able to tell us how the crater was formed. Here’s the rough version: gas and pressure built up underground over a long period of time, which eventually erupted and left a massive crater. After exploring the rim of the giant hole in the ground, we say goodbye to Florian and Kerry and head back in the direction of Warm Springs.
I get goose bumps as we start driving on State Route 375—famously known by its popular name: The ET Highway. We’re not on the highway long before we decide to trudge our two-wheel drive Focus off-road in search of a ghost town called Adaven, which—like moths to flame—we search out simply because its name is Nevada spelled backwards.
Traveling back roads in Nevada can sometimes be a very lonely venture, as you can often travel hundreds of miles without seeing another soul. But, much to our surprise, we’re not off the highway for more than 20 minutes before we see another car in the distance. We pull up alongside, only to be reunited with Florian and Kerry. After a quick exchange of words and directions, we say goodbye to them once again, and head off into the hills in search of the elusive Adaven ghost town.
The road greets us with some relatively rough going—very easy to find when driving dirt roads with an inadequate clearance. As we come upon where we think the ghost town should be we hear another vehicle approaching from behind. “It’s Florian and Kerry again!” Megg says. Sure enough, our new friends decided to search for the ghost town, too. We decide to explore the road ahead with them, in hopes that the dirt road we are on will spit us out somewhere near the town of Rachel, where we are to spend the night.
We eventually find Adaven, which doesn’t really amount to much, save a few modern ranch houses and fields used for farming. We take note of the abundance of no trespassing signs near the ghost town, and decide to keep heading down the road to a vast and seemingly unforgiving expanse named Garden Valley.
Now at this point, I’m hesitant to admit this to Megg, but I’m lost. Not just lost like took a wrong turn and can go back lost, but seriously, have no idea which random road to pick lost. To put this into perspective, we are in the middle of the Nevada desert, roughly 100 miles from any town, with a vehicle that is grossly incapable of handling the roads we’re traveling, following a couple we just met, and the sun is setting. Our situation is almost laughable. Luckily, Florian believes we are heading in a direction that will eventually put us on a highway, so we put our trust in him and continue heading into the vastness.
After what seems like hours and just before I convince myself the road never ends, we reach pavement, and I’ve never been happier to see it. We end up coming out just north of Hiko. After saying another quick goodbye to Kerry and Florian, we find ourselves back on the Extraterrestrial Highway en route to Rachel.
It’s dark when we arrive in Rachel, but the presence of the famous town is felt as strong as ever. We head inside the Little A’Le’Inn—the traditional and only place to stay when visiting the closest habitation to Nellis Air Force Range. The building consists of a bar, restaurant, gift shop, and hotel lobby all mixed into one. The room is filled with locals and tourists, all winding down after a long day. We are promptly greeted by a couple burgers and a couple friendly locals, including Rachel resident Pat Jordan, who kindly tells us everything we need to know about the town. Pat has been living in Rachel officially since 2009, but he discovered and fell in love with the town more than a decade prior. Pat epitomizes small town, rural Nevada in his friendly approach to make out-of-towners feel welcome. One piece of advice stands out above the rest. “Don’t drive at night, you will die,” Pat says. We, of course, heed his advice.
As I’m chowing down on my Alien Burger and listening to Pat talk about the town and how he ended up there, I feel a hand tap me on the back. I twirl my barstool around, only to see none other than Kerry and Florian, who decided to also stay at the hotel. We spend the evening conversing and looking to the sky in hopes of seeing a UFO before we retreat to our rooms for the night.
LAW OF ATTRACTION
Rachel, where you wake up and wonder if last night really happened, or if aliens took over your body. Nonetheless, it’s time to pay the piper or at least settle our bill and head out. As we head to the restaurant, our pal Pat is coming to find us; he’s got someone for us to meet. We’re heading to the Mt. Irish Wilderness and the White River Narrows Archaeological District in search of rock art, and we’re itching to get going, but Pat insists; we are so glad he did.
Pat introduces us to Lincoln County denizen and author Bob Clabaugh. Over coffee, Bob not only tells us where to find the best petroglyphs, he gives us a trail guide to Mt. Irish rock art he and his wife Penny wrote for the Bureau of Land Management. What are the odds? It’s a great surprise, but wait, there’s more. Bob and Penny also wrote two books on rock art—“Sacred Sites: Rock Art of Lincoln County, Nevada” and “Pahranagat Man: Nevada’s Mysterious Anthropomorph”—which he gives us as a gift. We get more directions, advice, and laughs, and we leave feeling full despite having not eaten. Rachel gives us more than we bargained for, and it insinuates itself into our bones. Unless that was the aliens.
Something possesses us as we head out, and our car finds itself on an incredibly straight, ridiculously long dirt road leading seemingly nowhere. We can’t resist driving to Area 51, and owing to the fact there is a dirt cloud in front of us, neither could someone else. We continue but we keep our distance…partly because our car is filling with dust at a prodigious rate.
After a long time, and many discussions of whether this was a good idea, we come around a corner and spy a large white SUV on a hill, pointed in our direction. The next bend reveals the locked gate, or more accurately a few specifically worded signs letting us know further travel would not be wise. But we are not alone; the car in front of us turns out to be a rental with a couple from England who made the drive up from Las Vegas just to see the famed Area 51. What are the odds? We chat a bit, and we all notice the white SUV is now turned to face us again. It’s up a hill, and just far enough away the only thing you can make out is two visors pulled down. The signs say photos are prohibited, but our friends ask if we’ll take their picture in front of the signs…and get the SUV in the background. Eric quickly obliges, and we all act brave while bolting for our cars.
Back on pavement, we fill up at Ash Springs—the first gas in the area—and following Bob’s directions, we off-road it up to the Mt. Irish petroglyphs. It’s about 7 miles before we stop, nd the car is glad. The road is fine, but there are some healthy rocks and ruts. There are plenty of signs, so it’s easy to find the art once you start hiking. The rock faces are impressive alone, but as canvas to prehistoric art, they take on a reverential feel. It’s heady to imagine the stories being told thousands of years before. It’s estimated the area was occupied from 1000 B.C. to the 1860s.
Next up, the White River Narrows Archaeological District, north on State Route 318. There’s a sign as you enter the district, but it might as well have been petroglyphs for all we could glean from it. The terrain is unremarkable and typical; we can’t help but wonder what the big deal is. What a difference a few miles makes; we find ourselves amid towering rock formations that mimic a tiny Grand Canyon. Deep cuts, sheer faces, and aggressive outcroppings are everywhere…only in a manageable space. We stop at Weepah Springs to hike into the canyon, because it is there and we need to move. Only the most aggressive of 4WD would make it in the canyon, but on foot it is eerily silent; we don’t see a single animal despite the prime habitat and solitude.
We’re heading to Lund, a place we know nothing about except we’ve never been there which is enough. It’s our final night, and before we end our day, Eric is determined to fish. His pole and license have been in the backseat, awaiting the perfect spot. We found it at Adams-McGill Reservoir, just 73 miles south of Ely. Tucked 10 miles west of 318, this small reservoir is just 785 surface feet with a maximum depth of 10 feet. We have been chased by black skies most of the day, and the cloud cover makes for a moody late afternoon, but so far nothing has fallen from the sky. We take the alkali-packed dirt road to the water, and Eric casts his line. I don’t have a license so I go walking in search of photos; the light is doing an incandescent dance, with clouds parting for shocking streams of sun, then slapping back together as if they are curtains quickly shuttered. I feel like I’m witnessing creation as I snap away.
I head back to find Eric’s lost a lure, but not his ambition. He reties, and comes up with a small bass. I name it sushi, and he tosses it back, satisfied. The sun comes out in earnest, and we pack up and head to the Lane’s Ranch Motel just outside Lund. After our crazy Rachel night, we both admit to being nervous about what we might encounter, but are ecstatic to find the motel has huge, clean rooms, and the diner serves some of the best burgers we’ve ever eaten. Another gem in the seemingly endless expanse that is rural Nevada, and it appears, the odds are ever in our favor.
RUDOLPH THE RED-NOSED ELK
I peel apart the curtains in my hotel room to dull and dreary skies, which are sharply contrasted by the mountain of biscuits, country gravy, scrambled eggs, and bacon that greets me at Lane’s Ranch Café. As soon as we hit the highway en route to Ely, a wave of excitement comes over me as I realize we’re now in elk country. Between rubbernecking while searching for elk and taking in scenery I’ve never seen before, a faint, crackly radio station—the first of any substance we’ve heard in two days—begins to materialize through the speakers. It’s a familiar tune that I instantly recognize: Christmas music. So here we are, looking for elk, singing Christmas carols in the middle of November.
We make a quick pit stop in Ely before we begin heading southeast on Highway 50 toward a piece of Nevada history that has been on my places-to-visit list for quite a while—the Ward Charcoal Ovens State Historic Park. About 10 miles off the highway, and just past a sign that offers live buffalo for sale, we begin to see the familiar outlines of the charcoal ovens taking shape in the distance.
From 1876-79, the charcoal ovens were used to create fuel to power smelters that melted the ore extracted from the area’s surrounding silver mines. The ovens were loaded with juniper and pinyon pines, which were ignited and turned to charcoal—a process which took about 10 days. Eventually, due to depleted ore deposits and a shortage of available timber, the ovens were phased out.
The six beehive-shaped structures are more magnificent in person than a photograph could ever capture. The anomalous stone ovens seem to have a commanding presence over the valley—keeping watch comparable to the Praetorian Guards of ancient Rome. Each structure is as intricate as the next, both strapping and fragile in their stature.
Megg and I are mostly silent as we explore the ovens, taken aback by their presence and beauty. I occasionally break the silence by entering each oven and testing its acoustics by howling out a loud “whoop!” Due to their symmetrical nature, the reverberation is incredible—and if you visit, be sure to check out number three; it’s the best.
We head back out to the highway, stopping at an “elk viewing station” alongside Highway 50, but to our dismay, the elk didn’t much feel like being viewed that day. As we contemplate setting our sights on home, we see a massive rock cliff in the distance that catches our attention, so we decide to go check it out.
Following the rock leads us to Cave Lake State Park—an unplanned stop, but certainly worth it. The beautiful alpine reservoir provides fishing, boating, swimming, and in the winter, the White Pine Fire & Ice Show (see page 53). We don’t stay long, but promise ourselves we’re going to come back and catch a fish, or 10.
And so another stellar road trip winds down, leaving us with a whole lot of Highway 50 to reflect on our journey. That’s the best part about Nevada roadtrips; they’re like chicken soup. They sure do taste great and they’re darn good for the soul.
PLAN YOUR TRIP
100 N. Main S.t, Tonopah, NV 89049
9631 Old Mill St., Rachel, NV 89001
Lane’s Ranch Motel
State Route 318, Lund, NV 89317