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This remote Nevada attraction and National Back Country Byway offers otherworldly solitude.
Photo: Matthew B. Brown (above), Charlie Johnston (below)
We watch anxiously as the speedometer ticks past 50 miles per hour…55…60… the transmission shifts…65. In front of us, the stark expanse of runway-flat lakebed stretches toward low sagebrush-clad hills; behind us, a plume of dust churns ever skyward. I brake quickly and turn hard right.
As the SUV comes to a stop, Editor Matthew B. Brown and I clamor out, fumbling with our cameras to catch a shot of the roster tail before it settles and dissipates (watch the video below). With the engine off, the silence of the barren playa rings in my ears. Though less than 10 miles from a major highway, the desert feels like a remote, alien planet.
If U.S. Highway 50 across Nevada is the Loneliest Road in America, then its neighbor to the south, U.S. 6, is perhaps the loneliest road in the world—or rather, out of this world. The 168-mile stretch of U.S. 6 between Ely and Tonopah traverses a landscape that is quintessential Nevada, with sweeping valleys, hulking mountain ranges, endless sagebrush, and the occasional oddity. Lunar Crater Volcanic Field, a short drive south of the highway, is one such oddity.
Contrary to its name, Lunar Crater is not the result of a meteor impact. The three-quarter-mile wide, 400-foot-deep crater is the remnant of an ancient, extinct volcano. The caldera, which was recognized in 1973 as a National Natural Landmark, is surrounded by more than 20 other volcanic craters, cinder cones, and volcanic remnants, such as Easy Chair Crater, Black Rock Lava Flow, and The Wall. NASA used the volcanic field in the 1960s to train Apollo astronauts. According to a 1960 article from Nevada Highways and Parks, some of the newer lava flows in the area (and Lunar Crater) are only 2,000 years old, making them, geologically speaking, relatively young.
A couple miles from Lunar Crater, Lunar Lake (see photo at left) embodies the extreme, harsh splendor of the Nevada desert. Its austere beauty is reminiscent of the Black Rock Desert, but it feels even more isolated and remote. During our July visit, ours were the only tire tracks on the lakebed, a clear sign that we may well have been the only people to visit the area in months. After a heavy rain, and occasionally in the winter, a shallow lake actually forms, making the surface impossible to drive on.
Signs on the generally good dirt roads indicate distances and directions to Lunar and Easy Chair Craters, but the area receives little attention and is surprisingly remote considering its modest distance—seven miles—from the highway. The quality of the roads drop slightly around Lunar Lake, but all are still passable with two-wheel-drive and reasonably high clearance.
A number of roads snake into the mountains south of Lunar Crater and Lake. Some are dead ends and others require four-wheel-drive and a fair amount of technical driving skills. Carry a good map, spare tire and jack, water, and extra fuel if you plan to explore the region. Tonopah, about 80 miles west, is the closest place to find food, gas, supplies, and lodging.
Bureau of Land Management—Tonopah Field Office