We spent April in St George Utah and loved it (see our post, St George Utah, under CURRENT TRAVELS, Travels 2018). But we had plans to travel north, so we reluctantly left our beautiful campsite outside of St George and entered the remote basin and range country of eastern Nevada. This is the great wide-open, the epitome of the old west, a lonely land of vast empty plains punctuated by isolated high peaks still tipped with snow.
NOTE: Basin and Range is a geological term to referring to the interior mountain west where high ranges of mountains, running north to south, are separated by vast desert basins (wide valleys). Within the Basin and Range province the streams and rivers flowing down from the high mountains collect in the basins instead of flowing outward to the ocean. It is an enormous, sparsely populated area stretching from eastern California, across all of Nevada and Utah, parts of Arizona, and far south into Mexico. Some of the most remote areas in North America are in the deserts and mountains of the Basin and Range.
Our first stop in Nevada; Cathedral Gorge, a Nevada State Park near the tiny settlement of Panaca. At first glance we regretted having left the beautiful canyons and mountains of St George to land in the drab, sage-covered ranching country around Panaca. We even thought about turning around and just driving the two hours back to St George. But, after settling into the small campground, we quickly changed our minds.
First of all, the small campground was quiet and comfortable with a dump station, flush bathrooms with clean showers, a strong cellular signal, and 30a power at every site (generator use is prohibited, but you can pay an additional $10 to hook up to power). Drinking water is available at community spigots. The sites at the northern end have decent shade and best of all, the park cost only $15/night (without connecting to power). We opted to hook up to power order to run our AC so we paid $25/night. There was even a paved bike trail into Panaca, so re-stocking the beer supply was just a two-mile bike ride away.
Then, after hiking around the park, we found it to be a wonderland of eroded clay cliffs formed into fantastic shapes with caves, slot canyons and grottos. Some looked like gothic churches, others like the scaly back of a dragon. There are trails through it all open for hiking and biking and we hiked them all. Cathedral Gorge offers a lot in a small area.
Our favorite hike was an early morning four-mile walk through Juniper Canyon. We got up early to beat the heat and had the whole valley to ourselves except for the occasional jack rabbit scurrying around. Maybe Cathedral Canyon isn’t a destination itself but, if you’re traveling through eastern Nevada, it’s well worth a stop for a few days.
As the temperatures started to rise, I took a sunrise bike ride around Juniper Loop trail before we packed up and headed north. We were heading north, up to the high country, into the high peaks and pine forests, to Great Basin National Park and beyond.
Great Basin National Park isn’t large, and not near anything else. But, it’s centered around Wheeler Peak, the highest point in Nevada over 13,000 feet high.
We moved into Lower Lehman Campground inside the park, a dry camp with pit toilets for $7.50/night (with my 50% senior discount). We had a very weak cellular signal here, but the small campground (just 11 sites) easily handled our 28-foot fifth wheel with some sites requiring serious levelling. The drinking water was still turned off for the winter, but no matter, we had filled our water tanks and jugs at Cathedral Gorge in anticipation of this. While I played my guitar a large wild turkey strutted past us, his tail feathers spread in an impressive welcoming (or warning) display.
It felt strange to be surrounded by green pine and fir forest, a mountain stream bubbling past our campsite, after seven months in the deserts of Utah, Arizona and Mexico. We simultaneously loved the cool, green forest, but missed the wide-open desert landscapes.
It was mid-May and the road to Wheeler Peak and its high-country trails was still snowed in at 9,000 feet. Still, the views of the mountain were beautiful from Mather Overlook, the highest point we could drive to.
We took the tour through Lehman Caves, one of the famous sites at Great Basin National Park. I’m not a big cave fan, but these are over-the-top spectacular with columns and shields of limestone looking like liquid rock. Anyone coming to the park shouldn’t miss Lehman Cave.
As we exited the cave, snow showers blew in from the high mountains. When we went to bed the snow got serious and by the following morning we were covered in a foot of heavy, spring snow. We talked about staying or leaving. Since all the high-country trails were still snowed in, we decided to leave. We dug ourselves out from the snow, hitched up, and followed the old Pony Express route northward along scenic highway 93 to Wells, Nevada. Now we were entering the remote northeastern corner of Nevada and the wildernesses of the Eastern Humboldt Mountains.
We had business in Wells. We had our mail forwarded to the post office there and needed to pick it up. But, when we arrived we thought we’d made a huge mistake. The town is a dump; abandoned buildings and battered single-wide trailers surrounding a tacky commercial corridor along interstate 80. It was a scene out of Brokeback Mountain. But then we drove nine miles out of town to the U. S. Forest Service campground at Angel Creek and our faith in our planning was renewed.
Angel Creek campground is set in a grove of aspen trees at the base of the towering Eastern Humboldt Range still covered in winter snow in mid-May. And, the water hadn’t been turned on yet, so campsites were discounted from $16/night to $8. My America the Beautiful pass provided us an additional 50% discount, so we payed $4/night. The campsites are small, only a few large enough to back our 28-foot fifth wheel into, with many sites requiring serious levelling. But, the campground has clean pit toilets, water at community spigots (once turned on), and a fair cellular signal (Verizon). The views are magnificent; across vast, desert valleys to the east and up to 11,000 foot Humboldt Peak right outside our window to the west. The normally busy campground was empty, so we happily set up here for the next few days.
Angel Creek was spectacularly beautiful, but the cold springtime rains and wind persisted, turning to sleet and the snowline in the mountains crept lower and lower until it was barely above our camp. The weather forecasts predicted another week of rain and snow and we realized; we had moved north a week too early. So, we packed up and returned to sunny St George and our comfortable camp at Baker Dam and waited there for five more days until the weather in the north improved. Then, we returned to northeastern Nevada; this time into the Ruby Mountains south of Elko. We followed Nevada Highway 50, the self-proclaimed Loneliest Road in America, turning northward on highway 278, which was even lonelier.
We had reserved a campsite at the U.S. Forest Service’s Thomas Canyon campground in the middle of the Ruby Mountains and when we arrived we were glad we had. The campground is small, and only a few sites were barely large enough to squeeze our twenty eight foot-long trailer into. It’s a typical U.S. Forest Service campground with pit toilets and water at community spigots, but set in a grove of shady aspen trees below a magnificent, glacially carved valley of sheer rock with winter snow still clinging to the higher peaks when we arrived in late May. There is no cellular signal here. This looks like a busy place in good weather and I wouldn’t try coming here in summer without reservations.
But, now in late May, thunderstorms were moving through interspersed with breaks of sunny and warmer weather. So, I spent an afternoon hiking the trail out of the campground into the high country of the Ruby Mountain Wilderness, climbing higher and higher, finally slogging through late-spring snowdrifts, until I reached a high cirque, flanked by snow-covered peaks, with waterfalls pouring off their cliffs into a huge alpine meadow. Wildflowers were just starting to bloom and a large beaver dam formed a small lake in the middle of it all. It was a beautiful spot. But, as soon as I sat down on a boulder to take it all in, the wind and sleet blew in and I reluctantly left, hiking back down to camp with the storm blowing in behind me. Still, it was a great day.
We spent our last day hiking the nature trails a the high country at road’s end at the top of the canyon. Then, when we left early the next morning, we had one final gift from the mountains. As we rounded a corner on the way out, a large mountain lion was sitting in the middle of the road just fifty yards in front of us, quietly gazing over the canyon below. I slowed the truck, but he saw us and stood up, loped away on his huge paws with his long tail swaying behind him, and disappeared into the canyon below. By the time I could grab the camera and run up to where he had been, he was gone. Seeing wildlife like that is always a good sign for us. We’ll come back to Lamoille Valley and Thomas Canyon.
From here we were heading north into the Owyhee Canyon Country of southeastern Oregon which, if anything, is even more remote than the Ruby Mountains. But that will be in our next report.