Routes: Nevada's Highway 50
Long before asphalt, the Pony Express cut across Nevada as part of the link between St. Joseph, Missouri and Sacramento, California. Today, Highway 50 parallels much of the same route. Crossing through a region known as the Great Basin, it climbs nine mountain summits, passes through historic mining towns, and leads to Nevada’s only national park.
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I imagined myself at a lone service station, with a sign declaring "Next gas 300 miles." A weathered, old prospector sitting on a bench said, "Don’t get many people pass this way." Back behind the wheel, I drove off down "The Loneliest Road in America," a flat, barren landscape peppered with tumbleweed and very little on the horizon.
In reality, Nevada’s Highway 50 is far from just a mundane stretch of flat asphalt. It cuts across the Great Basin, which encompasses much of the state. It’s an apt name—snowmelt from the mountains never reaches the sea; it runs down into landlocked lakes and marshes and eventually evaporates. Rich in curiosities, both topographic and historic, this ribbon of road runs across an ancient lake bed, climbs over several mountain passes, parallels the Pony Express route, was part of the Lincoln Highway, and is a link to the state’s only national park.
History aside, Highway 50 suffered a brief public relations setback in the mid-1980s when an article in LIFE magazine offered little redeeming quality for the roughly 285 miles running from Fernley to Ely, christening it "The Loneliest Road in America." Locals used this crowning achievement for their amusement and advantage: they created the "Highway 50 Survival Kit" to promote attractions and services along the route. The State Legislature, adopting the "if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em" approach, authorized road signs along the highway boasting the title. While adding to the road’s mystique, it has not created huge traffic jams. In fact, it is still a lonely road.
I set out early from Fernley, a small but expanding community on Alternate 50, some 30 miles east of Reno. It was once prime beach-front property. Some 10,000 years ago, a vast network of interconnected lakes and marshes, referred to as Lake Lahontan, covered much of what is now western Nevada. The lake eventually receded leaving only traces of itself behind.The lush, green fields of neighboring Fallon have earned it the nickname "Oasis of Nevada." Though a major grower of alfalfa, the town is more closely associated with its famous Heart O’ Gold cantaloupes which it honors with an annual festival.
Relive the early days of railroading at Ely’s Nevada Northern Railway Museum. Visitors can ride the rails aboard "The Ghost Train of Old Ely," a 1910 Baldwin steam locomotive as well as No. 93 (above), a 1909 American locomotive, and No. 109, an Alco diesel engine. The 30 buildings in the working railyard include the depot, machine shop, and engine house.
The Churchill County Museum was an unexpected find with nearly 10,000 square feet full of exhibits on the area’s geology, Paiute Indians, the Emigrant Trail, and the Pony Express. This is also the meeting spot for the Bureau of Land Management’s tour of Hidden Cave, an archeological site used by early inhabitants roughly 8,000 years ago.
The tour group gathered and viewed a short video on the Hidden Cave’s history, before carpooling 11 miles to the site. Across the highway—the Fallon Naval Air Station where today’s "Top Gun" pilots come to train. The juxtaposition of past and present was not lost on the group as we watched warbirds soar over ancient rock etchings. Climbing the trail to the cave, I saw what appeared to be bathtub rings on the nearby hills, a record of the levels reached by Lake Lahontan.
The cave, last excavated in 1980, looked as if the archeologists had just packed up and gone home. Layers of sediment and ash are tagged to record lake levels and volcanic activity. The shaft of an arrow remains partly buried where it was discovered. It’s a novel way to see how such sites are studied while leaving areas untouched for future excavations.
I explored the nearby mile-long petroglyph trail, at Grimes Point Archeological Site, noting that some rock carvings were defaced by fairly recent graffiti. According to the trail brochure, more historic sites in North America have been destroyed in the last 20 years than in the previous 200.
Farther east, the highway crossed an expanse of flat, bone-white earth. Winds whipped up tiny dust-twisters. It was the floor of the extinct Lake Lahontan. Names and messages laid out in stones, by locals or passersby, line the dry, shallow gullies along the road. Such vastness creates a strange sensation of standing still even though your foot is on the accelerator. Mountains on the horizon, and even cars driving towards you, seem to take an eternity to reach.
Near the end of the flats, winds have gathered the sands of long-extinct beaches, creating a mound some 600 feet high and two miles long. Known as Sand Mountain, this massive dune is a haven for off-road vehicles. Several dune buggies zipped up and down the hill, like fleas on the vast sandy backdrop. Nearby are the remains of the Sand Springs Pony Express Station where riders were able to get a fresh horse for the next leg of their journey.
Austin, like most towns in central Nevada, was born during the silver mining booms of the 19th century. As with their gold producing cousins in California, once the mining dried up so did much of the town. While mining continues through the region, the days of the big strikes have long passed.
Standing vigil over the Reese River Valley, the medieval-looking Stokes Castle was built by entrepreneur Anson Stokes, in 1897, as his Austin summer home. After only a summer’s use, the stone tower was abandoned.
Another stone structure of note is the Gridley Store where a plaque commemorates owner Reuel Gridley. In the 1860s, Gridley lost a bet and had to carry a sack of flour across town. The sack was subsequently auctioned over and over, raising around $250,000 in proceeds for the Sanitary Fund (forerunner of the Red Cross).
The Hickison Petroglyph Recreation Area, about 20 miles east, was quiet when I stopped for a look at the rock art. The silent, empty highway felt like a scene from The Road Warrior. As a warm breeze dusted the sagebrush, I tried to envision a lone Pony Express rider galloping across the infinite desert. About 60 miles stood between me and the next town. I didn’t see another car for nearly 45 minutes.
The Pony Express
One of the legacies of the Old West, the Pony Express, was born on April 3, 1860, when Johnny Fry rode west from St. Joseph, Missouri, and fellow rider Billy Hamilton headed east out of Sacramento, California. With California’s gold fields continuing to draw people west, coupled with the political tensions of the 1850s which would lead to the Civil War, the importance of faster communication links with the east grew. Mail normally delivered by boat or overland stagecoach could take a month or more. The Pony Express, founded by freight company owners William Russell, Alexander Wallace, and William Waddell, did the job in 10 days for $5 per 1/2 ounce (dropping later to $1 per 1/2 ounce).
Young men recruited as riders were around 18 years old, weighed about 120 pounds, and possessed good riding skill. For eighteen months, they made the treacherous 2,000-mile journey between St. Joseph and Sacramento, traveling both day and night and enduring harsh weather, bandits, and Indian attacks. Among the 183 men who took up the challenge were James Butler "Wild Bill" Hickok and a 14 year-old William "Buffalo Bill" Cody. The Transcontinental Telegraph, completed on October 24, 1861, saw the demise of the Pony Express. Though short-lived, it provided a vital role to the expanding West while creating an image which has become synonymous with the frontier spirit.
Eureka was one of the state’s largest towns during the 1870s and ’80s. The town’s 16 smelters, and the smoke and soot they produced, earned it the name "Pittsburgh of the West." Today, the self-proclaimed "Loneliest Town on the Loneliest Road" works hard to promote its past under much clearer skies. I stopped by the restored Opera House, part of the traveling theater circuit in the late 1800s, to get my bearings. Picking up a walking tour brochure, I discovered many holdovers from the town’s heyday, including the Eureka County Courthouse, the Post Office, and several churches. The Sentinel Museum presented a good overview of local history, including original printing equipment used for the Eureka Sentinel newspaper, from 1870 to 1960, and several late 19th century posters.
Great Basin National Park
Great Basin has the distinction of being Nevada’s only national park and, from a naturalist’s point of view, a better area could not have been chosen. Established as Lehman Caves National Monument in 1922, the area gained national park status and expanded to over 77,000 acres in 1986. From desert to tundra, examples of all the life zones comprising northern and central Nevada are found within and around park boundaries. Lehman Caves, ancient bristlecone pines, and the state’s only glacier are contained in the park.
In its remote eastern Nevada location, Great Basin remains one of the least visited of all national parks. Late spring to early autumn is the best time to visit when roads and trailheads are more accessible. Weekends and summer tend to be the busiest time, though most people make it a quick stop.
A short visit should include the 90-minute Lehman Caves tour offered daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. (arrive early and dress warmly). Tour fee is $4 adults, $3 ages 6-16, and free ages 5 and under. Take the scenic park road up Wheeler Peak to its end, at 10,000 feet, where you’ll find trailheads leading to bristlecone pines and the 13,000 foot summit. Nature walks and other programs are also offered.
If you spend a little more time, you’ll find four developed campgrounds and several hiking trails to explore. Campsites are first-come, first-served. Fishing, horseback riding, and mountain biking are permitted in designated areas; inquire at the Visitor Center. Winter snows close most trails and roads at higher elevations. Though there are no marked or groomed trails, the rugged terrain attracts backcountry skiers.
In the park’s remote southern half, four-wheel drive vehicles are recommended to access primitive campgrounds and hiking trails. Views of the six-story-high natural bridge known as Lexington Arch reward those who hike the mile-long trail into Arch Canyon.
A note of caution: Many areas of the park reach elevations of 10,000 feet or more. Avoid overexertion and be prepared for sudden drops in temperature.
The tiny town of Baker seems unfazed by the national park in its backyard. No large souvenir emporiums, no fastfood joints. You will find several homes, a gas station/general store, the Silver Jack Motel, and The Outlaw, a restaurant with a friendly atmosphere, where they won’t let you leave hungry.
For more information, or advance purchase of Lehman Caves tickets, contact Great Basin National Park, Baker, NV 89311-9702; (702) 234-7331, or Great Basin Chamber of Commerce, P.O. Box 90, Baker, NV 89311; (702) 234-7302.
Ely was another 80 miles east. Compared to Austin and Eureka, Ely is a metropolis with motels, casinos, fast food joints, even an airport. In spite of the modern day trappings, downtown still has a 1920s look and shady park. Visiting the cramped White Pine County Museum, with its overflowing collections of local memorabilia, is like poking around grandma’s attic. Ely’s claim to fame: it’s the home town of former First Lady Pat Nixon.
A ride aboard old No. 93 at the Nevada Northern Railway Museum is a must for rail buffs. The 1909 steam locomotive chugs past downtown, passing through a curving tunnel into hills which have yielded tons of copper ore. The museum’s depot and rail yard have changed little since the early part of the century.
Continuing east, Highway 50 skirts the southern edge of Humboldt National Forest and edges over 7,723-foot Connors Pass. My first view of the Snake Mountain Range came backlit by the rising sun. Sacramento Pass was the last up and over before reaching the SR 487 cut-off to Baker and Great Basin National Park.
At the park Visitor Center, I read through several interpretive displays, awaiting the descent into Lehman Caves. Our ranger-guide handed out flashlights before we began our walk. Discovered in the 1880s by rancher Absalom Lehman, these underground works of art resulted from nature’s slow reconfiguring of the planet. Millions of years of limestone being dissolved by water have created not only the familiar stalactites and stalagmites, but more unusual drapery, popcorn, bacon, and shield formations.
We stood in Lehman’s shoes briefly as the lights were turned out and the ranger lit a candle. Lehman may have been the first, but poor lighting deprived him of a true look at his discovery. Our guide pointed out the fragility of the caverns—humans can undo thousands of years of geologic activity by breathing, touching (a big no-no), and inadvertently leaving behind lint.
From the subterranean, I moved up the mountain. Wheeler Peak Scenic Drive climbed steadily as the sagebrush gave way to pinion pine and juniper, and vistas changed with each switchback. I came upon two mule deer foraging beside the road, and slowed down so they wouldn’t be startled. They just gazed at me as if to say, "Keep it moving. Nothing to see here."
At 10,000 feet, the air was cool despite the sun. I left the parking area and hiked some 2 miles or so, past Stella and Teresa lakes, before looping back to a grove of bristlecone pines. Among the oldest living things on the planet, these gnarled and twisted trees have been clinging to Wheeler Peak for three to four thousand years. There must be strength in numbers, as the grove was quite populous.
Further on, the trail began to lose itself to the moraine. I continued across the rocky terrain toward the mountain’s glacier. The 13,000-foot peak seemed to cradle the snow and ice near its top. It was silent save for the distant sound of snowmelt running down the mountain.
I stopped on the drive back down for one last look out across the Great Basin. A light snow had begun to fall from the clouds gathered around Wheeler Peak. To the east, the sky was clear. The sun beamed across the sand-colored Snake Valley into Utah, with the "Loneliest Road in America" running off to the horizon.
This article was first published in September 1997. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.
Pick up AAA’s Nevada/Utah map (or order it online). Lodging may be found in the AAA California/Nevada TourBook, California/Nevada CampBook, and CSAA Bed & Breakfast Guide. Nevada Handbook (Moon Publications) by Deke Castleman is superb for both practicalities and history. John McPhee’s Basin and Range (Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux) is the classic literature on the geology of the Great Basin.
For an "I Survived Highway 50" Kit or other information on the Pony Express Territory, contact the Nevada Commission on Tourism, Capitol Complex, Carson City, NV 89710; (702) 687-3636 or (800) NEVADA-1.
Fallon holds its annual Cantaloupe Festival Labor Day weekend. Contact the Fallon Convention and Tourism Authority, 100 Campus Way, Fallon, NV 89406; (702) 423-4556 or (800) 874-0903.
Grimes Point Archeological Site is on Highway 50, 11 miles east of Fallon. Free tours of Hidden Cave are offered the second and fourth Saturday of each month at 9:30 a.m. Meet at the Churchill County Museum, 1050 S. Maine St., in Fallon. The museum has seasonal hours. Admission is free. Phone (702) 423-3677.
For information on activities in and around Austin, contact the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce, Box 212, Austin, NV 89310; (702) 964-2200. A free mountain bike trail guide is available from the Austin Ranger District, P.O. Box 130, Austin, NV 89310; (702) 964-2671.
A walking tour guide of Eureka is available from the Eureka County Chamber of Commerce, Box 14, Eureka, NV 89316 (702) 237-5484. The Eureka Opera House, 31 S. Main St., presents a variety of performances throughout the year. Self-guided tours are also available Mon.-Fri. 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Phone (702) 237-6006. The Sentinel Museum has seasonal hours. Admission is free. Phone (702) 237-5010.
For information on Ely, contact the White Pine Chamber of Commerce, 636 Aultman, Ely, NV 89301; (702) 289-8877. The White Pine County Museum is at 2000 Aultman St. in Ely. Open Mon.-Fri. 9 a.m. to 4 p.m; Sat. 10 a.m. to 4 p.m; Sun. 12:30 p.m. to 4 p.m. Admission is free. Phone (702) 289-4710. The Nevada Northern Railway Museum, 1100 Avenue A in East Ely, offers steam and diesel train excursions and guided tours of the facility May to September. For a schedule and prices, phone (702) 289-2085.