Nevada is a well-kept secret. Spectacular glacial canyons, ruby-studded mountains, ancient petroglyphs, hot springs, ghost towns, big sky cowboy country, and sparkling blue alpine lakes are just a few of the surprising secrets the ‘Silver State’ holds.
Most people think of Nevada as barren, open desert, with little to offer except for the big casino towns of Reno and Las Vegas. Travelers venture out to Utah and Arizona to see the Grand Canyon, Zion, Bryce Canyon, Monument Valley, and the other well-known places we all associate with the fabled West. But few people travel the byways of Nevada to discover the hidden beauty this amazing state offers.
We first awakened to Nevada’s stunning scenery while heading south on Nevada Highway 95 from Fernley to Beatty. We often took this high desert route to Death Valley National Park.
Highway 95 offers beautiful vistas of colorful desert and little mining towns along its north-south route. The sapphire blue waters of Walker Lake reflect imposing views of the mountain tops, and impressive herds of Desert Bighorn sheep can be spotted grazing along its banks. Little roadside cafes in Mina and Shoshone entice weary travelers with homemade hamburgers and milkshakes, and the hot springs in Beatty and Tecopa Springs make the long drive worthwhile.
The U.S. Highway 50 corridor, which runs east-west across Central Nevada, covers spectacular open sky country. Deep blue lakes, alpine vistas, limestone caverns, and ancient Bristlecone Pines beckon at Great Basin National Park near the Nevada/Utah border. The nearby mining towns of Austin, Eureka and Ely provide amazing history centers filled with local memorabilia. Backcountry roads radiate outward in every direction, and the Toiyabe National Forest offers thousands of acres of camping, hiking, fishing, and endless opportunities to explore.
Austin, Nevada features a travel brochure outlining a backroad day trip through the Monitor Valley and Big Smoky Valley. This winds past Spencer’s Hot Springs, the Toquima Cave petroglyphs, Diana’s Punchbowl, and the Northumberland Cave and Gold Mine. There is also a scenic route through the Reese River Valley with incredible bird life, including numerous raptors. One big roadside hawk just sat there, perched on a post unperturbed, quietly eyeballing me as I sidled up close to get a photo. Nearby, Big Creek Canyon and Kingston Summit offer panoramic views of the wetland valley below.
But the Ruby Mountains near Elko, Nevada (off Interstate 80) are perhaps the most surprising place of all. These glacially-sculpted, granite mountains rise over 11,000 feet above the surrounding valley floor.
The Rubies can be reached by taking the Lamoille Canyon Scenic Byway. This short route heads west from Elko, Nevada and takes you straight into the heart of a spectacular, glacial U-shaped valley. Studded with alpine lakes, this area features spacious campgrounds with lovely vistas and hiking trails leading to deep blue alpine lakes. These mountains earned their name from the bright red garnets found deeply-imbedded in the granitic rocks. Garnets look a lot like rubies, hence the name Ruby Mountains.
Ruby Lake Wildlife Refuge is also a worthy destination on the southern side of this beautiful range. The Donner Party skirted these mountains on their route along the Hastings Cutoff, a much-touted ‘300 mile shortcut’ around the Ruby Mountains along the California Trail. This route around the Rubies actually added over 125 miles and two weeks’ time to the journey, causing the hapless travelers a deadly delay which later cost many lives.
We stayed at Thomas Creek Campground in Lamoille Canyon and were amazed at the unparalleled scenery day and night. When a brilliant moon came out and lit up the snow-covered peaks we were spellbound! It was so bright we had to shield our eyes from the intense moonlight. The stars and planets sifted across the mountaintops, with the crystal clear, tumbling sounds of the creek rushing below.
The nearby town of Elko is in the heart of what Nevadans call Cowboy Country, and the 111 year-old Star Hotel offers Basque-style dining with unbelievably delicious steaks, prime rib, filet mignon, lobster, giant shrimp, homemade soup, french fries, salad, three kinds of beans, and pasta. It was an incredible spread with the ‘small’ cuts of steak so big they covered the entire plate. We had enough leftovers to last the next two days. If you go there, arrive early because the place is extremely popular. Folk guitarists frequent the hotel, singing country ballads to keep things lively. The picturesque, copper-ceilinged bar and dining room feature historic photos, cowboy ropes, and cooking implements covering the walls.
The nearby California Trail Museum features excellent exhibits showcasing what it was like to travel out west in covered wagons, braving the dangers of the hot, dry, dusty desert, alkali waters, and further on, the snow and ice of the towering Sierra Nevada Range. The exhibits also chronicle the damaging impact the westward migration had on the Native American inhabitants and the fragile landscape of the Humboldt River Basin.
A gigantic storm came crashing down during our trip, covering the whole state in snow and ice. This brought a hasty end to our autumn adventure so recently filled with leaves of orange, red and gold. The air was cold, and the spicy scent of desert sage permeated the air. We gazed all around us. The entire state was now covered with snow in every direction. Every peak, every bush, and every hillside was blanketed in bright white. All was silent, and even the tiny little desert lizards had fled underground. We didn’t want to admit it, but it was time to head back home again. Visions of moonlit skies and dreams of desert sage danced in our heads. We would be back again in the spring!