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Nine diverse, scenic places to take the family and explore the Pony Express Territory.
Photo: Jay Aldrich (Great Basin National Park); Dan Newton (Fort Churchill)
Nevada’s U.S. Highway 50 corridor is dotted with a diverse arrangement of nationally and state-protected sites from Great Basin National Park and Ward Charcoal Ovens State Historic Park in the east to Dayton State Park and Fallon and Stillwater National Wildlife Refuges in the west. Between them, they offer a multitude of recreational and educational treasures and preserve some of the state’s most precious natural and historic gems.
Visitors familiar with the throngs of tourists found at such national parks as Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, and Yosemite will be pleasantly surprised by what is lacking at Great Basin National Park. There are no long lines of tour buses, no traffic, and no need to make a camping reservation months in advance.
Among the least-visited national parks in the country, Great Basin is a picture of solitude and untouched natural beauty. Perched atop eastern Nevada’s Snake Range at altitudes ranging from 5,000 to 13,000 feet, the park is an homage to the region for which it is named and spotlights the multitude of geography, plant life, and animal life found therein.
Great Basin’s top attraction is Lehman Caves. Discovered in 1885 by rancher Absalom Lehman and recognized as a national monument in 1922, the caves are home to some of the most ornate underground formations in the country, including more than 300 rare shield formations—shields consist of two parallel oval panels with a medial crack between them. Ranger-led tours of Lehman Caves are available daily and cost from $4 to $10. More than 40 additional caves exist in the park, eight of which can be explored by experienced cavers with park-issued permits.
Wheeler Peak, at 13,063 feet, is the second-tallest mountain in Nevada and another of the park’s major attractions. Its summit can be reached via a strenuous hike, and its flanks are home to Nevada’s only glacier and a grove of the oldest living organisms on earth, bristlecone pines. The trees have been known to live for nearly 5,000 years, and four groves exist in the park.
Lexington Arch, somewhat off-the-beaten-path in the southern part of the park, is an impressive stone arch that is well worth the side trip and 3.4-mile roundtrip hike. In addition to these attractions, the park is home to more than 60 miles of trails and numerous fishable streams. Four improved campgrounds offer vaulted toilets, picnic tables, tent pads, and campfire grills, and two primitive campgrounds have picnic tables and fire rings. Overnight visitors will delight in a tapestry of unbelievably bright and abundant stars, courtesy of the park’s high-altitude location far away from major light pollution.
Great Basin National Park
Nestled in a high canyon in eastern Nevada’s Schell Creek Range about 15 miles south of Ely, Cave Lake State Park is a natural gem among the state’s protected areas. The primary draw to the park, as the name suggests, is Cave Lake, where anglers drop their lines for brown and rainbow trout as well as crawdads. Ice fishing is popular in the coldest months of the year. The lake takes center stage during the annual Cocktails and Cannons event, June 25, and White Pine Fire & Ice Show, January 13-15, 2012.
Landlubbers can enjoy hiking and mountain biking on the system of trails that includes Cave Lake Overlook, Steptoe Creek, Twisted Pine, and more. Two campgrounds feature campfire grills, tables, restrooms, hot showers, and parking. For a unique camping experience, a Mongolian yurt is available with reservations.
Cave Lake State Park
An interesting trait of many Nevada points of interest is that they include natural and historical significance. This is so often the case because the state’s earliest settlements were built near mineral deposits in Nevada’s unique mountain ranges or near sources of water. Dayton State Park in Dayton owes its existence to both.
The park’s main attraction, the ruins of the Rock Point Mill, is what’s left of one of the largest stamp mills ever built in Nevada. The mill, on the bank of the Carson River, served Virginia City’s Comstock Lode during its heyday.
The park also offers fishing and bird watching on the Carson River and camping and picnic facilities. Autumn, when the park’s abundant cottonwood trees blaze bright yellow along the banks of the Carson River, is a great time to visit.
Dayton State Park
The Great Basin is unique in that none of its waterways drain to the ocean. Rather, they drain into landlocked lakes, wetlands, and underground aquifers, or simply evaporate off the desert floor. Carson Sink, north of Fallon, is the terminus of the Carson River and numerous streams. As a result, wetlands and desert scrub lands of the Carson Sink are home to a stunning array of waterfowl and other wildlife.
Stillwater National Wildlife Refuge, southeast of Fallon National Wildlife Refuge, is considered among the nation’s and world’s most important bird areas by the American Bird Conservancy, National Audubon Society, and Western Hemispheric Shorebird Reserve Network. The vital Pacific Flyway migration stop attracts about 350,000 waterfowl and shorebirds annually, and more than 280 species of birds have been sighted in the area. The annual Spring Wings Bird Festival, this year May 13-15, celebrates the diverse avian life found in the refuge.
Fallon National Wildlife Refuge is an important area for such animals as coyotes, kangaroo rats, kit foxes, mule deer, mountain lions, and many species of waterfowl. There are no access roads in the refuge, and visitors should contact the Stillwater Complex before attempting travel in the area.
Stillwater National Wildlife Refuge Complex
Veterans of travel in Nevada’s outback can easily fathom a time when this land was a great, untamed frontier. At Fort Churchill State Historic Park, about 40 miles east of Carson City via U.S. Highway 50 and Alternate 95, even novice Nevada explorers can get a feel for what the Silver State was like when pioneers crossed its vast expanses.
The former U.S. Army fort was built in 1861 to protect early settlers from the sometimes-hostile local Paiutes. Most of the original adobe buildings stand today, and interpretive signs inform visitors what roles the decaying ruins once played at the fort.
The park includes 20 campsites, a group camping area, and picnic sites along the Carson River. Across the river, Buckland Station was one of the earliest ranches in Nevada and a Pony Express and Overland Stage stop.
Fort Churchill State Historic Park
In order to effectively turn the desert green and create an agricultural oasis in Churchill County, the Newlands Project of the early 1900s needed a means to store water for irrigation. Lahontan Dam was built in 1915, creating a reservoir with a storage capacity of 321,000 acre-feet. Lahontan Reservoir was named a State Recreation Area in 1971 and has since become a water-sports mecca. Two paved boat ramps at North Shore Marina and the Silver Springs day-use area provide access to the lake, and boaters with four-wheel-drive vehicles can also launch boats from beaches where camping is permitted.
In addition to water sports, the lake is popular among anglers for its catfish, trout, walleye, and white bass.
Lahontan State Recreation Area
As the waters of ancient Lake Lahontan receded to expose the Lahontan Valley, the prevailing winds pushed much of the drying sand from its former shores and against the flanks of the Stillwater Range. The resulting Sand Mountain stretches two miles, is 600 feet tall, and has piqued the curiosity of humans for millennia. Ancient people feared the singing dune—wind passing over the sand and simply walking on it causes it to emit roaring and moaning sounds—but modern people embrace the unique mountain, speeding around it in off-road vehicles, hiking up it, sliding down it, and sandboarding on it.
Sand Mountain Recreation Area, about 25 miles east of Fallon, attracts more than 30,000 visitors annually and includes a dry campground (there is no water available) and restrooms. The nearby ruins of the Sand Springs Pony Express Station are among the best preserved from the more than 150-year-old mail route and well worth the short side trip.
Sand Mountain Recreation Area
In the 1870s, silver was discovered in the Egan Range south of Ely. The ensuing boom was responsible for the growth of Ward, which at its height boasted 1,500 residents. The
most significant remnants of the town are a unique set of six well-preserved ovens once used to make charcoal for smelting.
While the beehive-shaped ovens are the impetus for and main attraction of Ward Charcoal Ovens State Historic Park, the park also offers trails for hiking, mountain biking, and ATVing, and Willow Creek supports naturally reproducing brook, brown, and rainbow trout for fishing. Willow Creek campground has 14 sites, vaulted toilets, and drinking water from mid-May through September.
Ward Charcoal Ovens State Historic Park