For our first RV trip since the pandemic hit, we turned our attention to lesser traveled destinations in our own state of Nevada. From Reno, we have access to remote towns with intriguing Basque history, Native American archaeological sites, dinosaur fossils, and seemingly endless mountain ranges, including the stunning Ruby Mountains and one of the least visited National Parks, Great Basin. All of this, plus open, empty roads and expansive high desert views like a quarantine fever dream. What better time to explore The Loneliest Road in America?
As a native New Yorker, my impression of the state of Nevada could be summed up in two words: “Las Vegas”, and “desert”. Oh, and “hot”. Since settling in Reno I’ve been amazed by the natural beauty and diverse outdoors opportunities surrounding us. Open plains, wetlands, granite mountain peaks, pine forests, rivers, alpine lakes… and yes, desert too.
FUN FACT: Nevada is the most mountainous state in the contiguous 48! More mountains than California, Washington, Montana, or Colorado. I had no idea. Nevada is also one of the least densely populated states, with 80% of its land, about 48 million acres, owned and operated by various federal agencies, and 75% of its population centered around Las Vegas.
So the impression of Nevada as Las Vegas and a whole bunch of desert isn’t exactly off. The state is composed of two of the four major deserts in North America: the Mojave (in the southern point which includes Vegas) and the Great Basin Desert.
The, uh, greater “Great Basin” is an “endorheic watershed”, extending into Utah, Idaho, Wyoming, Oregon, and California. Like a basin, there is no outlet to the ocean. All the water in the creeks, streams, and rivers evaporates, sinks into the ground, or flows into lakes. The Great Basin outlets include Death Valley in California and the Great Salt Lake in Utah.
Finally, the Great Basin is a subsection of the Basin and Range province, which covers much of Western North America. The Basin and Range is distinguished by narrow mountain chains running north-south, interspersed with flat valley basins. This landscape was colorfully described as “an army of caterpillars crawling northward” by the American geologist Clarence Dutton. (Impressive, considering there was no Google Maps satellite view at the time.)
Last winter we RV’d south through the middle of Nevada to get to Vegas and Valley of Fire State Park. It was remarkable to drive for hours with no houses or towns and hardly any other cars in sight, with the Basin and Range landscape on a continuous roll out the window for hundreds of miles.
And that brings us to our most recent trip through northern Nevada. The drive from Reno east to Elko along interstate 80 spans the state, practically from California to the Utah border. Generally we try to keep our travel days under 200 miles, but made an exception for this 300 mile drive since it was pretty much straight highway along the interstate. Plus, there’s not too many other options in between.
Aside from gas and a truck wash, our only stop was in the small mining town of Battle Mountain for lunch at the historic Owl Cafe and Casino. Opened in the late 1880’s, with a mid-century modern exterior, it’s a perfectly iconic road trip destination. Of course, this being not-normal times, the experience felt more complicated than it would have just three months ago. For our first meal outside the house in weeks we went all in: an indoor restaurant attached to a smoky casino. Half of the booths were closed off, and there was only one other occupied while we were there. Still, it was jarring to see unmasked folks hanging out at slot machines (although every other one was taped off!). We enjoyed our food and the friendly service, made frequent use of hand sanitizer, wore our masks, and stuck to take-out for the rest of the trip.
We stayed in Elko to visit the nearby Ruby Mountains. Specifically, Lamoille Canyon, enthusiastically recommended by friends from Reno (thank you, Kurt and Amber!). Another time I’d love to stay in one the campgrounds in the spectacular surroundings of Lamoille (rhymes with oil) Canyon. But I’m glad we got a chance to spend a couple nights in Elko, the major town in northeast Nevada, with a population of about 20,000. Its location along Highway 80 between Reno and Salt Lake City makes it a logical overnight stop, but it’s a vibrant Western town well worth exploring. Photos from downtown Elko:
We arrived at our RV park around 5pm and took it easy after the long drive. I was proud of myself for preparing breaded chicken cutlets in advance, which we had for dinner (along with fries and tater tots leftover from lunch). It felt good to be back in the RV after 6 months.
For our first full day the intention was to hike Lamoille Canyon, but the weather reports forecasted rain and steady high winds. There are some great museums around Elko, but after the casino lunch I wasn’t eager to be back in an enclosed indoor space again, even with safety precautions in place. So after picking up an excellent breakfast downtown from Stray Dog Cafe, we ended up enjoying a lazy few hours at the campground, reading in the RV and playing pool and ping pong in the empty clubhouse (hand sanitizer readily available).
I was glad to be staying three nights and having the option of downtime like that, but didn’t want the entire day to pass without at least getting to see the Ruby Mountains up close. The base of Lamoille Canyon was only a 30 minute drive away, so we headed out. A few miles outside of Elko we came down the other side of a pass at Spring Creek to take in one sweeping view of the craggy Ruby Mountains, rising straight up from flat ranch and farmland as far as the eye could see. It was breathtaking.
The expansive view was beautiful, but still did not compare to the Lamoille Canyon Scenic Byway, a winding two lane road that leads 12 miles into the canyon, up to 8,800 feet. The Ruby Mountains are the wettest in Nevada, resulting in a surprisingly lush, verdant landscape. They’ve been called the Swiss Alps of America, but it also reminded me of the Scottish Highlands.
We were back the next day to get out of the car and hike, after stopping at a drive-thru coffee spot (that was so good we hit it up again before leaving town the next day). The Scenic Byway ends at a parking lot with restroom facilities in the U-shaped canyon. We followed the marked trail and a few other people heading uphill, but when we came to a string of narrow rickety planks laid over a rushing stream, we paused.
Were we still on the main trail? It wasn’t clear, so we decided to keep walking up and look for a narrower place to cross.
We found one, but when Chris went to assist Charlie over, Charlie’s footing slipped – and he fell straight back into the stream. Fortunately he wasn’t hurt, only shaken. And wet. Chris had wet shoes from the quick rescue. After Rita and I crossed without incident, we rested a few minutes in the sun and decided that it was warm enough to keep going. I put Charlie’s sopping wet sweatshirt into a nylon bag tied to my backpack and gave him my jacket to wear. It was good we had layers to spare, but from now on we’ll be sure to throw a couple extra pairs of socks in the backpack, just in case.
Our goal was to reach the first lake a couple miles up, but once we hit snow covering the trail we decided to call it and head back down – realizing that we’d have to cross those rickety planks we had turned our back on before.
Chris went first, with one foot in front of the other for about a dozen steps across the shallow but rushing water, followed by the kids. It was nerve wracking to watch each of them cross on their own without being able to help, and I had to really work to control my own nerves when I got out in the middle of the stream. But we all made it! Even though we missed the lakes and scenic views from the top of the canyon, it was a fun family adventure we’ll always remember. And we’ll be back to Lamoille Canyon for sure.
NEXT UP: Great Basin National Park and the Loneliest Road!