Sunday, November 20, 2016

Across Nevada on US 50

Driving the Loneliest Road in America to visit

America's Least-Visited National Park, Great Basin

Even the car GPS knew it was lonely out here

Not all that many people cross the mid-Nevada desert on US 50 today.  But before it became a highway, the Overland Stage followed this route, as did the Pony Express.  And the first attempt at a cross-country road, the Lincoln Highway, followed their route.  As we drove out of Fallon, Nevada, and headed east we quickly realized we’d left the crush of traffic on I-80 well behind us.  Maybe fifty years back.  US 50 still lives up to it’s billing as the Loneliest Road in America.

I’d come this way before, in 1954 with my parents in the family ’52 Pontiac coupe.  Things had changed over the years since.  The narrow two-lane I remembered had been replaced at some point with a much wider two-lane road.  The crumbling old road was still there, tracking along beside us sometimes on the left, sometimes on the right.  It reminded me of Route 66, of which some traces still remain here and there along present-day I-40.

Back on my earlier trip, there had been no speed limits outside of town.  The speed limit was now posted at 70, but we had overheard some men talking about that at a restaurant back in Fallon.  One groused he’d gotten a ticket for going 20 mph over the limit.  According to their conversation, the police, if you can find one on US 50, consider anything over 85 mph to be cause for a ticket.  Ever conservative, I set the adaptive cruise of the Mercedes at 80 and let the car take over the driving.  It turned out to be an excellent road.  

Austin seems an unlikely place to find a Trump headquarters
Some people worry they won’t be able to find gas out here in no man’s land.  But old mining towns such as Austin, Eureka and Ely are out there, conveniently spaced about two hours apart, and all had gas stations.  Nor were the gas prices unreasonable.  Which means we could take this route with our motorhome.  And probably will someday.  The lack of traffic on U.S. 50 is a big plus.

Eureka's Opera House testifies to the town's once rich boom days

The pattern of driving is repetitive but not boring.  You sail for miles across the flat sagebrush desert; then climb up into a mountain range along a winding road; go through a high pass at the top, and then wind your way down the other side. Where you find more flat sagebrush desert waiting. Repeat.  We found snow flurries at the top of each pass, where elevations were between 7000 and 7500 feet.  On an otherwise sunny day. So don’t go this way if snow is in the forecast.  They do have chain-up areas before you start up the grades.  You’d need chains or snow tires.

The main reason we wanted to go this way was to visit Great Basin National Park, billed as the least visited national park of all. You’d expect that the least visited park would be found on the loneliest highway.

The park features 13,000 foot tall Wheeler Peak with a drive to the top (closed in fall for winter), several campgrounds in the trees, and Lehman Caves.  When I last toured the caves in 1954 they were, all by themselves, a National Monument.  I remembered the caves as the best examples of underground geologic formations. And better than anything I’ve seen since.  

Marsha and I arrived at 2:45 pm to find the main visitor center closed for the winter.  So we drove up to the Lehman Cave visitor center (where did that come from?) and found it open.  A nice young ranger informed us our Aged Age pass was no good there, since the park has no admission fee.  But would we like a cave tour?  Really?  That late in the afternoon?  You bet. She told us the tour ranger was just finishing a 1 ½ hour tour of the whole cave but might be willing to a shorter tour before he went home at 4:00.  He was.  My old age pass got me a discount there.  Marsha had left her pass home.  We bought tickets for a 1-hour tour, but because the three of us could move along much quicker than a big group we actually got to experience the entire cave system within our hour.  

Marsha's hat is on backwards because the brim
keeps you from seeing the salacities that lurk above
I feel like an idiot for not writing our ranger guide’s name down. My memory is short.  He was very knowledgeable about the cave history as well as the formations within.  He was also interested in my recollections from the tour I took in 1954.  None of the staff there now was actually alive way back then, so he found my dim recollections of interest.  He should have quizzed me in 1956 or 1957.  I’d have been of more help.  I did remember that when they turned the lights off it was quite dark.  So he did it again, and sure enough, it was still quite dark.  I won't bore you with the photo I took of that.

Our guide showed us stalactites, stalagmites, columns, draperies, flowstone and soda straws for starters.  But also rarer formations such as circular shields.  Most of these shields have their own stalactites and draperies hanging from them.

Looking up across Great Basin park to Wheeler Peak.  The campground was behind the bare trees at the left

It was dusk when we departed, but we took time to look at one of the forest campgrounds.  It was very nice, with widely-spaced pull-through sites near a burbling brook.  

One of the pull-through RV sites at Lower Lehman Campground

We had previously determined that the distance back to Ely, Nevada, was about the same as going on to Beaver, Utah.  So at dusk we headed into the wilds of western Utah.  It turned out Beaver was actually twice as far.   Signs all along the way warned we were driving across open (unfenced) range and might encounter a cow, deer or horse on the road.  At night.  Yikes!  There were also signs showing a man on a tractor.  I guess tractors must graze along the highway as well.  No signs warning about Pony Express riders or Overland Stage coaches, so we supposed they must have taken the early turnoff towards Salt Lake City.

We hit none of the warned-about species out there on the pitch black prairie.  Thank goodness.  I wasn’t sure if the radar in the nose of the car could react to deer or cows as it would a car or pedestrian.  We stayed on high alert as we sailed on into the night.  Two hours later, in Beaver, we found the best hotel we encountered on the whole trip.  At the lowest price.  So it was a nice end to a nice day.  We were back in civilization and no longer lonely.

Editor's Note:  If you are wondering why this blog on Nevada is here under the heading of Northern Exposure, I can explain.  I posted dozens of photo blog reports here all along our 2013 four-month, 8530-mile trip to, through, and from Alaska.  Hence, Northern Exposure.  Since then I have posted a travel blog here once a year to keep Blogspot from deleting my Alaska blog due to inactivity until I figure out a way to copy it so I can publish those reports as a private book.  I need to keep the blogspot active.  So will find a 2014 photo blog here about the San Juan Skyway of Colorado and another from 2015 about a trip we made to and from Tahoe last year.  To find the Alaska editions you can go to 2013 at the upper right side of the main site and chose from the articles I posted there by month.

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