Tag Archives: US Hwy 50

Wild Great Basin

Blue skyFor a start I should probably explain that the name of Great Basin is rather misleading. By a basin most people understand a flat area surrounded by hills or mountains. In the case of the Great Basin it is a bit more complicated. For a start it is an absolutely huge region, not much smaller than the whole of Spain, but with a small population. The only real population centres are located on its edges. But more importantly it is not flat at all. In fact the Basin includes valleys, basins, lakes and mountain ranges of Basin and Range topography. For example driving the US Hwy 50 in Nevada includes crossing at least half a dozen substantial mountain ranges and the road often climbs up to 7000-8000 feet. (2100-2500m) above the sea level. They run parallel to each other and are roughly oriented from north to south.Great Basin beauty

That means that driving here is never boring. Yes, there are long straight stretches of open highways (perfect for testing the top speed of our rental Camaro) but there are also twisted mountain roads as well as great vistas from the higher elevations. All this with minimal traffic. In fact some of the lesser roads were virtually empty. For example when we chose Nevada Hwy 722, which for 65 miles bypasses the main highway to the south, we only encountered 3 or 4 vehicles.Nevada Hwy 722

If the landscape wasn’t wild enough then there was the weather. We were crossing the Basin at the same time as a cold front from the North Pacific stretched this way. That meant spectacular cloud formations, dark mysterious skies and snow. Yes we did experienced snowfall along with some freezing temperatures, especially crossing the mountain passes.

It took us the good part of the day to cross most of the Basin from Fallon in the west to the town of Ely, close to the Utah border in the east, where we decided to spend the night. On one hand we were mostly speeding but on the other hand we made plenty of photo stops. Probably too many judging from the number of pictures of the empty highways I now have on my laptop but it was damn difficult to stop taking pictures as the landscape kept changing every few minutes and the spectacular sky even more often.US Hwy 50

In Ely we stayed in an old-school, family run motel and had a great breakfast in a local diner. It was probably one of the least touristy locations on our 3300miles road trip and I absolutely loved it. Sure there was a casino, located in what was once the tallest building in Nevada, but the whole town had picturesquely desolate feel (still not as desolate as some of the communities we passed like Austin or Eureka) and even the casino had a very provincial feel. It is all a far cry from the glitz of Vegas.

SnowploughOne thing not to miss in this fascinating little town is Nevada Northern Rail Museum located in East Ely Yards. It is definitely one of the best rail oriented museums I have ever visited. It displays steam engines (some still operational, used for excursion trains) diesel engines and even an electric one. It also has a steam operated crane, one of the few left in the world and the oldest in America.

But what was best was not the collection itself (which might be smaller than in some more established railway museums) but the feel of the place. After paying a small fee we could wander on our own pretty much everywhere including in the workshop where the engines are renovated. There were no ropes or barriers and we could climb pretty much anything. There were also no educational displays, instead plenty of tools just lying around and the place was dark, oily, dirty and dingy, the way the proper railway works should be. I absolutely loved it but at the same time I was really surprised that there was no one around to keep eye on us. We could literally drive off in one of the steam engines which was actually powered up in preparation for an excursion train in the afternoon, with no crew in sight. Maybe it was due to the early hour we were there but we honestly had the place to ourselves. Still we managed to stop ourselves from stealing a train…

Bristlecone pineWe could have stayed in the museum for most of the day but it was time to move on as we wanted to finally do some walking. For that we chose the Great Basin National Park located about 60 miles SW of Ely near the tiny town of Baker. It is one of the least visited parks in the National Parks System and it was clearly visible. When, after a spectacular scenic drive from the gate, we finally reached the parking lot at our trail head, there were only three other cars (which were gone by the time we finished our walk). We started our hike at the elevation of about 10000 feet (just above 3000m) and at this elevation there was still snow on the trail (that could be reason why so few people were there that day). Luckily it was only a few inches and the weather was actually very nice with a perfect blue sky, decent temperature and no wind. We chose the Bristlecone-Glacier Trail which let us see the oldest living trees on the planet, the bristlecone pines. Some of them are well over 3000 years old and still growing but if you expect Sequoia sized giants you will be disappointed. These trees live so long because they grow incredibly slowly in their harsh environment. They are just few meters tall and look half dead but they are still amazing organisms. Their wood is so dense that it is resistant to insects, fungi or other pests. In fact it is so dense that it practically doesn’t rot, even after tree dies. The interpretive trail loops around the grove of these amazing trees but instead of heading straight back to the parking lot we decided to push along the Glacier Trail to see the Wheeler Peak Glacier. It is the only glacier in Nevada as well as one of the southernmost glaciers in the US and one of the closest to the desert. After Bristlecone Grove we quickly climbed above the tree line and entered the cirque under the mighty Wheeler Peak. From there the glacier (a rock glacier to be specific) was clearly visible in the distance. We could push all the way to it (probably no more than a mile) but at that point we decided that time might be an issue and we didn’t want to get stuck if the weather changed. So after reaching an elevation of about 11000 feet (3350m) we turned back. In total we hiked probably about 8km in glorious weather and with spectacular vistas all around. It was one of the best hikes I have done for quite a while.Wheeler Peak

From the fascinating Great Basin NP we headed towards southern Utah as the Grand Canyon was our next destination. But there was still quite a lot of basin driving in front of us. By now the sky was clear (unlike the previous day) the sun was low and landscape looked more spectacular with every minute. I was really hoping that this day would never end. But finally the sun set and we arrived to the town of Parowan where we effectively ended our wanderings around this absolutely fascinating region.

Of course there were many more sites ahead of us but that is subject for another story.Lonely Truck

Historic Nevada

Carson City DowntownNevada is a fascinating state but apart from Las Vegas not really on many people’s itineraries. I was always attracted to the less popular states but what especially drew me into Nevada was the Great Basin.

Now, Great Basin is one of the places which I’ve really wanted to visit for quite a while (some of my less diplomatic friends could even say that I was obsessed with it). In recent years I was however preoccupied with my little project of finishing off visiting all the lower 48 states. After finally ticking off that box last year, this year I felt free to return to the Western USA and obviously decided to make the Great Basin one of the main points of my road trip. But before descending into the properly wild depths of the basin I found myself in the heart of historic Nevada. Something I didn’t really plan but that is the best thing about travel isn’t it?

After spending some time in the Bay Area and later on the shores of Lake Tahoe (more about that later), we entered the Great Basin following the US Hwy 50 descending from the Sierra Nevada mountains towards the capital of the Silver State, Carson City.

Nevada State CapitolIt is a curious little place. With a population of only around fifty thousands it still has quite a lot of its frontier feel left. As usual I couldn’t skip the state capitol while visiting a state capital. Nevada State Capitol is on the smaller side among all the state capitols but no less fascinating. It is also one of the ever smaller group of state legislatures which you can visit without passing through the airport-style security. You can just walk in and explore on your own, pretty much most of the building, not asked by anyone what are you doing. Built in 1870 it is apparently the second oldest capitol building west of the Mississippi. There are some interesting murals connected to the history of mining in Nevada as well as some weird displays, among them an elk horn chair (don’t even ask why), but to be honest, you won’t need to spend more than half an hour inside.

After leaving the capitol we wondered around the downtown Carson City for a while. There is a surprising amount of nice historic buildings for such a small place. Carson City was obviously a much more important place in the second half of the 19th century, when it was centre of a massive mining boom, and it is clearly visible in its architecture. One of those old buildings, an old saloon, was for example converted into an interesting independent coffee shop. It was a really funky place where old pensioners wearing veteran’s hats sat alongside the middle aged hippies. What’s best, a lot of the historic features were preserved and you could clearly make out the layout of the old saloon.Carson City Cafe

But however hard the Carson City Convention and Visitors Bureau is trying to convince you otherwise, after just few hours there is not really much to do in the city. Luckily just east of the town stretches the vast and fascinating Great Basin. However, before venturing into the truly empty vastness, we decided to follow some advice from the same Carson City Convention and Visitors Bureau (staffed by lovely, if a bit overenthusiastic, volunteers) and head to the historic Virginia City which is located just 15 miles to the north east.

It sprang up as a boomtown on top of the Comstock Lode, the first major silver deposit discovered in the United States, in 1859, and at its peak reached population of about 15000.

Today its population is less than a thousand and the town represents something of a cross between a ghost town, dilapidated local town (common in this region) and an amusement park. I’m still not sure what to make of it. The historic buildings are still there (kept in the state of managed disrepair so they don’t look to sweet) and many of them are quite interesting (like the Bucket of Blood Saloon, the Old Globe, the Silver Queen, and the Suicide Table) but at the same time they are nowadays mostly converted into tacky and kitschy gift shops full of crap. Still, it was interesting to visit the place where Samuel Clemens first used his pen name of Mark Twain when he was reporter of the local Territorial Enterprise. You might also seriously consider a visit here if you are interested in bikes. For some reason the town seems to be really popular among the bikers and plenty of them slowly ride along the main street. Also, in front of most of the saloons and shops are parked some spectacular machines. So if you are a “bike spotter” head there.Virginia City

However interesting or lovely Carson City and Virginia City were the real reason to head this direction is the spectacular landscapes of the Great Basin.


We had chosen to continue along the US Hwy 50 (which is also aptly named the “Loneliest Highway”) to explore this huge area. For the first 50 or 60 miles east of Carson City until, let say, the town of Fallon, it doesn’t yet feel that wild but further east the landscape becomes truly spectacular and settlements become really sparse. We decided to stop at Grimes Point, just east of Fallon, where on land controlled by the Bureau of Land Management are located some very old and fascinating petroglyphs. The rock art is believed to be about 6000 years old and back then the area around was surrounded by water and marshes. Now it is a desolate desert but the signs of the ancient lake are still visible in the landscape. I found it fascinating to see such old sights in the country where everything seems to be so recent. There is a short interpretive trail as well as a few picnic tables where we decided to have a quick lunch before heading further east where things get really empty and desolate but also beautiful in the same time.US Hwy 50

But that deserves a separate post.