Thursday, September 28, 2006
Valley of Fire
The longer you stay in Nevada, the more you begin to see its beauty. Out beyond the cities and towns are dozens of natural areas boasting unique geological features, rare plants and animals, and other intriguing qualities.
Indeed, there are few experiences as rewarding as venturing into the vast Nevada landscape to discover a place that hardly anyone have ever seen. The following are four of Nevada’s less well-known scenic treasures.
1. Lexington Arch, Great Basin National Park—Great Basin National Park has so many extraordinary features such as, Lehman Caves, Wheeler Peak, ancient bristlecone pines, and a glacier, that Lexington Arch, located near the park’s southeastern boundary, often is overlooked. It shouldn’t be.
Lexington Arch is an impressive, 75-foot-high limestone bridge. The arch is considered unusual because most other arches in the West are carved from sandstone.
Experts suggest that Lexington Arch may once have been part of a cave, the rest of the rock having worn away. They point to the presence at its base of flowstone, a smooth rock usually found in caves.
Other geologists theorize that the arch is a natural bridge carved by the waters of Lexington Creek. Long ago, when the walls of Lexington Canyon were not so steep, the creek may have flowed through a cave in the wall of the canyon and, over time, eroded the tunnel into a large arch.
Regardless of its origins, Lexington Arch is an imposing landmark that, despite its obvious attributes, is one of the least-known places in Great Basin National Park.
One reason for the lack of visitors is its remote location. To reach the arch from the park’s visitor center, drive east to Baker for five miles and turn right on Nevada State Route 487. Drive south 10.7 miles (you’ll pass into Utah, then back into Nevada).
Continue through Garrison, Utah, to Pruess Lake. Take the first dirt road on the right just south of Pruess Lake. Proceed 12 miles on the dirt road (there will be signs leading to the arch) to a small parking area. A moderately steep hiking trail leads 1.7 miles to Lexington Arch.
2. White Domes, Valley of Fire State Park—While the Valley of Fire is pretty well known, the White Domes Area is one of the state park’s least visited spots. Located at the north end of the park, which is 50 miles northeast of Las Vegas, White Domes is a field of white sandstone ridges, slot canyons, and outcroppings that don’t appear to be of this world.
With white-chocolate-smooth rock faces and stone ripples, White Domes seems to have been poured into place rather than forged by geological forces. This part of Nevada sat beneath an inland sea until about 150 million years ago. Over time, thick layers of mud and sand on the lake’s bottom were transformed into limestone and sandstone, which, eventually were sculpted into interesting shapes by rain and wind.
The park’s distinctive red sandstone is the result of oxidized iron that permeated the rock. At White Domes, however, the iron has leached out in places, producing white sandstone that starkly contrasts with the surrounding red rock.
Traveling on the gravel White Domes Road, an 11-mile roundtrip from the park’s visitor center, you can view tilted mountains vividly banded with red and white sandstone and admire the two namesake domes.
A picnic area at road’s end serves as the trailhead for a half-mile hike into Kaolin Wash, where water has carved a steep, winding gash through the rock.
Stone ruins found about a quarter-mile from the picnic area are remnants of the set of The Professionals, a 1966 Western that starred Lee Marvin, Burt Lancaster, and White Domes.
3. Kershaw-Ryan State Park—It’s too bad that few people outside Lincoln County know about Kershaw-Ryan State Park, a spring-fed oasis that is one of Nevada’s most beautiful parks.
Located two miles south of Caliente, the park honors Samuel and Hannah Kershaw, who homesteaded the canyon (named Kershaw Canyon) in the 1870s. The abundant water in the box canyon permitted the Kershaws to plant fruit trees, grapes, and other crops.
In 1904, the Kershaws sold their ranch holdings to James Ryan of Caliente. In 1926, the Ryan family donated the verdant canyon, known as Kershaw Gardens, to the state as a public park. Nine years later, it became one of Nevada’s first state parks. Flash floods in 1984 destroyed the park’s facilities and roads, but it was reopened in 1997.
Kershaw-Ryan remains one of the state’s most scenic—and least visited—parks. The steep cliffs of Kershaw Canyon, carved by water erosion, are striped with layers of red sandstone and gray-green limestone. The park supports four plant communities, ranging from riparian (cottonwood, willow, and reeds) on the cooler, wetter canyon floor to piñon-and-juniper woodland at higher elevations.
Visitors can sometimes view larger animals in the park—attracted by the presence of water and plants—including deer, coyotes, and mountain lions.
The park also serves as a refuge for migrating birds. The Canyon Overlook Trail offers views of the surrounding cliffs, Horsespring Trail, and Rattlesnake Canyon Trail. Often, you’ll have the trail to yourself.
4. Joshua Trees, Delamar Valley—About 10 miles southeast of Caliente on U.S. 93 is the invisible line separating the Great Basin from the Mojave Desert. A clue that you’ve crossed this boundary is the appearance of Joshua trees, spiky, thick-limbed desert plants that flourish in the Southwestern desert. Mormon pioneers named the trees after the biblical figure Joshua because the uplifted branches reminded them of Joshua praying and pointing to the Promised Land.
You first encounter the Joshua trees at the point where U.S. 93 drops into the Delamar Valley, about 12 miles east of Caliente. First you notice a solitary Joshua in a field of sagebrush and junipers. Then you see another. Soon you’re driving through a veritable forest of Joshua trees.
If you pull off the road for a closer look, you’ll notice how large they are—Joshuas can grow more than 30 feet high. Long, knife-like leaves grow from the branches, which sprout randomly. The trees look less like plants and more like deadly weapons.
Naturalists note that the Delamar Joshua trees are somewhat unusual because they grow beyond the northern limit of creosote bush, one of the indicators of the margins of the Mojave Desert.
Some scientists believe that the moderate local climate and the presence of water have allowed the Delamar trees to flourish where they’re not supposed to be.
Located on the edge of the Black Rock Desert, about two-and-a-half hours north of Carson City, is Fly Geyser, one of those unexpected things you sometimes find in Nevada.
Continuously spewing clouds of hot water about four or five feet high in the air, Fly Geyser is a remarkable sight when you first spot it from the nearby highway.
The geyser, located on the Fly Ranch, consists of three, large travertine mounds, with a series of terraces around its base. In addition to the spraying hot water, the most impressive thing about the trio of tufa rock cones is their colors—rich, vivid shades of green and rust.
The geyser, which is about 20 miles north of Gerlach via State Route 34, is located on private property but you can see the water plumes from the road. Adjacent is a small geothermal pond, fed by run off from the geyser.
Perhaps the most interesting detail about Fly Geyser is the fact that it’s not really a natural phenomenon. The geyser was created accidentally in 1964, after a geothermal power company drilled a test well at the site.
While the groundwater in the region turned out not to be sufficiently hot to be tapped for geothermal power, it did have a temperature of more than 200 degrees.
According to later newspaper reports, the well was either left uncapped or was improperly plugged. In either case, the scalding hot water was allowed to shoot from the well hole and calcium carbonate deposits began to form, growing several inches each year.
Jump forward several decades, and those deposits have become large mounds taller than an average-sized man that rise out of a field of tall reeds and grasses.
Scientists familiar with the geyser note that the green and reddish coloring on the outside of the mounds is the result of thermophilic algae, which flourishes in moist, hot environments.
Interestingly, the set of circumstances that created Fly Geyser in 1964 apparently occurred at least one time before. In about 1917, a well was drilled a few hundred feet north of the geyser. This well was also abandoned and, over time, a massive 10 to 12-foot calcium carbonate cone formed.
Today, no hot water flows from the older mound—a photo of which appeared on the cover of a late 1940s issue of Nevada Magazine. It is almost as if the earlier geyser dried up when water was diverted to the newer one.
Despite Fly Geyser’s uniqueness, there are no current plans to convert it to a public park or preserve. While it has been discussed over the years, nothing yet has come of those proposals.
The million-acre Black Rock Desert area that surrounds Fly Geyser is an extremely active geothermal zone. For instance, the tiny hamlet of Gerlach is home to several natural hot springs.
Some, such as Great Boiling Spring, which is a mile north of the town, have been developed (although not open at the present time).
About three miles north of Gerlach on SR 34 you can find a small field of geothermal vents and springs adjacent to the road (on the left side). Here, boiling hot water bubbles from a hole in the ground and spills down a steaming ditch.
It’s natural, open to the public, and undeveloped—which makes it a unique little attraction.
The town of Gerlach was established in 1909 as a station on the main line of the Western Pacific Railroad. It was named for the Gerlach Land and Cattle Company, part of the large Gerlach and Waltz Ranch, which was founded in the late 19th century by Louis Gerlach.
It is also home of Bruno's Country Club, a roadside diner that serves up some of the largest and roundest (and tastiest) ravioli you’ll ever find as well as a good-size hamburger with home fries. Nearby Empire is a company town (largely owned by U.S. Gypsum, a dry-wall manufacturer) that boasts a nine-hole, par-three golf course, which is in the center of the town.