Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Nature's Fury on Display at Lunar Crater

Lunar Crater

Despite its otherworldly name and appearance, Lunar Crater has decidedly earthly roots. More than three-quarters-of-a-mile wide and 430-feet deep, the giant crater was created by geological rather than extraterrestrial causes.

Scientists who have studied the site believe a tremendous volcanic explosion created 400-acre Lunar Crater, which is located about 77 miles northeast of Tonopah via U.S. 6.

Tens of thousands of years ago, groundwater apparently came into contact with magma or hot rocks near the surface. Steam pressure built underground until an enormous eruption left the giant bowl-shaped hole, which geologists call a “maar.”

The crater sits in a virtual nest of more than a dozen extinct volcanic cones and rock-hard lava flows that is known as the Lunar Crater Volcanic Field.

Early Nye County miners and ranchers considered Lunar Crater an interesting novelty. In 1939, Nevada State Park officials erected a sign on the highway guiding visitors to the site. Later, it became an official U.S. Forest Service attraction.

Part of the fascination of Lunar Crater is the fact that it is part of a much greater volcanic field. From its rim, it is possible to look around and see more than a dozen extinct volcanoes (many are not much more than dark mounds of rock).

Additionally, Lunar Crater has a way of surprising. A visitor will cruise along the seven-mile dirt road leading from the highway to the site, craning his or her neck to see something that looks crater-ish and then, at the top of a small rise in the road, it’s suddenly there.

The crater is big. From its upper edge, visitors look down into a huge, bowl-shaped valley that is difficult to visually measure because it is so large.

Sitting on a wooden bench that overlooks Lunar Crater it is hard not to contemplate the tremendous power of Mother Nature—Lunar Crater was essentially formed by a giant burp in the earth’s crust.

The crater is so massive that it seems to generate its own weather, including fierce winds that scream up its steep walls and blast anyone admiring the view.

Lunar Crater does have a slight connection with outer space. In the 1960s, Apollo astronauts trained in the 140,000-acre volcanic field, which does look like a moonscape, in preparation for a lunar landing. More recently, scientists have tested remote sensing and other technologies for use on future Mars explorations.

In addition to Lunar Crater, a secondary dirt road leads to nearby Easy Chair Crater, a collapsed cinder cone that gained its unusual name because, from a distance, it looks like a giant, overstuffed chair.

Across the highway from the road leading to the two craters is the Black Rock Lava Flow, a more recent formation that covers about 1,900 acres. Visitors studying the dark basalt flow will see specks of green, red, and black glass, which formed because the lava cooled so quickly.

The dirt road leading to Lunar Crater is extremely wash-boarded and a high-clearance, four-wheel drive vehicle is recommended.

Lunar Crater is located about 270 miles southeast of Carson City via U.S. 50, U.S. 95 (to Tonopah) and U.S. 6.

For more information about Lunar Crater, contact the Bureau of Land Management, Tonopah Field Station, 1553 South Main St., P.O. Box 911, Tonopah, NV 89049, 775-482-7800,

Friday, November 10, 2006

Beautiful Views at Washoe Lake

Washoe Lake State Park

With unobstructed views of Slide Mountain and the surrounding Washoe Valley, Washoe Lake State Park is one of the best places to experience Northern Nevada’s basin and range environment.

On warm days, the lake, which is about four miles long and two miles wide, becomes a haven for water sports enthusiasts. Windsurfing is extremely popular at Washoe Lake as well as Little Washoe Lake, a smaller, sister body of water to the north that is part of the park.

Windsurfers find that due the strong winds that whip down from the mountains to the west provide excellent conditions for riding the lake’s waves.

High above Washoe Lake is Slide Mountain. The native Paiutes called it a name that roughly translates as “mountain that falls down on itself.” About once every century—the last time was in 1983—Slide Mountain releases a wave of mud and rocks.

In fact, in the mid-19th century, humorist Mark Twain wrote about a fictitious legal battle between two ranchers—one wanted his house returned to him after a slide had deposited it on top of his neighbor’s dwelling.

From the park, the 9,600-foot mountain is a beautiful sight with its pine-covered slopes and distinctive half-face topped with snow.

Human settlement at the lake can be traced to migrant bands of native Washo Indians, who often spent winters in the lowlands of the valley and summers at Lake Tahoe. Many used the willows and cattails from Washoe Lake marshes to make baskets and other items.

In 1859—the same year that silver was discovered in nearby Virginia City—Mormon settlers established a community at Franktown on the west side of the valley. Within a short time, two mills opened in the valley to process the ore and the towns of Washoe City, Ophir, and Lakeview had come into existence to supply the mines.

In the 1870s, the Virginia & Truckee Railroad, which extended from Reno to Virginia City, was built through the area and provided a means for transporting goods to and from Washoe Valley.

Washoe State Park was created in 1977 to preserve the valley’s unique natural assets and provide a place for water sport enthusiasts. The park encompasses 8,053 acres and sits at an elevation of about 5,000 feet.

At the Main Area Campground in the center of the park (accessed from Lake Boulevard), Washoe Lake State Park has 49 campsites available on a first-come, first-serve basis. There is also an RV dump station, boat ramps, flush toilets, showers, drinking water, hiking trails, and picnic tables.

The park can accommodate tents or self-contained RVs (up to 45 feet in length) and has 10 RV pull-throughs. There are, however, no hookups for the RVs.

A one-third mile trail from the Main Area Campground winds through sand dunes and leads to the lake. Smaller, undeveloped trails lead around the lake.

A recent addition to the park is a wooden viewing platform and interpretive displays adjacent to the wetlands at the south edge of the park.

The viewing area offers a wonderful overview of the lake and magnificent views of Slide Mountain and the other mountains encircling the valley. You’ll also find a coin-operated telescope on the platform, which allows you to scan the marsh looking for wildlife.

The displays point out that the marsh at the south end of the lake is popular with a variety of waterfowl, which you can occasionally spot, including cranes and herons.

Washoe Lake State Park is located 10 miles north of Carson City and 15 miles south of Reno via U.S. 395 north and the East Lake Boulevard exit. It is open all year.

Admission to the park is $3 per person; $11 per night for a campsite.
For park information, call 775-687-4319.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Recalling Nevada's Oddest Pipedreams

Goldfield School

It should probably come as no surprise that in a state built by dreamers—in the early days it was miners and more recently, gamblers—some amazing and outrageous proposals have cropped up over the years.

Some, like Adolph Sutro’s dream of building a four-mile-long tunnel underneath Virginia City to drain hot water from its mines or the 1,149-foot Stratosphere Tower in Las Vegas, were actually constructed. Others, however, proved to be more illusory.

For instance, in the early 20th century, the president of the Lake Tahoe and San Francisco Water Works, A.W. Von Schmidt, suggested constructing a massive pipeline from Lake Tahoe could solve San Francisco’s water woes.

Author David W. Toll writes that Von Schmidt’s $17 million plan would deliver thirty million gallons of Tahoe water per day—and he was even willing to deliver as much as a hundred million gallons per day for the right price.

Apparently, the idea had sufficient legs that the San Francisco Board of Supervisors visited the proposed site of his diversion dam on the Truckee River before letting the proposal fade away.

Tahoe’s water, however, cast a strong spell on San Francisco. Toll notes that three years later a San Francisco attorney named Waymire wanted to drill a tunnel through the side of the Tahoe Basin to drain lake water into the Rubicon branch of the American River, which would be routed to the city.

Of course, the idea of draining Lake Tahoe wasn’t purely a Golden State notion. Sometime in the 19th century, there was a proposal to drill a tunnel from Washoe Valley to a point deep below Lake Tahoe so that water could be diverted to Virginia City and other parts of Northern Nevada.

More recently, many of the more noteworthy flights of developmental fancy have involved various hotel-casino related projects that never reached fruition. In the 1960s, Reno resort owner William Harrah purchased a huge tract of land along Interstate 80 near Verdi and began planning to build a giant, indoor theme park.

The project, known as Harrah’s World, called for a massive dome over the park, so that it could be used year-round, and included acres of museum space for his famous car collection as well as amusement park rides, a train and, of course, a hotel-casino.

Harrah died before he could begin construction and the project was abandoned.
In rural Nevada, perhaps the most ambitious resort development was an effort in the 1980s to restore the historic Goldfield Hotel, which opened in 1908. A San Francisco developer spent millions to renovate the structure that had been abandoned since about the 1960s.

He also bought up other historic structures in the community, including the Goldfield High School, and announced plans to transform Goldfield into a kind of 19th century mining town version of Williamsburg, with residents dressed in period costumes.

Sadly, his vision proved bigger than his checkbook and, after sinking a considerable amount of money into the project, he ran short of funds. A couple of years later, the hotel was auctioned by the county for unpaid back taxes.

A rural project that never made it past the blueprint stage was a plan in the early 1990s to construct a Science and Technology Museum in Nye County, near Amargosa.

The idea was to take money that the federal government was going to give to the county in exchange for building a national nuclear waste dump and sink it into a large science museum in the desert. A scale model was produced of the project—I know because I saw it—but the funding never materialized and it was never built.

One of the most controversial projects that never happened was the MX Missile system, an ambitious proposal to construct hundreds of miles of subterranean railroad tracks throughout Central Nevada.

Missile launchers on trains would scurry around on the tracks, never staying in one place too long. In the event of a confrontation between the U.S. and Russia, the missiles could be routed to convenient launching sites and fired.

Fortunately, the Cold War began to thaw before it could be built.

Not surprisingly, Las Vegas has had its share of unorthodox proposals. In the early 1990s, Las Vegas officials were searching for ways to boost the fortunes of the city’s aging downtown core.

One of the more creative solutions came from several downtown casino owners who proposed replacing downtown streets with a series of water canals. Boat rides on “Las Venice,” as some called it, would attract tourists and the canals would be lined with trendy shops and restaurants, in addition to the hotel-casinos.

Water for the canals would come from a layer of unused but polluted water that sits underneath the downtown. The concept called for the water to be cleaned up and recycled for use in the canals.

Writing about the plan years later, Las Vegas journalist Geoff Schumacher noted that the idea “gained some momentum until somebody mentioned that tourists might end up watching homeless men bathing in the trickling Venetian waters.”

Schumacher said another plan under consideration at the time was to construct downtown a full-size replica of the Starship Enterprise from the “Star Trek” TV show. The vessel would be 23 stories high and 600 feet long and would include a thrill ride, restaurants and convention facilities.

Over the years, there have been a number of unusual Las Vegas resort concepts that never were constructed. In the 1990s, casino owner Bob Stupak, who built the Stratosphere, announced he was going to erect a hotel that would be a full-size replica of the Titanic that would sink nightly.

More recently, a Las Vegas Strip mall announced it was going to build a 22,000 square foot fake Grand Canyon. This faux natural wonder would have theatrical special effects like flash floods and thunderstorms, and visitors could take a ride on a simulated helicopter over the canyon.

But, like so many of these other grand schemes, it dispersed into the fog of ideas whose time never quite came.

Friday, November 03, 2006

Getting Away from it all in Belmont

Belmont Inn

If there was ever a place where you could believe that you’ve managed to escape from the hassles and pressures of daily life, it’s the rustic Belmont Inn in the historic Central Nevada mining town of Belmont.

Located about 40 miles northeast of Tonopah, Belmont can trace its beginnings to the discovery of silver in 1865. Within a few years, the town has grown to include about 5,000 residents.

In 1867, Belmont was designated the seat of Nye County and a few years later, in 1876, it constructed an impressive a two-story Italianate-style brick courthouse.

During Belmont’s heyday—which lasted from the late 1860s to about the late 1870s—the town was a beehive of building activity, boasting a bank, a couple of churches, a school, a post office, several stores and saloons.

It was during this period, in about 1866, that the distinctive two-story structure that houses the Belmont Inn was constructed. Built of wood and local limestone, the Inn originally served as the offices of the Combination Silver Mining Company.

The building was converted to a private residence several decades ago and, more recently, transformed into a bed and breakfast with five guestrooms.

The Inn, operated by Henry and Bertie Berg, is a wonder. It’s been lovingly restored so that guests can enjoy quiet, comfortable quarters in a quaint, historic setting.

Behind the main house, the Berg’s have rebuilt an old stone miner’s cabin and offer it as a kind of “honeymoon” cottage that offers plenty of privacy, although without running water or electricity. However, candles have been strategically placed around the room to provide illumination.

Large groups more interested in “roughing it,” can rent an old bunkhouse behind the main house, which has accommodations for up to ten additional guests.

The guestrooms, however, are only part of the story. The Belmont Inn also has its own, old-time saloon—Henry Berg is a great bartender who knows not only how to pour a good stiff one but lots of great anecdotes and stories about the area.

Not to be overlooked are the breakfasts, cooked by Bertie Berg. She prepares hearty, tasty fare that can include pancakes, sausage, biscuits, fruit and other delicacies.

The charm of spending time in Belmont is having a chance to explore the old mining town. The town’s silver mines began to slump after 1876. By 1890, only about 150 people remained in the town.

Jim Butler’s discovery of huge silver deposits in Tonopah in 1900 accelerated Belmont’s demise. In 1905, the county seat was moved to Tonopah and Belmont’s fine courthouse, which is now a historic state park, was closed.

Despite the years of neglect, it’s still possible to find glimpses of the settlement that once rivaled Virginia City. With more than a dozen buildings sprouting out of the sagebrush and a number of substantial ruins, Belmont looks and feels like a genuine ghost town.

For instance, at the south end of town is the Belmont Cemetery, which contains a handful of hand-carved wooden markers and is the final resting place of the infamous Nevada gunslinger Jack Longstreet and his wife.

The Belmont-Monitor Mill, located north of the cemetery, was one of several mills erected in the area in the 1870s. The site’s extensive brick ruins include a 15-foot brick smokestack.

East of the Belmont-Monitor Mill site is the main part of the town. Newer homes have been built around the ruins during the past couple of years. The main street, which leads to the Belmont Inn, is lined with a picturesque row of dilapidated brick and wooden storefronts.

Behind this row of structures is a dirt road leading to the Belmont Courthouse, which has been stabilized by the state parks. Guided tours of the courthouse are offered during the summer.

Southeast of the Belmont Inn are other ruins, including the remains of a massive brick kiln with a 20-foot smokestack. About a quarter mile west of the brick oven, is the site of the former Highbridge Mill. The two-story building retains its large, nine-window brick fa├žade.

While exploring Belmont is encouraged, visitors are cautioned not to touch or take anything so that the town can be preserved for future generations.

For more information about Belmont and the Belmont Inn, call 775-482-2000 or go to