Sunday, December 21, 2008

Desert Princess Highlights Lake Mead


There are few better ways to see Lake Mead than from the decks of the Desert Princess, an old-fashioned paddlewheeler that offers excursions on the lake.

The 300-passenger, 110-foot Princess, which displaces 150 tons of water, has the distinction of being the largest vessel ever to ply the waters of Lake Mead, which it does year-round, several times a day (more often in the summer months).

With its three-decks, twin smoke stacks, rows of rear paddles and ornate design that was influenced by the classic riverboats of the Old South, the Princess is a noticeable contrast to Lake Mead’s stark but beautiful desert scenery.

While the Princess may have an old-time Mississippi riverboat look, it is actually only a decade old and is equipped with modern amenities.

A trip on the Princess is an opportunity to enjoy the full menu of Lake Mead’s unique land- and waterscapes. Cruises depart from the Lake Mead Cruises Landing, a 2,400-square foot dock located about ten miles east of Boulder City.

Gliding out of its slip, the paddlewheeler rides surprisingly smoothly for such as big boat. Powered by two propellers and the paddle array, the ship can reach a top speed of about 14 miles per hour.

The journey heads out into the heart of the lake, which is one the largest manmade reservoirs in the country with 500 miles of shore. Soon, the ship passes massive Fortification Hill, a flat mesa opposite the arena.

North is solitary Sentinel Island, while south are Big Boulder Island and Rock Island. The boat slides past both and slowly enters the mouth of Black Canyon.

Interestingly, Hoover Dam, which was originally called Boulder Dam, is located not in Boulder Canyon—that’s farther north—but in Black Canyon. As the sternwheeler continues up the canyon, it is pointed out that sometimes bighorn sheep can be seen walking along the steep cliffs.

Ahead, looms Hoover Dam. Arriving via the lake offers a different perspective on the dam. It’s a weird feeling floating near the dam and thinking that on the other side of the concrete wall is a drop of more than 700 feet.

In addition to offering a pleasant, smooth ride, the Princess was designed to meet the challenges of operating in the often-hot Southern Nevada climate. Two decks are enclosed and temperature-controlled, while the top deck promenade is open for those wanting to get some sun.

One and a half-hour, narrated Mid-day sightseeing cruises are scheduled daily at 12 noon and 2 p.m. (November 1 through March 31), then expand to four times a day in the summer.

The Princess also offers a three-hour Dinner/Dance Cruise for adults throughout the year. For more information call 702-293-6180, www.lakemeadcruises.com.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Cave Rock: A Place of Many Stories


Cave Rock circa 1866 (Photo courtesy of Library of Congress)

Most people drive through Cave Rock without thinking much about it. It’s merely the tunnel through which they travel in order to get from Glenbrook to Zephyr Cove on the east shore of Lake Tahoe.

But there’s far more to its story.

The first mention of this Tahoe landmark was in the mid-1850s, when surveyor George H. Goddard described it as a “legendary cave.” His description reflected the importance the cave had to the native Washo people.

According to one Washo legend, the cave was formed by the Great Spirit after the waters of the lake began to rise and threatened to drown the Washo who lived by the rock. The Great Spirit thrust his spear into the rock to form a cave into which the water could drain.

Yet another legend has it that the cruel and evil Paiutes, traditional enemies of the peace-loving Washo (or so goes the tale), tried to conquer and enslave the Washo tribe. The “god of the world” came to the rescue of the Washo by creating the cave and imprisoning the Paiutes inside of it.

There, the evil ones were transformed into water demons, who were afraid of the lake, and can never leave. It is said that their cries and moans can sometimes be heard coming from the cave.

That particular legend seems to stem from the many stories indicating that the cave was the site of a number of fierce turf battles between the Washo and Paiute tribes over who could fish and hunt at Lake Tahoe.

More recently, some have claimed that “Tahoe Tessie,” a sea serpent-like monster that has allegedly been sighted at the lake resides in the waters below Cave Rock.

Of course, these days we can only imagine what Cave Rock once looked like because it was turned into Cave Tunnel in the early part of the century. That’s when a 200-foot passage was dug through the back of the cave and a parallel tunnel was blasted through adjacent rock.

You can still see the original “cave” part of the tunnel in the rough rock walls that constitute several hundred feet of the southbound or west tunnel. A hike around the imposing rock, however, still provides glimpses of the past. To the immediate west, you can still see the remnants of the original Lake Bigler Toll Road that once circled Cave Rock.

In the mid-1860s, a one-mile road costing some $40,000 was constructed on the west face of the rock. When it was built, this section was the most expensive stretch of road between Placerville and Washoe City.

You can still find a quarter-mile or so of the road, including hand-chiseled stone buttresses. At the western-most point, where the road was apparently built out over the lake and was supported by a 100-foot trestle bridge (it collapsed long ago), you can look down to the rocks and water below, and understand why the tunnel was built.

Additionally, from the southern side, you can see several smaller caves in the granite rock. One, located above the median between the north and southbound traffic lanes, is actually fairly large and, if you listen hard, you can hear the wind whistling through it—or perhaps it’s the faint wailing of the water demons.

From the north side at the waterline, you can also see several shapes in the rock face below the tunnel that have been given names, including, above the water line, the 50-foot profile of the “Lady of the Lake” (complete with eyelashes) and the “Gorilla Profile,” located on the upper curve of the rock.

Cave Rock is also the location of one of the Nevada Division of State Parks more popular boating and fishing spots. Visitors will find a boat launch ramp, restrooms and a pleasant small sandy beach area with room for swimming or catching a few rays of sunlight.

There is a day use fee for parking at Cave Rock and using the state park facilities. The pass is also good during the day for the state park system’s two other Lake Tahoe recreational areas at Sand Harbor and Spooner Lake.

Cave Rock is located about 20 miles west of Carson City via U.S. Highway 50. For more information about the state park facilities contact the Lake Tahoe Nevada State Park, 775-831-0494.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Nevada's Prehistory Revealed at Hidden Cave


One of several caves found at the Hidden Cave/Grimes Point area.

It’s easy to see how Hidden Cave earned its name. Tucked into a hillside, you don’t see it until you’re practically standing on top of it.

Located about 12 miles east of Fallon via U.S. 50, the cave was discovered in the mid-1920s by four local boys, who were searching for lost treasure. One of the boys found the cave’s narrow opening and the four soon began using it as a secret hideaway.

In the 1930s, a guano miner named McReilly found the cave and began removing the bat droppings. At the time, he reportedly complained that his digging would be much easier “if it weren’t for all the Indian junk” in the cave. That report reached Margaret “Peg” Wheat, a lifelong Fallon resident, who was also an archaeologist. She visited the site and immediately recognized its potential.

Wheat invited Mark R. Harrington, an archaeologist who had excavated Southern Nevada’s Lost City and Gypsum Cave sites, to take a look at the cave. While searching for the small opening to the cave, Harrington is said to have remarked that “this is certainly one hidden cave”—which is said to be how it got its name.

Harrington was sufficiently impressed by Hidden Cave to recommend that it be studied further. In 1940, S.M. and Georgetta Wheeler, associates of Harrington’s, began formal excavation of the site on behalf of the State Highway Commission.

Writing about the dig, contemporary archaeologist David Hurst Thomas has described the Wheelers as “exceptional” archaeologists who excavated the site with great care and skill. The two uncovered more than 1,500 prehistoric artifacts, which became part of the Nevada State Museum collection.

Following the Wheelers’ dig, the site was closed off with a heavy iron gate—which vandals soon destroyed—and was largely ignored for more than a decade.

Wheat, however, didn’t forget about the cave and in 1951 persuaded geologist Roger Morrison to study the site. Morrison and two archaeology students spent two months at the site collecting additional data.

During the next two decades, interest in Hidden Cave again waned and it was picked over by relic hunters and vandals. In 1971, however, the Bureau of Land Management nominated the cave and surrounding Grimes Point area (home of many petroglyphs) to the National Register of Historic Places.

In the late 1970s, the site was studied extensively by a team of archaeologists working with the American Museum of natural History in New York City and the University of Nevada.

Today, regular guided tours of the cave are offered by the BLM. The Hidden Cave Interpretive Trail, which leads to the cave, passes by more than a dozen points of interest including other caves.

The tour begins at a parking lot below the cave. The trail winds up a narrow trail before stopping at Picnic Cave, a tufa-encrusted shallow opening in the rocks.

Picnic Cave’s unusual formations were created thousands of years ago when the entire area was underneath ancient Lake Lahontan. Studying the open expanse below the cave, it’s possible to see the horizontal lines in the rocks that indicate earlier water levels.

The trail continues to wind up the hillside, passing by Burnt Cave and other interesting stops (even a few petroglyphs) before reaching Hidden Cave. A massive metal door, which protects the cave, swings open to reveal the narrow entrance. An electric generator is turned on and the interior is suddenly bathed in light.

Hidden Cave is considered a significant historic site because it apparently served as a storage place for prehistoric tribes who camped in the area. Inside, archaeologists have found fishing nets (remember, the cave was surrounded by water at the time) as well as stone tools, weapons and stored seeds and nuts.

The other fascinating thing about the cave is the way it has been preserved as an archaeological dig site. The walls are tagged with small markers indicating the various stratum, which show their age.

Public tours of Hidden Cave are held on the second and fourth Saturdays of each month and begin at the Churchill County Museum in Fallon at 9:30 a.m. Additionally, group tours are available by appointment through the BLM. For more information, contact the Churchill County Museum, 775-423-3677, or the BLM, 775-882-1631.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Nature's Sand Box Offers Plenty of Fun


Perhaps the best way to look at Sand Mountain is as a giant sand box—and even adults get to play in it.

Located 32 miles east of Fallon on U.S. 50, Sand Mountain is actually a massive sand dune that rises about 600 feet above the surrounding desert floor.

The dune was formed from sand from the surrounding flats, which were once part of an ancient inland sea called Lake Lahontan. About 4,000 years ago, the lake dried up, leaving behind the sandy lake bottom.

Over centuries, the dried sand was blown against nearby Stillwater Range, accumulating into a huge mound.

In other words, Sand Mountain is a giant beach without the ocean.

Not surprisingly, the mountain and surrounding area has become a recreational play land.

The mountain is an off-roaders dream. Any day, the dune is dotted with specialized two, three and four-wheel motorized bikes and dune buggies skirting across its sandy surface.

The buggies and bikes race up the steep slopes of the mountain, sometimes appearing to be nearly vertical as they rapidly climb above the valley floor.

If they’re not powerful enough, they lose momentum and begin to fall earthward. But if they’re strong enough, they fly over the narrow ridge at the top of the mountain and descend down the backside.

Of course, if you don't own a sand-friendly vehicle, you can always try to bum a ride off one of the sand jockeys buzzing up the mountain—most are pretty amenable to passengers. The trip up the steep sides of Sand Mountain is at once breathtaking and a bit frightening.

The mountain has also become a haven for extreme athletes participating in the relatively new sport known as sandboarding. Basically, sandboarding is riding down the dune’s slopes on a smooth-bottomed sandboard at very high speeds—kind of like snowboarding on sand.

The mountain, in fact, has become so renowned for its speedy slopes that each fall some of the world’s most experienced sandboarders compete in the Sand Mountain Open. During recent events, boarders achieved speeds in excess of 45 miles per hour during some of their runs.

In addition to hosting all those sand-recreationalists, the mountain has certain other, unique qualities. For instance, it produces a booming sound when you walk on it (the sound is said to be a result of air being pushed through the sand by your weight) and at night when the wind blows across the sand the mountain is said to be singing.

According to some folk stories, the Native Americans who lived in the region believed the booming noise was made by the god of the dune and generally avoided it.

The Sand Mountain Recreation Area encompasses 4,795 acres and is managed by the U.S. Department of Interior, Bureau of Land Management.

Camping, including in RVs, is allowed in a designated area near the base of the mountain. Services are quite limited although there is a vault toilet and a solar-powered pay telephone near the highway (it’s billed as “the Loneliest Phone on the Loneliest Road”).

Visitors should bring their own water for washing and drinking. While fires are allowed, no wood is available (and there certainly aren’t any trees in the area).

Best time of the year to visit Sand Mountain is in the spring and fall (it can be a little hot and windy in the summer and cold and wet in the winter).

For more information about Sand Mountain contact the Bureau of Land Management, Carson City District office, 1535 Hot Springs Road, Suite 300, Carson City, NV 89706-0638, 775-885-6000.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Searching for Pine Grove


While it once boasted its own newspaper and stagecoach line, the northeastern Nevada mining camp of Pine Grove, near Yerington, is mostly a forgotten historical footnote these days.

Pine Grove is located about 26 miles south of Yerington. To reach it, head 11 miles south on State Route 208, then turn onto an unmarked but well maintained dirt road. Follow the dirt road for 11 miles, then turn right on Pine Grove Mine Road (it’s marked). Continue west for four miles to the remains of Pine Grove.

The town is located in Pine Grove Canyon, a heavily wooded, ruggedly beautiful slash in the eastern slopes of the Pine Grove Hills. The journey up into the canyon passes through scenic, craggy cliffs and gullies.

William Wilson originally discovered gold in the canyon in 1866. A second mine, called the Wheeler Mine, was started soon after and within two years there were two large mills in operation, a post office, a weekly newspaper and a population of about 300.

Additionally, a stage and freight line was established, which connected the mining camp to nearby Wellington in the Smith Valley. By the early 1870s, the town claimed some 600 people and a variety of businesses, ranging from saloons and hotels to a school and blacksmith shop.

By 1893, the Wilson mine had produced more than $5 million, while the Wheeler generated some $3 million, both largely in gold ore with traces of silver. The mines began to decline just before that time although there was activity in 1900 and again in 1910.

While smaller mining operators continued to work the old tailing piles for a number of years, most significant activity ended by 1918. The dirt road leading to the town was built in 1904 during one of the later mining revivals.

Today, Pine Grove is only a shadow of its former glory, but still claims enough to make it interesting. At the east end of the town, visitors will find an informative historic marker adjacent to the stone remains of a former building.

A little farther up the canyon you can find the remains of a leaching operation from the 1960s. Fortunately, the more modern mining work did not destroy a fine wooden and rusted iron stamp mill, still standing on a hill, or the horizontal mining shafts that reach deep into the mountainside.

One hole was particularly interesting because of an intricate stone wall that had been constructed near the entrance (perhaps once part of a building at the opening of the mine).

Of course, as with any abandoned shaft, it's safe to look at from a distance, but never enter the mine. Additionally, the shafts and stamp mill are located on marked, private property.

About a quarter-of-a-mile from the mining area are the best remains of Pine Grove. Here, you will still find two fairly well preserved wooden structures, one apparently an old boarding house or hotel, while the other appears to have been a garage or storage building. Again, look, but don't touch.

If you wander through the high sagebrush around the town's remains, it's also still possible to find the remnants of other buildings, such as partial walls and stone foundations.

Directly east of the center of the former town, you'll also pass the ruins of a more recent placer operation (they appear to be from the 1960s mining efforts). Here, the rusting remains of various mechanical processing machines have become the newest ghostly remains at Pine Grove.

A good map showing how to reach the Pine Grove area can be found in Stanley Paher’s Illustrated Nevada Ghost Towns and Mining Camps Atlas available at Nevada bookstores or from Nevada Publications, 1-775-747-0800.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Time Stands Still in McGill


If you visited the former mining town of McGill two decades ago or three decades ago it would look pretty much like it does today.

Certainly, a few more businesses would be open and there might be a bit more foot and car traffic, particularly if the smelter was still operating, but it wouldn’t appear much different from how it looks now.

And that’s the secret of McGill—despite all the changes in the world, it has remained relatively unchanged.

Located 12 miles north of Ely via U.S. Highway 93, McGill is one of the best examples of a company town in the state. For many years, nearly everyone who lived there worked for the mining company, which was originally called the Steptoe Valley Mining & Smelter Company and later the Kennecott Copper Corporation.

Founded in 1906, McGill was first a tent city that rose in the flats near where the Steptoe Valley Mining Company built a massive smelter. The smelter melted copper ore mined in nearby Ruth and was part of the process of extracting the metal from the rock.

Within a year, however, more substantial houses were erected for the mining company officials and a small business district began to take shape.

To provide housing for workers, the company also began building modest wooden homes for them—hence the identical, cookie-cutter appearance of many of the small, older houses found in McGill.

In 1908, the Nevada Northern Railway was extended through McGill on its journey to Cobre, a transfer point on the Southern Pacific Railroad, located about 130 miles north of Ely.

By the 1920s, McGill had grown to rival nearby Ely as the largest town in White Pine County. Even a disastrous fire in 1922, which destroyed much of the smelting complex, didn't slow McGill, which peaked in 1930 when the town had more than 3,000 residents.

The unusually long life of the Ruth/Ely area's copper mines contributed to McGill's longevity. For much of the next fifty years, McGill maintained a relatively steady population of about 2,000 people, most working for the smelter.

During its more than 70-year mining boom, McGill acquired many of the trappings of community, including churches, a newspaper, a movie theater, a large brick school and a municipal swimming pool—actually an Olympic-size, old-fashioned watering hole.

Additionally, as a result of the mining company's aggressive recruitment of new immigrants, McGill became one of Nevada's most ethnically diverse communities. Large numbers of Greeks, Irish, Slavs and other newcomers to the America found their way to McGill to work at the smelter.

But, as with all mining towns, when the mines closed, the jobs disappeared. In this case, McGill's day of reckoning came in the early 1980s when Kennecott closed its eastern Nevada operations, including the smelter.

Much of the town's population began to drift away during the 1980s. Construction of a state prison in the late 1980s did bring an influx of new people to McGill but not enough to change it.

In 1993, Kennecott cleared away the remains of the old smelter complex, including the giant smokestack. The site is now a graded field.

Today, while McGill hasn't recovered from the loss of the smelter, it is certainly in better shape than a few years ago. Many of the old company homes have been repainted and fixed up by new residents.

The downtown business district, however, remains a mix of shuttered buildings and hardy survivors, including the McGill Drug Store Museum at 11 Fourth Street (U.S. 93).
McGill’s unchanging nature is perhaps best represented by the drug store museum, which opened in 1915 and operated continuously until 1979.

Gerald and Elsa Culbert owned the store from 1950 until it was closed following Gerald’s death. In 1995, the Culbert’s children donated the drug store, which still contained its complete inventory on the shelves, to the White Pine County Museum for preservation and display.

These days, visitors can tour this fully intact, 20th century, small town drug store, which still has an operating soda fountain. The museum is open by appointment (call 775-235-7082).

It's proof that not much has changed in McGill.

For more information about McGill contact the White Pine Public Museum, 2000 Aultman St., Ely, NV 89301, 775-289-4710, www.idsely.com/~wpmuseum.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Aurora Now Little More Than a Memory


“Aurora's gone now, torn down for the bricks not long after the old man and I made our pilgrimage. The buildings are now a row of factory chimneys in California” — David Toll, “The Compleat Nevada Traveler”

No place deserves the sad fate of Aurora. A thriving mining camp with more than 10,000 people in the 1860s, Aurora is one of Nevada’s lost historic sites.

The remnants of Aurora can be found about 30 miles southwest of Hawthorne via State Route 359, Lucky Boy Pass Road and a dirt road marked for Aurora. The road is rocky, so a high clearance, four-wheel drive vehicle is needed.

Gold and silver were first found in the Aurora area in August of 1860. Within a short time, hundreds of miners were streaming into the region to make their fortunes.

According to early records, the discovery site was named Aurora, meaning “Goddess of the Dawn,” while the mining district was named “Esmeralda,” in honor of the groves of piñon trees that covered the surrounding hills.

By 1861, the new town had grown to about 2,000 residents. It had tent saloons and restaurants, shops, more than a half dozen stamp mills to process ore and regular stagecoach service from Carson City.

All that development soon attracted the attention of both California and Nevada. In the spring of 1861, California created Mono County and named Aurora as the seat. A few months later, Nevada responded by naming it the seat of Esmeralda County.

The battle over Aurora’s status continued for nearly two years, during which time there were dual county courts and officials. The matter was finally resolved in October 1863, when both states agreed to an impartial state boundary survey. When it was completed, Aurora was found to be four miles inside of Nevada.

Aurora’s fame spread and in April 1862, a young Samuel Clemens arrived in the camp to mine for gold. Clemens stayed in Aurora for several months and during that time did a little prospecting, speculated on mining stock and began sending humorous mining camp letters to Virginia City’s Territorial Enterprise newspaper, under the pen name, “Josh.”

Impressed by his writing, the Enterprise offered Clemens a job, which he accepted. Once at the Enterprise, he began writing under his more famous pen name, Mark Twain.

Aurora prospered during the next few years. By the middle of 1863, it had grown to a veritable city, with nearly two dozen saloons and stores, two newspapers, a dozen hotels, 16 mills and nearly 10,000 people.

Like many mining towns, however, much of the wealth was temporary. Rampant mining stock speculation, overbuilding and overly optimistic projections of the area’s mineral reserves had created an artificial boom. By early 1865, the town had started to decline, losing half its population and businesses.

Aurora experienced a second, smaller boom in the late 1870s, but by 1883 had dwindled so much that nearby Hawthorne was able to take away the county seat. The post office closed in 1897.

But Aurora wasn't finished. Just after the turn of the century, the mines were reopened and the town once again came alive. By 1906, several hundred people had moved back into Aurora, which again had a post office, newspaper and other businesses.

This later boom lasted until about 1919, after which Aurora slipped away for good. In the late 1940s, scavengers leveled the town’s remaining buildings to reuse the bricks in California.

Today, there isn’t much remaining of Aurora. Even the quiet ambiance of the area has been permanently shattered by the presence of large modern mining operations, which have gouged holes in the surrounding hills.

Wandering the townsite, you can still find a few wooden shacks, cement walls, the remains of an 1897 stamp, foundations, cellars and a couple of stone walls.

The best testimonial to the town’s prominence is found in the large cemetery grounds, located on the hills to the north. There, you can find the impressive final resting place of a Nevada State Senator and a handful of other obviously noteworthy folks.

There are extensive mill foundations adjacent to the town site, overlooking one of the many huge open pits.

Additionally, you can find the picturesque stone and rusted metal remains of an old smelter or kiln in the canyon, alongside the road leading into Aurora. Wooden troughs show where a small creek was diverted to provide water.

Across the road from the smelter ruins, half hidden in the trees, you can also find some beautiful clay cliffs that resemble those found at Cathedral Gorge State Park in Eastern Nevada.

Aurora is only 13 miles from the ghost town of Bodie, now a California State Park. You can drive between the two, along the Bodie Creek, but the seasonal road, which parallels a creek, is extremely primitive and requires a four-wheel drive vehicle.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Nevada’s Forgotten Graves Tell Many Stories


Rain-pregnant gray clouds slowly circle above the solitary grave marked only by a small metal pipe cross. The sole clue to the identity of the deceased is a name and date scratched into the cross: "Mrs. Franklin 1869."

As it begins to lightly rain, I stand in front of the grave and wonder for a moment about Mrs. Franklin. What did she die of? Was she traveling across Nevada when she contracted pneumonia or did it happen during childbirth?

Was there a Mr. Franklin and little Franklins or was she a widow? Was her first name Naomi or Elizabeth or Anne? Why is this the only grave out here, so far from any town?

I wonder: Who was Mrs. Franklin?

It begins to rain. I stand for a while as the sun disappears behind the clouds and a wind not previously there begins to splash the drops all over the parched sagebrush and rabbitbrush. For a second, I wonder if I've been given a perverse sign from the heavens—may be she died of thirst.

Anyone who explores the broad Nevada landscape will occasionally find a solitary grave and tombstone—sometimes the only reminders of the existence of a former mining camp, stage stop, ranch or trail.

Many of these sites can be found along the pioneer trails across the state. In many of these cases, the arduous journey west proved too much for an elderly, sickly or unlucky traveler.

For example, on the hillside above U.S. Highway 395, near Steamboat Springs, you can find a dark, gray granite marker carved with the image of a covered wagon. Carved words state the spot is the final resting place of Jeremiah Rogers, native of Indian, born 1830 and died 1861.

Rogers apparently died while making the journey to California. Fortunately for him, 20th century descendents hunted down the site of his grave and erected the impressive marker and a small fence to protect his final resting place.

Perhaps the most famous pioneer casualties along U.S. 50 are the three little LeBeau sisters, who apparently died in the 1860s while trying to cross Nevada. In this case, dysentery is said to have been the cause of death.

The three sisters were buried in the sandy flats near Sand Mountain. Their graves might have disappeared by now—truly the fate of most untended solitary gravesites—except for the fact that caretakers have maintained the site, leaving flowers and erecting a small picket fence and crosses.

Less lucky is Elzy H. Knott, member of a prominent pioneer Carson Valley family, whose grave is hidden in a grove of locust trees behind a bed and breakfast inn located in Genoa.

In 1859, Knott, who was then 26 years old, got into a dispute with a Mormon boy over ownership of a bridle. Apparently, the argument escalated and Knott was shot to death.

His father, Thomas Knott, refused to have his son buried in the Genoa Cemetery because Mormons were buried there. Instead, he laid his son on the hill behind his home and erected a fine marble headstone and wrought iron fence around the site, which can still be seen (but ask for permission from the property owners).

But when it comes to lonely graves, let us not forget Mrs. Franklin. Her final resting place is located at Mount Airey (also spelled Mount Airy), once the site of an Overland Stage station and located about 17 miles west of Austin.

Mount Airey was actively used by the stage from 1861 to 1868, then became a ranch before finally being abandoned in the 1890s. A small hotel was once located here, although only rock foundations—and Mrs. Franklin's grave—can be found today.

The small community apparently never amounted to much and there is little reference to it over the years in any of nearby Austin's newspapers.

Perhaps Mrs. Franklin once owned or worked at the hotel. Or maybe she was a ranch wife, who perished from overwork or bad water or of consumption.

Rest in peace Mrs. Franklin.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

A Quartet of Old-Time Nevada Saloons


One of the best things about exploring in rural Nevada is finding some atmospheric, funky old-time saloon tucked away in a former mining camp or railroad town. These throw-back thirst parlors often boast elaborate wooden backbars as well as bartenders who enjoy spinning a yarn or two.

Fortunately, there are still a number of these colorful old places where visitors can enjoy the ambiance and a tall, cool one, including the following.

• The Manhattan Bar and Motel, Manhattan—Few places fit the description of classic water hole as does this joint, which is housed in a wooden building moved to the once-thriving mining town of Manhattan in 1927 from another mining camp, Silver Peak.

Behind the bar’s false frontier storefront, which, admittedly, is in need of painting, beats the heart of this sleepy hamlet of about 120 souls. In addition to offering cold beverages, the bar doubles as the town laundromat, pool hall, RV park and a four-unit motel (it boasts the only rooms for rent in town—and even wifi).

The Manhattan is famous—in Central Nevada, at least—as the home of the “Chicken Hit,” a unique game of chance. It involves placing a chicken in an eight-by-eight-foot cage, the bottom of which is painted with numbers like a giant keno board. Participants place bets on which number they believe the chicken will relieve itself.

The Manhattan Bar and Motel is located at 19 Main Street in Manhattan. For more information, call 775-487-2303. A web site, www.manhattanbarandmotel.com, is under construction.

The town of Manhattan is located about 45 miles north of Tonopah via State Route 376 and 377.

• Santa Fe Club, Goldfield—One look at the Santa Fe and you know you’ve found the real deal. With its Western false front, wooden sidewalk, and uneven floorboards, the Santa Fe creaks with authenticity.

The saloon was built in 1905 on the edge of Goldfield’s mining district and has an impressive Brunswick back bar. (Many classic 19th- and early 20th-century back bars were manufactured by the Brunswick Company of Brunswick, Maine.)

If you want to stay overnight, the Santa Fe, with four units, offers the only rooms in Goldfield. The saloon is located at 925 N. 5th Street in Goldfield. For more information, call 775-485-3431. Goldfield is located about 25 miles south of Tonopah via U.S. 95.

• The Belmont Inn, Belmont—In addition to being a surprisingly cool bed and breakfast inn that is practically in the middle of nowhere, the Belmont Inn has a very hospitable, warm bar. Called “Indian Maggie’s,” it’s housed in an 1860s stone building adjacent to the inn, meaning it’s a short walk to your room from the saloon.

Inside, Indian Maggie’s has paintings of historic scenes of the Belmont area, created by a local artist, and a nice, friendly ambiance.

The Belmont Inn has five guestrooms as well as a rebuilt stone miner’s cabin, located a few dozen yards behind the inn, which can also be rented. Large groups interested in “roughing it” can rent an old bunkhouse behind the main house, which has accommodations for up to ten additional guests.

For information about the Belmont Inn, go to www.belmontinn.com or call 775-482-2000.

Belmont is located about 40 miles northeast of Tonopah via U.S. Highway 6 and Nevada Route 376.

• The Pioneer Saloon, Goodsprings—Housed in a stamped metal building that was built in 1913, the Pioneer is the unofficial focus of the former mining town of Goodsprings.

Inside, the Brunswick cherrywood bar and backbar have been there since the place opened but are actually older, having been built in the 1860s. An old pot-belly stove in the saloon, which is still used, is said to date to the Civil War.

Additionally, atop the stove is a melted chunk of aluminum recovered from the site of a tragic airplane crash that claimed the lives of actress Carole Lombard, her mother and dozens of others in January, 1942. The crash occurred when Lombard’s plane slammed into nearby Double Deal Mountain. Lombard’s husband, actor Clark Gable, reportedly sat in the bar for days awaiting word from search crews.

The Pioneer is located in Goodsprings, which is about 34 miles southwest of Las Vegas via Interstate 15 and Nevada Route 161. For information, contact the Pioneer Saloon, 702-874-9362.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Northern Nevada's Lagomarsino Canyon is a Special Place


Sometimes you visit a place and you get the feeling that there’s more to it than what you can see. For example, some ghost towns have that almost indefinable vibe—you might only see a handful of decaying buildings but you know there’s a lot more to the place.

Another place like that is Lagomarsino Canyon, a petroglyph (prehistoric Native American rock writing) site located in a remote part of Storey County.

The canyon has an aura that hints of being something more than it appears to be on the surface. Of course, what's visible is pretty special: the canyon's gray rock walls are covered with perhaps the largest concentration of petroglyphs in Northern Nevada.

Standing at the bottom of the canyon and looking up at the uneven rocky ridge that runs along the north side, and seeing the petroglyphs for the first time, can be one of those moments of discovery that make exploring Nevada so worthwhile.

Centuries-old carvings of human stick figures, geometric shapes, animal symbols, circles, and seemingly random lines and squiggles, that even the most brilliant archaeologists have been unable to decipher, peek from the dark, rock walls and challenge all to read them.

The volume of petroglyphs at Lagomarsino is impressive. By some estimates, there are thousands of carvings in the Lagomarsino site, which stretches over about a quarter of a mile. Even more amazing is that they are believed to be 2,000 to 4,000 years old.

Lagomarsino Canyon isn't easy to reach, which is good because it is such a fragile place. The canyon is a designated historical archeological site so all care should be taken not to disturb anything in the area. It is against the law to damage or remove any of the petroglyphs.

The dirt road leading to the canyon is rutted, rough and rocky. A high-clearance four-wheel drive vehicle is the only way to make the journey.

While there are several ways to reach the canyon, one of the easiest methods is by driving to Virginia City. Continue north to the Virginia Highlands area and turn left on Cartwright Road. Drive for about three miles and turn north onto Lousetown Road.

Continue on Lousetown Road for about five miles. The road winds through foothills of sagebrush, junipers and piñon pine trees. It will begin to climb before turning east and dropping into another valley. Continue east for another mile or so, heading toward visible powerlines.

The road will reach an intersection with a north-south dirt road (this is Long Valley Road). Turn north and continue until you find the remains of a wrecked blue car. Continue north for a half-mile, then turn right (just before reaching a pink-colored car wreck). This road crosses a creek bed and leads into the canyon.

A steel fence runs across the mouth of the canyon and a turnout adjacent to the fence offers a good place to park since the road is nearly impassable beyond that point.

While the drive is a challenge (it took us a couple of tries to find the petroglyphs), it's a beautiful journey through some of Northern Nevada’s most scenic and unspoiled country.

For example, if you head south of Lagomarsino Canyon on Long Valley Road you can drive through the Chalk Mountains (visibly brown and dusty), which are popular with all-terrain-vehicle riders.

The road also passes scenic old homesteads including a place known as the Old Stone Corral or Cottonwood Springs, which makes for a nice shaded picnic or camping spot.

Long Valley is also home of dozens of wild horses. During one visit, we counted more than 50 mustangs, including several foals, grazing in the vicinity.

A good source of detailed information on Lagomarsino Canyon and Long Valley is "Mountain Biking: The Reno-Carson City Area, Guide 13," by R.W. Miskimins, which offers simple maps and directions.

Additionally, the Nevada Rock Art Foundation has been recording all the images at various sites throughout the state including Lagomarsino Canyon. Volunteers to assist with this effort are welcome.

The foundation also conducts field trips throughout the year to various rock art sites and encourages their preservation. For information about upcoming tours, contact info@nevadarockart.org.

Monday, October 06, 2008

Borax Legend Began in Marietta


A stiff wind sweeps across a powdery, alkali lake bed and blows through the tufts of sagebrush growing around a few stone walls and foundations. They are all that remain of the mining camp of Marietta.

Founded in the late 1870s, Marietta was not a typical central Nevada mining camp because its fortunes were not based on gold and silver, but on borax and salt.

Originally known as Teels Marsh, the area was first developed in 1867 when salt was mined in the flat and transported by camel train to Virginia City’s booming mines (salt was used in processing ore).

In 1872, Francis M. Smith, who would later become renowned as “Borax” Smith, was working the salt fields in nearby Columbus and spotted the borate potential of the marsh. He and his brother took samples from the dry lake bed, which proved to be rich in borax, and staked much of the area.

Full scale borax mining begin within months of the discovery as the Smith brothers and other miners began constructing borax plants at the southeastern end of the marsh. Records indicate that wagon trains hauled the material all the way to a train station at Wadsworth, about 115 miles north.

The Teels Marsh borax field was not only an important discovery for Nevada but allowed the Smiths to create the Teels Marsh Borax Company, a predecessor to the Pacific Borax Salt & Soda Co., which in the late 19th century would control the world borax market.

Smith's genius was that he recognized the value of borax if marketed correctly. Prior to his efforts, borax was mined in Europe and used primarily in pharmaceuticals.

Since he was sitting on huge reserves, Smith began promoting and advertising the substance as an effective abrasive cleaner. He created an immense market for his products and, in the process, became one of the early 20th century’s most successful industrialists.

Smith would eventually move west to larger borax (also known as colmanite) discoveries in Death Valley and become famed for his 40-mule teams that carried the ore out of the Death Valley area. Of course, he superbly marketed his mule trains so that they and Borax became household names.

The town of Marietta was established in about 1877 and soon had a post office, a newspaper, a company store owned by Borax Smith, several other businesses and more than 150 residents. A stamp mill was erected in the first year to help in the ore processing.

Within a few years, the town had a row of buildings, including a dozen saloons on its main street as well as the large stamp mill and several dozen wooden and rock houses.

The discovery of the richer borax deposits at Death Valley eventually signaled the end of Marietta. By the 1890s, the borax operations were abandoned and the town slid into oblivion.

The drive to Marietta allows visitors to view the real Nevada outback. The road winds through rolling sage-covered foothills before dropping down into the flat, treeless, alkali valley that is the location of Teels Marsh and, at the southeast end of the marsh, the ruins of Marietta.

The town’s signature structure is the stone wall remains of the Smith store. You can still find three of the four walls of the store standing, with a second structure, perhaps a later addition, directly east of the walls.

Just east of the store are the foundations and remains of the mill and, buried in the sagebrush, a handful of neglected, rude mounds can be found in the original cemetery.

Additionally, near the main street there are a handful of wooden farmhouses, including one with a fairly intact stone corral and walls that appeared to have been insulated with old cardboard Crisco boxes. Another small, one-story wooden structure with a frontier storefront and a decided tilt, is still identified as the post office.

A few mobile homes and ranch houses surround the ruins and indicate that Marietta still has a few residents.

In the early 1990s, the area around Teels Marsh and Marietta was designated the nation’s first official wild burro range. The 68,000-acre range is home to about 85 burros that can freely roam the marsh and surrounding hills. There are designated viewing areas above the marsh.

Marietta is located 56 miles southwest of Hawthorne via U.S. Highway 95, then west on State Route 360 to a marked and maintained dirt road.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Easy to be Alone in the Old Mining Camp of Ione


The mining industry’s cyclical nature can be easily seen in the worn countenance of the Central Nevada mining town of Ione.

Silver was discovered by miner P.A. Havens in late 1863 on the edge of the Shoshone Mountains. Within a few months, a small settlement had taken root and by January 1864, Ione, then called Ione City, had more than 50 buildings.

The name, Ione, was apparently taken from another similarly named mining district in California.

Residents were so certain that Ione was going to be something big that they petitioned for the creation of a new county, Nye, with Ione as the seat. The Territorial government granted the request and an official county government was created in April 1864.

By the end of 1864, some 600 people were living in Ione, which also boasted a post office, two newspapers and dozens of businesses including a stable, several stores and markets, restaurants, saloons, a drugstore and a stagecoach line linking the town to Austin.

Ione’s bright future began to dim in 1866-67, when new discoveries in the mining town of Belmont, located about 50 miles southeast, lured away many of the community’s prospectors. In February 1867, Belmont wrestled the Nye county seat away from Ione.

Ione’s demise accelerated with the loss of the county seat. By 1868, the population had dipped to about 175 people. Despite additional silver discoveries in the 1870s, Ione never regained its prominence.

In 1880, Ione’s population had slipped to 25 and the town’s heyday was over. Residents even changed the town’s name to Midas, in 1882, in the hope that it might help create a more prosperous image for the community.

Ione never completely vanished despite a bad fire in 1887 that destroyed many of its remaining buildings. Mining continued into the late 1890s. After the turn of the century, however, most of the mines and mills had closed and the post office was shut down in 1903.

The town experienced a new mining revival, this time involving the production of mercury, in 1912-1914, and the post office was reopened, this time using the current name, Ione.

During the next half-century, Ione managed to hang around, surviving off sporadic mining operations. The post office again closed in 1959 and, to date, hasn’t reopened.

Ione’s most recent revival occurred in the early 1980s, with the development of a large gold mining operation by Marshall Earth Resources, Inc. The company, which today owns most of the town, also restored several of the town's original buildings.

For example, the old schoolhouse was converted into a general store while the former post office was made into the Marshall Earth Resources offices that were furnished with beautiful antique furniture.

As with previous booms, however, this one eventually ebbed and the town has lapsed into a quasi-slumber.

A special treat for visitors is the small Victorian-style town park. Encircled with a white picket fence, the park has turn-of-the-century Victorian street lamps. With its large shade trees, the park is a pleasant place for a picnic or to enjoy Ione's quiet ambiance.

The town's main business is the Ore House Saloon, a restaurant, gas station and bar that seems to have a seasonal schedule (depending on mining activity) and isn't always open.

Wandering around Ione, you'll also find other interesting sights, including, just north of the general store, a corral filled with a half-dozen buffalo. A sign warns not to get too close to the wooly animals, which do not appear to be particularly friendly.

North of the park, you will find other remnants from old Ione, such as an aged, wooden corral fence, an old wooden barn-like building (rumored to have served as the original Nye County Courthouse), several stone cabins, as well as half-buried dirt and grass structures that were once used as miner's residences, like the one pictured above.

The nearby Ione Valley is also notable because historic evidence indicates it once was home to a large, Native American population, which dates more than 5,000 years.

To reach Ione, travel east on Highway 50 to Middle Gate (about 40 miles east of Fallon). Turn south on State Route 361 toward Gabbs. Just before reaching Gabbs, turn east on State Route 91 (marked for the Berlin-Ichthyosaur State Park). Continue for 12 miles, then turn north on the dirt road marked for Ione, which is just before reaching Berlin-Ichthyosaur State Park (a place also worthy of a visit).

A gravel road northeast of Ione passes over the Ione Summit, before dropping down into the Reese River Valley. From here, it is about 40 miles to Highway 50 and the town of Austin.

For more information about Ione, contact the Berlin-Ichthyosaur State Park, 775-964-2440, or refer to Shawn Hall’s excellent book, “Preserving the Glory Days: Ghost Towns and Mining Camps of Nye County, Nevada.”

Monday, September 22, 2008

Colorful Rainbow Canyon


The second half the journey through Eastern Nevada's magnificent Meadow Valley Wash country begins south of the scenic and historic Rainbow Canyon, about 20 miles from Caliente.

So named because of the range of colors found in the rocks of the tall walls lining this long, narrow natural depression, Rainbow Canyon was created by intense volcanic activity more than 34 million years ago.

Geologists say that over a period of many millions of years, layers of ash deposits—caused by the volcanoes active in this time—began to settle, and then form into rock called "tuff."

Later, these layers began to crack and hot water, laden with additional minerals, flowed into these fault areas, depositing gold, iron, copper, manganese and a number of other materials within the fractures.

Rainbow Canyon's broad canvas of colors was created when these mineral deposits stained the tuffs. Iron ores created the red and yellow shades, while copper caused the blue and green hues. The white cliffs are the remains of pure deposits of the volcanic ash.

About a million years ago, a volcanic chamber, under much of what is now eastern Nevada, collapsed, creating a large valley that eventually filled with water. Faulting at the southern end of this lake valley later allowed the water to escape and, ultimately, carved the area now called Rainbow Canyon.

The presence of water in Rainbow Canyon (a creek continues to run down the middle of the canyon) also helped attract Nevada's earliest residents. Artifacts found in the area indicate the presence of man some 3,500 years ago in Rainbow Canyon.

Fortunately, there are still plenty of places where we can still find evidence of both the geologic and prehistoric roots of the canyon. The latter are best represented by the large number of petroglyphs, which are prehistoric rock carvings, that are found in the area.

Some of the best of these rock writings can be seen about 17.3 miles south of Caliente. On the slopes of the west side of the canyon are a handful of boulders that have been carved with a variety of symbols and designs, including some remarkable big horn sheep drawings.

Farther down the road, on the east side (about 18 miles south of Caliente), are additional drawings depicting circular shapes, squiggles and other intriguing designs. Local folks indicate there are dozens of similar sites throughout the canyon.

The drawings are believed to be the work of the "Anasazi" or ancient ones, prehistoric people who resided in the American southwest. The meaning of these carved shapes remains unknown, although many believe they have religious significance related to the harvest and hunt.

In addition to petroglyphs, investigators have found other artifacts from these original residents, including arrowheads, baskets, sandal fragments and grinding tools.
The geologic history of the area is equally fascinating. At almost any place along the road, you will find the beautiful multi-colored, layered cliff faces that make the canyon so remarkable.

A particularly impressive formation is the sheer rock cliffs located about 15 miles south of Caliente. Here, you can find steep, gray cliffs that rise steeply above the road.

Only two miles before reaching Caliente is Kershaw-Ryan State Park. This small park is one of the most beautiful in the state and offers picnicking and hiking.

Mormon pioneers discovered Rainbow Canyon in the 1870s and 1880s. Within a few years, a handful of ranches cropped up in the area to provide produce and livestock for the booming silver camps at Pioche.

In the early part of this century, the canyon was the site of an unusual competition between two rival railroad companies, the Union Pacific and the San Pedro, Los Angeles and Salt Lake Railroad. At one point, the two rail companies were building parallel grades on either sides of the canyon in a race to be the first to complete a line from Los Angeles to Salt Lake City.

Eventually, the two companies agreed to joint ownership and a single line was constructed. Since then, the track has been moved several times following major floods as the railroad has sought to find the safest route.

For more information about Rainbow Canyon and the Caliente area, go to the excellent web site, www.lincolncountynevada.com.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Exploring Eastern Nevada, South of Elgin


Nevada's geologic history is a crazy-quilt of upheavals, eruptions, faulting and just about anything else that can be done to a place. One of the best ways to see it is on the backroads of eastern Nevada.

Eastern Nevada is a geologist's dream with its expressive, multi-colored rock canyon cliffs and massive, layered stone formations that poke through the earth's surface at seemingly random angles.

Because the region is fairly remote, it's also still possible to travel these dirt and gravel backroads and see stone formations untouched or influenced by the effects of man.

Perhaps the best of these many off-the-beaten-pathways in Nevada is the Meadow Valley Wash road leading north from Glendale (which is 45 miles east of Las Vegas on Interstate 15) to the historic eastern Nevada railroad community of Caliente.

The road, which is only accessible with a four-wheel drive vehicle, travels some 75 miles over somewhat rugged dirt roads. The road, located about 2 miles north of Glendale, just off State Route 168, runs parallel to the Union Pacific Railroad tracks for much of the way (be careful to watch for occasional trains since you're literally driving beside the tracks).

The trip begins slowly as you pass through typical high desert sage and grass country. Within a few miles you can see, to the right, some beautiful eroded plateaus, which are part of the Mormon Mountains. These deep, naturally-carved mounds, just off in the distance, are the kind of panoramic vistas that only seem to be found in eastern Nevada.

Driving along, the ground changes to a more reddish color, reflecting the rich clay content in the soil. At about the 15-mile point, the road enters a different terrain, of canyons and mountainsides.

Here, you view some impressive red and brown cliff faces, along with others that are deeply carved, like the lined, weather-damaged face of an old rancher.

At about the 24-mile point, the road reaches a yucca-filled canyon lined with crumbled stone cliffs, the surfaces of which are layered like a giant stack of pancakes. Illustrating the tremendous forces that have shaped this land, the layers generally run in a horizontal direction but in uneven lines due to the earth's past movements.

Stopping for a moment to admire the scenery, one can't help but be humbled by the immense power of the earth, which can thrust, crack or drop these layered rock sheets upward, then twist them and, sometimes, overturn them.

As the road continues to wind through these various canyons and passages, you also wonder how the railroad's designers came upon this route and the incredible effort it must have required to build it.

Some of the concrete railroad bridges show dates ranging from 1921 to the 1940s (and a few newer steel spans without dates), indicating this rail line is a living thing, continually requiring upkeep, replacement and care. To accent this point, it's not uncommon to stumble upon a road crew doing some kind of work on the railroad or adjacent road.

These bridges cross several marshy areas and small creeks and reinforce the fact that the road runs down the middle of Meadow Valley Wash, a natural plain that has, on occasion, been subject to intense flash floods. Historic records indicate a handful of times the track has actually been washed away.

At about 35 miles from the start, the road branches away from the tracks and runs parallel but at some distance. Modest ranches with cultivated fields, horses and cows begin to appear as the terrain flattens out into a wider valley. You can also drive faster now, racing along at 35 miles per hour rather than the previous crawl speeds of 15 to 20 m.p.h.

Following another 20 miles of fairly smooth driving, you reach a place called Elgin; be sure to stop at the Elgin Schoolhouse, now a museum filled with vintage furniture and displays, as well as the Bradshaw family's End of the Rainbow Ranch, a small local resort with a fishing pond and picnic areas open in the summer.

The ranch, established in the 1880s, offers tasty pick-your-own apples in the fall and boasts it has the only naturally-watered apple orchards in the state.

From here, you finally enter the area known as Rainbow Canyon—-but more about that in the next post.

Monday, September 08, 2008

Coloma: Where California's Gold Rush Began


About a decade before silver was discovered in Nevada, the West’s first mega-mining boom occurred on the other side of the Sierra Nevada Range near a place called Coloma.

In 1839, John Sutter acquired land from the Spanish, erected a fort and started a settlement in Sacramento, which he originally named New Helvetia. The ambitious Sutter envisioned the community as the capital of a great inland agricultural empire.

In 1847, he built a sawmill on the American River, about forty miles from his fort, to provide lumber for his growing colony. To run the sawmill, he hired James Marshall.

One day in 1848, Marshall was working at the mill when he discovered some shiny rocks in the river water that powered the wheels. He had the stones assayed and found they were almost solid gold.

Within a year, Sutter’s sawmill had been abandoned and a mining camp had popped up on the banks of the American River, which was named Coloma. The camp and surrounding area quickly became the focus of one of the most massive influxes of humanity ever experienced in America.

By 1849, more than 10,000 people toiled along the banks of the American River and Coloma had grown to 13 hotels, two banks and dozens of other businesses, all opened to serve the miners.

Unfortunately, there really wasn’t as much gold to be found in the river as was first thought, and by 1851, the miners began to move on to seek their fortunes in more profitable areas, including Gold Canyon and the Virginia City area in Nevada.

Today, the Coloma State Park encompasses nearly all of the historic camp of Coloma. Wandering through the grounds, you can find a handful of restored Gold Rush-era buildings, including a Chinese store, blacksmith’s shop, a jail, an old miner's cabin and several churches.

One of the most impressive structures is a full-size replica of Sutter's mill. The site of the original sawmill is nearby, marked by a stone monument. Downriver from the mill is a sign indicating the original gold discovery site.

A good place to get an overview is at the Gold Discovery Museum. Inside, you can find displays explaining Marshall’s discovery, the development of the placer gold mining industry in the region and other interesting facts about the park.

Additionally, if you drive a few miles west of the town and follow the signs leading to the Marshall Monument, you reach a spot above the town that features a large bronze statue of Marshall pointing to the site of his discovery.

Marshall never reaped the rewards of his discovery and died poor. He is buried beneath the impressive monument and his modest cabin, which has been preserved, sits down the hill from the statue.

Of course, the park is much more than history. Located in a scenic valley on the South Fork of the American River, the park is heavily wooded with oak, locust, persimmon and mimosa trees.

Part of the fun of visiting the park is the drive on Highway 49. From Placerville, you travel for about eight miles on a winding road through beautiful wooded countryside.

There are several campgrounds and picnic areas in the park, but they get crowded during the summer. The area is also popular for river rafting. Several outfits in the vicinity offer guided trips on the American River.

To reach Coloma, head west on Highway 50 to Placerville. Exit on Highway 49 and follow the signs to Coloma, which is eight miles north of Placerville. The Marshall Gold Discovery Historic Park is open daily. For more information call 530-622-3470.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Rochester Slowly Fades Into the Sunset


A strong wind sweeps across the tumble down buildings in the old mining camp of Rochester. In the fading late afternoon light, they become harder to see and mysterious.

The ghosts are coming to life in Rochester Canyon.

Rochester Canyon was once one of north-central Nevada’s most successful mining camps. In the early 20th century, the region produced more than $6 million in silver, gold, copper and lead.

The ruins of the Rochester Canyon communities are located about 10 miles southeast of Interstate 80 at the Oreana exit. To reach the site, exit at Oreana (14 miles northeast of Lovelock), then travel three miles on a paved road. At a fork in the road, turn right onto a maintained dirt road and continue another seven miles to Rochester.

Rochester Canyon was first explored in the early 1860s by prospectors from Rochester, New York (thus its name). Small-scale mining was initiated but proved largely unsuccessful.

In 1912, Joseph Nenzel discovered large bodies of silver ore in the canyon, which sparked a significant boom. By 1913, more than two thousand miners were working the area and a two-and-a-half mile long ribbon of miner's shacks, commercial businesses and other buildings began to line the center of the canyon.

Several separate town sites were actually laid out in the canyon. Near the top was Rochester Heights, which had a popular local saloon. Farther down the canyon was Rochester, which quickly became the largest settlement with several substantial stone buildings to house hotels, saloons and offices. At the mouth of the canyon was Lower Rochester.

At its peak in 1913-14, the town of Rochester had its own orchestra, regular freight service, dance halls and a 100-ton mill to process the ore.

By 1915, following completion of a shortline railroad that connected to the nearby Southern Pacific line, Lower Rochester grew into the biggest camp. In 1917, an aerial tram system was completed to carry ore from the mines to the mill at Lower Rochester.

Rochester’s mines continued to be productive throughout the 1920s and 30s. The mines were shut down in 1942, as a result of shortages of equipment and supplies during the Second World War.

Efforts to restart the mines continued after the war but none succeeded until the 1980s with the development of a large gold mining operation, the Coeur Rochester Mine, which operates on the mountain above the canyon.

Despite the years of neglect, Rochester, as the whole area is referred to today, offers intriguing glimpses at an early 20th century mining camp. When you enter the former site of Lower Rochester, you will find a handful of impressive wooden mining headframes and decayed buildings on the southern hillside.

Wandering among the ruins, you can spot the mostly intact fly-wheels, cabling and other pieces of equipment on the headframes. Additionally, there are also the partial remains of the ore-cart track and bridge, adjacent to the headframes and buildings.

One note of caution: be very careful walking around any part of Rochester Canyon because there are many open mine shafts. Also, do not touch anything. Most of the buildings are barely standing and probably won’t survive too many more years and any abuse.

Up the canyon from those ruins, you will find a large mill building, mostly intact. The structure seems in fairly good condition, although not safe enough to enter. Opposite the mill building, you can also spot the large concrete foundations of what must have been another, larger mill site.

The road continues up the canyon, with a handful of stone foundations and crumbling, wooden miner’s shacks peeking through the surrounding sagebrush. A commemorative plaque telling the story of Rochester can be found in front of one of the former miner’s homes, adjacent to the road.

From the plaque, the road heads farther up the canyon but becomes rockier and there aren’t any more ruins along the way. About a mile from the plaque, you reach a locked fence and the entrance to the Coeur Rochester Mine, which is closed to the public.

For more information about Rochester, contact the Lovelock Chamber of Commerce, P.O. Box 821, Lovelock, NV 89419, 775-273-7213.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Nevada Capital Nearly Wasn't Carson City


In honor of the 150th birthday of Carson City, I'd like you to think about this the next time you drive by Nevada’s distinctive silver-domed State Capitol in Carson City.

Imagine how it might look in Winnemucca or American Flat or Boise, Idaho.

Several times in Nevada’s history there have been attempts to locate the state capital in some other location. Even before Nevada became a state, there was debate over where to place the seat of state power.

For instance, Genoa was the site of the original discussions about forming a Nevada Territory in 1857. Later, the town served as the home of the first territorial convention which formed a kind of renegade provisional government (at the time most of Nevada was part of the Utah Territory).

Two years later, however, Congress finally authorized creation of an official Nevada Territory. As part of that act, the seat of the territorial government was moved from Genoa to Carson City.

Historian Russell Elliott notes that Carson City’s selection was aided by influential Carson City attorney William M. Stewart (later selected one of Nevada’s first two U.S. Senators), who cleverly traded county seats to potential rival communities in return for their support.

Additionally, Abraham Curry, one of Carson City’s founders, offered free land for a state capital.

But since the State Capitol building wasn’t constructed until 1870-71, there was still plenty of time for other pretenders to steal away the capital.

Opposition to authorizing funds to build a capital in Carson City came from Lander County officials, who thought booming Austin might be a better site. Lander’s State Senator D.W. Welty went so far as to describe Carson City as “a swamp” and a “mud hole.”

Virginia City also made a few half-hearted tries at snagging the capital. Territorial Enterprise owner Joseph Goodman once wrote—tongue in cheek—of an 1864 attempt to claim the capital for Virginia City:

“It is easy enough to obey a gypsy impulse to go anywhere or everywhere, but when you have arrived at your destination without any purpose a feeling of stultification is liable to confront you and ask what it all means. And so, when we deployed ourselves in the blaze of the capital, and anxious denizens inquired what this sudden irruption of the dignitaries of Virginia City signified, we were confounded and unable to reply satisfactorily. But their insistence speedily begot a purpose. The capital could not be permanently fixed under the Territorial act; its location was at the will of the Legislature, and we determined to remove it to Virginia City.”

Goodman counted heads and found that while the Assembly would go along with the move, there was a tie vote in the Senate. He decided to focus his attention on persuading “Uncle Abe Curry” to switch his vote in favor of Virginia City but was, in turn, convinced to drop his effort by a tearful Curry.

“The jig was up, I honored the old man’s sentiment, though it swept away our brilliant dream of empire,” he concluded.

Of a more serious nature was a handsome financial bid for the capital made that same year by the small mining town of American City (later known as American Flat), which was located a mile west of Gold Hill.

American City’s boosters were so certain of their camp’s future that they offered $50,000 to the territorial government it would relocate there. Despite support from Virginia City newspapers, the offer was rejected. American City faded away within a few years.

Ironically, the same man who helped to locate the capital in Carson City, Senator William Stewart, later tried to move it to Winnemucca. In the late 1880s, Stewart saw that due to depleted mining resources Nevada’s economy was experiencing a severe depression.

His solution was to annex portions of politically weaker territories such as Idaho and Utah in order to expand Nevada’s population and economic base.

In 1888, Stewart proposed adding northern Idaho to Washington and southern Idaho to Nevada and suggested Winnemucca as the new capital of the expanded Nevada because of its location in the center of the new state.

The proposal was shelved after opposition surfaced from President Grover Cleveland and, not surprisingly, residents of the Idaho Territory.

Not willing to drop the matter, Stewart made another attempt at annexation in the summer of 1888. Reasoning that most of southern Idaho’s opposition came from the citizens of Boise, he suggested dual capitals of Nevada in Boise and Carson City.

Idahoans, however, still preferred statehood and Stewart’s proposals died in Congress. In 1890, Idaho was finally admitted as the 43rd state.

A few years ago, there were discussions about moving the capital to Las Vegas, home of most of the state’s population. The state Legislature responded by scheduling more hearings in Las Vegas during its biannual sessions.

Maybe that’s why Las Vegas lost interest.

Friday, August 15, 2008

The Sweet Sights of Cherry Creek


You won’t find any cherries at the old mining town of Cherry Creek.

He town, in fact, is named after the small creek of the same name that runs through it. The creek apparently gained its name, according to local legend, because it flows from a nearby canyon that once contained either wild cherry trees or chokecherry bushes.

Located about an hour north of Ely in Eastern Nevada, Cherry Creek traces its beginnings to the early 1870s, when gold and silver were discovered in the area.

Within a few months, more than 1,000 prospectors had rushed into the region to make their fortunes. By the middle of 1873, Cherry Creek had developed to the point of having a post office, a Wells Fargo office, a couple of saloons, and several other businesses.

For much of the next decade, the town had its ups and downs but generally thrived as the mines produced thousands of dollars in gold and silver ore. A couple of large stamp mills were constructed to process the ore in the late 1870s.

Promising new discoveries in the early 1880s created more interest in Cherry Creek and several businesses from other Eastern Nevada mining towns relocated to Cherry Creek, convinced it was going to be the next Virginia City.

Among the businesses to move into the booming mining town was the White Pine News, a newspaper that had formerly been published in the mining town of Hamilton.

Things were looking so good for Cherry Creek that in 1882, the town made an attempt to claim the white pine county seat from Hamilton, which was in decline. Unfortunately for Cherry Creek, it, too, was entering a mining slump. When the county seat was finally moved in 1887, it was the copper mining boomtown of Ely that became the new county seat and not Cherry Creek.

Cherry Creek’s fortunes, in fact, were changing. Less valuable ore was being extracted and, unlike in the past, no new significant ore bodies were being discovered. By the mid-1890s, mining had virtually ceased in the Cherry Creek district and the town’s population had dropped to a couple of hundred optimistic souls.

But it’s hard to keep some mining towns down. In 1905, the district revived with several new discoveries.

When the Nevada Northern Railway was being constructed from Ely to connect to the Southern Pacific Railroad line at Cobre, its builders decided to pass through Cherry Creek. This not only provided a cheap and easy way to ship ore from the town but it linked Cherry Creek to the outside world.

Unfortunately, the mining revival was short lived and, by 1910, the town was again economically depressed. It experienced another brief revival from 1933 to 1940, but then the mines were closed during World War II. To date, most have never reopened. In recent decades, there has been small-scale mining in the area but no major commercial operations.

A visit to Cherry Creek offers a rare opportunity to see a relatively intact old-time Nevada mining community. Newer homes, mostly either mobile homes or plywood structures, are interspersed with the brick, stone, mud, and wooden ruins of earlier economic boom times.

In some cases, newer structures were simply added onto an older building, creating a cacophony of building materials and architectural styles.

Wandering the dirt streets of the old mining town, you can find plenty of long abandoned homes and buildings.

In many places, you’ll find an unusually large number of decaying sod houses, built by the 19th century miners. These habitats were constructed partially into the ground or into a hillside, and had wooden beam roofs, on which panels of grass or sod were placed. The result is a structure that looks a bit like a crude Hobbit house, half-buried in the ground with a wooden door and wooden interior walls and floors.

Other Cherry Creek houses were no more than tiny wooden shacks with corrugated metal roofs. If you peek into the window of one of these now-abandoned buildings you might still see old furnishings, such as a rusted metal bed frame, a worn mattress, a warped wooden table and torn curtains.

The weathered, exterior wooden walls have a wonderful texture to them that seems to say much about Cherry Creek’s rich past.

One of the more impressive ruins is a solid-looking, red brick house at the north end of the town, which, while exposed to the elements because the windows and doors are long gone, still manages to offer a glimpse into the lifestyles of Cherry Creek’s pioneers.

In this case, you can still find the remains of curtains fluttering in the broken windows and inside there is still wallpaper on the walls.

In the back, the old wooden outhouse has fallen over but since it had two-seats—you know someone of substance once lived here.

A handful of Cherry Creek’s buildings show the influence of the railroad. These buildings, which include the old jail, are constructed of large, sturdy railroad ties.

In the center of the town you can find what’s left of the old commercial center, including a large, red freight barn, and the Cherry Creek Saloon, which is still open for business.

Across the street from the bar, are the foundations of several other stone buildings, other remnants of the town’s once substantial business district. An historic marker adjacent to the ruins tells about Cherry Creek.

On the west edge of town is the old Cherry Creek schoolhouse, still in good shape, which now houses a small museum. Inside, you can find an assortment of antiques including old bicycles, mining equipment, clothing, and furniture, all from Cherry Creek’s past. The museum is open on weekends during the summer months.

On a hill just south of town, with a beautiful view of the surrounding Steptoe Valley, you can find the Cherry Creek cemeteries. Divided by religious and ethnic groups, the various cemeteries contain dozens of worn wooden and elegant marble tombstones.

Adjacent to the cemeteries is a rundown, single-story, log cabin structure, which carries a sign designating it as the town jail.

It certainly makes you think twice about a life of crime.

Friday, August 08, 2008

Soaking in Spencer Hot Springs


As one of the most active geothermal regions, Nevada is blessed with dozens of natural warm and hot springs. Throughout the state you can find small pools of warm and hot water, some of which are safe enough for a soothing soak.

However, always check with local folks or refer to a good hot spring guidebook before dipping into one of these holes because some are scalding hot.

One of the more accessible of these natural hot tubs is Spencer Hot Springs, a geothermal swimming hole located about 20 miles southeast of Austin in the northern part of the Big Smoky Valley.

Spencer Hot Springs isn’t much to look at—a crude pool dug in the ground with a partial wooden deck. The pool is surrounded by chalky alkali ground covered with sagebrush and assorted grasses.

Hot water pours from a rusted pipe to a smaller pool above the main dipping pool. A faucet between the two allows soakers to regulate the heat of the water in the lower pool. Another pipe sends overflow water to a swampy area below the pool.

Since the setting is so rustic, don’t expect any amenities at Spencer. This is no resort spa—it’s just you and the hot water. Additionally, always test the heat of the water before climbing into the pool to make sure you can tolerate the heat.

And since many of Nevada's hot springs pools are located in far off places, carry a few survival essentials such as an inflated spare tire (we had a flat tire right after visiting Spencer a couple of years ago!) as well as sufficient gas, water, matches and a sleeping bag or blankets (just in case you have car trouble and can’t drive out).

Interestingly, there are hot springs fans that travel around the West, moving from pool to pool. A couple of years ago, I stopped at Spencer and discovered a retired couple from England camping in their RV at the site.

After awhile, a second RV pulled up, driven by a long-haired, bearded man. As he climbed out of his vehicle, he recognized the older couple. It turns out that they had met at a hot springs in Mexico the previous year.

One of the best things about soaking in Spencer, however, is that most of the time you’re the only person there. You can sit back in the pool, relax in the warm water and enjoy a magnificent view of the wide, open Big Smoky Valley. And it’s free.

To reach Spencer Hot Springs, travel about 14 miles east of Austin on U.S. 50 to the point where it intersects with State Route 376 (the road to Tonopah). Turn south on 376, then after about a tenth of a mile, take an immediate left onto a dirt road (marked by an historical marker for Toquima Cave).

Travel six miles on the dirt road, then turn left onto another dirt road and head toward a small rise. Spencer Hot Springs is located on the eastside of the mound.

Two of the best sources of information about regional hot springs "Hot Springs of Nevada" by George Williams III and "Touring Nevada and California Hot Springs" by Matt Bischoff. Both are available from Amazon books.

Saturday, August 02, 2008

A Little Piece of Heaven?

My wife and I own a parcel of land in the middle of nowhere. It’s not really the middle of nowhere—it just has a remarkable resemblance to the middle of nowhere. And for years we have paid taxes on it.

Specifically, it is ten acres of sagebrush and dirt located in the Dun Glen Flat/Buena Vista Valley region, about halfway between Lovelock and Winnemucca.

The roots of this little piece of virtual nothingness can be traced back to the late 1960s, when my wife’s parents purchased this parcel—generously described as a “ranchero” in the promotional literature.

The original agreement for the sale of the land, located about a dozen miles south of Mill City, off State Route 400 (the road leading to the ghost town of Unionville), officially describes it as: “The E 1/2 of S1/2 of SW1/4 of NW 1/4 of Sec.27, R35E, T32N, MDBM, of Pershing County, Nevada, 10 acres. (13-E).”

In the early 1990s, my father-in-law turned over the title to the parcel to my wife, who later added me to the deed.

For many years, we’ve joked about our little plot in Pershing County. We’ve kidded each other about one day retiring to our hunk of undeveloped dirt that has no water, electricity, or other improvements.

So, one day we decided to check out our humble estate. My wife had actually been out to look over the lot many years ago but I had never had to pleasure of viewing it.

We headed east of Reno on the interstate, traveling about 93 miles to Lovelock (where we stopped for ice cream). We continued east on I-80 for another 42 miles to the Mill City exit. There, we headed south on SR 400.

A crude map in our files indicated that the parcel was about 12 miles south of Mill City, apparently some unknown distance from the highway.

Despite having the helpful and detailed deed description (you know—“The E 1/2 of S 1/2 etc.”), we quickly realized that other than two or three fairly large ranches, there wasn’t much to differentiate one parcel from another in the Dun Glen Flat or adjacent Buena Vista Valley.

In fact, we had a hard time finding our little ten acres tucked in the middle of the tens of thousands of barren, vacant acreage out there.

At one point, a local rancher came along in his truck as we stood by the side of the road scanning the vast open space for some clue as to the site of our land (I guess we were expecting a big sign or a neon arrow or something . . .)and asked if we needed help.

We told him about our quest to locate our land and described what we were looking for. He scratched his head thinking about it for a moment and then remembered that the only ten-acre lots were a few miles north, near what one of our road atlases called the Star Creek Ranch.

He said nearly all the rest of the lots in the valley that weren’t part of larger ranches were a minimum of 20 acres.

We drove back to the spot he had indicated and looked out over the desert. Just beyond a barbed wire fence we could see a series of either power-line or telephone poles stretching north to south, seemingly forever.

All of the land around us was cracked and dry, with the general flatness broken by occasional gray-green mounds of scruffy sagebrush. Here and there, you could see rocks peeking through the thin, yellow-brown grass that barely covered the ground.

In the distance, we could see a large patch of green—apparently the Star Creek Ranch grew alfalfa.

Unable to determine exactly which vacant acreage was our ten acres, we wandered into the desert for a little while—and imagined we were looking at our land.

I tried to envision where we would put the carport, the swimming pool and the satellite dish. A fishing pond might be nice.

In the end, I decided that it was enough just knowing that somewhere out there was ten acres of land that was all our's.

Even if I couldn’t tell exactly where.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Finding Fallen Leaf Lake


Modjeska Falls, above Fallen Leaf Lake

Tucked in the mountains, a few miles west of magnificent Lake Tahoe, is another body of water that just might be, with apologies to Mark Twain, the second fairest picture the whole earth affords.

Called Fallen Leaf Lake, this picturesque alpine lake rivals its larger neighbor in beauty. In fact, if not for a fluke of nature, namely a small stretch of land that separates Fallen Leaf from Tahoe, the area could easily have been another Emerald Bay.

Fallen Leaf Lake is located five miles west of Highway 89, immediately north of Camp Richardson on Lake Tahoe's southwest shore. A marked and paved road is located directly across the highway from the entrance to the U.S. Forest Service Visitors Center and Tallac Historic Site.

The U.S. Forest also operates a developed camping area at the northeast end of Fallen Leaf Lake. The entrance to the 206-unit campground, which is open from May to October, is located about a quarter of a mile north of Fallen Leaf Lake Road, off Highway 89.

The drive from the highway to the lake is pleasant, passing through large pine trees. About three miles from the turn-off, you travel by a lovely aspen grove and open meadow, both of which are spectacular in the fall, when the aspen leaves have turned gold.

The road narrows as it reaches the east end of the lake and, after passing into a residential area, you catch your first glimpse of the lake. As you drive, you can see incredible scenery, including Cathedral Peak (the southern shoulder of Mount Tallac) rising over the lake, its 9,785-foot crown mirrored in the lake's crystal waters.

I think it is the "mirror effect" of Fallen Leaf Lake that makes the view so remarkable. Rather than enclosing the lake, the reflection of the surrounding mountains seems to stretch into infinity and create a sense of being in a much larger place.

While much of the lake is private property, you can continue to drive to the lake's west end where, in the summer months, Fallen Leaf Lodge offers accommodations and a marina. In the winter, the lodge is closed but you can park and enjoy the marvelous views.

About a half mile from the end of the road (it comes to a dead end at the Stanford Sierra Resort, a private retreat), you can turn west on another narrow (all the roads around here are extremely narrow, so be careful while driving) paved road, lined by large log railings.

This road leads to Lily Lake, a trailhead for hiking into the nearby Desolation Wilderness and an elegant waterfall (which, according to E.B. Scott's book "Saga of Lake Tahoe," is called Modjeska Falls after a famous Polish actress of the late 19th century who visited them).

Frankly, even if Fallen Leaf Lake didn't exist, the waterfall would be worth a visit. Located just north of the road on Glen Alpine Creek, which feeds into Fallen Leaf Lake, the joyous, rolling waves of falling water are an impressive and unexpected sight.

You can park off the road here and hike to the waterfall. From the top, the view of the rapidly cascading water as it falls down the lush canyon is worth noting. Across the creek, you can also see private homes—people fortunate enough to be able to look out on the waterfall any time they want.

The road continues west, paralleling Glen Alpine Creek, for another mile or so to Lily Lake. Opposite the creek, parallel to the road, is a jumbled mountainside of loose boulders and stones.

A concrete bridge marks the end of the drivable road. On the north side of the bridge, you can park and hike a short distance to Lily Lake, a small but photogenic lake literally cupped in the mountains.

The main Glen Alpine Trail leads northwest from here, north of Lily Lake, into the Desolation Wilderness and Glen Alpine Springs, a former resort, located about a mile west after a pleasant walk through the trees.

For more information about camping at Fallen Leaf Campground contact the National Forest Service, 877-444-6777 or go to www.fs.fed.us/r5/ltbmu/recreation/camping/flcamp.shtml.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Gorgeous Cathedral Gorge


It’s easy to understand why Cathedral Gorge was made into one of Nevada’s first state parks in the 1930s. With its tall, deeply grooved, tan-brown, clay spires rising high above a narrow valley, Cathedral Gorge is something truly unique.

Cathedral Gorge is a place with great texture, beauty and mystery. Deep, shadowy crevices in the craggy cliff walls hint at hidden, dark passageways that lead into the unknown.

As you stand admiring the Gorge’s evocative formations, you can’t help but be reminded of the fact that Nevada contains some pretty amazing terrain and landscapes.

Cathedral Gorge is located in remote Eastern Nevada, a few miles from the small ranching and farming community of Panaca. To understand the forces that created this natural wonder, you’ve got to go back more than a million years, to a time when much of this part of the state was underwater.

Natural streams flowed into a large inland lake that covered the entire valley where the gorge is located today. Those streams also brought silt and clay that, over time, eventually filled the lake.

Flash-forward a few hundred thousand years—the lake has dried up and left behind a thick, clay lake bed. Wind and rain erode the clay, shaping it into the marvelous shapes found in the gorge today.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, white settlers established small farms in the region and discovered the unusual formations at Cathedral Gorge, which was originally known as Panaca Gulch.

Later, the gorge’s name was changed to Cathedral Gulch, because of its gothic looking clay spires, and eventually to Cathedral Gorge.

After being designated a state park, the Civilian Conservation Corps, a federal work program that helped employ thousands of Americans during the Great Depression, helped develop the park for use by the public.

Today, a handful of the structures and improvements built by the CCC crews can still be found in the park, including an old stone water tower and the wooden canopy that covers the main picnic area.

The drive into the gorge doesn’t really prepare you for what you find there. After turning off from U.S. 93, you enter a small valley. Along the north side, you first spot the gorge’s dusty, brown clay walls.

A bit farther, the walls grow steeper and more deeply carved. Then, you enter a wide valley surrounded by these immense clay walls and stone alone pillars and columns, each more fantastic than its neighbor.

The formations here almost seem organic in appearance. The elements haven’t so much cut or gouged the clay as they have seemingly molded it into smooth surfaces with rounded edges. It all seems more like it has been flowed into place rather than carved or chiseled.

The gorge contains several interesting self-guided hikes, which are marked. Two trails lead from the park and picnic area at the end of the paved entrance road to places called Moon Cave and Canyon Cave. While both are not really caves but rather, narrow passages that wind through the dramatic clay walls.

A one-mile trail leads into the center of the main section of clay formations. Back in there, far from the parking lot and picnic tables, and deep inside the cool clay, you feel like you’ve been transported to another planet.

At the end of the trail, you can climb a set of wooden steps that lead to the northern entrance to the park and a covered observation area known as the Miller’s Point Overlook.

From the overlook, you can see almost the entire valley and admire the acres of marvelous clay sculptures.

An attractive visitor center at Cathedral Gorge provides information about all of the state parks in Eastern Nevada. The center is a pleasing marriage of modern design and natural materials such as wood, brick and stone that allows the building to blend into its surroundings.

The visitor center also has a small theater that regularly shows videos describing Cathedral Gorge and the five other state parks in the region.

Inside the center, you’ll also find an information desk manned by park staff and displays containing historic artifacts found at Cathedral Gorge, including a large bison skull.

There’s an interesting story behind the skull. In 1975, a family visiting the park spotted bones in a clay wash. Not realizing it was illegal to remove historic artifacts, they picked up the bones and took them home.

The bones’ existence remained unknown until 1993, when a family member contacted the Nevada State Museum to return them. The bones, believed to have been from a two-year-old female bison, have been dated to about 1,200 A.D., and are among the oldest found in the state.

Another unusual item in the visitor center is a weathered paper program for a religious passion play. Like the bison bones, the booklet was discovered buried in the gorge’s mud and date to the early 20th century, when Cathedral Gorge served as the backdrop for annual, locally produced religious plays.

It turns out that the actors would transform the main part of the gorge into a stage, using the clay spires and formations as their sets.

Cathedral Gorge State Park is open throughout the year. The park has 16 developed campsites with shaded picnic tables, RV dump station, toilets, and showers that are open during the summer and fall.

Best time of year to visit is in the spring, particularly following a wet March or April, when wildflowers will bloom throughout the gorge.

For more information about Cathedral Gorge State Park, call 775-687-4370.