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.

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