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,

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.