National Parks in Nevada: Where the Unexpected is Expected

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Squared mounds are all the remain of the walls of homes built by the ancestral Fremont peoples near Great Basin National Park. The Fremont tribes lived in the area more than 1,500 years ago. Photo credit: Eric Jay Toll

It’s on the bucket list to explore Nevada without dropping a chip down a slot. Nevada is just waiting for you with a table full of “gee, I didn’t know you could do that in Nevada.” So pull out the map, get ready to pack and make tracks to the Silver State.

Think of Nevada as three regions: Las Vegas, Reno and the unexpected.

Even basing in Las Vegas puts you in the middle of the Mojave Desert, the Colorado River basin and the ET highway. Land up north and base in Reno; there are the Cascades and Sierra Nevada Mountains,

Get away from the urban sprawl, and there’s unexpected Nevada.

Ghostly Experiences Before Hitting Death Valley

Nevada airports are closest to America’s largest park, Death Valley National Park. Before going to Death Valley, there’s a ghost town waiting to haunt memories.

When the breeze died away, there wasn’t a sound rippling through the ghost town.

It’s an unusual experience to stand on the empty street and stare at a multi-story bank building, remains in a town that less than a century ago boasted two railroads, a well-built stone downtown, bustling neighborhoods, a jail and more brothels than churches.

“This is kind of spooky.”

A couple had pulled to the side of the street and walked up with cameras in front of the Cook Bank Building, one of three banks that once served this bustling mining town between Bonanza and Ladd mountains below the Buffalo Hills in southwestern Nevada.

“I swear, when the wind is blowing, you can hear voices,” said Nick, preferring not to use his last name. He and his wife drove up from Las Vegas, about two hours south, to see a real ghost town.

“Well, you are just a half block from the red light district.”

“Really, where?”

Pointing to the series of foundations and partially remaining stone walls down the street below the bank, “That stretch right there leading to the jail.”

“That must have been convenient,” said Nick. “We don’t have anything like this back in Tennessee. You can almost see the movie scene with people wearing those puffy clothes from the early 1900s.”

house made of old bottles
The Mojave Desert has its share of odd characters and denizens, like Tom Kelly, who built his house out of discarded bottles and mud in Rhyolite, Nevada, near Death Valley National Park north of Las Vegas. Photo credit: Eric Jay Toll

Rhyolite, Nevada, a ghost town preserved in arrested decay, sits alone and nearly forgotten just across the California line from Death Valley National Park on one side of the Silver State and one of America’s newest, Great Basin National Park, above Baker on the other side of the state.

Just to the west, about five minutes from Rhyolite is an entrance to Death Valley. The park is so big that it’s a two-hour drive to Badwater Basin, the lowest point in North America, some 287 feet (87m) below sea level.

Thinking Nevada Means Thinking Different

Most think of Nevada as Las Vegas or Reno or a place history passed through, leaving historic sites in its wake. Some follow the Extraterrestrial Highway, U.S. 6, searching for aliens and flights from the U.S. government’s ultra-secret Area 51. It’s kind of a cross between the southwest and the trails of the mountain men.

In the south, Lake Mead National Recreation area on the Arizona border and up north, the Loneliest Highway in America, the California and Pony Express national historic trails, the Black Rock Desert mammoths and the rugged Sawtooth Mountains on the south edge of Idaho.

Carved out by the Ice Age, Nevada embraces the Great Basin between the Cascade and the Sierra Nevada mountains on the west and the salty remains of Lake Bonneville in Utah to the east. In between are stark desert beauty and a wondrous landscape of black night skies, stargazing, hiking, mountain biking and off-road riding.

The highest point in Nevada is not in the Sierra Nevada or Cascade mountains but in Wheeler Peak, at 13,065 feet (3,982m) above sea level. The Silver State’s lowest point is Lake Mohave at Laughlin, at 479 feet (146m).

rusted out old car
Driving into Great Basin National Park, Baker, Nevada, one is greeted by a ghost driver coming the other direction. Photo credit: Eric Jay Toll

Great Basin National Park

“We’re on a Nevada road trip,” said Jack Crandall at the adjoining campsite. Crandall, from Reno, was with his brother Nathan on a zig-zag across the state from north to south. “We’ve lived here for years and haven’t seen much more than Lake Tahoe and Virginia City.”

“Don’t forget we biked on the (Old Spanish National Historic Trail) out from Las Vegas,” said Nathan.

“I think that ride knocked three fillings loose.” The duo laughed at the memory, and Nathan added that the road trip around the state was a bucket list trip for the pair.

We were in Upper Lehman Creek Campground at the only national park in Nevada, Great Basin National Park, across the Utah line in Baker. It’s a national park providing the exhilarating experience of a drivable high mountain vista and the darkest depths of a massive limestone underground in the Lehman Caves.

rock formations in cave
The colorful stalagmites and stalactites in the Throne Room of Lehman Cave, Great Basin National Park, Baker, Nevada, give a royal appearance to the setting deep inside Mount Wheeler. Photo credit: Eric Jay Toll

The next morning at the Visitor Center, tickets to Lehman Caves in hand, we crowded through the narrow National Park Service-built cave opening to the Gothic Palace. Massive stalagmites and stalactites created a fairy tale throne room of color and shape.

After lunch, we drove to Wheeler Peak, parking at the Bristlecone-Alpine Lakes Trailhead and hiking to the peak’s bristlecone pine forest. The ancient bristlecone pines are more than 4,000 years old, and the scraggly, twisted and scrawny trees are not only the oldest living species in North America but may be the oldest living plant species in the world. Although the thin air at this elevation is present, the trail is generally level, with just gentle rises getting into the bristlecone pine forest.

Nevada’s Great Basin National Park has many easily accessible backcountry hiking trails and three well-maintained campgrounds, including one near Wheeler Peak. The park’s elevation above sea level nearly doubles from 6,800 feet (2,070m) at the visitor center to 12,000 feet (3,650m) below Wheeler Peak. Camping below the peak is very cool, even in the summer, with easy access to the blue ice glacier on the mountain.

US-50 in barren desert
Life Magazine dubbed U.S. 50 across Nevada as the Loneliest Highway in America. Even today, there is little traffic on the road between Fallon and the Utah state line. Photo credit: Eric Jay Toll

The Loneliest Highway in America

Getting across Nevada from Utah to California requires the exceptionally boring, truck-clogged drive on Interstate 80 or the unique experience of America’s Loneliest Highway, U.S. 50, from Great Basin to Lake Tahoe.

Dubbed with the moniker in a 1986 Life Magazine story, U.S. 50 has little traffic and few towns on its roll across the state. It does have treasured national resources. The Pony Express National Historic Trail parallels and crosses the highway near Austin from Jefferson City, Missouri, to Sacramento, California. Austin features several historic sites. On a U.S. 50 road trip, filling tank and tummy in Austin makes much sense because it’s hours before hitting the next town with services.

“It’s a good time for a cold beer,” said Laurie, wearing a period piece, or so it looked, at the International Café and Bar.

This old hotel used to be in Virginia City, but when the silver mines closed in the Virginia Mountains, the hotel was dissembled and taken east to Austin to quaff parched miner throats and serve cowboys coming to town from area ranches.

Because of a long road trip segment ahead, I demurred and went for the pulled pork sandwich, fries and iced tea in the café.

fairview fault line
On U.S. 50 east of Austin, the Fairview Peak Earthquake Fault site is a place when the earth dropped nine feet in an instant during a major quake. Just minutes from the highway, it’s one of the rare places a traveler can walk in an earthquake fault and see a fault zone. Photo credit: Eric Jay Toll

On the road west, the Bureau of Land Management’s Fairview Peak Earthquake Fault provides a quick five-minute side trip to stand in an earthquake fault. It’s one of the few places in America where a fault is so visible. From the fault line, the intriguing rock formations and colors of Chalk Mountain above Sand Dune Pass are easily visible.

Sand Mountain huge dune with hikers
A trio of hikers return toward their vehicle after hiking on Sand Mountain, a massive, moving sand dune, located east of Fallon, Nevada. Photo credit: Eric Jay Toll

The road isn’t so lonely anymore when approaching Sand Mountain, a Bureau of Land Management recreation site east of Fallon. This mountain is where the swirling winds move from where this towering dune is trapped between the edge of the Salt Wells Basin and Stillwater Range at Four Mile Flat. There’s a Pony Express station historic site right at the junction of the road to the dunes and U.S. 50.

The road becomes more civilized, passing the Top Gun School at Fallon Naval Air Station and then the road to the historical park of Virginia City. It’s that same Virginia City from television and movies where the ranchers and cowboys always went to town to stock up and let loose.

Lake Tahoe

Leaving Carson City and leaving the Great Basin behind, the road rises to one of Nevada’s most famous destinations, Lake Tahoe. Split between California and Nevada, the Silver State claims to be the “whoopee side of the lake” with its casinos, resort hotels and live entertainment. It’s possible to enjoy the clear blue waters of Lake Tahoe with a round-the-lake scenic drive or stops for dinner cruises, wades at beaches or bravely join sunbathers on one of the few sanctioned clothing-optional beaches in California.

Lake Tahoe’s magnificent setting of the massive and deep lake—second in-depth only to Crater Lake National Park in Oregon—and its variety of activities, from horseback riding and hiking to casino gaming and fine dining, make it an appealing destination for many. There is a Nevada state park at the lake, but NPS has no national parks on either side of Tahoe, and it’s all federal forest land when publicly owned.

Hoover Dam exterior long shot
A long line of cars await their turn to slowly drive across Hoover Dam at the foot of Lake Mead south of Las Vegas. Cars not wanting the dam-crossing experience are able to use the adjoining Interstate 11 bridge crossing between Nevada and Arizona. Photo credit: Eric Jay Toll

Mojave Desert, Hoover Dam, and Lake Mead National Recreation Area

Southern Nevada is known for Las Vegas, but it can be skipped if the outdoors is the destination. Lake Mead, behind Hoover Dam, is known for its boating and house boating. Areas for the two and access to the lake are limited because of the drastic drought-plagued drop in Colorado River water entering the lake during this driest recorded decade.

Black Canyon CO river
Below Hoover Dam, the Black Canyon of the Colorado River passes below steep, craggy canyon walls of the same black material seen at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. Photo credit: Eric Jay Toll

Kayaking in the lake can take paddlers deep into canyons long hidden by Lake Mead’s normal water levels. However, on the downstream side of Hoover Dam, the less-visited Black Canyon of the Colorado River is a kayaking dream. Tours from Vegas are available. Little water traffic, no power boats and a paddle through a deep, starkly beautiful canyon of black rock also found at the bottom of the Grand Canyon.

The Mojave Desert touches the southern edge of Nevada, creating a unique landscape for hiking, biking and a vast array of developed and backcountry campgrounds and campsites. Away from the lights of Las Vegas, black night skies are a canvas for stargazing and Milky Way astrophotography.

North of Las Vegas, a vestige of red rock canyon landforms are captured around Mount Charleston and the Spring Mountains National Recreation Area. The new Tule Springs Fossil Beds National Monument is slightly further west, with a stark landscape of in situ fossils, so newly opened and barren of services, it does not yet have a visitor center.

The Nevada Landscape

There is no single description of Nevada with its diverse landscape, history and places to visit. For a traveler willing to escape the casino-drenched environments in Las Vegas and Reno, Nevada has an incredibly scenic drive for every landscape. From the deserts of the southwest to the expanses of the Great Basin, from towering granite and snow-capped mountains and forests in the west to craggy sky islands and hidden oases in steep secret canyons.

Nevada is worth the visit because it’s a place of the unexpected.

A travel writer and photographer in Phoenix, Arizona, U.S., Eric Jay Toll has been writing for She Buys Travel from its earliest days. Specializing in the American West and outdoor adventures, Eric also treks in Mexico and Canada, and forays into Europe. He lives with his dog, Chaco, who occasionally joins road trips and camp outs, but tends to be a Downtown Diva.
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