The ‘Loneliest Road in America’ – Native Americans, Pony Express and stunning Great Basin National Park!

Eureka Opera House in central Nevada midway along 'America's Loneliest Road'.

Remains of New Pass Station, old stagecoach stop on the Overland Stage route, central Nevada just off Hwy. 50

Grimes Point petroglyphs, etchings by Northern Paiute peoples, are thousands of years old, just off Hwy. 50.

Wheeler Peak, at 13,063 feet, anchors Great Basin National Park.

Grotto inside Lehman Cave, a treasure of Great Basin National Park.

Bristlecone Pines, at 10,300' on Wheeler Peak, range up to 4,000 years old!

We had long heard of the unique allure of Hwy. 50, “the Loneliest Road in America” as it crosses the Great Basin of central Nevada. But, it had been almost 30 years since we drove quickly across that old highway – we vowed to take in the sights and its history on a trip to Nevada’s only national park, Great Basin National Park (and five more national parks in Utah).

We took Hwy. 108 through the central Sierra and camped a night just below Kennedy Meadows. We began with a scenic, pretty day, with the temperature dropping to about 35 degrees that night.

That afternoon, we drove to the top of Sonora Pass, and hiked about two miles on the Pacific Crest Trail, starting at 9640 feet, and climbed well above 10,000 feet. Scenic, clear, a perfect start to an adventurous, compelling week!

The majesty of the Great Basin and Range area of central Nevada is confirmed on a tour from west to east to west on Hwy. 50, deemed the “Loneliest Road in America” in an article in Life Magazine in 1986. We reached Hwy. 50 in Carson City (Nevada’s capital city) and headed due east, crossing mountain range after range, separated by wide, open desert valleys, most green with foliage due to afternoon thunderstorms, with towns few and far between.

Highway 50 through Nevada, while lonely, is full of wondrous sights. From Hwy. 108, we interconnected with Highway 395, wound our way through a well irrigated western Nevada to Highway 50 at Carson City. Heading east, most of the route through Central Nevada is pretty, with mountain ranges pierced by wide valleys – much more scenic and, in many places much greener, than I anticipated.

Early on our trip on Hwy. 50, we stopped at Grimes Point Interpretive Center, which features petroglyphs getting back 1000 -2000 years, left by the Northern Paiute people. Thousands of years earlier, Lake Lahonton covered the area up to 800 feet deep; as its waters receded it left the Grimes Point area above ground where native peoples left scores of interesting etchings on large rocks along former game trails.

The highway in many places parallels the old Pony Express route and was the path of the Overland Stage Company. A one mile hike takes visitors off Hwy. 50 to the remains of the Pony Express Cold Springs Station, built of rocks and mud to protect from raiding Native Americans and harsh winters.

The station operated from April, 1860 to October, 1861, when the transcontinental telegraph made the operation unprofitable.  We also found the remains of an old stagecoach stop, New Pass Station, which operated from 1861 to 1869 (when the transcontinental railroad put the stagecoach out of business).

Towns like Carson City, Fallon, Austin, Eureka and Ely show off their history proudly, and are some of the cleanest old downtowns we’ve visited. Take the time to walk the old downtown of Eureka and admire the old hotels, Eureka Opera House and other buildings well over 100 years old.

Approaching Utah, we turned southeast on NV. Hwy. 487, to Baker, and then into Great Basin National Park. We found the last vacant campsite at Upper Lehman Creek Campground near a roiling mountain stream and set our teardrop trailer up on a steep, sloped site from which Susan feared it would roll downhill at night. It did not.

We prepped our dinner beside a warm campfire, with an immensely starry sky spreading out over the Nevada mountains featuring the Milky Way at center stage. Clear skies and no ambient light make for impressive star-gazing. Nevada, yes, Nevada!

Great Basin National Park is anchored by 13,063 foot Wheeler Peak. The park offers the solitude of the desert, sagebrush, jack rabbits, mountain lions, mule deer and the darkest of nighttime skies. The allure of Lehman Cave, not the largest but one of the most impressive of caves in the US, and the Bristlecone Pine Groves above 10,000 feet on Wheeler Peak set the park apart from others.

Lehman Cave was established as a national monument in 1922, then expanded to Great Basin National Park in 1986. Wheeler Peak is second tallest in Nevada, trailing Boundary Peak by only 77 feet.

We drove up the mountain to a trailhead at 9,800’, and gingerly hiked the Bristlecone Grove Trail, a 2.8 miles round-trip to about 10,500 feet. A wrong turn added 4/10 of a mile to that. At the Grove, we found Bristlecone Pines, some of them up to 4000 years old, with Wheeler Peak looming majestically in the distance. The trail continued higher to a small glacier, then onto the peak’s summit (we decided to pass!).

The Lehman Cave tour is spectacular, winding about 1500 feet into the mountain. While not the longest or most cavernous of US caves, it’s regarded as one of the most highly-featured, jammed with stunning stalactites, stalagmites, shields and other-worldly formations in it’s impressive rooms, grottos and tunnels.

Two nights at Upper Lehman Creek Campground, green and pretty at 7700′, were sunny and warm during the days, with temperatures dropping into the low 40’s at night; we were greeted by three mule deer just as we departed the campground on our final morning.

After three days exploring Hwy. 50 and the national park, we headed east to Cedar City, UT, spent the night in a motel, and plotted our next two weeks of exploring Utah’s five national parks. More to come!

How to get there: From Stockton we took Hwy. 4 east to Copperopolis, the O’Brynes Ferry Road southeast to Hwy. 108, 108 east to Hwy. 395, then north to connect to Hwy. 50 at Carson City, NV.

For more info: For Loneliest Road highlights, go to TravelNevada.com. For Great Basin National Park, nps.gov/grba, address, 100 Great Basin National Park, Baker, NV 89311, phone (775)234-7331. Camping can be booked through www.recreation.gov, or 877.444.6777.

Happy travels in the west!

Contact Tim Viall at tviall@msn.com. Follow him at recordnet.com/travelblog.

This entry was posted in Mountain West (Montana, Wyoming, Utah, Colorado), Sierra Nevada, Southwest USA (Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas) and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Post a comment

Post a Comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.

We reserve the right to remove any content at any time from this Community, including without limitation if it violates the Community Rules. We ask that you report content that you in good faith believe violates the above rules by clicking the Flag link next to the offending comment or fill out this form.
  • Categories

  • Archives