09-19-2021 Fallon to Baker Nevada Highway 50

The sun is shining brilliantly into  the east windows as I write this on Monday morning.  Such a delight.  To the west, the magnificent island of mountains of Great Basin National Park rise from the desert reflecting the morning sun. 

Last night when we settled in here at the Border Inn RV Park we had no idea whether the skies would clear for us.  The smoke from the fires near Sequoia National Park in California was thick and the air quality was over 150 throughout half of Nevada and almost all of Utah.  It was a sobering moment when we topped a pass west of Ely to see the thick brown cloud filling the valleys and obscuring the mountains.

The day started in Fallon on a positive note. The smoke had cleared and the sky was mostly clear except for a few high clouds.  The high winds of the previous day had dissipated by the time we got on the road at 9.  Highway 50 officially begins in California going through Carson City and intercepts Interstate 80  at Fallon.  Traveling east from Fallon we were officially on the Loneliest Road in America.

I love Highway 50.  We have traveled this route several times over the years and it has never been disappointing.  On this day the skies were dramatic as always, with big puffy clouds racing across the brilliant blue sky.  The morning sun made the mountain shadows dark against the horizon.  The rabbitbrush was in bloom most noticeably along the roadsides, lighting up the landscape with brilliant yellows.

As we continued east toward Austin and Eureka I texted Dan and Chere to see how they were doing.  All was well, and they had departed Winnemucca at 9 as well.  We had 181 miles to go to Eureka and they had 191 miles.  Funny thing, they arrived at the intersection of highway 278 and Highway 50 just ten minutes after we did.

The stretch of the highway between Fallon and Eureka is especially gorgeous. The pavement stretches for long distances, with sometimes miles of straight road without another vehicle visible.  Traffic was minimal all day, with a few RV’s on the road and more than a few souped up, stripped down, very tough looking back road vehicles heading for the wide open spaces and sand dunes perfect for ATVs.

Basin and Range is just that.  The ranges trend north and south and if one is traveling east or west the drive includes many long basins, and many steep, winding ranges.  Traveling Highway 50 is all about ups and downs.  Austin is such a charming little town, nestled into the side of the mountain on one of those “ups”.  We have traveled through Austin, but never stopped for more than a quick photo before continuing.  I made a note on our calendar that on the way home in a couple of weeks we need to plan to actually stop in Austin and explore some of the charm.  It is an historic mining town with a cemetery that even from the road looked like it would be a great visit.

We were communicating the Chere and Dan as they neared Eureka and decided that it would be a good place for a lunch spot.  The road through downtown is two lanes wide with a large parking lane as well.  The town was quiet, and an entire block of parking lane was open right in front of the town Senior Center.  We parked and Dan and Chere were parked behind us within minutes.  The skies were so blue and the sun so bright it was blinding.

We took the dogs for a short walk in an open area between buildings and discovered a group of picnic tables behind the closed Senior Center.  Perfect! It was the official beginning of our shared trip to Utah and we all feeling happy about the good weather.  Seems as though Dan and Chere had encountered some serious storms and narrow roads on highway 278 that connected Interstate 80 to the north with Highway 50.  They were happy to be in the sunshine.

We continued east with a plan to fuel at the Love’s station in Ely,  easy for us and for Dan with his big diesel rig. The uhoh moment came as we got closer to Ely when the thick smoke blanketing everything to the east appeared.  I checked the smoke map to discover that the thick stuff was emanating mainly from the huge fires in California and extended all the way east to Colorado, with an especially dark plume covering the area along the Colorado River.

I had been checking for smoke over and over before we left for this trip, encouraged that it hadn’t reached the far southeastern corner of Utah where we were headed.  It was a sad moment.  After we fueled up and continued south toward Baker, the gorgeous mountain ranges around us were completely invisible.  When we stopped for lunch, the four of us agreed that it might be nice to unhook after we settled in and take a side trip up the roads of Big Basin National Park.  When we got to our spot for the night, the smoke was so thick I had to get out my Big Basin NP book to show Dan and Chere what the view was to our west.  Not a good day for a side trip to high mountains completely shrouded in smoke.

Dan and Chere insisted that we join them in their rig for supper, even though we had each planned our own meal.  Chere contributed home made sweet n sour for our pre dinner cocktails, and we enjoyed visiting and catching up with them, talking about our plans for the next ten days.  Dan agreed, that smoke or not, he wasn’t missing out on his long awaited trip to Southern Utah.

We went to bed in high winds, but during the night the winds dissipated and a couple of times when I woke I could see the nearly full moon shining into the rig.

Morning came with another wonderful surprise.  The smoke was gone.  Not just a little bit, but completely gone!  The mountain range of Big Basin NP to the west was gorgeous.  I checked the smoke map again, and while there is still a long plume heading into southeastern Utah, we have mostly clear skies ahead of us as we travel the last leg of our trip toward Torrey.  Amazing how clear skies can shift my mood.  I am really looking forward to this day and to once again arriving in one of my favorite little towns in the west.  I do love Torrey, ever since my first trip through there in 1991, it has been a special place for me.

No Bears! Great Basin National Park

Current Location: Lower Lehman Creek Campground GBNP sunny and 78F predicted high today

Great Basin-36I worked in the mountains of the west for a bazillion years.  I lived in the mountains of the west for a bazillion years.  Mountains and bears seem synonymous to me.  Imagine my surprise when we arrived at Great Basin National Park and there are shabby tin garbage cans, and not a bear warning anywhere.  There are no bears here!  I couldn’t figure it out for the longest time.  I came up with all sorts of reasons, maybe they were hunted out and the great deserts that lie between the mountain islands kept them from coming back.

Great Basin-85Well, the last bear was here about 30,000 years ago, and not only are there no bears in Great Basin National Park, there are no bears anywhere in the Great Basin!  Looking at a map of black bear distribution in the US, even the historic range of the black bear leaves a giant conspicuous hole in the map of the US encompassing almost all of Nevada and all of the Great Basin. 

great basin routeWhen our June calendar showed no plans for a camping trip, we knew something must be done.  Where to go.  June is often full of mosquitos in our local mountains, and our home place is so convenient to kayaking and hiking, but we wanted to be sure to get somewhere new.  That is getting more and more difficult it seems.

Great Basin-23Great Basin National Park came to mind.  We have traveled in the vicinity several times, looking up at the great mountains of the Snake Range and thinking, “We need to get there someday”.  We came really close on our way home last March from our three month trip east, but storms and wind and snow convinced us to reroute south toward the Mojave instead of north into the wilds of Nevada.

Great Basin-5The trip to Great Basin NP requires commitment.  It isn’t near anything or on the way to anywhere.  We traveled a gorgeous route down 395 taking an easy day and spending our first night out at the Desert Rose RV Park in Fernley.  It is a nice little Passport America park, clean and tidy, with “the best TV east of the Mississippi”.  All that has changed, however, with the advent of Charter Cable requirements for individual receiver boxes for each site, and the owner said, Nope, no more TV here.  We had our little satellite, but TV wasn’t high on the agenda for only one night, so we didn’t bother to set it up.Great Basin-11

The next morning we headed west on Highway 50, and once beyond Fallon, the route lived up to its reputation as the “Loneliest Road in America”.  That title was a bit more apt when it was first declared a few decades ago, but it still is one of the few places in the country where you can drive for miles without seeing another vehicle.  Actually, the stretch between Alturas and Susanville on 395 was almost as empty of traffic.  Daughter Deanna warned me when we left that school was out, vacationers were on the road, and traffic was completely crazy.  Not in the world we have traveled this week.  Lucky us.

Great Basin-19We decided to take the old Route 50 between White Rock Springs and Austin, a beautiful route with some serious curves and climbs but nothing too difficult, and again, no traffic. 

By the time we reached the park, it was mid afternoon, early enough to hopefully find a campsite in the first come/first serve campgrounds.  There are four listed campgrounds in the park, and another couple of locations for what they call “overflow camping”, with picnic tables and fire grills but no water.  The camp at the lowest elevation, just a couple of miles from the Lehman Caves Visitor Center, is Lower Lehman Creek, with a few pull-through sites, water in the campground, and pit toilets.  Great Basin-42

With most sites filled, we opted for the remaining pull through site #3, in spite of the fact that it was listed on the camp information sign as ‘extremely unlevel’.  Most sites were listed as ‘unlevel’ except for the one accessible site at the entrance to the campground.  No biggy, at least I thought so until I tried to sleep that first night with my head down from my feet in spite of all our work at leveling as much as possible.Great Basin-32

We spent the first evening enjoying the sound of the creek, and I took a walk up the trail toward the Upper Lehman Creek campground to check things out.  I got a serious reality check trying to hike up the steep trail at 7500 feet elevation.  I have obviously been sitting around too much for the last couple of months.  My lungs were aching after just a mile or so.  sheesh!  I am glad we gave ourselves a couple of days to acclimate to the elevation before trying the main park hikes that all start at the Wheeler Peak campground at about 10,000 feet elevation.

Great Basin-5The next morning we decided to seek out a lead on a young woman who might watch Abby for us while hiking, but as we were leaving, site 3 came open, and we nixed all plans and moved across the road to a lovely, almost level site right by the creek,  with an open sky for the satellite.  Perfect.  With a bit of jockeying, I had the rig leveled, Mo had the solar panel out and the TV hooked up.  We can run the inverter for the TV, satellite, and Direct TV box without taxing our batteries too much.  Each day we do run the generator for a couple of hours to charge things up, but so far all is good.Great Basin

Did I mention no bears?  It just seems crazy to be in the mountains and not have to worry about critters getting into your stuff.  There aren’t even raccoons or skunks around here either.

Great Basin-55Once we settled into the new spot, we decided to go to the visitor centers.  There are two of them for this park, the Lehman Caves center is within the park boundary, and the Great Basin visitor center is down in Baker.  We wanted to tour Lehman Caves, and the tours do sell out, so getting tickets was first on our agenda.  Later we found Rachel in the T and D Café in Baker, who agreed to watch Abby for us so we could do the tour together.  Lucky find, if a bit expensive at $10. per hour.  Rachel’s husband is the IT person for the park, and heard us at the visitor center asking about dog care in the vicinity.  Rachel was a sweetheart and Abby enjoyed her two hour stay at her home with her two dogs.

Great Basin-61A slogan for Great Basin NP is that “half the park is after dark”.  They have great night sky programs, and as one of the ten darkest night sky locations in the US, there is much to see.  It would be great to be here during the dark of the moon, with views of the Milky Way that many of us only remember from childhood. 

Great Basin-67Instead, we were here during the full moon, another perfect time, because the park has ranger guided full moon hikes each month during the season unless weather interferes. Free tickets for the hike are passed out only on the day of the full moon, beginning at 8 in the morning.  The location of the hike is kept secret, and you are requested to bring your hiking shoes for inspection when signing up.  In spite of the hard core rules about tough boots with ankle support, we saw several folks in tennis shoes, and Mo’s Keen sandals passed without a problem.  We were afraid she might be denied a ticket at first, but it seems that the only real problem would be open toed sandals or flip flops.

Great Basin-79Both our Cave Tour and Full Moon hike were scheduled for Thursday, so we spent Wednesday exploring the area a bit in the Tracker.  We explored the Baker Creek Road, and the other campgrounds in the vicinity of Pole Creek and the Grey Cliffs.  The road was steep, graveled, but without a serious washboard problem at least, so in a pinch, we could have managed a campsite along Baker Creek at a few locations.

Great Basin-8By the time we visited the Great Basin Visitor Center, the sun was high and hot and Mo and I took turns going inside.   As is usually the case, the visitor center was wonderful, with beautiful exhibits and I learned not only about Great Basin National Park, but the Great Basin in general. The term “Great Basin” was coined by one of my favorite guys, John C Fremont, the Pathfinder, back in the mid 1800’s. I’ll write more about that in my next post. 

Great Basin-19We also traveled back through Baker and north to the Baker Archaeological Site. Although there isn’t a lot to see at the site, there are great interpretive signs explaining about the major dig here in the mid 90’s that discovered a complex community of what is now called the Fremont Culture, estimated to have been around 1300 AD.  The best part about the site is the vastness of the view, and the gorgeous skyline in the west dominated by the Snake Range and Wheeler Peak.

Great Basin-23There are several dirt roads leading into the park, but the most traveled route is the paved Wheeler Peak Scenic Route that leads to the Summit Trailhead, and the trailheads for the Bristlecone Forest Hike, and several other high mountain hikes in that vicinity.  The Wheeler Peak campground is gorgeous, but at 10,000 feet elevation, the weather up there was COLD.  We saw folks in down coats and wool caps in the afternoon in their beautiful fir and aspen campsites.  The campground was gorgeous, but the length limit for driving the road is 24 feet and we are 26.  The level paved pads for camping were amazing, just too bad you can’t take a bigger rig up that road! Even so, it was nice to come back down the mountain to our warm campground.Great Basin-27

Clouds were thick around Wheeler Peak on that first visit, but even with the cloud cover, the magnificence of the limestone mountains were evident.  With more than 13 peaks over 11,000 feet high in the Snake Range that dominates most of the Great Basin National Park, there is no shortage of hiking opportunities for the hardy souls who can manage high elevation hiking. Great Basin-34

I do actually have a Verizon signal here at the campground, not always fast, but it is much better than the weak “out of area” signal that I get on my ATT iPhone. Between TV and occasional internet, we haven’t been too far out of touch while camping here.  More to come in the next post but it is time to go explore Snake Creek and the Johnson Lake trail.

What day is it?

Current Location: Stovepipe Wells, Death Valley, California

Current temperature: 94.  High today 104 Low tonight 75 Sunny

We are beginning our third day in Death Valley and I am working on photos and blog posts.  There is WiFi only in the lodge here at Stovepipe Wells where we are camped with full hookups, including sewer, for 8 bucks a night.  Yeah you read that right.  But that is a story for another post.  In the mean time…

highway 50Tuesday April 30. We laughed this morning, wondering what day it was.  Finally decided it was Tuesday.  Hmmm.  Must be Belgium?  No, not Belgium, instead, it is time to drive over the mighty Sierras and find the beautiful high desert country of 395.  We also noticed that a couple of clocks had different times.  Maybe half an hour apart.  Did it matter? no.  Vacation time. 

time to check the hookupsGetting on Highway 50 going east was a matter of a few minutes from our campground, and the road was reasonably quiet on this Tuesday morning.  The light was brilliant in that way that seems to be found only in the Sierra Nevada Mountains.  Mo and I both have traveled 50 many times, but once again it all seemed new.  Neither of us remember how closely the road followed the American River, and the river was wild and full with the spring snowmelt. 

perfect rest stop along the road for AbbyWe stopped along the way for a doggie break and when I stepped out of the rig I was overpowered with the intense scent of dry pine and incense cedar.  I live in the forest, Oregon is covered with beautiful forests, many of them the same species, and yet here and only here in the Sierra Nevada Mountains have I smelled this particularly unique fragrance.  I have no idea why other forests don’t smell like this.  I took deep, deep breaths while we walked around a bit and listened to the sound of logging down below us along the river.

Lake Tahoe from highway 50A few more miles along the river and we were up on the crest, and rounding a big curve the blue beauty of Lake Tahoe lay before us.  I also didn’t remember Highway 50 being this steep and narrow.  It is a LONG way down and of course I was in the passenger seat looking down at a very long drop to the bottom.  We knew that the highway 50 route to Carson City would have been a bit easier, but the faster and shorter route was through Markleeville along Highway 88 and a turn south on Highway 89, intersecting 395 just south of Topaz.

concentrationMonitor Pass is narrow and very steep, with a few hairpin turns but the vistas across the east slope of the mountains down into the desert are magnificent.  I am not sure I would like to drive it in a bigger motorhome, but in our 26 footer we do just fine, even towing the Tracker.  Slow and Easy does it.  Traffic was light and the downshift feature in our Ford chassis worked great as usual, although the lowest gear wasn’t really quite low enough and Mo had to use the brakes more often then she liked.

Monitor Pass vistasOnce off the pass and onto 395, the landscape opened up to the dry sage high desert that is the beauty of the Eastern Sierra. Not far down the Walker River we found a great day use area, that looked as though it had been worked on a bit since we passed here last.  In the warm sunshine, the Jeffrey pines were exuding the scent of vanilla, or some think of it as butterscotch. 

gentle Jeffreys, prickly Ponderosa.  This one is gentleMo had never smelled it before and was surprised at how strong it was.  She also learned the “Gentle Jeffrey, Prickly Ponderosa” saying that helps identify the two trees by their cones.  No prickles on this beautiful cone.  The river was full and beautiful as well, and we enjoyed the interpretive signs that talked of the magnificent Walker River Trout, now a quarter of its once historic size. We enjoyed our lunch in the sheltering coziness of the MoHo, and appreciated the nice RV turn around area and parking.  What a great lunch spot right along the road!

smell that vanilla!The rest of the afternoon led us along the eastern slope of the Sierras, where the snow seemed quite thin for the last day in April. Passing the road to Bodie where we spent happy times wandering the high desert, and then passing our road to the Virginia Lakes trails brought back lots of great memories of times we have spent in this, one of our most favorite parts of the world.

Mono LakeWe pulled a long hill and then rounded a big curve to see Mono Lake stretching out before us, a strange and very different shade of green than I have ever seen.  At the rest area overlooking the lake were some more interesting interpretive signs telling the story of this lake like no other in the world.  Farther down in the landscape we found more signs with the story of the geologic hot spot in the area, the Long Valley Caldera.  I had been explaining this particular phenomena to Mo as we traveled along and it was great to find a picture of the extent of the explosion right there along the highway.

Day 3 395 Bishop_130DSC_0130Pulling into Brown’s Millpond just north of Bishop in early afternoon was perfect, and we snagged a nice little site.  Looking at each other and the blue skies and leafed out locust and cottonwood trees, I said, “What about just staying here two nights?”.  A site was available, and we were really glad to know that tomorrow would be a leisurely day exploring around Bishop and just hanging out a bit and enjoying the beautiful surroundings.

Day 3 395 Bishop_115DSC_0115Brown’s Millpond is a great little campground, one not on our radar until Russ mentioned it in a comment and we decided to check it out.  The six miles into Bishop is an easy trip, and unlike the other campgrounds in town, it is off the road and quiet, with the Sierras as a backdrop and shaded by beautiful cottonwoods and locusts now in bloom.  The camp hostess, Stacy, is a granddaughter in the extensive Brown clan, folks who have been in the Bishop area for several generations.  She was a sweet and delightful young woman, full of talk and stories, and so helpful.  She even lent us a DVD player!  Ours in the MoHo has been broken for awhile and we have avoided trying to replace it since we discovered that it is hardwired into the rig.  Funny thing, there is an input for “video game” and Mo thought, why wouldn’t that work for a DVD?!  Sure enough, it did, and we got to try it out without having to buy one just yet.

Browns Millpond campgroundWe watched “Lincoln”, trying once again to actually get through the movie without falling asleep.  I have no idea what to say about this movie.  It was so highly acclaimed, and parts of it were amazing, with good performances and yet it still very nearly put me to sleep.  I am glad we got through it, glad we watched it, if only to know we watched it and to not have to wonder what we missed.  As I said, parts were really good.  A test of a good movie is if you are sorry it is ending or if you are glad it is finally over, do you think?

escape!Before we settled into the movie, though, we decided to walk the campground.  On the west boundary, there was an open gate, and who can resist an open gate leading out into the desert!  It was a great, quiet, off leash place to get a good leg stretch for us and for Abby, and while the sunset wasn’t very colorful, the light was still beautiful. I am so glad to once again be in this part of the world, watching the light change on the mountains and smelling the incredible air, listening to the cottonwoods rustle.

Day 3 395 Bishop_158DSC_0158Before I go, I have to mention that THIS is why I read blogs.  hike into Antelope CanyonAs many years as I have traveled the canyons of Southern Utah, I have never managed to get to Antelope Canyon.  Diane’s post made me cry, and made me remember how top this is on my bucket list.  Time to schedule a Utah canyon trip.  So many places, so little time….

The same thing happened this morning while reading Sherry’s review of Grayson State Park on the western edge of Florida.  Yes, I love Utah, and yes, I love Florida.  Then of course, I read Nina’s beautiful post about gnats while camping on Antelope Island.  I now know for sure when NOT to camp there.

What a great day, what a great life.