Far off the beaten path, this desert drive embraces a host of unexpected treasures. Beginning with the watery playground at Lake Mead, it winds past eroded rock formations, multi-hued canyons, and old mining towns and ends with ancient trees that grow near a glacier.
1. Lake Mead National Recreation Area
For millions of years, the 1,400-mile-long Colorado River snaked its way untrammeled from the Rocky Mountains to the Gulf of California. To tame the river and create what was once the world’s largest reservoir took nothing less than the construction of the dam that, at its completion in 1935, ranked as the world’s largest.
The Herculean task of building Hoover Dam took 18 months of excavation and tunneling to divert the river, 24 months to block the canyon with nearly 7 million tons of concrete, and up to 5,000 workers on the job around the clock.
Statistics are one thing, but seeing is believing. The guided tour, which begins at the Hoover Dam visitor center, allows visitors to appreciate the combined efforts of thousands of workers that was required to construct the 528-foot dam one sees today.
The crystalline waters of 110-mile-long Lake Mead — the vast reservoir that was created by the dam — are a mecca for swimmers, boaters, windsurfers, divers, anglers, and sightseers. As large as it is, though, the lake is just a small part of the 1.5-million-acre recreation area that surrounds the Colorado River as it flows from the show-stopping Grand Canyon all the way south through the seared desert surrounding Lake Mojave.
2. Valley of Fire State Park
Like a fanciful mirage, the many peaks, spires, and pillars in Nevada’s largest state park shimmer in jewel-toned hues. Wind and water over the course of millions of years sculpted the landscape here into a masterpiece of haunting beauty. Interpretive trails lead visitors past raspy red rocks where desert tortoises linger in cool recesses and beside smooth cliff faces where, a thousand years ago, Anasazi artists etched mysterious petroglyphs . North toward Overton, the Lost City Museum holds yet more remnants of the long-vanished Anasazi civilization that flourished in the region until A.D. 1200.
3. Pahranagat National Wildlife Refuge
The desert stretches long and lonely as Rte. 93 runs north between the gaunt hills of the Sheep Range to the west and the sunbaked Delamar Mountains to the east. But underground water, in true oasis fashion, feeds Lower Pahranagat Lake and, 4 1/2 miles beyond, Upper Pahranagat Lake. Lush meadowlands and stands of cottonwoods crowd the narrow valley, which serves as a stop for migrating waterfowl and a nesting area for great blue herons, swans, and dozens of smaller species.
Local wildlife — wary coyotes, browsing deer, and prowling bobcats — border the ambitious lobby mural of the mission-style train depot, Caliente’s trademark building. South of town, the gentle Meadow Valley Wash is hemmed in by majestic Rainbow Canyon, where sheer rock walls have been stained by minerals into a kaleidoscope of color, and the valley floor is dotted with postcard-perfect farms and ranches.
North of town a 28-mile detour along a steep gravel road leads to Beaver Dam State Park. Short interpretive walks and longer hiking trails corkscrew through the park’s pine-scented canyons at nearly a mile above sea level.
5. Cathedral Gorge State Park
Rte. 93 hugs Meadow Valley Wash on its way to Cathedral Gorge, a strikingly eroded landscape spiked with steep-sided buttes. Hike on superb nature trails or take in the views of the gorge at Miller’s Point Overlook, about a mile from the park entrance.
In the mid-1870s Pioche reveled in its reputation as the bawdiest, most lawless town in Nevada. The pioneer cemetery records some of the shootings and shenanigans that earned Pioche its special place in frontier history.
Meanwhile, the city fathers were swept away with boomtown optimism, floating bonds in 1871 for a new courthouse that the county didn’t manage to pay off until 1938. By then, with accrued interest, the debacle had been dubbed the Million-Dollar Courthouse.
Southeast of Pioche, through Eagle Valley (where golden eagles swoop with effortless grace), is Echo Canyon State Park. A reservoir that’s well-stocked with rainbow trout abuts a steep rock wall — the perfect acoustical setup for echoes. Nine miles beyond is Spring Valley, another state park favored by anglers. A number of homesteaders’ cabins are perched among the soaring, cinnamon-colored rocks.
7. Great Basin National Park
Continuing 100 miles or so beyond Pioche, the drive ventures deep into Nevada’s only national park, where the trove of scenic riches includes caves, a glacier, some of the world’s oldest trees, and hushed groves of white-barked aspen. An outstanding example of a mountain island in the vast Great Basin desert, the park is an unexpected ark that brims with life.
At the visitor center schedules are posted for 90-minute ranger led tours of Lehman Caves. The tours follow a short paved trail through caverns where the temperature averages a chilly 50°F and the walls and ceilings are covered with lavish decorations.
The park’s 12-mile Wheeler Peak Scenic Drive passes scrubby mountain mahogany and bro a d forests of spruce and limber pine on its 3,400-foot climb from the visitor center to the Wheeler Peak Campground. At the road’s end, trails fan out to the 13,063-foot summit, to Nevada’s only glacier, and to placid, tree-rimmed alpine lakes. On the higher reaches of the Snake Range, near the end of the scenic drive, twisted bristlecone pines cling tenaciously to the rock-strewn soil; some of these patriarchs, especially those nearest the tree line, are up to 3,000 years old. Length: About 360 miles.
When to go: Popular year-round.
Words to the wise: Information on hiking and camping is available at the Bureau of Land Management in Caliente. Ranger-led tours of Great Basin National Park are given only in summer.
Nearby attractions: Las Vegas. Ward Charcoal Ovens St ate Historic Site, near Ely.
Further information: Nevada Commission on Tourism, 401 N. Carson St., Carson City, NV 89710; tel. 800-638-2328, www.travelnevada.com.
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