The Great Basin: Along the Loneliest Road in America

The Great Basin: Along the Loneliest Road in America

The Great Basin encompasses most of Nevada and parts of Oregon, Idaho and Utah with a small section of California.  The western edge is the mighty Sierra Mountains and ends to the east with the Wasatch Mountains in Utah.  Most of the water never finds it’s way to a sea, but collects in salt lakes, marshes or mud flats then simply evaporates into the dry desert air.  The Great Basin is actually made up of many basins separated by steep and narrow mountain ranges.  There are over 200 mountain ranges that follow a general north to south orientation.  In between the mountain ranges, the valleys sit in the high desert between 4,000 and 5,500 feet altitude.

US-50 – “The loneliest Road in America” – Life Magazine

We started our adventure to cross the Great Basin at Lake Tahoe and drove the Loneliest Road in America across 17 mountain passes to end up at the Great Basin National Park.  With the exception of Lake Tahoe, I never realized how incredibly beautiful northern Nevada is.  It is beautiful for sure, but also incredibly isolating.  Reno, on the west side is the last large city you will see until you make it all the way to Salt Lake City, Utah.  Once you leave Fallon, Nevada, 60 miles east of Reno, you swear civilization ended.  The Loneliest Road lives up to it’s name.  The longest stretch between services is 88 miles.  In the 300 miles from Fallon, NV to the Great Basin National Park, you only pass through three towns.  Definitely leave with a full tank of fuel and top off when available.  The 17 mountain passes sucked down quite a bit of fuel, way more than I got back coming down the back side of them.

US-50 – Over one pass through the valley and up the next – 17 times.

What an awesome time of the year to travel through the Great Basin.  Every mountain range was snow covered providing Norman Rockwell views when contrasted with blue skies.

Rochelle and I were married in Lake Tahoe, 27 years, 4 months, 27 days, 22 hours and 33 minutes ago, but who’s counting.  We have never been back until this trip.  To see the lake when you first come over the pass from Reno is something to be seen. Being up in the mountains, with the cool fresh air, the smell of pine and looking down on the lake is awe inspiring.

Hiking above North Lake Tahoe
Emerald Bay – South Lake Tahoe

We visited with our son and his fiance in Fernley, NV for a week and half, where we helped with some house projects and completed some maintenance on the RV.  During our stay, we also caught up on some city life activities, like going to the movies, eating sushi and shopping for some fresh new clothes.

Enjoying a little city life!

We decided to hang out in Fernley one extra day to let the high winds from the coming cold front pass.  It was nice, clear skies and calms winds when we left, but we must have caught up to the cold front.  Even though it was a beautiful time to drive through the Great Basin, the high winds and cold temperatures would test our boondocking capabilities.

Our first stop along the Loneliest Road in America, was at the Spencer Hot Springs, BLM area. This area is truly out in the middle of nowhere, but somehow we had great internet access even though we only had 3G data.  When we first arrived, we were the only ones there.  It can be quite isolating in some of these areas and always takes some time to adjust.  We hiked around a bit and found four hot springs.  Though the water felt very warm, with the high winds and plummeting temperatures, we decided not to strip down and jump in.  Oddly enough, people kept driving out to this isolated area to drop trou and jump into the hot springs.  We saw more than our share of bare bums on our 2 day visit despite the cold, windy weather.

Wild Life at the Spencer Hot Springs

I did learn a lesson on this leg of the journey and that is to check the propane tanks before you leave a nice city with cheap refills, especially when the temperatures are predicted to be in the low 20’s. The first night, one of our tanks went dry and with the cold temperatures, I was a little paranoid that the 2nd tank was going to empty quickly.  Since the temperature was predicted to drop to 24F, I ran the furnace more than usual to keep the pipes from freezing.

On the day we pulled out, the wind had stopped, the sky was blue and the temperatures were on the rise. This place, even though at first seemed very bleak, turned out to be quite stunning.

Spencer Hot Springs, BLM

Ten mountain passes later we end up just west of the Great Basin National Park at the Sacramento Pass Recreation Area.  The Bureau of Land Management, BLM, built a very nice, free campground complete with pavilions, fire pits, trash and a pit toilet.  No electrical or water, but that is not problem, since we are set up for that.  This would be home base for the next four days while we visited the national park just 20 miles away.

Sacramento Pass Recreation Area – Free camping at a beautiful campground

The Sacramento Pass Recreation Area has a great 6 1/2 mile hike that started 50 yards from the RV.  Outstanding views of the Snake Mountain Range contained in the Great Basin National Park.  I’m not sure how busy this area gets in the summer time, but this time of year, we had the entire recreation area to ourselves.

Sacramento Pass Recreation Area

Hiking within the National Park looks great too.  We completed a fun and challenging 6 mile loop hike through Pole Canyon, that took us up 1,500 feet to the snowline, across some alpine meadows, over some heavy flowing creeks and a little snow pack scrambling.  We would have liked to hike up to Wheeler Peak, but there is still too much snow that even the road to the peak is still closed.  Perhaps one day we’ll try snow shoeing at some of these places, but this time we settled for a nice canyon hike with great views of the glacial carved mountains.

Hike up through Pole Canyon – Great Basin National Park

After two straight days of fairly tough hikes, we took an easy day and went on the tour of the Lehman Caves, also located in the national park.  There were a few unique structures beside the typical stalagmites and stalactites. The formation called the cave shield, is so unique that it is only found in about 100 caves out of 40,000.

The “shield” cave formation

This was your standard cave tour, but for only 8 bucks, it is well worth it.  Plus, we were able to pick up a better understanding of the formation of the Great Basin from the tour guide.

I’m not quite sure why Nevada is not built up more through the Great Basin.  I guess, the views are not enough of a tourist attraction and the cold, windy winters probably are not high on most peoples ideal places to live criteria.  The drive along the Loneliest Road, for me, is well worth it.  Cap it off with a visit to Lake Tahoe and you will not be disappointed.

To wrap up our trip through the Great Basin, we drove up to the Bonneville Salt Flats, just over the border in Wendover, Utah.  This is home to the famous Bonneville Speedway.  When we arrived, the salt flats were still mostly covered in water from the winter rains and snows, so no time trials for the Hemi powered, home hauler on this visit.  We did, however, find an awesome boondocking spot at the edge of the salt flats at the base of the Silver Island Mountains.

Boondocking at the edge of the Bonneville Salt Flats

I don’t think we have ever been in a more quiet boondocking location, with incredible views, yet only 8 miles outside of a decent size town, with 4G cell coverage and could pick up 47 channels over the air from Salt Lake City, Utah.  The mountains around here, like most of the ranges through the great basin are steep and rugged, an excellent back-drop to call home for a couple of days.

Volcano Peak – Silver Island Mountains
Bonneville Salt Flats from above.

A week of boondocking in the Great Basin turned out to be a wonderful surprise.  Other than visiting Lake Tahoe, I don’t think I would have made this area a go-to place on a normal vacation.  It’s just not promoted well as a vacation destination.  We’re glad we were able to experience the Loneliest Road, with what seemed like endless mountain passes followed by endless empty valleys.  The feeling of awe and a little fear are both present at the emptiness over such a large area.  Amazed at the endless views while also wondering what in the hell would we do if we broke down.

We love traveling slow so that we can immerse ourselves in an environment.  I have to admit if we were just driving through the Great Basin to get to Lake Tahoe, I don’t think we would have enjoyed it at all.  It would have been something to endure rather than enjoy.  However, this is truly a remarkable place.

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