Good Sam RV Travel Guide & Campground Directory
The Lonely Road to Great Basin National Park
By Charles Shugart, Jr.
Heading east from Lake Tahoe, U.S. Highway 50 takes you to Fallon, Nevada. Continuing across the Silver State and into Utah, the highway is known as the Loneliest Road in America. In 1986,
called it that because there were only three towns from Fallon to Delta, Utah, a distance of over 400 miles—and no services in-between. We’re talking pure desert wilderness for quite a long way. It’s still like that—three towns, no additional services. .
coined the term in a derogatory way, the State of Nevada seized upon it as a marketing tool. What the heck, U.S. 50 was a lonely road; why try to deny it? Instead, they used its remoteness and the
description as an advertising gimmick to get travelers to explore some of Nevada’s Great Basin. Certainly the businesses in those three towns could do with a few more paying customers. The State Highway Department was told to put occasional signs along the route, proudly proclaiming it to be “The Loneliest Road in America.” I’ve driven it several times; the highway earned its name.
To understand why the American west looks the way it does, you must begin with a bit of geology. Because of the continental “stretching” that created the Great Basin, plus the plate tectonic action that buckled and lifted huge sections of the western United States—thereby creating the mountains—Nevada’s mountain ranges are aligned north and south. What this means to travelers is that if you drive the Loneliest Road in America—an east/west route—you will be going up to mountain passes and down to valleys pretty much continuously. It’s a good paved highway, though, and if you manually select the right gears for the up and down grades, RVers should have no problems.
The Nevada portion of U.S. 50 follows the route of the Pony Express, which was begun in 1860, but lasted only a year-and-a-half before the opening of the Transcontinental Telegraph put it out of business. That brief period was exciting, however. Mail was delivered by horseback between St. Joseph, Missouri and Sacramento, California. The 50 riders used some 500 horses, stopping every 10 miles at each of the 190 relay stations to change their mounts. Every 70 to 100 miles there was a change of riders. All through the day and night they were at full gallop. It was hard and dangerous work for the young men, but they were well-paid, earning $100 a month. The route of the Pony Express followed the Oregon, Mormon and California trails and took 10 days. The previous fastest mail delivery was 25 days by stagecoach.
The Loneliest Road in America also follows the path of the Lincoln Highway, which was completed in 1913. It became the first transcontinental highway in the United States, connecting New York City to San Francisco. For years it was just an “improved” road—meaning dirt and gravel. But it was a through route, covering 3389 miles and taking a mere 20 to 30 days to drive cross-country (not that anyone had reason to do that in 1913). The fact that the Lincoln Highway was something of an adventure was reflected in a sign posted near Fish Springs, Utah. It read, “If you have trouble, build a sagebrush fire. Mr. Thomas lives 20 miles away and can see the smoke; he’ll bring a team of horses and help you out.” Ah, for the good old days.
Well, maybe not so good.
Present-day travelers heading east from Fallon go about 80 miles before crossing New Pass Summit, at an elevation of 6348 feet. This isn’t as bad as you might think, though, because even the valleys are “high” desert. Example: Fallon is 3900 feet elevation. Beyond New Pass is the “living” ghost town of Austin. At an elevation of 6600 feet, it has a population of 340 people, 79 dogs and 32 really hungry feral cats. Austin is considered the “Turquoise Capital” of the state. It got its start in 1862 when one of the Pony Express horses kicked over a rock containing silver. Well, that’s the legend, and I’m sticking to it.
Up and over a couple of 7000-foot summits and the highway straightens out on its way to Eureka. Begun in 1864 when a couple of prospectors from Austin discovered silver and lead, the boom began in earnest. Lead was the most important mineral taken from the region’s mines. In fact, deposits were so big that the Eureka mines proved to be the second richest mining area in the entire state; only the Comstock Lode in Virginia City (gold and silver) was richer. By 1878 there were more than 10,000 people living in Eureka. In 1990 there was a population of 650 (the official census mentioned nothing about dogs and cats).
A few more summits and the eastbound traveler pulls into a proper little city, Ely (rhymes with freely). Established in the 1870s, the town was not known for mining, but rather as a stagecoach station. Later discoveries of gold and silver in the area brought prospectors and miners by the hundreds. With the discovery of extremely rich copper deposits, the boom exploded. Ely manages today because it’s the only city for hundreds of miles in any direction. It is also a crossroads, with highways coming in from five directions. There is a fine railroad museum, and you can ride the Ghost Train out into the backcountry.
Beyond Ely and topping a couple more 7000-foot passes, a turnoff just before the Utah border takes you to Great Basin National Park and Lehman Caves. From the small town of Baker, a 9-mile drive leads you into the park.
Seldom visited because it’s not on the road to anywhere, the national park has two really good things to offer. From the surrounding low country to the top of 13,000-foot Wheeler Peak, visitors have the opportunity to see and experience the many faces of high desert. Sagebrush and cacti dominate lower elevations; driving up the road you soon find pinyon pines and juniper trees in the mix. Higher elevations include ponderosa pines, and above 10,000 feet you can find the true Methuselah trees—bristlecone pine. Slow-growing because of wind, the harshness of summer heat and winter cold, examples of these trees have been found that are more than 4000 years old, making them the earth’s oldest living organisms.
If you want to see the night sky as you’ve never seen it before, just tilt your head back and stare in wonder. With the nearest big city several hundred miles away, Great Basin National Park has the darkest skies in the U.S.
The main feature of the national park is Lehman Caves, which are really one very big cavern that began 500,000,000 years ago. The cavern began with the formation of limestone rock layers beneath a shallow inland sea (the lime came from tiny shelled creatures). Then, 150,000,000 years ago, additional pressure and heat transformed the limestone into a metamorphic rock—marble. Next, about 20,000,000 years ago, tectonic movement of the Pacific and Continental plates created the mountain range. And then about 5,000,000 years ago, acidic groundwater percolating through cracks in the rock formed the caves by dissolving some of the marble.
Native Americans lived within the Great Basin 10,000 years ago. The earliest evidence of human use dates back some 800 years (human bones were found at the cave entrance).
Absalom Lehman was probably the first European-American to discover the caves—about 1885. Within the first few months of his discovery, Lehman had built ladders and stairs inside the cavern and begun sharing its wonders with others.
Nowadays, tours are led by knowledgeable park rangers who explain the cavern’s features and answer your questions. They provide the information; your imagination provides the magic. You’ll find the usual suspects—stalactites and stalagmites, plus the Grand Palace with its Parachute Shield, and much more. I’ve been to a dozen caves around the country, and found them all to be totally captivating.
NOTES OF INTEREST
Photography note: Because of the delicate nature of cave features, no tripods can be taken on the regular tours. Flash is permitted, although there may be times and places when the guides ask you not to use it. Tip: Whenever possible, do not use flash because the bright white light washes out shadows and textures. Instead, use a higher ISO setting. With digital cameras that’s easy. With film, you must change to a type of film with higher settings, such as ISO 400 or 800. Do this before entering the cavern.
There is an RV park in the town of Baker, near the turnoff to the Great Basin National Park. There is also a campground within the park. Wherever you stay, it is recommended that you disconnect and use your drive-around vehicle. You’ll want to drive to the end of the park road, which takes you to 10,000 feet. Why drive an RV on twisty mountain roads unless you have to?
Whether eastbound or westbound, U.S. Highway 50—the Loneliest Road in America—is worth a drive. Plus, it gives you a chance to visit Great Basin National Park and Lehman Caves. That makes for a pretty good “two-for” in my book.