Nevada Highway 50 - The Loneliest Road in America

From the air

 

Much of Nevada is desert, the bulk of it owned by the Federal Government to serve as military bases or atomic testing sites. Those who like to watch the land around the Sierra Mountains on flights out of San Francisco headed east would watch eagerly for famous landmarks like Tahoe or Yosemite, but once past the Sierra mountains, they switch off and get back to reading or sleeping. For beyond the mountains is this very brown and arid looking landscape that is devoid of features especially compared to the sharply delineated landscape that lies to the west.

On the ground

On the surface, the story is quite different. This is best experienced first hand by driving across the state on the so called Loneliest Road, Highway 50 that stretches some 300 miles from just outside Reno all the way to Nevada's eastern border with Utah. The Loneliest Road epithet is not strictly true with a handful of towns (but hardly a single street with one or two motels and restaurants, a gas station and reconstructed historical buildings) that are spread out along the highway. Visitors maybe scared off by the forbidding 100 mile+ distance that seems to separate Fallon and Austin, but it is not quite as bad as that. There are a few "mini" towns along the way. What these towns lack in neighbors they make up for in friendliness. The owner of the motel we stayed in Austin was a mine of information once she realized that we were apprehensive about getting stuck on the highway in wintry conditions. She promptly offered to send out the search parties if we did not show up at the appointed hour, then followed up by calling us back and giving us the list of all the gas stations within 100 miles radius of her motel.

Pony Express

The Highway roughly parallels the historic Pony Express route which goes from Silver Springs through Fallon and along the towns across Highway 50. Remnants of the Pony Express Route are visible for much of the way. The Pony Express was a fast mail service crossing the North American continent from St. Joseph, Missouri, to Sacramento, California, from April 1860 to October 1861. The service was accomplished using mounted riders instead of coaches. The riders had to brave the elements and hostile tribes along the way. Riders travelled a short route and could not weigh over 125 pounds. They changed about every 75–100 miles (120–160 km). The advent of the transcontinental railroad put an end to the Pony Express after a brief period of 18 months.

The profile

While there are sites of historic interest along the way, the best thing about the highway is itself. It traverses east-west crossing several mountain ranges that run roughly north-south. The elevation of the valleys is around 6000 ft. while the surrounding mountains contain peaks of 10000 ft. and over. The passes through the ranges are around the 7500 ft. range. With hardly any landmarks to accurately guage distance, one finds oneself driving on an endless straight line with the mountains in front seeming to be beyond reach. But one does reach them eventually and then pass them through curvy roads before descending down the other side and then it is a straight road all over again.

Areas of interest

Apart from the towns, there are state parks and sand dunes, petroglyphs and the Old Shoe Tree. The prize for reaching the eastern end is a visit to Great Basin National Park which is not a place you stumble upon. As the ranger told us as he thanked us for visiting "You have to want to come here to get here". The park is an oasis of mountain islands in a vast sea of surrounding desert. It has 3 peaks over 12000 ft, a scenic drive upto the trailhead for Wheeler Peak and an underground cave system that is unique and different even for those who have been to several such across the world. We had been to several such sites in China and of course, Mammoth Cave and Carlsbad Caverns. But Lehman Caves in the Great Basin National Park was an interesting experience.

 

The season

It was bitterly cold at night (single digits to teens at night Fahrenheit) and just about bearable during the day time (30s to 40s). We stayed wrapped up in our car or in our motel room except for very brief periods. We stayed snow free for the most part but for a brief stretch on top of the Wheeler Peak Scenic Drive.

Sidelights

On our way back, we took a detour on Hwy 722 for a different look and also stopped at the interesting Wild West town of Virginia City and the Nevada State Capitol at Carson City.

The Photos

The photo album can be accessed here.

 

 

The Videos

Click here to go to the videos page

Trip Tracks

The Google Earth file can be accessed here.


View Nevada Hwy 50 in a larger map

The Official Recognition

For our troubles, we were recognized by the Governor of the State of Nevada thus: Fortes Fortuna adiuvat!