Gold Country, Lake Tahoe, Loneliest Road, Great Basin

June 26, 2013

As we reluctantly left the park, slowly, we realized again why Yosemite is, for untold thousands, on their Bucket Lists to see before they die. As for the Ahwahnee, mortgage your house rather than not experience it at least once. Disengage from your parasitic electronic tentacles, and get out there with your families and travel. Over a billion people are doing that each year.

After leaving Yosemite, we descended to the Gold Rush towns on California Route 49, passing through Angels Camp, made famous by Mark Twain’s “Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” story, Jackson, and then up into the Sierra Nevadas [very “Nevada” (snowy) then], via Route 88 to Silver Lake, almost 9,000 feet in elevation. Then down to a lake that ought to also be on everyone’s Bucket List–Lake Tahoe. Fond memories came back to Connie and me, for we honeymooned there.

Lake Tahoe holds enough water to cover the entire state of California to a depth of fourteen inches. It is said that the water in Tahoe is 97% pure, nearly the same as distilled water. The lake is 22 miles long and 12 miles wide, about one-third lying in Nevada. Its average depth is 989 feet, and deepest point is 1,645 feet, making Lake Tahoe the third deepest lake in North America. The water is mighty cold: the first twelve feet below the surface can warm to a toasty ☺ 68 degrees F in summer, while depths below 700 feet remain a constant 39F year-round.

The “lake in the sky” (elevation 6,229 feet) is ensconced in a valley between the often snowcapped Sierra Nevadas and the Carson Range. The Sierras tower more than 4,000 feet above the lake, contributing no little to its magic.

Immigrants and early miners did their utmost to destroy the lake’s environs; fortunately, just in time, the decline of the Comstock Lode caused the miners to turn their attention elsewhere.

In winter, snow covers the lakeshore to an average of 125 inches, but snow depth in the mountains can reach 300-500 inches, making the region a mecca for skiers (think Alpine Meadows, Diamond Peak, Squaw Valley, and Heavenly Valley).

We’ve never seen the lake when it wasn’t beautiful, but to see it on a clear winter day, offset by snowy mountains the incredibly deep blue waters of the lake can take your breath away.

We had dillydallied so long in Yosemite, it was evening before we descended from Silver Lake to Tahoe. We drove along the west side of the lake to the north end, considerably quieter than the casino-generated hubub in the south end; there we stayed at Mourelatos Lakeshore Resort.  Connie - SW Nat Parks 531

Next day, after breakfasting at the Old Post Office, so popular with locals, we crossed over the pass, then down to Truckee, Reno, and Fallon, before abandoning boring Interstate 80 for Highway 50, famously known as “The Loneliest Road in America” (gained a cult-following through commercials featuring pretty vagabonding girls in convertibles). For trivia-buffs, “Where in America is concentrated the largest number of north/south mountain ranges?” Answer: Here in Nevada – one after another: the Stillwater Range, Clan Alpine Mountains, Desatoya Mountains, New Pass Range, Shoshone Mountains, Toyabe Range, Simpson Park Range, Toquina Range, Monitor Range, Sulphur Springs Range, Diamond Mountains, White Pine Range, Butte Mountains, Egan Range, Schell Creek Range, and Snake Range – one after another like oncoming waves (most snow-capped) we cruised through them. Very few automobiles and even fewer trucks – hence its name.

We stopped in Austin: Bob desperately needed an ice cream fix. Also in the old mining town of Eureka, with its serpentine roads. Arrived in Ely late afternoon, and checked in at Prospectors Hotel. Lodging pickings are lean at best on the Loneliest Road in America. Especially when you’ve just been spoiled rotten at the Ahwahnee!

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Next morning, again those long long straight stretches of road, on into infinity. So quiet you could hear each other breathe. Soon we turned south into Great Basin National Park.

According to Michael L. Nicklas, “Although only a small part of this immense, wild land, Great Basin National Park is undoubtedly the best example of the entire Great Basin region. Its geologic diversity–from windswept playas to mysterious caverns and icy summits–defines the hydrologic boundaries. . . . Great Basin’s only remaining glacier lies sheltered within the national park in the cool shadow of 13,063-foot Wheeler Peak, which also supports bristlecone pines, the oldest living trees on earth. . . . Precious water draining from the mountain ranges does not flow into the oceans. Rather, this priceless substance either percolates underground, accumulates in bodies to form lakes, or evaporates back into the atmosphere.

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“Typically long winters grip the land above 10,000 feet from November through June. Bristlecone pines stubbornly cling to lofty slopes and windy ridges between 9,000 and 11,500 feet, living for 5,000 years or more. In 1964, a living tree was discovered in the Wheeler Peak grove which contained 4,844 annual growth rings.”

Lehman caves were first protected on January 24, 1922, when President Warren G. Harding established by presidential proclamation Lehman Caves National Monument. It took 43 more years to achieve national park status: Finally, on October 27, 1965, President Ronald Reagan signed the Great Basin National Park Act.

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Not surprisingly, given the sparse traffic on Highway 50, Great Basin is one of the least visited of all our national parks, attracting only about 90,000 visitors a year. Which isn’t at all a bad thing, for when we walked into the visitor center, we were treated like long-lost relatives; quite a change from the ho-hum oh, Lord, not another one attitude of some weary attendants in parks that are swamped by travelers. Connie, of course, made sure to get them to stamp her national park passport. The quiet winding road up to the base of Wheeler Peak (second highest peak in Nevada) was narrow, but scenic, passing through many varieties of trees as we ascended. Other than the beauty of the land and snowcapped peaks, the main roadside photo-op proved to be a rusty old car, complete with a skeleton.



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Then it was back down to The Loneliest Road – sometimes 30 miles without a curve – into Utah. Spectacular scenery along Interstate 70.Then we pulled into our favorite oasis stop in Green River, River Terrace Inn, shaded by verdant trees on the river side, and situated next to the very popular Tamarisk Restaurant, also on the river. But the real reason we always stay at River Terrace Inn is the comp to-die-for full breakfast prepared on the site by chefs who are either owners, relatives, or close friends of the owners. Each guest orders a la carte – scrumptious omelets, decadent cinnamon rolls, and on and on. You either eat inside or outside by the partly shaded pool. Needless to say, the Inn is usually booked up – so get your reservation early!!

Next day – our last day –, after pigging out at breakfast, we headed east through the Colorado Rockies, alongside swollen rivers, until late afternoon, we reached home; at 9,700 feet elevation, blessedly cool.

After two years, we’d finally reached the end of the Great Circle!


Northern California & Nevada Tour Book (Heathrow, Florida: AAA Publishing, 2010). [Source for Lake Tahoe information].

Nicklas, Michael L., Great Basin: the Story Behind the Scenery (Las Vegas: K.C. Publications, 2008).