The Road to Utah

After weeks of reading guide books, planning, and waiting for the warm weather of Spring Break, it was finally time to hit the road. We typically head west for vacations, crossing the Sierras to explore the Pacific Coast. This time though, we were headed southeast to the canyon country of southern Utah, a place we’d never been to. The next several posts will document our trip, and hopefully give you some tips on where to go, what to see, and how to do it. We by no means saw everything. We really just did “the sampler”, picking one or two easy destinations at each stop along the way. You could spend much more time at each spot, but it gave us a good idea of what’s out there to explore, and where we might want to come back to.

New Shoe Tree
The new Shoe Trees near Middlegate

We left Carson City on Saturday, April 7th. Our destination for the day was Ely, NV on the other side of the state, about a 6 hour drive. Highway 50 has been named, “The Loneliest Road in America”, but trust me, Nevada has much more lonely roads than this one. Plenty of cars frequent this route, and you wouldn’t be waiting but a few minutes for the next car to come by. Still, there is a lot of mileage between towns, more than 100 miles in some cases, so you do want to make sure you’re all fueled up. The good news is that each town along the route to Ely is friendly, you can find fuel and snacks, and there is cell service most of the way.

HWY 50
The Toiyabe Range in Central Nevada

The scenery becomes more barren and deserty as you leave Carson City, and you even pass a large sand dune named Sand Mountain. After Middlegate though, the road gains elevation, and the scenery becomes a bit more enjoyable. The sagebrush returns, and you pass through many pretty mountain passes.

HWY 50
Eureka Opera House

One site I wanted to see was the Shoe Tree west of Middlegate. Last year the famous shoe tree, a large cottonwood that people have been tossing their shoes into for decades, was chopped down. It was event that even made the national news! The fallen tree still lies in the ditch, surrounded by hundreds of shoes. It almost resembles a landfill. Thankfully there are two nearby smaller trees, and people have begun transferring the shoes over to them. Driving by at 65mph, things almost appear as they should!

Ely, NV
Ely

The two smallest towns along the way are Austin and Eureka. They’ve done a great job at keeping their towns alive, and the major buildings in town have been well preserved and look great. It’s a little like stepping back in time.

HWY 50
Spring Valley Wind Project

Near the geographic center of Nevada is the Toiyabe range. It’s the second longest range in the state, and the highest point in the range is Arc Dome at 11,788 feet. This was the snowiest range we crossed on our trip through Nevada. Hopefully it’ll be melted off by June, because I’m planning a trip to climb Arc Dome at that time!

HWY 50
Wheeler Peak – 13,065 ft

We made it to Ely around dinner time. Ely is a great small town, and has plenty of lodging and food options. We had dinner at Margaritas that night, and the Mexican food and drinks were just what we needed after a day on the road.  We stayed the night at the newer La Quinta Inn, and it was as nice as any regular hotel you can find along the Highway anywhere.  We stayed at the Copper Queen on our last trip back on the 90s, and it still looked nice too. There’s even a full size supermarket in Ely for restocking your ice chest, or getting those things you forgot to pack.  There are also a lot of recreational opportunities in the area as well. Some of the best fishing I’ve ever had was in Cave Lake State Park.

HWY 50
Horns-a-Plenty near Sacramento Pass

The next morning we left Ely for Great Basin National Park. Just east of Ely, Nevada’s first wind energy project is underway. The Spring Valley Wind Farm is still under construction, but there are already a couple rows built. When completed, these wind turbines with a 150-megawatt (MW) capacity could produce enough power for 45,000 homes in Nevada!

Lehman Caves
Lehman Caves Visitor Center

Not far after the wind farm, the west side of Wheeler Peak comes into view. This 13,065 ft peak is in Great Basin National Park, and is also the 2nd tallest peak in Nevada.

Lehman Caves
Lehman Caves

We arrived in Baker Nevada, the gateway to Great Basin National Park. We stopped at the lower visitor center to check the map. Not a soul was visible in town or outside the visitor center this Easter Sunday. There was no wind or any traffic noise. The sound of our footsteps on the sidewalk was almost too loud, and I was waiting for someone to open a door and shush us!

Lehman Caves
On the cave tour

Much of the upper areas of the park are still snowy, but we were there to tour Lehman Caves which is just a short drive from the park entrance. Lehman Caves are a twisty labyrinth in the limestone, and contain a wide variety of formations.  They say these caves are unique in that they contain a large number of different formations in one place.  You’d have to visit several caves elsewhere to see them all.

Lehman Caves
Map of Lehman Caves

It never occurred to me to check the schedule beforehand, and I guess I assumed there would be more frequent tours. The next tour was over an hour away, and was a 90 minute underground walk to the Grand Palace and back. I’m never too strict on our schedule, but this was supposed to be a quick stop! Not to worry though, as it was lunch time, so we headed over to the picnic area and cooked up some soup.

Utah Border
At the Utah Border

We ended up doing the “Grand Palace” tour, which again was 90 minutes. At first I thought that it was a pretty long time to spend underground. Kristy even more so, since she wasn’t too crazy about going in the cave in the first place! As it turned out though, it was fascinating, and I had forgotten much of caves from my last tour over a decade ago. We must have taken the shorter tour back then too, so we got to go further back into the cave than before. The park ranger was a great tour guide, and had much to say about the history and geology of the caves at each stop. The 90 minutes actually went by rather quickly.

A Utah Welcome
The Utah Welcoming Committee

After the visit to the caves, we were back on the road down route 487 out of Baker, and then onto route 21 after the Utah Border. Highway 50 doesn’t have anything on this road. It’s well maintained, but even lonelier. We had to slow down to a crawl periodically to navigate sheep and cattle crossings. I waved to one of they guys herding the cattle, the only three people I remember seeing along the way, but he only stared at me blankly for a moment before looking away and going back to his business.

Utah Border
The “Real” Lonely Road

Shortly after crossing the Utah border, we were reminded that we were crossing into the Mountain Time Zone. Dang! We just lost another hour in a flash. We wouldn’t be reaching Springdale, UT until 7pm now. I need to remember to factor in time changes when heading east!

Coming next…Zion!

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