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Reasons to slow down in eastern Nevada.

Heading north out of Las Vegas, U.S. highway 93 snakes up the eastern Nevada borderlands, climing into picturesque, hisotric, seldom-visited country.

The stretch of highway between Interstate 15 and U.S. 50 has been designed a scenic road; it takes you to mining towns, four state parks, and (with a detour) the most stunning caves in the state. You can sample parts in one long day, or pause and see it all in three or four days.

This section contains a sampling of the state's best scenery--from striking croded red rock formations to placid lakes and forested mountains. Because it's higher and cooler than the southern desert region, it's at its best in summer. Yet most drivers hurry through this part of the state, unaware of its attractions, and crowds are virtually nil.

Admittedly, you'll encounter some long boring stretches, modest motels, and limited dining experiences, but prices are very resonable--we found clean, quiet motel rooms for $30 to $35 per night, double occupancy. There are also numerous campgrounds along the route, all first come, first served.

Elevation rises from about 4,000 feet to 13,063 feet atop Wheeler Peak, and summer temperatures generally range from 70 deg. to 85 deg. We describe attractions from Las Vegas north to Ely.

Caliente and glowing Cathedral Gorge

Heading north and then east, U.S. 93 climbs steadily from the broad, creosote bush-covered desert, edging upward along the Sheep and Pahranagat mountain ranges. Tucked in a canyon is the first town of interest--Caliente, population 1,000.

Caliente's landmark--the huge Missionstyle Union Pacific railroad depot built in 1923--can be seen from almost any point in town. Today it houses the chamber of commerce (open 8 to 4 weekdays), with information about the area's sights, lodging, and restaurants. Amtrak's Desert Wind also stops here on runs between Las Vegas and Salt Lake City. Two restaurants, a few sandwich shops, and four motels line Front Street.

The nearby Kershaw-Ryan State Recreation Area suffered major summer flash flooding and is still closed. But east of town is Beaver Dam State Park, at 2,032 acres the largest state park in the region. Six miles north of Caliente on U.S. 93, turn right and head 28 miles on a signed, graded gravel road (it's steep in spots, and trailers are not advised).

You drive out over a plateau, then drop down into the park. At 5,000 feet, Beaver Dam is covered with shade trees and well watered by a creek and 13-acre reservoir. You can hike the twisting canyon and fish for trout (state license required, nonresidents $7.50 for a three-day permit, $10 for 10 days; buy in Caliente or Pioche). The 47 campsite are separated by juniper stands.

Continuing north on U.S. 93, you'll follow the lush Meadow Valley Wash and then come to Panaca, a small ranching community with just a few stores and a gas station.

Just north is 1,608-acre Cathedral Gorge State Park, a sculptural gem. Mineralladen bentonite clay has eroded into spires and gorges, their shapes glowing tawny in the afternoon light. You get a fine view of this interesting geology from Miller's Point; from there, hike a mile down to the main picnic area, with a scattering of ramadas shading benches, tables, and barbecues. Wear sturdy shoes for the steep trail.

You can camp in 22 sites (no RV hookups), but they're open and treeless, affording little privacy. Showers are nearby. Fee is $5 per night April 15 to November 15, then $2 in off-season with no water services at the campground.

Historic Pioche

As you head north again on Highway 93, Highland Peak juts to 9,395 feet on your left. At 11 miles from Cathedral Gorge, exit to the mine town of Pioche, population 650. As you crest the hill, you'll see signs of its 1860s silver boom days--mine tunnels, tailings, part of an overhead tram system.

In its heyday, when the population ballooned to 10,000 souls, Pioche gained fame as a lawless town. Wrote one resident in 1870, "About half the town is whiskey shops and houses of ill fame. And about half the community are thieves, scoundrels, and murderers . . . then we have some of the best folks in the world." Today, the town is quieter and the folks are glad just to see tourists.

The town sits at the hub of a mining district that still bears much lead and zinc, though a tough market has closed most of the mines. Despite hard times, Main Street is being renovated thanks to a federal grant and is regaining its late 1800s look building by building. Stop in at the Francois Pioche Art Gallery at the west end of Main for a look at an eclectic collection of Western prints and paintings (open 10 to 4 weekends).

Now restored, the former Lincoln County Courthouse on Lacour Street is open as a historical museum with displays on early mining (open 10 to 6 Mondays through Saturdays, noon to 4 Sundays). You'll find four motels in town, most concentrated on the north end of Lacour Street. Restaurant choices are limited to a few cafes on Main.

Consider two side trips out of Pioche. If you're a mining buff, you'll want to drive north about 3 miles and take Caselton Road; it loops west and south about 12 miles past some big lead and zinc mines and huge pits--all active until just recently--and the site of the Prince Mine, one of the area's richest silver mines (note that all sites are closed). The road rejoins U.S. 93 just south of Pioche.

Or take State 322 due east out of Pioche and into the Eagle Valley (we saw a pair of golden eagles on our drive). At 4 miles, you can jog southeast on State 86 to Echo Canyon Dam in a state recreation area. The 65-acre reservoir is backed by a steep-faced volcanic rock wall that will throw your voice back to you. In the 920-acre park are 34 campsite (,4, off-season $2) and a boat-launching ramp (fish for trout).

Farther east on State 322, you'll see remnants of early homestead cabins; some cattle ranching still done here. At road's end, about 20 miles from Pioche, is Spring Valley state Park. At 5,800 feet, it's higher and cooler than town; you can scramble over its burnt red rocks or fish its placid 65-acre lake. The 37 campsites ($4, off-season $2) are tucked against the rocks and have little shading foliage.

Near Ely, a snowy peak and some spectacular caves

Some 80 miles noth of Pioche, the craggy, snowflecked face of Wheeler Peak comes into view as U.S. 93 approaches U.S. 50. Heading northwest on combined U.S. 50/93, you'll quickly reach Ely, where you'll find 19 motels and a wider choice of restaurants (try the Basque restaurant in the Ely Hotel).

Southeast of town is the exit for Ward Charcoal Ovens State Historic Monument, site of stone kilns built in 1876 to make charcoal for a mining smelter. Standing in a row like crude stone tepees, the huge empty kilns have remarkable acoustics--step inside and shout. Walk at your leisure; plaques explain their history and function.

Head east on U.S. 50 from the U.S. 93 junction, and in about 1/2 hour you'll reach the turnoff for Lehman Caves National Monument and Wheeler Peak Scenic Area, both in Humboldt National Forest. Here the landscape changes dramatically from are highlands to pine and aspen forest. Take state 487 southeast 5 miles to State 488; at the junction in Baker, you can pick up supplies.

At about 6,800 feet, the site of the caves is typically 65 deg. to 75 deg. in summer. Inside them, however, it remains a constant 50 deg., so bring a jacket. On 1-1/2-hour guided tours, rangers lead you through large vaulted rooms laden with hanging spires and past mirror-like pools.

The dimly lit, 2/3-mile trail has uneven footing; wear sturdy shoes. Tours are given hourly from 8 to noon Memorial Day through Labor Day ($2 adults, $1 ages 6 to 15), four times a day the rest of the year. The visitor center here for the caves and the national forest is open 8 to 5 daily year-round.

Surrounding the monument is the 28,000-acre Wheeler Peak Scenic Area with its 13,063-foot peak, Nevada's second highest. In summer you should find lupine, larkspur, and columbine among the blooming wildflowers.

The best starting point for day-hiking is the 37-site Wheeler Peak Campground ($4, open June 20 to November 1), where several trails begin. Note that your elevation is 10,000 feet, so take it slowly. One good day-hike is Solace Loop Trail 1118 with the Bristlecone Ice Field Trail 1086. You'll head up to a tiny tarn called Terresa Lake, through a forest of ancient, gnarled bristlecone pines, and out to an ice field at the base of the peak. The 4-mile round trip climbs about 1,000 feet.

The national forest has four campgrounds totaling about a hundred sites ($4) at elevations from 7,500 feet to 8,000 feet.

Heritage Days, A Basque festival

Some events you might time your visit around: July 4 in Caliente includes a parade, races, fireworks, and a barbecue. July 25 through 27 and August 1 through 3, Pioche Heritage Days offer nightly melodramas and an art show. Around Ely, the Basque Festival July 20 and 21 features dancing, costumes, and a big barbecue. You can get more information on events and attractions in White Pine and Lincoln counties by writing to the Chamber of Commerce, c/o RSVP, Box 385, Caliente 89008, or the White Pine County Chamber of Commerce Box 239, Ely 89301.
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Copyright 1985 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Date:Jun 1, 1985
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