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U.S. 50:  America's Loneliest Highway

I camped for six days in Lassen National Park, then I hit the road and headed east.  Instead of taking Interstate 80 across Nevada (i.e., the quick way), I decided to take the less-traveled two-lane road, U.S. Highway 50 (i.e., the interesting way). 

 

 

Western Nevada is what I call "Darcy Farrow country," after a beautiful folk song written about the area.  Here's John Denver singing Darcy Farrow.

   

This stretch of roadway across central Nevada was dubbed by National Geographic magazine several years ago as, "The Loneliest Highway in America."  I hadn't driven across Nevada's U.S. Highway 50 in about twenty years, but it was obvious that it was still as lonely as it was back in the the winter of 1985.  But it was a lot warmer now, this being late June instead of early January, and much more pleasant to travel.

 

I spent a few days driving across the basin-and-range country of Nevada.  Unless you like wide-open vistas like I do, you probably wouldn't say that Nevada has many scenic highlights.  One of the real gems though, is Great Basin National Park near Ely, which contains both the highest peak in Nevada (Wheeler Peak, at 13,065') and the incredible Lehman Caves.  I visited Lehman Caves once before, before this area was a national park, but I had never actually been inside the caves, so this time I decided to take a tour.  The spectacular rock formations I saw inside the caves were well worth the wait.

 

       

Above left:  Heading up to Virginia City, Nevada.  Remember the old TV show, "Bonanza"?

Above center:  If you do, here's a Hoss -- I mean a horse.  Believe it or not, this guy was directing traffic on Main Street.

Above right:  Brothels, including this one, are legal in some counties in Nevada.  Don't worry, I didn't go inside!

 

       

Above left:  On Highway 50, the so-called "Loneliest Highway in America."  I think you can see why.

Above center:  At just over 13,000', Wheeler Peak (right) is the highest point in Nevada.  It's also the site of Great Basin National Park, a very cool place.  Of course, any place 13,000 feet high is "pretty cool."

Above right:  I visited the park's Visitor Center the next morning and made a reservation for a tour of Lehman Caves.

 

       

Above left:  On the hour-long tour in Lehman Caves.

Above center:  The cave is filled with stalactites (growing down) and stalagmites (growing up).  To keep them straight, think of "Tite" as in hanging tight to the ceiling.  At least, that's how I do it.

Above right:  Spelunkers on our cave tour with a helpful park ranger (in yellow).  Lehman Caves is a pretty amazing place.

The Incredible Geology of Southern Utah

After leaving Great Basin National Park, I spent a few days driving through the red sandstone country of southern Utah.  The air was very smoky from forest fires in the Rocky Mountains, almost choking me at times.  Still, southern Utah, which is one of my favorite parts of the U.S., was wonderful.  I visited this area for the first time when I was seven months old and have gone back numerous times since.  If you've never been to southern Utah, it's the one place in the U.S. I'd recommend more than any other in America to visit because it's so different from anywhere else.

 

Above:  The smoky Cedar Breaks National Monument, Utah.  It's a spectacular amphitheatre 10,000' high.

I drove into lofty Cedar Breaks National Monument in southwestern Utah and spent a couple hours here, which I enjoyed immensely despite the smoke.  It's been a while, I think about 15 years, since I last visited Cedar Breaks.

 

The numerous national parks and monuments of southern Utah are at drastically different elevations and therefore have vastly different microclimates.  Zion is the lowest park, with an elevation of only 4,000 feet, so of all the parks, it's the most pleasant to visit in the winter, spring or fall.  Bryce is at 8,000 feet, so it's quite a bit cooler than Zion.  Consequently, Bryce is a great place to visit in the summer months but you should avoid it in winter, especially if you're camping (I've learned this the hard way).  Cedar Breaks is the highest park in southern Utah at over 10,000 feet, so it's not even open in the winter months.  In the summer time, though, it's nice.  I bought an altimeter for my truck many years ago, partly so I could keep track of my elevation when I drove through southern Utah. 

 

Each national park in southern Utah is different but they all have the same basic geologic story.  Huge deposits of sand and sea shells were laid down over eons in a giant, inland sea millions of years ago.  That area has since been uplifted and compressed, with the sand ultimately creating sandstone (iron causes the red color) and the sea shells creating limestone.  After the layers rose above the sea, they were gradually eroded down by flowing water.  Today, we call this area the "Colorado Plateau," and it encompasses portions of the states of Colorado, Utah, New Mexico and Arizona.  The same story is seen throughout the Colorado Plateau, with the oldest layers (i.e., the layers towards the bottom) eroded and exposed at Grand Canyon National Park in the south while the youngest layers (i.e., the layers towards the top) eroded and exposed here at Cedar Breaks National Monument in the north.

 

Above:  Utah Highway 95, with Lake Powell and the Colorado River Bridge in the distance.

In addition, the rocks themselves have eroded differently based on the materials that formed them.  The rocks eroded into weirdly-shaped spires in certain places, like here at Cedar Breaks or Bryce Canyon.  Elsewhere, and because of different compositions, the rocks have eroded into arches.  Arches National Park, with a top layer of a rock called Entrada Sandstone, is the best example of that.  And at still other places, the sandstone has eroded into sheer cliffs instead of arches or spires. 

 

What we see today depends on the materials that formed the sediments as they were laid down in the shallow seas millions of years ago.  Because of those different base materials and different rates of uplift and subsequent erosion, today there are a number of colorful sandstone parks in the Colorado Plateau area, each one very unique.

 

   

Above left:  National Park ranger George (right), a friendly fellow and former school teacher, talking to folks at smoky Cedar Breaks National Monument in southwestern Utah.

Above right:  Camping on slickrock near Arch Canyon in southern Utah.  This was the same place I camped a year ago (see News: June 20, 2001).  No one was here this night, either -- yay!

 

       

Above left:  My dusty and trusty (but not rusty) truck.  Note the yellow kangaroo sticker, which I got in Australia.

Above center:  Butler Wash ruins near Blanding, Utah.  You'll find these kinds of ruins all over the Four Corners area, not just at Mesa Verde National Park.

Above right:  The Devil's Garden area of Arches National Park in eastern Utah.

My Favorite Campsite (in the Whole, Wide World)

I visited Zion and Bryce National Parks last summer (see News:  June 15, 2001) so I didn't revisit them this time.  I did, however, camp once again at Kodachrome Basin State Park, and this time I visited Arches National Park, in eastern Utah near Moab.  I hadn't been to Arches in a few years and it was nice to be back -- nice except for the heat.  It was 113 degrees in Moab, where I stopped for a Big Gulp filled with ice.  A really big Big Gulp, that is -- and with lots of ice.

 

Above:  Camping at Looking Glass Rock at sunset.  And yes, the rock really is that color.

I spent a few hours at hot-and-smoky Arches, then late in the afternoon I drove down to Looking Glass Rock, a little-known place about 30 miles south of Moab.  Looking Glass Rock is managed by the BLM (Bureau of Land Management), the federal agency that manages more land than any other in the U.S. including the National Park Service, the agency that manages our national parks, and the U.S. Forest Service, which manage our national forests.  The BLM is also my former employer.  I worked as a BLM ranger in the Colorado Rockies for six summers during my college days in the 1980s, not the best-paying but certainly the most enjoyable job I've ever had.

 

Looking Glass Rock is my favorite camping spot in the U.S., and that's saying a lot, as you know if you've been reading my website.  It's like an old friend.  I've camped here numerous times and sometimes there's another car here but more often there isn't.  As I approached Looking Glass Rock on the narrow dirt road, I was a bit anxious, hoping that no one else was camping there that night.  By my good fortune, there wasn't and I breathed a little sign of relief.  I cooked up dinner in the desert and then reclined on the sandstone after sunset to watch the stars come out.  I was all alone at Looking Glass Rock once again, just as I like it.

 

        

Above left:  The Windows section of Arches National Park, with lots of smoke from lots of nearby fires.  It was 113 degrees in nearby Moab.

Above center:  "Bryce or Bust" car in the Arches Visitor Center parking lot.  This is my kind of car!

Above right:  View from the arch of Looking Glass Rock, about 30 miles south of Moab.

 

       

Above left:  That's me sitting in Looking Glass Arch in 1987 during my mustachioed era.  What a reflective stud, huh?

Above center:  And here's the same arch today, sans mustached visitor.

Above right:  Visitors had been tearing up the vegetation at Looking Glass Rock by driving on it, so I spent a couple hours in the morning moving rocks here to protect the plants.  Ranger Del strike again!

 


 

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