Northern Nevada's hot peaks and cool views

 
LA Times | Travel
 

The first stop we make in Nevada is for beer. Cold beer. Your mouth gets mighty dry through the endless miles of sparkling sand flats and ratty mountains on Interstate 80. The sun beats down and the thirst comes on strong as haunting mirages flicker on the horizon, the vacant road vanishing into ...


By Tom Winter // 06.05.09
 

The first stop we make in Nevada is for beer. Cold beer. Your mouth gets mighty dry through the endless miles of sparkling sand flats and ratty mountains on Interstate 80. The sun beats down and the thirst comes on strong as haunting mirages flicker on the horizon, the vacant road vanishing into scraggly sage-covered hills.

So, when we hear about the Ruby Mountain Brewing Co. from the resident historian in the town of Wells on the way to Jarbidge, our final destination, it sounds like a long-lost oasis, just one step from heaven.

Sure enough, when we slip into the confines of the Clover Valley, where the brewery sits hidden under towering cottonwoods, it is an oasis, the grass lush and deep at the base of the Ruby Mountains and the aspen groves green punctuation points below the crenelated peaks.

The Ruby Mountain Brewing Co. is a welcome surprise on the journey to Jarbidge, a town built during a gold mining boom in the first decade of the 1900s. Like the hidden veins the miners chased, Jarbidge is a rare jewel of authentic western Americana that is becoming as elusive as the glittering metal that begat the place. Jarbidge is one of the last outposts in a state built upon last outposts. Las Vegas it ain't.

My wife, Aileen, and I have come here, of course, because northern Nevada and Jarbidge in particular are as far from the clanging of the slots as you can get. Sure, there are others here, but at a place where six people at the local bar constitute a big night, you're bound to have plenty of elbowroom. Throw in a chain of mountains nearly 10 miles long and the Jarbidge Wilderness Area, with trailheads strategically placed for easy hiking and backpacking access, and you've stumbled on a paradise of unique vistas and empty campsites.

We park our car at one of these, the Pine Creek campground, late in the afternoon for a backpacking foray to Emerald Lake. At first, our jaunt is a pleasant one as we meander up an old mining road in a shaded canyon.

Soon enough, though, we leave the shade as the trail starts to climb steeply, the sun jolting our systems as we pant in the heat. We don't find relief until we gain 1,000 more feet of altitude, spend an hour sweating under our loads and guzzle what seems like gallons of water. Finally, the trail plunges into aspen groves, the temperature drops and mountain breezes dry our brows.

With eight peaks of more than 10,000 feet, the Jarbidge Mountains run south to north. The range's impressive vertical relief -- the valley floors sit around 5,000 feet in elevation -- makes the area a study in contrasting ecosystems and, correspondingly, the flora and fauna are plentiful.

More than 500 kinds of flowering plants are native to the area, which is also home to rare bird species and mega fauna such as elk and mountain lion.

The mountains themselves are stunning too, with hidden lakes, striated rock faces and mountainsides dusted with wildflowers. High ridges connect the peaks, providing the opportunity to knock off several summits in a long day. In fact, the Jarbidge traverse must be one of the great hikes of North America.

From the heights you can look deep into Idaho, where its volcanic plains are bisected by the deep canyons of the Jarbidge and Bruneau rivers and their tributaries. These are worth a trip in themselves.

The juxtaposition of high peaks, deep canyons, desert and snow-streaked basins gives the region a haunting, rare beauty. While we are hunched under our packs as the trail climbs relentlessly higher, the area's charms are lost on us.

We finally call it quits about a mile from our destination, too bushed to go farther. We camp in a clearing near a crystalline stream. With dinner filling our bellies, we can finally appreciate the beauty of the area. Mottled purple canyons plunge into the volcanic plains of southern Idaho, and alpenglow paints the 10,563-foot Cougar Peak a bloody hue. We sleep well.

With more than 170 miles of well-maintained trails, hikers and backpackers have a variety of options in the Jarbidge Wilderness. If you want the best views, you're going to have to work for them, which is what we did the next day, topping out on a high ridge between Cougar Peak and the 10,585-foot Mary's River mountain.

We had set our sights on the Matterhorn. Not the peak found in Switzerland, but the 10,800-foot behemoth that is the ultimate test-piece of the area. It's a worthy objective for motivated hikers that doesn't require technical climbing abilities: Some gumption, a lot of water and a good pair of boots are enough. But, as the views from the ridge suck us in, the hours tick away along with our motivation. The Matterhorn would have to wait.

Two days later we are back in civilization. Jarbidge, with only 20 year-round residents, comes alive in the summer when hunters, fishermen and bird-watchers infiltrate the hidden valley. Still, we have no problems getting a table at the Outdoor Inn, where we dine on fat, juicy burgers.

After the gourmet repast, we explore the town. Because Jarbidge has one dusty main street, it is easy to feel the rich history of the place, which once hosted 1,200 residents and was the site of the last stagecoach robbery in the West in 1916.

Later that evening, we pull a few bottles of Ruby Mountain Brewing Co. Lager from our cooler. The beer is fresh and cold, complementing the Matterhorn.

We toast the views, our blistered toes, the tough old-timers who still hang on in Jarbidge and the mountain we failed to summit. Next time, we'll get to the top.