Hot in the country
These cool spots used to be secret havens for folks trying to beat the heat. No more.
“But it’s a dry heat,” we like to say. “It’s not the same.” And, no matter how silly it sounds, we’re right. After a 13-month exile in Alabama, I know—95 degrees in Tuscaloosa makes 105 in Reno feel like sweater weather. Still, come summer, it sure feels good to get away every once in a while from the sun-blasted valleys and bask in some cool mountain shade.
Good thing we’ve got Tahoe just up the hill for a quick shot of pine trees and cool water. With a weekend, though, or even a full day, there are plenty of other places in Northern Nevada to cool off—most of them improbable little oases of aspens, tall grass and running water hidden high up in the big, wild ranges north and east of Reno.
One of the finest backcountry drives in Northern Nevada, the Hinkey Summit road branches east off U.S. 95 between Orovada and McDermitt and crosses the Santa Rosa Range, topping out around 7,900 feet before corkscrewing down through huge aspen groves into Paradise Valley.
The Santa Rosas are high, wet mountains—one of Nevada’s great unknown ranges—and the Hinkey road often stays snowed-in until sometime in May. When it opens, it winds through endless tilted seas of wildflowers—as spectacular a display of them as you’ll see anywhere.
Hinkey Summit is an easy one-day loop drive from Winnemucca, do-able in most passenger cars. Alternatively, you can camp along the way in several Forest Service campgrounds or in any number of undeveloped campsites, or stay at the Stone House bed and breakfast in Paradise Valley.
Tucked into a glacier-carved valley in the Pine Forest Range, Blue Lakes are probably the least visited of the clear alpine lakes scattered across Northern Nevada’s high ranges. The Pine Forests are a long haul from anywhere—plan on three to five hours, depending on road conditions and what you’re driving, from Winnemucca—and most of the people who do come during the summer come to fish Onion Valley and Knott Creek reservoirs.
There’s decent fishing at Blue Lakes, too, but the lakes are substantially higher than Onion Valley or Knott Creek, so they stay iced-over until June and thus don’t grow the same big, burly, overfed trout. Plus, you can’t drive to them. It’s an easy hike of less than a mile and a few hundred vertical feet from Onion Valley, but that’s enough to cut visitation to near-zero.
The crystal-clear lakes are walled in by looming granite buttresses and ringed with aspens and pines. At around 8,300 feet, they stay icy cold all summer long—perfect for a somewhere-between-refreshing-and-painful dip after the short hike in. If you’ve got the legs, you’re only a thousand feet short of the forever-and-ever views from 9,397-foot Duffer Peak, the high point of the Pine Forests.
Unionville/ Buena Vista Canyon
As you pass the Rye Patch exit on I-80 north of Lovelock, look to the east. Almost directly across those mountains, tucked into Buena Vista Canyon, is the strange little hamlet of Unionville. A living ghost town like Midas or Tuscarora, it’s almost disconcertingly green, and lush and shady all summer long.
Most of the town is emphatically private, but there’s a very pretty little public park on the north side of the road near the upstream end—watch for the turn shortly after you pass the farmyard full of peacocks on your left. Keep driving up either fork of the canyon past town, and you’ll find aspen groves and clear, cold creeks loaded with little trout.
The fastest way to Unionville is via the Mill City exit off I-80, but the best way is via the Oreana-Rochester exit just a few miles past Lovelock. Follow the crumbling pavement up Limerick Canyon and over the pass, descend into Buena Vista Valley, and then turn north on the big north-south dirt road. You can get as far as the upstream end of town in a passenger car; past that it’s four-wheel-drive only.
Standing in the middle of the Black Rock playa and looking west at the Mars-red and moon-white clays of the Calico foothills and the wavering, distorted grays of the peaks above, it’s tough to believe there’s anything up there but more heat. But there is.
Drive north along the west side of the playa on the Soldier Meadows road, and turn west on the only signed “Vehicle Access Route” that doesn’t say it dead ends. Wind and bounce your way up from the desert floor to 6,000 feet or so, where the aspens start. Amazingly, there’s year-round running water here and green grass and shady campsites with stunning views out over the playa and beyond.
For a great two-day loop drive, follow the same road over the crest of the Calicos, north past High Rock Lake and through High Rock Canyon to Stevens Camp, then pick up County Road 34 back to Gerlach. This is all four-wheel-drive country.