Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Vagabonding across the 39th Parallel: Crossing the Real "Loneliest" Highway

Vagabonding across the 39th Parallel is an informal exploration of the geology of an interesting slice of the American West that I followed in July. We spent the night in Mono Lake, and on this day, we needed to cross a very lonely landscape. A number of years ago, Highway 50 from Fallon to Ely was declared "America's Loneliest Highway". It's notable for having only a handful of settlements about 70-80 miles apart, and while insulted at first, the towns embraced the label (you can get t-shirts that note that "I survived the loneliest highway". After our day on Highway 6 from Benton to Ely, I've decided I would have nominated a different road...
Photo by Mrs. Geotripper
From Benton, CA to Ely NV we traveled 250 miles, and saw but a single village, Tonopah (population of around 2,600). Oops, there was also Coaldale, population 50, but I don't think I saw it. The stretch from Tonopah to Ely, 168 miles, had not a single service. Take the wrong car, and you would be out of gas before reaching your destination.

Lonely, but not uninteresting. As I've said before, the back of beyond in Nevada is one of my favorite places to explore. Still, I've not been on Highway 6 very often, and we had a bit of time to explore on this trip. Our first distraction was the semi-ghost town of Benton Hot Springs just before the Highway 6 junction. People live there, and there is even a bed and breakfast, but the town is mostly of a century ago. Several abandoned cabins recall places like Bodie.
We crossed the state border a short time later, and stopped to have a look at the highest point in Nevada, Boundary Peak. At 13,147 feet (4,007 m), it is actually the shorter of the two peaks in the picture below. Montgomery Peak, on the right is At 13,441 feet (4,097 m). In the most literal sense, the highest peak in Nevada is a bump on the side of California mountain. Understanding that state lines and the resulting high points are totally artificial concepts, I'm going to talk in the next post about the mountain that should have been Nevada's highest. All the same, Boundary Peak and the rest of the White Mountains are a spectacular mountain group, and would have merited national park status if they occurred anywhere besides in the rain shadow (and the attention shadow) of the Sierra Nevada.
We were entering the heart of the Basin and Range Province, a region where the earth's crust has been stretched and torn apart into a series of fault-block mountains, and deep sediment filled valleys. The tectonic action happened very quickly (in the geological sense), so rivers were disrupted, and most of them drain into the adjacent valleys where they evaporate, or sink into the ground. Water in the Basin and Range will not reach the Pacific Ocean.
Moments later, we encountered the first herd of wild horses (if this kept up, we weren't going to get anywhere!). One was grazing at the side of the road, and posed quite nicely for us. I discussed the wild horses a few weeks ago, and the issues surrounding their very existence (short version: they belong here). A beautiful hawk soared above as we watched the herd (identification welcome!).
An hour later, the town of Tonopah rose out of the mirages on the highway. We decided to stop and have lunch, seeing as how the next town was 168 miles away. More on Tonopah in a different post; our journey would land us back here nearly two weeks later.
photo by Mrs. Geotripper
We started making progress in the afternoon, but one more major distraction presented it self a few miles past Warm Springs (a ghost settlement). It was the Lunar Crater Volcanic Field (which I mentioned in a post a few weeks ago). The region was rocked by violent caldera eruptions around 25 million years ago which produced widespread rhyolite tuff deposits. Starting about 4 million years ago, and most recently only about 20,000 years ago, basalt magmas reached the surface, producing around 95 cinder cones and numerous lava flows.

The most striking volcanic feature in the field is Lunar Crater itself, which is not actually a volcano. It is a maar, a huge pit produced when magma approached the surface and encountered groundwater, which flashed to steam and exploded. The crater is 430 feet deep and 3,800 feet in diameter.
The crater is 7 miles south of Highway 6 on a gravel road (which was very well graded when we were there). It has been designated a National Natural Landmark and a Bureau of Land Management Backcountry Byway. The wind...the wind was practically hurricane force up on the rim (I admit to exaggeration, but not by much).
Another distinctive cone in the volcanic field is Easy Chair Crater, a cinder cone with a very unusual crater. It turns out that the cinder cone erupted first, and a maar explosion followed, producing the off-centered pit.
 This is really lonely country. We did not see a single other visitor while we were there.
The youngest cone in the field is Black Rock Crater, which lies just north of Highway 6. Having erupted only about 20,000 years ago, the lava flow looks exceedingly fresh.
The highway crosses a quarry that exposes some marvelous layers of cinders. Some of them contain large crystals of olivine and other mantle minerals that were carried up through the crust as xenoliths.
I picked the wrong angle to see what kind of coin I used for scale. It's a quarter. The fragments are used in road foundations and railroad beds. They are also used in gardening stone, but I bet few of these have been put to such use, seeing as how the nearest garden is many miles away!
Late in the afternoon, we arrived in Ely, Nevada, a relative metropolis in this empty countryside, with a population of around 4,300. We set up camp in an unexpectedly nice KOA campground with a view of the surrounding mountains (they are not always known for nice tent sites in my experience).
 The nearly full moon rose over the Schell Creek Range. It was a spectacular sight!
Our goal for the next day was to check out the mountain that should have been Nevada's high point, and to finish our journey across the Basin and Range Province. It will be in the next post...
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