Laguna Seca Trip: Day 4 – Ruby to Lassen Volcanic Nat’l Park

Tuesday, July 12

When I awoke, I noticed that the neighboring SUV never got anything set up. All they had accomplished was to lay out a large tarp. They spent the night in the car. That made it easy for them to leave – they were gone before I even started packing up.

I was on the road by 7:45. The town of Lemoille butts up against the wilderness area. Before seeing it, I imagined more high desert. Instead, it’s more or less a bedroom community for Elko, houses on one acre lots. A much nicer place than I imagined.

After yesterday’s events, we can add a new rule to cross country drives: Rule #3: Never pass a gas station in Nevada without topping off. I don’t care if I just filled the tank two blocks back on the other side of town – stop again anyway. So I gassed up at the last gas station in Elko before getting on I-80. There was a group of motorcyclists at this station. One said his son-in-law in Denver just sold his silver Lotus. I asked what his name was but didn’t recognize it. I’m guessing he wasn’t a LoCo member.

Today is another massive drive day – 537 miles if I don’t make any more navigational errors. First is an eighteen mile blast west on I-80, to the junction with NV 278. I take this south to junction with US 50, which I’ll take more or less to Reno. After that, US 395 to Susanville, then a couple of CA state routes to Lassen.

This first section, I-80 and the first miles of NV 278, is fairly mountainous. I-80 navigates a bridge/tunnel complex here. These miles of I-80 are out of character for rest of the road, an interminable drive that makes I-80 through Nebraska look short in comparison. It’s apt that it happens here, so close to the Ruby Mountains, which is also out of character for Nevada.

There are a number of ranches along the northern miles of NV 278, but not much traffic. Eventually the road straightens and levels, quickly leaving the ranches behind. We’re headed south through one of the many north/south valleys. About ninety miles south of I-80 we get to US 50, America’s Loneliest Road. Ironically, it gets more traffic than the road I used to get here.

The junction with US 50 is a few miles west of Eureka. There’s a mine there called the Fad Shaft. This is the site of the second richest mine, behind the Comstock Lode. The Fad Shaft was started later, went down 2,465′ where it flooded. The Fad Shaft never produced any ore. Today the site is an operating heap mine. Gold bearing rock is crushed into pebbles and piled onto a thick plastic liner. Cyanide dissolves the microscopic gold which leaches into collection tanks.

It’s already clear that Rule #3 is a good policy. The last gas station I saw was the one I filled up at. That was a hundred miles ago. There have been no signs indicating how far to the next services, and no signs directing me to any services which might exist. I’m a few miles west of Eureka. I assume there’s a gas station there, but that assumption isn’t backed up by any signage.

US 50 cuts across these many north/south valleys one after another. This is the Basin and Range province of the Great Basin. The floor of each valley is a few feet lower than the previous. Eventually, we come to a pass between these valleys that is more like a true mountain pass. The economy of signs is evident here: at the foot of the pass, there’s a sign: Curves ahead, 30mph next three miles. This is repeated at the summit. In those three miles there might be three curves that slow, but you never know when they’ll appear.

At the summit I pass two bicyclists headed the other way. These guys are nuts. There’s nothing but nothing until Eureka. I assume they’re doing this for fun. I’m not sure how fun it sounds. They didn’t seem to be carrying much gear and no support vehicle was evident. I wouldn’t even want to cover this ground on a motorcycle.

Half way down the other side is the small town of Austin. A billboard fifty miles or so back says “What happens in Austin gets bragged about.” I apply Rule #3 here, but it’s too early to eat. At the gas station, I ask how far to the west before I get to a town with a restaurant. 112 miles. That town is Fallon.

Between Austin and Fallon, we continue to traverse the valleys. The plant life varies from valley to valley – generally the pale green sage dominates. Sometimes it’s dry yellow grass. In some places, the ridges look like a sort of biological Neapolitan ice cream: yellow layer on the bottom, green pine forest in the middle, pale grass on the tops.

Later on, the vegetation on the valley floors disappears entirely to be replaced with alkali flats or salt flats, not sure which. Nothing grows there, and there are some sort of mining operations in places, working the surface.

There are occasional rest stops, but in keeping with the signless theme of the state, they are unmarked. At 75 mph they’re hard to see, blink and you’re past. They’d be invisible in the dark. They’re just rest stops, no latrines, no water. A place to sleep if you can’t make it the 100 miles to the next motel.

This route is the old Pony Express route. How far can a horse run? That’s how close together the stations need to be – about ten miles apart. There’s no evidence of water anywhere, with the exception of one spring I saw several miles from the road (a clump of trees at a gash in the ridge.) One of the old Pony Express stations is called Sand Springs. My mental image was a spring that seeps sand rather than water. Turns out there’s a large dune there.

Just like Utah, Nevada is largely federal land. In Utah, it’s largely parks and wilderness. In Nevada, big chunks of it are military. A few miles before reaching Fallon I pass a sign: US Navy Centroid Facility. A two track dirt road on the right leads a short distance to a small structure surrounded by a chain link fence. A few minutes later I see signs on the left for B-17 Range, another US Navy property. Finally, a sign that ties it all together: US Naval Air Station Fallon. This is the TOPGUN school.

Fallon marks the return to civilization. There are cultivated fields here: corn, alfalfa, hay. You go through several miles of this before actually getting to town. I stopped here for lunch at Julio’s Mexican and Italian Restaurant. I found it a little odd to have chips and salsa placed at your table in an Italian restaurant.

From Fallon to Fernley much of US 50 is four lane divided highway, heavily traveled. I get back on I-80 for 33 miles, then take US 395 north out of Reno, again a four lane divided highway for quite a way. Eventually we arrive in California. All traffic is stopped for “inspection”. Most vehicles were just getting waved through, including me. Would they have confiscated my apples?

I gassed up in Susanville. I didn’t realize at the time, but this was the last time I’d have cell service for a couple days. This town is on the cusp between desert and mountain. Leaving town, the road rises immediately into fragrant pine forest. I pulled over here to finally take the top off the car.


First sight of Lassen Peak, 10,457′

Remembering the mosquitoes, I stopped at a small gas station/general store just outside the park to get some bug spray. There were a couple of guys there with backpacks. Perhaps hiking the PCT, I decide in retrospect. I should have asked them. This is another case of not doing my homework – I didn’t realize at the time that the PCT went through here, although it should have been obvious.

The park entrance was unmanned, and the visitor center was closed. A sign at the entrance announced that one of the trails I want to take, Bumpass Hell, is closed. Stopped for a wander through the Devastated Area. This is the path the eruption took back in 1915. This is what the area around Mt St Helens may look like in another 70 years or so. Lassen and Mt St Helens are the only two volcanoes in the 48 states to erupt in the 20th century.

I arrived at the campground, navigated to my spot, and got set up fairly quickly. The campground has bear boxes for every campsite. My site is right next to the bathrooms. Probably not the best choice, but so it goes. The place is pretty crowded – tents and RVs large and small. Being next to the bathrooms, lots of traffic passes by. Surprisingly, very few people approach me about the car.

I walked a lap of the campground to check it out. One site had two small tents and some hiking shirts laid out on the hood of an SUV. Two young guys were there. I asked them if they were local, or knew the area. We chatted for a few minutes. They’re disappointed that Bumpass Hell is closed and believe the boardwalk is being rebuilt. They recommended a substitute hike, King’s Creek Falls. The also said not to bother with Cold Boiling Lake.

For dinner tonight I tried the four cheese rice with the lemon pepper salmon. Not bad, but reinforces my thought that it’s not sufficient after a long day of hiking. I mixed up some trail mix for tomorrow. I don’t know exactly where I’ll go, but I should be able to hit a number of short hikes.

Didn’t listen to music tonight. Lots more activity in this campground than either of the other two. Ruby was very quiet. Here, many people sat around their little campfires talking. Many of the RV people retired indoors but there was still quite a bit of noise. Plus there’s the bathroom traffic.

The campground is in a forest of tall pine trees so the stargazing is not good. I found a place where I could see the moon, Jupiter, and Saturn all at the same time. That one spot was near the right rear tire of the car. By the time I retired, it had moved to a few feet left of the driver’s door. The other direction, I found a place where I could hang the big dipper from the top of a tall tree. I’m sure I looked odd, in gray sweats, gray hoodie, standing in the dark next to my car.