Kevin Standlee (kevin_standlee) wrote,
Kevin Standlee

Nevada Outback Trip, Part 2: The Road Much Less Traveled

When we left off our tale of a trip into the Nevada Outback, we had just come down from the Project Shoal site and initially planned to go straight home, but we changed our plans.

NV-839 at Shoal Road

If we had turned left (north) on NV-839 after coming out of the mountains, it would have taken us back to US-50 and we would have been back home in an hour.

NV-839 at Shoal Road

Instead, we turned south, initially planning on driving to where the paved road ends.

Mineral County Line

When we crossed the Mineral County line, the road marker for NV-839 planted an idea in our head. Note the mileage shown to the end of the state highway. I think that's actually the distance to the California state line over the road's original route as NV-31 (retired in a 1976 revamping of the state highway network).

End of the 839 Paved Road

Per this sign, NV-839 ends here, and the pavement certainly ends here. The road to the right has a warning sign of a gate ahead, and leads to Nevada Scheelite Mine, a tungsten mine. The dirt road to the left is shown on Google Maps variously as Ryan Canyon Road, NV-839 (even though it's not paved), and NV-31 (not always following the same route as NV-839).

Ryan Canyon Road

Despite the "minimally maintained road" warning sign (an indication that you proceed at your own risk), we decided to see where we could go. Just before we reached the end of the paved road, we passed an SUV driving north. That would be the last vehicle we met today for about the next two hours.

Ryan Canyon Road

The road was hard-packed dirt, and in reasonably good condition in most places. Indeed, there are unpaved roads in Fernley that are in much worse condition than this road.

Enter at Your Own Risk

Signs like this indicate that it's probably not a great idea to get too far off the road.

Ranch Sign

Road signs are few and far between. It was only due to my later checks on Google Maps that I found what the name of the road was. I'm glad I didn't try to follow Google Maps "live," even if I could have gotten sufficient signal (which I could at times) on my phone, because of places where the NV-839 and NV-31 routes diverged.

Nevada Outback

One could probably make it over the historical NV-31, the original route through here, in a vehicle suited for off-road travel, but there are places where the track seems to get lost in the desert.

Nevada Outback

I suspect that the road shown as NV-839 in Google Maps is a Nevada Department of Transportation aspiration, but at least it's a good-quality dirt road.

Campbell Geothermal Plant

Here's something we'd seen from afar when we first started down the road and saw a pair of dark, straight shapes across the valley. It's the The Don A. Campbell Geothermal plant, as seen with Lisa's telephoto lens. Based on what I found searching online, this plant generates somewhere around 20 MW, which is sold to the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power.

Here's a video that Lisa took over one stretch of the road (we've put the approximate location in the video's description). While there were a few rough patches, there were others where I could get up as fast as 40 MPH, although that felt like I was going twice that speed. Most of the time, the best I could manage was about 25 MPH.

Roadside Memorial

This sad little memorial shows how excessive speed can be deadly. We were not in a hurry, but I did want to get off this road and back to "civilization" before nightfall.

Ryan Canyon

About two hours after we left Shoal Road, we headed into Ryan Canyon and a fairly steep descent. I kept the van in 2nd gear and drifted down toward Hawthorne.


There's Hawthorne in the distance.

Hawthorne Army Depot

And here's part of the Hawthorne Army Depot, a weapons-storage site.

Walker Lake

That's a piece of Walker Lake from an angle I've never seen it before.

Thorne Crossing

At the foot of the canyon the pavement restarts at this railroad crossing, and according to Google Maps, the name changes to Thorne Road. Just after we crossed here, we met the first vehicle we'd seen (aside from a couple of trucks parked off the road) since just before we left the pavement about 35 mi / 55 km and two hours north of here.


To the south of the crossing is the small Thorne Yard and the end of the line. The railroad here (former Union Pacific, former Southern Pacific, former Carson & Colorado) once continued on to Mina (hence the remaining line is called the Mina Subdivision by the UP) with narrow-gauge lines that once snaked their way over the mountains into the Owens Valley and down as far as Keeler. The standard-gauge SP line connected to the Tonopah & Goldfield Railroad, which served both towns, and at Goldfield you could once make connections to Las Vegas. Yes, you once could ride the rails from Reno to Las Vegas via Tonopah.


Today, however, the US Government owns the line south of the Churchill Power Station, preserving rail access to the military base.

Rails Through Thorne

The "main line" track coming down from Hazen has seen recent traffic. This roll date of 1995 shows that the track isn't forgotten. I don't know how often a train comes down there, but we saw equipment parked in Thorne Yard that wasn't ancient.

We have read that the rails pulled up from the original transcontinental railroad line through Promontory Summit were re-laid inside the Hawthorne Army Depot to serve the weapons bunkers; however, we obviously can't independently verify this by going to look at rail roll dates inside the security perimeter!

Hawthorne Maintenance Cars

Given the unhappy looks of private security contractors we met on the public road, we were pushing our luck just looking at the equipment here.

Hawthorne Army Depot

It's hard to see what they are worrying about, though. Many of the buildings here are clearly no longer in use.

After making it to Hawthorne, we went down to the rest area at the north end of town, then turned back north, stopping briefly at Safeway (we had packed our masks just in case) to get something to eat and drink, then turned for home.

Here's our route as shown on Google Maps. I think it took us less time to get from Hawthorne to home as it had taken to get from Shoal Road (misleadingly marked as "Fallon" or "Churchill County School District" on this map) to Hawthorne.

We got home just after dark. I'm glad we made this trip, although I think I might have been happier if we'd done it the previous day so that I could sleep in the following morning instead of getting back to the Day Jobbe at 4:30 AM on Monday morning. Still, it was an interesting trip, especially if you like stark desert basin-and-range country. And aside from the little bit in Hawthorne, we didn't have to worry about social distancing.
Tags: desert, nevada, trains, travel

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