By Charlie Johnston
Whatever your reason, backpacking holds a special place in the hearts of adventurers worldwide—and Nevada, with its 300-plus mountain ranges, millions of acres of rugged, untamed wilderness, and thousands of miles of trails, can provide a lifetime of exploration for the intrepid backpacker.
A Jewel of a Trek
The Ruby Crest National Recreation Trail follows the spine of one of Nevada’s most pristine, untouched locales; Elko County’s Ruby Mountains. The sole paved access point, the dramatic and picturesque Lamoille Canyon Road, sees its fair share of day-trippers and overnight visitors. But rugged terrain and lingering snow (many high lakes and the pass above Overland Lake remain frozen well into June or July) keep the furthest reaches of the range reserved for the hardy few that venture out on foot or horseback. The trail is often navigated from south to north, but I suggest the reverse. Starting in Lamoille Canyon ensures you’ll be fresh when the scenery is best.
From road’s end, the trail ascends past Dollar Lakes and Lamoille Lake—excellent places to camp if you get a late start—and through a series of switchbacks to 10,450-foot Liberty Pass. The descent from the pass leads to Liberty and Favre Lakes, where many people make first camp. If there is still daylight to burn and your legs are up to it, North Furlong Lake, another couple miles down trail, is also a fine place to camp. Alternatively, a short detour along Furlong Creek past waterfalls and beaver dams is a nice use of an afternoon.
Day two is the longest, so start early. The trail climbs Wines Peak—the highest point at 10,863 feet—and follows the crest proper most of the way to the next camp at Overland Lake. Stunning views belie the challenges of this section and its high altitude, lack of water, and potentially high winds. This section is also the place for a chance viewing of mountain goats; if you approach a herd quietly from downwind, it’s possible to get within 100 yards. Before reaching Overland Lake, the trail leaves the crest and traverses the steep eastern aspect of the range. There is a primitive cabin at the north end of the lake, but you’re better off tenting it (a tent is warmer, and some visitors apparently see the cabin as a place to leave their trash).
Day three starts with a calf-burning climb up the final high pass of the trail, which can remain snow-covered through summer. Get one last look at the high peaks of the Rubies to the north; from here south the scenery is more typical of Nevada. The trail drops quickly to the western aspect of the range and crosses the North, Middle, and South Forks of Smith Creek and traverses the western flanks of Green Mountain before reaching the Green Mountain Trailhead. Most backpackers opt to prearrange a ride back to Lamoille Canyon from here, but some continue south along four-wheel-drive tracks to Harrison Pass Road for a pick up.
A (Long) Weekend Walkabout
Lake Tahoe’s epic, 165-mile Tahoe Rim Trail hardly needs an introduction. It does, however, require a formidable chunk of time—even at breakneck pace, the circumambulation requires more than a week. The section between Tahoe Meadows and Kingsbury Grade provides a healthy helping in a more manageable three-day trek along the crest of the Carson Range. Unlike the entire rim, which is usually traveled clockwise, it makes little difference which direction you choose to hike. From the south, take State Route 207 west of Daggett Pass and turn onto North Benjamin Drive. Follow until it turns into Andria Drive and continue to the Kingsbury Grade North trailhead just past the end of the pavement.
The trail travels north through old-growth forests and around South Camp Peak before descending to Spooner Summit at U.S. Highway 50. The sections above treeline offer stunning views of the lake and California’s Desolation Wilderness to the southwest. After your tricky crossing of U.S. 50 (traffic regularly exceeds 60 mph, and backpacks are notorious for slowing down their carriers), fill your water containers at Spooner Lake before starting your search for a suitable camping site. As camping is not allowed at the lake, you will have to continue down trail a few miles.
Day two presents hikers with a couple options: continue along the TRT, or drop down to Marlette Lake for a brief, scenic detour. Not choosing the latter is a mistake—the views alone at the pristine, miniature Lake Tahoe are worth the added distance. Fill your water bottles, resist the urge to camp at Marlette (it’s not permitted), and regain the TRT via the North Canyon Hobart (dirt) Road on the lake’s eastern edge. From the confluence of the dirt road and the trail, Marlette Peak Campground is less than a half-mile. Restrooms and bottled water (sometimes) provided by the Tahoe Rim Trail Association are your rewards for two days of strenuous backpacking.
Day three starts with choosing between the slightly longer option of crossing Marlette Peak on the west for great views of Lakes Marlette and Tahoe or sticking to the normal route for equally stellar views of Washoe Valley. The short side trip to Herlan Peak provides more views of Marlette and Tahoe, and there is a slim chance you’ll find water at Twin Lakes before July. By this point you will have noticed the added trail traffic in the form of mountain bikers on even-numbered days. Though standard trail etiquette dictates that bikers yield to hikers, it’s easiest to step aside and let them pass—having the right of way doesn’t keep you from being injured in the event of a collision. The trail more or less stays near the crest, with views alternating between Washoe Valley to the east and the Tahoe Basin to the West, until the descent into Tahoe Meadows.
A Grueling Epic
While the well-traveled trails of the Ruby Mountains and Lake Tahoe are appropriate for intermediate backpackers, central Nevada’s Toiyabe Crest National Recreation Trail is for advanced backpackers only. The overgrown, often nonexistent trail is impossible to keep in parts, and long dry sections require careful water budgeting. Don’t expect much company (aside from free-ranging cattle), and be prepared to fend for yourself in the event of an emergency.
From Kingston, off State Route 376, continue west up Kingston Canyon to the trailhead just beyond Groves Lake. The trail climbs steeply through abundant wild flowers for nearly 3,000 vertical feet before leveling out along the crest. A good map is paramount, as some sections seem devoid of anything even resembling a trail. When in doubt, remember that this part of the route follows the western aspect of the range, usually about 1,000 feet below the crest. The upper drainage of Washington Creek or San Juan Creek are good places to find water, but finding a flat spot to pitch a tent is difficult.
On day two the trail traverses the western slope of Toiyabe Range Peak and descends into the Tierney and Marysville Creek drainages. This area provides a number of flat camping options that are close to water, but be very selective—cattle have fouled many of the more accessible streams and meadows.
Day three regains the crest south of French Peak and continues along the highest section of the trail past Ophir Summit (the first realistic place to exit the trail if you desire) and into the Arc Dome Wilderness. Most people choose to descend to Columbine Campground for the night as the lower altitude encourages more restful sleep.
The fourth day starts with the option to summit Arc Dome (Nye County’s highest point), continue south along Big Sawmill Creek to the Reese River, or return to civilization (if you’ve prearranged for a pick up at Columbine). If you opt for the summit, leave your backpack at the base of the mountain—even without a pack, the three-hour side trip is very strenuous. After Arc Dome, continue along the Reese River, circling Arc Dome to the south. Be prepared for thick brush and practically nonexistent trails—the scenery is amazing, and the wilderness is pristine and remote, but the going is arduous and at times very unpleasant. Make camp along the upper Reese River.
On your fifth and final day, ascend the small pass between the Reese and South Twin Rivers. The deep canyons, towering crags, and winding rivers and streams on the eastern slope of Arc Dome are arguably the highlights of the Toiyabe Crest Trail. It’s a good idea to leave your boots on for the water crossings in this section to avoid injury on the slick rocks. The trail along the South Twin is easy to follow and gradually widens as you approach the trailhead.