If you’re passing through the Lovelock area, definitely allot for some extra time to do the Lovelock Cave and Backcountry Byway tour. Considered by archaeologists to be one of the most important sites of North American archaeology, you’ve certainly got to get this on the docket.
While traveling to the famous Lovelock Cave, this well-maintained backcountry byway will take you through the California Trail, divvy up pristine examples of the agricultural economy thriving in the area today, give a glimpse of historic lands of the Northern Paiute and present countless wildlife viewing opportunities.
Long before the town of Lovelock, the construction of the highway and the railroad and early explorers and emigrants passed through the area, the Humboldt River dished up quite the lush oasis in the heart of this now arid landscape. In fact, the Humboldt River is one of the few traces of Glacial Lake Lahontan in the Humboldt Sink, which completely covered the entire basin in water about 22,000 years ago. As time passed, water levels receded, carving out little pockets like Lovelock Cave…a result of wave action. Prior to immigrants settling in the region, this area, known as the Humboldt Sink, was home to the Northern Paiute American Indians.
Fascinatingly, these prehistoric peoples used Lovelock Cave as a sacred place, storing thousands and thousands of ancient artifacts, with it’s heaviest use taking place between 2,000 B.C. and 1,000 A.D. After being rediscovered by guano miners [bat feces to be used as fertilizer] in 1911, the first archaeological dig was performed in 1912, lasting intermittently throughout the next 60 years. The reason? A whopping 10,000 ancient specimens of human skeletal remains and cultural artifacts were recovered. With such a massive recovery of ancient relics, it wasn't long before Lovelock Cave drew the attention of major historical organizations, including the Museum of the Museum of Anthropology, the Museum of American Indian, and the American Museum of Natural History, who each performed their own archaeological digs.
While the quantity of irreplaceable Paiute artifacts are too innumerable to list, the most significant antiquity recovered was a massive [and famous] amount of duck decoys. Eleven decoys were recovered, eight being totally complete and three unfinished. Of the completed cache, the decoys were made of bundled tule [a plant that grows near marshy wetlands, like the banks of the Humboldt River] covered in feathers and painted. The decoys are estimated to have been made circa 400 B.C.-100 A.D.
Interestingly, these tule duck decoys artifacts were essentially untouched for over 2000 years and are the oldest duck decoys of their kind found anywhere on Earth. Subsequently, the tule duck decoy was named as the official state artifact in 1995, and all 11 specimens are safely housed as part of a collection at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C.
Oral tradition among the Lovelock Paiute recounts a battle between their Paiute ancestors and the ‘red-headed giants,’ known as the Sai-i. The Sai’I lived on islands in Humboldt Lake [Glacial Lake Lahontan], kidnapped Paiute women and children and sometimes practiced cannibalism. According to the legend, the Paiute finally tired of the harassment by the Sai’I and attacked them. The Sai’I took refuge in Lovelock Cave where the Paiute defeated them by shooting flaming arrows and tossing burning sagebrush into the entrance of the cave. After this legendary battle, the Sai’i departed from the area, leaving the Paiute to live in peace.
As an amazing and unparalleled slice of American History, make time for this one, friends. A genuinely impressive and humble expedition in Nevada’s backcountry.
The byway begins at the Marzen House Museum in Lovelock, which is located on the southwest side of town just off I-80. From the Marzen House Museum, drive northeast through town to Main Street and turn right, drive two blocks and arrive at Armherst. After the park, the road becomes South Meridian or State Route 397. The first half of the 20-mile route passes through the picturesque agricultural valley, and crosses the Humboldt River. Here, the road converts to a well-maintained dirt road and the landscape becomes more primitive as it skirts you along the base of the West Humboldt Mountains and a section of the California National Historical Trail.
Visitors will be able to take advantage of several informational bulletins, marked trails to the cave, picnic tables, benches and restrooms. Please note that no drinking water is available, and please make sure your furry friends and leashed. The drive, an estimated 40 miles round trip, and visit to the site and nature trail will take visitors about 2 hours, start to finish.