Never in my life have I had opportunity to experience both naturally thriving cacti and mushrooms in the same place in backcountry wilderness. But, as a whole, that’s what Mount Jefferson and the Alta-Toquima Wilderness is: an area considered to be one of the most unusual environments in the United States. Almost smack-dab in the center of Nevada is this off the grid wilderness area, and is so enchanting that once you’re a few miles into the thick of it, you feel like you’ve teleported to the outback of northwestern Washington. This is so not your typical Nevada landscape, and it’s awesome.
I’m not going to try to sugarcoat this, but instead going to give it to you straight up: I attempted this grueling 12 mile hike one other instance…by myself…in a hailstorm… and thought I had the athleticism and resourcefulness to get it done. We all know how Into the Wild turned out, so word to the wise: this area is astonishingly beautiful, but no place to wander off alone. Its remoteness is a thing of beauty, but is nothing to meddle with.
Ok, so now that the disclaimer is out of the way, I was back at my second attempt and brought an ace comrade to boot. The Alta-Toquima Wilderness is central, but ruggedly remote. The trailhead is in the boondocks and unless you camp at the Pine Creek campsite at the mouth of the canyon, the journey to the trailhead alone eats up precious daylight. So, we set off for our grand adventure on a Friday night, car camped, and tackled the trailhead in the early morning hours as the sun was rising.
As the fourth tallest peak in the most mountainous state in the country, along with a personal vendetta to slay the top five, there wasn’t much holding me back. I was intimidated by this ultra-prominent summit, but had fire in my belly and buckled down for the 5,871 foot elevation gain I was about to be confronted with.
The beginning of the jaunt was surprising, right out of the gate. With a somewhat maintained path, we climbed out of the valley below and were soon immersed in thickly wooded aspens and pinyon pines. With about a dozen creeks to cross over, other hiking enthusiasts had created bridges with fallen trees or rocks as stepping stones. So far so good. My legs couldn’t carry me up the increasingly steep slope quickly enough; it was exciting and oddly intoxicating.
By the time we were about 4 miles in, my body found its rhythm. Just like a finely tuned auto chugging along, I was in the zone and making excellent time. That was until something major caught my attention: an apparent insignia carved into an aspen’s trunk: “James Adams, August 1939.” I’m a sucker for stuff like this, and good gravy, this certainly didn’t fall short. As I worked my way deeper into the heart of the canyon, the inscriptions increasingly became more and more prevalent, yet more mangled and archaic. I had finally encountered what I had so desperately been hoping to see: Basque arborglyphs! While many modern day carvings were present, it's undeniable Basque sheepherders left their mark in Jefferson’s spectacular multi-faceted history.
We took a brief, much needed carb-binging break in the heart of section at the Sawmill Camp. Just as the bridges had been placed over the creeks below, the Sawmill Camp was seemingly born with the same penchant. Although we were here for a short break, it appeared to be the epicenter of the carvings and was a perfect camp, complete with a fire pit, tree stump benches and level ground. If we weren’t bagging the summit in one day, this would’ve been the perfect locale for an overnight camp.
We pushed on, and found ourselves in the grit of the climb…it got tough, and fast. The trail had not been well-maintained to begin with, and was difficult to distinguish when the trail would fork, leading you to the three different peaks. We had our eye on the South Summit, the tallest of the three [Middle and North] at 11,946 feet, and after a backbreaking couple of miles, we had made it to the fork [props to the kind folks who built those trail ducks!] We were out of water, so it was a relief to discover a natural spring where we could filter enough and recharge a bit.
The worst of the climb was behind us and we diligently made our way up to the mesa. Assuming I had already seen the coolest thing on the hike [the Basque arborglyphs], I quickly stood corrected. As the highest known Indian village and hunting camp in North America, the mesa was bewitching and astoundingly humbling. Not many remnants were uncovered when this archaic site was re-discovered by western explorers, but some prehistoric hunting blinds miraculously still exist. Being up there was incredible; it had a sacred presence that was hard to ignore.
Although we were most definitely at our physical limit, the mesa was distinctively restorative and gave us that extra push to reach the summit. Here, any sign of a trail had vanished, and was an overwhelmingly rocky climb with massive amounts of shale. The final sprint for home was more of a crawl, a sad and pathetic scramble really. BUT, we made it, and that sweet, satisfying victory was ours. Popping open some victory refreshments, the view never looked so grand.