When traveling Nevada’s I-80 near Winnemucca and Lovelock, it’s damn near impossible to miss one massive, oddly shaped structure that will leave you scratching your head to say the very least. What is it, you ask? An enormous, handmade open-air gallery crafted over the course of many decades, Thunder Mountain Monument was made by the late Frank Van Zant (AKA Chief Rolling Mountain Thunder) and continues to wow anyone road tripping the Cowboy Corridor to this day.
The Story of Thunder Mountain, Nevada
Prior to making his way to Thunder Mountain, Nevada, Van Zant served in World War II and was even a police officer in California before landing a job with the United States Forest Service. As a free-spirited individual in every sense, Van Zant landed a dream job fit for the visionary he was destined to become when the Forest Service gave him the ultimate job pitch: in exchange for creating plat maps, Van Zant could keep any artifacts he found in the field.
Quickly accepting this unusual proposal, he and his young bride made their way across the Nevada desert. He knew the spot they’d settle down the second he saw it—but that’s because it’s as far as their truck carried them. After breaking down near Imlay, Nevada — almost dead center between Lovelock and Winnemucca — Van Zant ditched his Dutch name, drawing on his roots… after all, he considered himself a Creek Indian. From there on, his name was Rolling Mountain Thunder, but he was widely known as Chief Thunder. Around that same time, Chief Thunder reportedly began having a series of dreams and visions of a guide whom he would refer to as the Great Spirit throughout the remainder of his life.
Chief Thunder Mountain Art
Aside from aiming to honor American Indian heritage by living off the land to a large extent, he wanted to commemorate the region’s original inhabitants. Instead of building a conventional home, Chief Thunder turned to artifacts and other items he found in the Nevada desert—along with plenty of concrete—to create a monument of sorts, which he also used as his private residence for his growing family. He soon erected several unusual buildings made from materials he collected entirely from the roadside and nearby railroad tracks waysides — things like bottles, hubcaps, and guardrails. He plucked scrap metal from nearby dilapidated buildings, patched it all together with concrete, and called it a day.
The series of structures Chief Thunder created were dedicated to the Great Spirit, whom he claimed was keeping him there. Building and running Thunder Mountain was his destiny – that, and every time he tried to leave his new empire, something terrible happened.
Chief Thunder went on to have a series of wives, which ultimately made him a father of eight. He taught his children to live off the land and favored that approach to traditional schooling. However, when local schools caught wind that all of his children had never received a day of “proper” education, his latest then-wife took the children and moved away, ultimately abandoning Chief Thunder. He lived the rest of his days at Thunder Mountain alone until tragically taking his own life in 1989.
Visiting Thunder Mountain Park Today
When visiting Thunder Mountain Park today, visitors can expect to experience folk art of the most compelling variety. Thunder Mountain Monument resembles a creative garden with a sprinkle of theme park and backyard fort with fierce and unique concrete sculptures built by Chief Thunder. The drive to Thunder Mountain is simple. From Lovelock, travel east on I-80 and take exit 145 at Imlay and follow signs toward Thunder Mountain.
Chief Thunder’s oldest son, Dan Van Zant, lives in northern California but keeps close tabs on the eccentric art installation his father created. His childhood friend, Fred Lewis, lives on the grounds, keeping tabs on visitorship and the donation box posted at the entrance of Thunder Mountain. You can’t enter the main Thunder Mountain residence, but visitors can respectfully peruse the grounds and all the art that makes it come alive. Donations received go toward maintaining and improving these intriguing desert structures that have been quietly surviving the Nevada elements alongside the freeway for decades.
Thunder Mountain is open 24/7 from sunrise to sunset, but plan to stop during daylight hours as there is no lighting installed on the grounds, and the multitude of statues and irregular objects can create a dangerous situation to navigate at night.
Admission to Thunder Mountain Monument is free, though the site does depend on donations for preservation purposes. The suggested donation is $2.00 per group. Please be respectful of fences that denote parts of the monument that are intended to be appreciated with your eyes-only.