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Saturday, March 30, 2019

Garnets, Gold and Ghosts

Hi Blog!

We’ve learned that the Great Basin is much, much larger than just Great Basin National Park. The Great Basin is the largest watershed in North America. It spans nearly all of Nevada, parts of Oregon, California and Utah. It stretches all the way from the Sierra Nevada Mountains in California to the Wasatch Mountains east of Salt Lake City. Parallel mountain ranges run north to south with wide valleys in between. 

We are camped in Baker in the Snake Valley so we could be close to the Great Basin National Park. On Friday, March 29, 2019, we ventured further into the Great Basin.

Our adventures started with a drive West along Highway 50 toward Ely. We climbed up and over the Snake Range, traversed Spring Valley, climbed up and over the Schell Creek Range, traversed the Steptoe Valley and climbed into the Egan Range. Our destination: Garnet Hill, a BLM Recreation Area which allows rockhounding for garnets. 

The higher we drove the more we wondered whether our rockhounding would involve snow shoveling!

While there were still patches of snow on the ground, most of the rocky surfaces were snow free. Here we are at the trailhead ready to begin our search.

The area around Ely was home to a number of copper mining companies, including Kennecott, whose famous Alaskan mine is now a National Park. When the copper market crashed in the mid-70s, Kennecott shut down and it’s smelter was demolished. As the price of gold increased, the old copper tailings were processed to extract gold. With the increase in copper prices the mines were reopened, but the ore is now shipped to Seattle, where it is sent to Japan for smelting. Click the link to see our view of the copper mines from the top of Garnet Hill.

Garnets form in the small cavities in rhyolite rock. You can find the garnets either through careful rock breaking or searching the surface for the dark colored stones. The garnets can weather out of the rocks and wash downhill. We decided to follow several washes down from the summit to see what we could find. The further we got from the parking area, the easier it was to spot the rocks with garnets in them. Most of the rocks had small rice-sized stones. We cracked open several larger rocks to expose slightly larger stones. To save time, we collected several specimens to bring home to crack open. Here are the stone we set free today.

By the time we finished tromping, bending, lifting and cracking, we had built up a powerful hunger. With lunchtime approaching, we drove back into Ely to Nardi’s Home Style Restaurant.

After satisfying our hunger, we began our drive back to Baker. We passed several interesting places between Baker and Garnet Hill, which we left to visit on our way back. Our first stop:  the Ward Charcoal Ovens State Historic Park in Steptoe Valley.

These ovens were associated with the silver mining town of Ward, Nevada, which was established in 1876. The ovens were in operation from 1876 to 1879.

The beehive shaped ovens were built of quartz tuff by Italian masons who specialized in ovens. Once mining ended, the ovens were used as shelter travelers and had a reputation as a hideout for stagecoach bandits.

The ovens are over 30 feet high. It took six acres of trees to fill one oven with wood. Once lit, it took 12 days to burn the wood down into charcoal. The ovens are open to the public. We stepped inside to admire the stonework.

The charcoal ovens seem to mirror the lumpy humps of the Egan Mountains.

After finishing our walkabout among the ovens, we drove clear across the Steptoe Valley. The valley was named after Colonel Edward Steptoe, who explored the region in 1854.

It was then up and over the Schell Creek Range. Once we crossed Connors Pass, we descended back down into Spring Valley. Here we stopped to admire the Spring Valley Wind Farm. The 66 turbines cover an area of 77 acres.

Just beyond the wind farm, we came to the turn off for Osceola. The dirt road leads back into a valley and over to the Sacramento Pass Recreation Area. We awee hoping to drive up through the old ghost town and over the shoulder of the Snake Mountains to reach Highway 50.

Osceola, the most famous of the White Pine County gold producing districts, was probably the longest-lived placer camp in Nevada. One of the world's largest gold nuggets, said to weight 23 pounds, was found in this area. The gold-bearing quartz belt was 12 miles long by 7 miles wide. Placer gold was found in 1877 in a deep ravine. Miners first used the simple process of the common “49” rocker. Hydraulic monitors later were used to mine the gold from 10-foot to 200-foot thick gravel beds. In its heyday, Osceola had over 500 residents.

But, there were several fires in the late 1880s and the population was down to about 100 by 1900. A fire in the 1950s destroyed most of the remaining buildings. The camp produced nearly $5 million primarily in gold with some silver, lead and tungsten. Intermittent mining continues today. We stopped to look down into the large open pit. The mill building looks like it is still in use.

As we made our way around the open pit, we actually met the town's one resident. He keeps an ATV parked on the side of the road just in case some tourist gets past him and finds themselves stuck in the snow. We asked if we could make it over the pass. He told us the last time he checked the road was still covered with a seven foot high snow drift. Oh, well. Adventure happens when your plans go awry.

We finished our drive through town taking pictures of the old structures.

The shell of the general store is the only original structure still left standing. Well, sort of standing.

The mining claims in this area are still active, but most folks don't come up until after the snow melts. Heeding the advice of the local, we turned around as soon as we hit the snow covered road.

On the bright side, we got to go back down the way we came up. The views of Spring Valley are impressive. We passed the Swamp Cedar Natural Area. Carried by glaciers to the valley floor sometime in the last two and a half million years, the Swamp Cedars remember when woolly mammoths plodded through the Great Basin. The Swamp Cedars carry an aura of magic. In fact, they are not cedars at all. They are actually Rocky Mountain junipers and Rocky Mountain junipers always grow on dry, rocky mountain slopes or in somewhat shaded canyons. Always – except for these Swamp Cedars which have wet feet (thus the nickname, "swamp cedar"). Mysteriously, the Swamp Cedars grow in valley bottom woodlands that are flooded part of the year. Like us, they learned to adapt to their new environment.

Before long, we were up and over Sacramento Pass and on our way back to camp. Tomorrow, we hope to do less driving and more hiking. We are planning a snowshoe to Lexington Arch. Stay tuned.

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