Imagine, if you will, an alien terrain. Towers piercing the endless blue sky. Sharp ridges cutting into the horizon, and stubby tombstones erupting from the soil.
What world is this? A world where Captain Kirk finds god. A planet where those damn dirty apes rule the land. A place where kids can jump over holes as they run away from the villains and find some sploosh for dinner. A place where Wil Robinson is alerted of danger while lost in space.
These are the Trona Pinnacles, and they are a pretty popular location for Hollywood. The pinnacles have been seen in Star Trek, Planet of the Apes, Holes, Lost in Space and more.
These otherworldly pinnacles are located just a stone’s throw from Death Valley National Park. The pinnacles are made up of over 500 spires; some as tall as 140 feet. The pinnacles rise from the dried bed of the Searles Dry Lake basin. They vary in size and shape from short and wide to tall and thin. The spires are made primarily of calcium carbonate, and they were formed in Searles lake back when it was an actual lake – between 10,000 to 100,000 years ago.
Searles Lake Dry basin contains samples of at least half of all natural elements known to man….which creates a lovely smell to experience. If you visit, it is probably not your dogs or your spouse pulling their own finger.
The Trona Pinnacles are located on Bureau of Land Management land, and you are able to camp right up against them. There is no charge to visit or camp at the pinnacles, just don’t forget to bring your Febreze.
Back in the second half of the 1800’s people were finding silver in all the nooks and crannies of Nevada, which caused mining towns to erupt from the desert landscape. People moved in from all over to stake their claims of the not-quite-gold riches that Nevada had to offer. In 1873 the federal government demonetized silver, creating the gold standard in the United States. After that all of those booming mining towns began to dry up and blow away. And that is how the state of Nevada now has more ghost towns than populated towns.
One of those ghost towns is Hamilton, Nevada. In 1867 silver was discovered on Treasure Hill, which is an area located above what would become the town of Hamilton. Treasure Hill contained a lot of silver and a lot of caves. Treasure Hill became known as Cave City because most miners opted to live in the caves due to the lack of building materials in the area. Once the word got out about the lodes of silver that the cave dwellers were finding, then more people moved into the area and the need for an established town became evident.
The town of Hamilton quickly grew into a desert metropolis. By 1869 the population was over 20,000. Hamilton had banks, schools, a skate rink, dance halls, two newspapers, breweries, an opera house, a soda factory, and many churches to attend to ask for forgiveness for attending any one of the over 100 saloons within the city.
By 1870 the silver mines were picked pretty clean, so some residents relocated to the nearby town of Ely. When the demonetization of silver happened in 1873, the population dwindled to just 4000.
Later in 1873 a shop owner attempted to burn down his own shop to collect insurance money, but the fire took half of the town with it. Population shrunk to a mere 500. 10 years later the remaining residents had to vacate Hamilton as another fire claimed all the wooden buildings that were left.
Camping inside the Sheldon National Wildlife Refuge
Virgin Valley Campground is a free campground in the middle of Sheldon National Wildlife Refuge in northern Nevada. The campground is first come, first-served, and you can stay up to 14 days. There are about a dozen spaces to set up camp in, and most have a picnic table and a fire pit. Pets are welcome, and much to my delight, there is also a Little Free Library on site!
But the real gem here? The geothermal warm springs that have been piped into a pool in the campground. There is also an open bathhouse with hot showers. There are no hookups, but potable water is available.
Virgin Valley is a great base camp for exploring some of the 900 square miles of wildlife habitat inside the Sheldon Wildlife Refuge. The refuge is home to a variety of birds, butterflies, snakes, lizards, rabbits, deer, wild horses, bighorn sheep and more.
Make sure to bring all your supplies with you, because there is not a whole lot of shopping nearby. About 30 miles east of the campground is the small Denio Junction, which has a bar, and a small convenience store/gas pump/bar/motel. Winnemucca is the closest town with grocery stores, and it is about 130 miles away.
We got plenty familiar with the drive to Winnemucca and back, due to a broken motorhome door. Then we bought the wrong shit to fix the door. We had to make the drive three times over three days for various annoying reasons. After all that quality time trying not to get irritated and bite each others’ heads off, we finally managed to get Matilda’s door back in shape.
After all the frickin’ door fun, we wanted to move down the road to find a new view out our newly fixed front door. We were looking for a little more seclusion and decided to try out off-grid camping along the Bog Hot Springs Road, which runs alongside the (aptly named) Bog Hot Springs. You can find Bog Hot Springs Road off of highway 140, about 10 miles west of Denio Junction.
Being under-educated on Hot Spring etiquette, I was only slightly alarmed by the old man baring his wrinkly, pale ass right in front of me. And by “only slightly alarmed,” I mean VERY red-faced. Apparently, clothing is optional. It seems to be a popular theory that soaking in the 111℉ geothermal hot springs while naked is good for your body…and the hot springs. The claim is that soap and detergents in your clothes are bad for the springs and the natural algae that only grow in them. It was a pretty steady flow of people coming and going. Some just stayed for a few hours, and some camped along the hot springs like we were. It did seem that most of the people we came across were polite and friendly…at least I think so. I avoided eye contact and admired the horizon quite often.
While we did not participate in the naked soaking, we did soak; shorts and tank tops are welcome too. The temperatures were in the 90’s during the day, so most soaking was early morning or in the evenings. It was relaxing…and, well…boggy. The floor of the hot springs is super thick, sandy mud that WILL squish between your toes (and probably other things).
When the time came to get back on the road, we headed down the familiar road to Winnemucca to restock Matilda, and wash all the mud from our clothes, dogs, car, motorhome, and selves.
But our drive to Winnemucca was interrupted by a flat tire on our tow car because we are disaster magnets. We managed to get the tire fixed quickly and headed south toward Austin, Nevada and Stokes Castle.