Nevada History
by John C. Evanoff

Visitreno.com is excited to present this series of articles by noted author and poet, John C. Evanoff. John will tell us about Nevada history and cover some of the more remote and unusual things to see and do in Northern Nevada.

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Smoke Creek Desert

Deep Hole and Sand Pass
February, 2007
By John Evanoff

Everyone knows a little something about the Black Rock Desert and its place in emigrant history as well as being the home of Burning Man in the present. What few people know is the more valuable find by William Nobles in 1852 of a direct route into Northern California south of the Applegate Oregon Trail through the Black Rock and traversing the Smoke Creek Desert’s northern hillsides. This trail enters the southern portion of the Honey Lake Valley and eventually moves past present day Susanville and then on to Redding and Shasta Mountain. The Nobles Trail left the Applegate trail and began at Deep Hole Springs northwest of Gerlach, moving past Wall Springs to Buffalo Creek and then on to Smoke Creek. The Smoke Creek Desert got its name from a small stream named Smoke Creek which runs into it from the southern Buffalo Hills. To find the original Noble Trail and the way into the Smoke Creek Desert, you can drive north from Highway 80 on NSR447 past Gerlach and then take the Smoke Creek Road turn heading west just a few hundred yards past Deep Hole. Deep Hole has the curious distinction of not having a deep hole compared with the many hot springs dotting the landscape east, west and north of the area. Camp Deep Hole was a stage station and Nevada Cavalry outpost in 1865. The stage station had a corral for dozens of horses and bedding for freight drivers moving goods to and from Northern California and the Honey Lake Valley to Paradise Valley and the gold and silver mines north of Winnemucca. The Cavalry post was manned by a small Troup devoted to keeping the Indians from stealing the horses, oxen and cattle of the emigrants passing through. It’s now of significance because it may become the site of a giant coal-fired power plant in the near future. The continued population growth in Northern Nevada has many environmental implications including the never ending search for electric power. More geothermal wells will undoubtedly be drilled along this stretch of desert because of its many sources of hot water and as technology gains ways to harness these renewable sources, there may not be a need for coal-fired power generation. You will undoubtedly hear more about this tiny spot on the map in the next couple of decades as energy sources dwindle and mankind’s desire for electricity intensifies.

If you have the time to visit the Smoke Creek Desert, do so over a period of several trips. The Smoke Creek was actually a lake much like Pyramid Lake once and of course before that was part of the ancient Lake Lahontan. The four-wheel drive roads that move up all the canyons off the main dirt road called Smoke Creek Road along the northwest side of the Smoke Creek Desert afford a chance for discovery and enjoyment of some of the more astonishing desert vistas in Northern Washoe County.

The Nobles Trail was heavily traveled by freight wagons and three major stage companies throughout the late 1800’s. Along the roadway, you’ll pass some of the stage stops that eventually became ranches. The Smoke Creek Ranch at the western part of the Smoke Creek Desert was one of the many larger stage stops along with the Bonham Ranch to the South. Travelers got out and stretched and horses were changed for the uphill ride through the Skedaddle Hills and down into Honey Lake Valley. The Smoke Creek Road eventually turns into the Gerlach Road moving west and then on to Highway 395 at Viewland. Some of the freight wagons and stages also moved south on the roads into Sand Pass and through what later became Flannigan, a small railroad town at the top of the southeastern most point of Honey Lake Valley. This road eventually turns into the Fort Sage Road as well as the Hagstaff Road and ends up at Doyle on Old Highway 395 in California.

All the creeks, the warm water springs and artesian wells flowing from the Buffalo Hills to the north and the Skedaddle Hills to the west make this region a natural for bird watchers and wild game photographers, but the sunrise and sunset vistas of the desert are by far the most breathtaking. The Basque used these canyons and hills extensively for herding sheep in the early 1900’s and if you come across some high piles of rock along your hikes, these mounds were left by the sheep herders many years ago as guide posts. A word of caution concerning the southwestern side of the Skedaddle Hills, this area is the old Sierra Army Munitions Depot and some security fences outline the region. The army exploded old munitions up to a few years ago almost every day and some bunkers of ordinance still remain in the Honey Lake Valley. You will be stopped by security if you illegally enter the fenced off area.

There is some speculation that besides Noble and a few other notable emigrant guides, the southern Smoke Creek Desert area was also crisscrossed by Kit Carson. Carson was often sent ahead of John C. Fremont’s main party to find Indian trails and a path south in the group’s first venture to map the western United States in 1844. A road paralleling the railroad tracks along the southern edge of the Smoke Creek Desert is a excellent four wheel drive trail for those who wish to explore the Terraced Hills north of Pyramid Lake and Emerson Pass where a few people believe Carson first saw the lake and then hurried back to catch Fremont heading south into the San Emidio Desert south of the Black Rock. He told Fremont of the lake and after Kit was sent up a hill that still bears his name on many maps, they changed direction heading over San Emidio Canyon and down Sweetwater Canyon to eventually peer at the amazing body of water he later named Pyramid. They camped by the large pyramid shaped rock at the lake’s eastern side and that reminded Fremont of the great pyramid at Giza in Egypt which he had visited years previously.

To the west, the Smoke Creek Road moves up a canyon and Smoke Creek Spring, an artesian spring running from a ground fault located west of a small reservoir near Twin Mountain. These hills are fun to hike from either side, but the eastern side along the Burro Mountain Road and its canyons are rock face and can be tougher to maneuver over. The Northern Paiute, the Klamath and the Shoshone Tribes walked trails throughout this region hunting mule deer. Occasionally, you’ll see a few of these large deer along with antelope, coyote, mustang, badger, skunk, sage grouse, quail, chucker and lots of jackrabbit.

Further south near Sand Pass is NSR 445 which goes west into Flannigan and south over Astor Pass into the northern bays of Pyramid Lake and then on to Sutcliffe and back to Reno. My choice is to move west through Flannigan and into the lower Honey Lake Valley. The northern side of Tule Peak, which rises 8,750 feet over the west side of Pyramid Lake, is majestic and makes for some great hiking. Another road from NSR 445 at Flannigan and at Astor Pass moving west is Fish Springs Road. This easy access dirt road rolls past a spring filled portion of hills and canyons north of Tule Peak. You may remember stories about the area in the late 1990’s concerning the Washoe County’s possible purchase of water rights in the area they wanted to eventually pump into Reno. Some of those purchases have been put on hold, but it would not surprise me that a county, state or federal agency ends up buying this ranch and surrounding hillsides to aid Reno in its never ending search for water sources.

As with any of your travels into the desert, be especially careful of the roads. Many are not much more than muddy or sandy paths and can cause you grief if you are not prepared with four wheel drive, shovels and plenty of water, food, emergency supplies, a good map and cell phone.

Next month I’ll take you to a valley north of Reno that’s easy to find and travel to in an afternoon. You’ll discover high desert valleys and mountains very few people including the people who now live there, have ever seen.


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