Hike Nevada's Sagebrush Oasis

Hiding in the arid plains of Nevada you'll find a cool refuge from the desert heat and room to let your imagination soar.
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Hiding in the arid plains of Nevada you'll find a cool refuge from the desert heat and room to let your imagination soar.

From a narrow slot in the ridgetop, I can see the emerald oasis of Overland Lake shimmering in its steep-sided bowl far below. To the north, shattered ridgelines swoop between polished granite cirques. The view is like a calendar scene from Switzerland, only the arid plains encircling the distant horizon remind me that this is the heart of the Great Basin Desert.

These are the Ruby Mountains, an 11,000-foot range that juts like a skyscraping mirage from the sagebrush flats of Nevada. The Rubies were named by early miners who misidentified the area's reddish garnets, but for all the beauty of those rocks, it's the glaciated alpine landscape that's the true gem here.

Jen and I are 3 days into the Ruby Crest Trail, a 43-mile trek along the gabled ridge of this craggy range. We've hiked through meadows smeared purple with bluebells and lupine, seen bighorn sheep and mountain goats peer down on us from the heights, jumped across crystal-clear streams, and skirted lakes so blue they seemed like mirrors into heaven.

Our trailhead was Lamoille Canyon, the Rubies' major gateway, so we encountered plenty of anglers and horseback riders in the first few miles. Central Nevada is also Sagebrush Rebellion country, a land where cowboys rule and backpackers are cultural curiosities. We caught a few searching looks, but for the most part, even grizzled cowpokes nodded a hospitable "howdy" from atop their quarter horses, with wrinkled eyes that looked right through us and smiles that belied the six guns on their hips.

Trail traffic vanished once we crossed 10,450-foot Liberty Pass and hiked beyond Liberty Lake. Standing atop Liberty Pass, looking southward at the endless stony overlap of ridge and valley, you know you're at a jumping-off point. When you step forward, committing to parts rarely traveled, the decision feels like the separation stage of a rocket. Your excess payload-the workaday stress that fueled your first miles-drops away like an empty booster, and you surge out of civilization's orbit, entering the 90,000-acre Ruby Mountain Wilderness.

Aside from wildlife, scenery, big solitude, and cowboy culture, the Rubies also offer plenty of wind. These mountains rend the sky, cutting into the jet stream like a stone arrowhead. We tasted the full force of the wind yesterday, as we climbed over Wines Peak on the airy, waterless stretch to Overland Lake. All day long, gales thundered in our ears and fluttered our windshirts to a high-pitched hum, but the payoff was spectacular, with views from California to Utah.

The rough-legged hawks loved the bluster. They were everywhere, big as eagles, surfing motionless above the summits and spiraling into talus-brushing dives. Marching tortoiselike beneath my pack, I wished I were a hawk, but was equally glad I wasn't born a jackrabbit.

It was a long day of ups and downs, so today is for rest and wandering unladen. We spotted bighorn sheep here yesterday, on the ridges above Overland Lake. Sure enough, their scraped-out daybeds are everywhere. We sneak quietly through the timberline groves, but our quarry has moved on, following the faint game trails that twist through the high outcrops of King Peak.

Now evening, we enjoy an early dinner made tastier by the day's exercise. By 7, my spouse is snoring like a drunken sailor, so I wander the shoreline of Overland Lake as sunset plays on the cliffs above. Beneath gnarled pines, I discover a granite promontory that tapers to a flat bench, just above water level.

I lean back and kick my feet up on nature's own lounge chair. The drifting clouds above turn slowly from fiery orange to leaden gray. The lake water sloshes rhythmically at my feet, letting my imagination wash likewise to dreams of adventurers who plied these mountains before us.

In my mind's eye, I look down to see Shoshone hunting bighorn, the Donner Party's ill-fated wagon train struggling across the distant salt flats, miners panning gold in the icy streams, and John C. Fremont's 1844 expedition scouting passes to the north and south.

Since their early prominence among explorers and pioneers, the Rubies have virtually disappeared from the radar screen. Tucked between the wastelands of Utah's Bonneville salt flats and the endless valleys of the Great Basin, this rugged range remains largely unknown to hikers.

My thighs throb pleasantly, reminding me of yesterday's efforts and whetting my appetite for the journey ahead. The Ruby Crest Trail will lead us on a twisting traverse around Tipton Peak, before descending the drier, gentler limestone country of the Rubies' southern flanks to Harrison Pass. These mountains are an oasis of wildlife, scenery, and history, one I'll leave regretfully. But soon it will be dark, and Nevada's Ruby Mountains will again become the kingdom of granite, stars, and wind.

Expedition Planner

RUBY MOUNTAINS, NV

Getting there: Elko lies 230 miles from Salt Lake City, 295 miles from Reno, and 486 miles from Las Vegas. To reach Lamoille Canyon trailhead from Elko, take NV 227 south to County Road 660 (Lamoille Canyon Road) and drive 12 miles to Road's End. To reach Harrison Pass, go 5 miles east of downtown Elko, then turn south on NV 228, which leads to Harrison Pass.

Route: The Ruby Crest Trail (FT 043) runs from Lamoille Canyon to graveled NV 228 at Harrison Pass. Best campsites are at Castle Lake, the north fork of Overland Creek, Overland Lake, McCutcheon Creek, and springs 1.5 miles south of McCutcheon Creek. In dry months, water is unavailable for 13 miles between North Furlong Lake and the north fork of Overland Creek. The southern 6 miles to Harrison Pass are also dry.

Echo Canyon provides access to Ruby Dome, the range's highest peak at 11,387 feet. The Soldier Basin (031) and Soldier-Griswold Trails (032) begin 20 miles north of the town of Lamoille, climbing 5 miles to lakes in Soldier Basin and beyond. Other useful trunk trails ascend North Furlong Canyon (045), Long Canyon (046), and Overland Canyon (047).

Guides: A waterproof Ruby Mountain Wilderness topo ($7)

is available from the Forest Service (see Contact below). Hiking Nevada, by Bruce Grubbs (Falcon Press, 888-249-7586; $14.95).

Contact: Humboldt-Toiyabee National Forest, (775) 738-5171; www.fs.fed.us/htnf. Ruby Mountains Ranger District, (800) 764-3359; www.fs.fed.us/htnf/rmwelcome.htm.Order maps and pamphlets in advance if arriving on the weekend.