In the state with legalized gambling, you'd think some enterprising rest stop operator along I-80 would have used the sere topography in the northeast part of Nevada to separate tourists from their cash: "What'll you bet that those mountains you see up there contain wildflower meadows, wooded stream banks, and blue lakes?" From the parched lowlands, who'd believe it?
Believe it, because among the rugged, 11,000-foot peaks lies the East Humboldt Wilderness and 36,000 acres of alpine splendor. Now pay up.
The secret behind the wilderness's uncharacteristic flush is a winter weather pattern that smashes moist Pacific storms against the 5,000-foot wall of the Humboldt Range, extorting moisture otherwise bound for Utah's Wasatch Front. The result: The East Humboldt positively drips with streams, lakes, and springs that slake the thirst of hikers clear through the dry summer months.
Trails run headlong into that same granite wall, and no route crosses the crest of the range. Instead, trails dead-end where canyons meet head walls, and usually to dramatic effect. On the east side closest to Salt Lake City, the moderately graded, 5-mile Greys Lake Trail and 3-mile Winchell Lake Trail deliver hikers to subalpine lakes set in deep basins. Along both routes, wildflowers, streams, and wide-ranging views are abundant.
Any hike here is lorded over by the craggy East Humboldt Range. The high peaks scrape the perpetually blue summer sky and blaze with pink and orange tones at sunrise and sunset. From a lakeside camp nestled beneath limber pines, it's quite a sight.
Experienced backpackers might consider leaving the trails to wander across the easily negotiated terrain. Prime destinations include the rugged scramble to Hole in the Mountain Peak, for 100-mile vistas, and Smith Lake, a pristine tarn reached via an easy half-mile bushwhack from Greys Lake Trail. As they like to say in these parts, either one is a sure bet.
QUICK TAKE: East Humboldt Wilderness, NV
DRIVE TIME: The wilderness is 185 miles (23/4 hours) west of Salt Lake City, Utah, and 250 miles (4 hours) southeast of Boise, Idaho.
THE WAY: From Salt Lake City, follow I-80 west for 175 miles to the West Wells (exit 351). Turn east onto NV 231 and drive 11.5 miles to the trailhead at Angel Lake.
TRAILS: The wilderness contains 38 miles of maintained trail open to hikers and equestrians. On the west side of the range, trails into four parallel canyons called the Boulders make for picturesque streamside hikes, well suited for a pleasant 23-mile, three-day backpack loop.
ELEVATION: The East Humboldts top out at 11,306-foot Hole in the Mountain Peak. Trailheads begin above 6,000 feet.
CAN'T MISS: The serene shores of Smith Lake, and Third Boulder Canyon's luxuriant foliage and three pristine lakes.
CROWD CONTROL: Away from Angel Lake, backpackers have an ironclad guarantee of solitude, except during fall hunting season.
PIT STOP: Try the authentic Basque cooking at the rustic Star Hotel in downtown Elko.
WALK SOFTLY: Camp in established campsites wherever possible. Also, firewood is scarce, so use a campstove.
MAPS AND GUIDES: The following USGS 7.5-minute quads cover the area: Welcome (for Greys Lake), Humboldt Peak (for Winchell Lake), Secret Valley, and Tent Mountain (for the four Boulder Canyons). Maps are available for $6 each from Map Link, (800) 962-1394. Yours truly has penned Nevada Wilderness Areas & Great Basin National Park: A Hiking & Backpacking Guide (1997; Wilderness Press, Berkeley, CA; 800-443-7227; www.wildernesspress.com; $14.95).
MORE INFORMATION: Ruby Mountains Ranger District, Humboldt National Forest, 140 Pacific Ave., P.O. Box 246, Wells, NV 89835; (775) 752-3357.