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Ruby Mountains: The Crowning Jewel

Scenic wilderness region called Nevada's Alps is known for sparkling lakes, uncrowded trails and year-round ice fields

September 22, 2002|DAN BLACKBURN

LAMOILLE, Nev. — The golden eagle that flew over our car, leading the way up the winding canyon road, may have been the first clue that we were entering a special place. Or perhaps it was the two fawns at dusk, still struggling to learn which way their shaky legs would take them. Maybe it was the early morning light that turned the Ruby Mountains to gold, hinting at the riches that miners here once hoped to find.

Beyond doubt, the Ruby Mountains, called Nevada's Alps, are touched with magic.

We followed in the footsteps and wagon wheel tracks of sheepherders and miners who, in very different ways, believed they had struck it rich when they discovered the glacial canyons and gem-like lakes of this scenic 60-mile-long mountain range.

In the early 1800s, soldiers and other explorers, stopping off on their way to California, panned the streams for gold. Instead of yellow flakes, they found red gemstones that they mistook for rubies, giving birth to the name Ruby Mountains. In fact, those stones turned out to be garnets--common and inexpensive. Still, the name stuck and the beauty of this remarkable range remains undimmed by the passage of time.

The Rubies are mighty, besides being beautiful, with 10 peaks of more than 10,000 feet in elevation. There are year-round snow fields and more than two dozen alpine lakes. Popular Lamoille Canyon is often compared to Yosemite because of its towering peaks and U-shaped valleys.

In late June, a friend and I joined another couple for five days of hiking and sightseeing in the Rubies, a scenic wilderness area that is a leisurely day-and-a-half drive northeast of Los Angeles. Gloria and I planned to meet Bob and Debbie at Thomas Canyon Campground, the only U.S. Forest Service campground in the area. Bob and I had backpacked and hiked in the region from time to time in the past, once getting trapped in a tent for a couple of days because of heavy snow. But this trip was designed to be leisure camping. Our campground had fresh water and a sparkling stream running through it. If we got tired of our own cooking, we could drive down the road to the ranching community of Lamoille for a night out on the town.

Visitors don't have to be campers to enjoy the Ruby Mountains. Accommodations can be found in Elko, Nev., about half an hour away, or in Lamoille. It is possible to fly from Los Angeles to Elko, the nearest town with an airport. Or to fly into Reno, about 300 miles away.

We decided to drive, catching Nevada Highway 93 outside Las Vegas. Called the Great Basin Scenic Highway, it winds through valleys, mountains and desert, some of which could pass for the sand-swept surface of Mars. Great Basin National Park is readily accessible from this road. The park contains Wheeler Peak, at 13,065 feet the second highest mountain in Nevada, and ancient bristlecone pine trees. There also are caves and hiking trails that have little foot traffic.

As we rolled along, we saw country roads, wildlife refuges, grazing antelope and stretches of highway with not another vehicle in sight. We stopped overnight at Ely, Nev., before pointing the car in the direction of the Rubies. At one point we approached an old railroad crossing and saw a sign near the roadside: "Town for Sale." Off to the right was a small country store and bar with a cluster of white buildings behind it and a few old cars and a truck in front.

Soon the Ruby Mountains loomed ahead. As they came into view, it appeared as though a chunk of the Sierra Nevada had been plucked from California and dropped into northeastern Nevada. The similarities between the two mountain chains are striking. Both are glacier-carved granite ranges dominated by snowcapped peaks, rushing streams and sparkling lakes populated by hungry trout. The highest summit in the Rubies is 11,387-foot Ruby Dome, short of the Sierra's 14,495-foot Mt. Whitney.

The Rubies tend to be greener and a bit wetter than much of the Sierra. As hikers, we appreciated a couple of other differences too. The trails are less dusty and less crowded. And there are no bears in the Ruby Mountains. It's believed that the last black bear was killed by a rancher in 1910. But mountain lions, mule deer, bobcats, bighorn sheep, mountain goats, Himalayan snow cocks, Hungarian partridges and other wildlife abound. Some people even claim to have seen a wolf or two.

We followed wildflower-lined Highway 229, which crossed Secret Pass, then dropped down to a dirt road with a sign pointing toward Lamoille. It is considered the back way in from Ely but is more scenic than the longer, all-highway route through Elko. We passed herds of cattle and clusters of horses grazing in the fields and soon spotted the picturesque town of Lamoille, with the steeple of Lamoille Presbyterian Church visible in the distance.

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