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On the hoodoo trail in remote but beautiful Jarbidge Canyon, Nev.

The bizarre pillars of rock are one reason to venture into the northeast Nevada wilderness area. Other draws: pristine air quality, birding and outdoor recreation.

June 17, 2012|By April Orcutt, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • Pillars of basalt and rhyolite, known as “fairy chimneys,” or hoodoos, line Jarbidge Canyon in northeast Nevada.
Pillars of basalt and rhyolite, known as “fairy chimneys,”… (April Orcut )

JARBIDGE, Nev. — To find Jarbidge — a town so isolated the federal government rates its air quality as some of the country's purest — my husband, Michael, and I spent hours covering 50 miles of a rock and dirt road, twisting and turning alongside rivers and through mountain passes. Of course, the drive would have been shorter if we hadn't stopped so often to take photographs.

I had heard that Jarbidge Canyon held bizarre pillars of rock known as hoodoos, and that the 113,167-acre Jarbidge Wilderness was beautiful but that neither the canyon nor the area's 10,000-feet-plus peaks were visible from major highways. You had to be motivated to experience them.

With 50 miles of maintained trails for hiking and horseback riding in the wilderness area, dirt roads in nearby Bureau of Land Management lands for mountain biking and two rivers for serious rafting, we were motivated.

So last July we drove on Interstate 80 from Northern California to Elko, Nev., and then north to Wild Horse Reservoir's campground, which has a tiny-but-fun museum with century-old household items donated by local ranchers.

The ranger at Wild Horse told us there were three routes to Jarbidge: a 265-mile drive around the Jarbidge Mountains, a 50-mile dirt road to the north or a 55-mile dirt road to the south. He looked at our low-clearance Volkswagen Eurovan and said, "You can probably make it. If you want to drive a loop, take the north road in." We turned at a row of abandoned mailboxes and headed north on Gold Creek Road.

Within a few miles we entered Meadow Creek canyon with twisted and stacked sienna- and rust-colored rocks contrasting with the bright greens of dogwood, chokecherry and currant bushes lining the stream bed. No hoodoos yet, but it was easy to see hints of shapes and faces in the uneven cliffs. At the 14-mile mark, we came to a stream that flowed for 100 yards down the rocks that made up the road. We crossed our fingers, but it wasn't too deep so our Eurovan easily made it. The road finally curved and rose up to volcanic tablelands, where we looked north into Idaho and south to get a good view of the 10-mile-long crest of the Jarbidge Mountains.

Following the ranger's directions, we briefly crossed into Idaho and dropped into Jarbidge Canyon. The hoodoos began to appear. Pillars of basalt and rhyolite lined the canyon, sturdier and less frilly-looking than those in Utah's Bryce Canyon National Park.

Shoshone Indians believed a giant monster called Tsawhawbitts lived in the canyon and abducted braves. One story says the tribe chased it into a cave and sealed it inside. Another says the warriors finally got fed up with the creature's attacks and moved away. Tsawhawbitts morphed into "Jahabich," which morphed into "Jarbidge."

"Jarbidge" itself is often corrupted into "Jarbridge" with two Rs. "If someone calls it 'Jarbridge' with the extra R," one local said, "you know they don't know much about the area."

Not many people know much about this area, but we'd come this far and weren't leaving until we knew it better.

Driving eight miles south, we reached the hamlet of Jarbidge, which stretches for a mile beside the river of the same name. At the American flag-flying Trading Post — the self-proclaimed "Best Little Storehouse in Jarbidge, Nevada" — owner Rey Nystrom sells supplies and displays items such as century-old mining-claim certificates.

In 1916, the funky jail next door held the perpetrator of America's last mail-stage robbery, a man who also was the first person to be convicted based on evidence from a bloody palm print. There's some Wild West history for you.

Nowadays, locals in all-terrain vehicles buzz down Main Street past the Jarbidge Community Hall, built in 1910 when the local gold rush was on and 1,500 people lived in the canyon. It now displays photos from those early years.

Signs on the door of the bright-yellow gift shop said, "Call Sue" with her phone number and "I'm over at the Outdoor Inn. Please come get me!" So I got Sue, who, like six of the seven locals I queried, is a retired Californian. The little gift shop, full of jewelry, hats, books and trinkets, seemed more important as a social center than as a business.

Krinn McCoy, an Idaho native who, with her husband, Chuck, owns the Tsawhawbitts Bed & Breakfast, told me her relatives had worked in the gold mines. She gave us a tour of her creek-side B&B, and I lost count of the number of rooms and their distinctive decorating themes. A gorgeous (but taxidermied) mountain lion stood in the living room.

The Outdoor Inn operates during the summer when 100 snowbirds return. Michael and I chatted with the bartender, who stood by the bar and back bar purchased in 1972 from the Golden Nugget in oh-

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