Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Buena Vista Valley Nevada - March 2015

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Before dawn Saturday morning the deep rumble of the approaching train moved me toward consciousness. The wailing horn blast set off bands of coyotes howling and that was it, it was time to get up. Overnight we had become accustomed to the more distant sounds of 18 tires at a time droning down Interstate 80 in western Nevada.  Camped in a low point along the Humboldt River, the morning low was 22°. The Lady likes me out of the way as she fusses, so I joined the awakening world outside. The killdeer started first. That got the crows going. The mallards did not want to be left out and added quacking to the building chorus. The flocks of blackbirds joined in; maybe they thought the robin section was too overpowering. A turkey walked out onto the pavement. Its plumage did resemble a conductor's outfit and he had a beard. This was a good way, a nice simple way to start the day. "Coffee's ready," the Lady announced as the camper door swung open, the fact verified by the strong scent of fresh brewed Peets. A cool Saturday morning, our weekend getaway starting in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by the sounds of "outside" -  this is heaven.

A subtitle for this adventure is "What you find in the middle of nowhere." Although, it is quite a disservice to describe Nevada as nowhere.

A year ago we took weekend trips to Nevada and explored the connecting valleys of Grass, Pleasant, and Dixie. This weekend we were poking around Buena Vista Valley to the west of Grass and Pleasant.

We entered the north end via SR 400. The Humboldt Range is to the west and its canyons hold the ruins of small mining settlements.

This was our first "what you find in the middle of nowhere" moment.

We had first visited Unionville back in 2003.

Mark Twain, in Roughing It, writes about his stay in Unionville. The Mark Twain Cabin is reverently marked...........................

........................but it doesn't quite match Twain's description. I expect it wouldn't matter much to Mark, and if the locals were stretching the truth a bit, I'd expect he would approve.

The town is confined to a narrow canyon.

There is a well cared for central park, which is pretty darn nice since the total population is noted as 20.

Our next "what you find...................................." was Giant Sequoia trees ringing the park, more than a bit out of place in this arid environment.

And what next? A covered bridge.

There are a few occupied homes and a Bed & Breakfast in a historic old hotel where Mark Twain took his evening meals.

Leaving Unionville, our explorations continued. Our next stop was Kyle Hot Springs on the east side of Buena Vista Valley, tucked up against the East Range.

This appeared to be a very old developed soaking pool. It is fed from a nearby open source and the water is very warm, too warm to soak. There was a clean, attractive, new pool below.

Unfortunately the water was cool, much too cool on this morning. This could be because of low volume of inflow - this water was pleasantly warm and would have been wonderful - or because of the cold overnight temperatures. It sure looked inviting and we were a bit disappointed, although the water had a strong smell of sulfur.

Since the canyon above was labeled on our topo "Hot Springs Canyon" we drove about three miles up the primitive road to its end at another spring.

The spring was cold but still had a strong smell of sulfur.

Now we are getting around to what we had really came out here to search for. Now if you think the Pony Express is cool, we think this mostly forgotten piece of history is equally exciting. I first became interested in the early Air Mail pilots when I found a 1921 newspaper article about a wreck just a few miles from our home.

This was the early years of aviation and these pilots were pioneers. The first scheduled Air Mail service began in 1918. The first Transcontinental Air Mail Route involving both day and night flying opened July 1, 1924.  To aid navigation across the vast unpopulated areas of the west lighted beacons were placed approximately every 10 miles and every 30 miles emergency landing fields were established.

Here's a map of the field and beacon sites between San Francisco, California and Elko, Nevada.

So if you were one of these early pilots flying across the "middle of nowhere" at night you were literally leapfrogging from one lighted beacon to the next. We were curious if any of this primitive navigation infrastructure still existed.

Our first stop was at the site of the Dago Pass Beacon. I don't believe this was a numbered beacon. It is a short ways up and to the east of what is now called McKinney Pass. A view of the top of the knoll.

All we found were pieces of corrugated metal with yellow paint.

From here we drove a 4x4 road up to a high point to the west. The 7.5 minute topo names the point "Pleasant Valley Beacon" and was the site of Beacon 30. This beacon used electric lights and about .25 miles below the peak (where we parked) is the small foundation for the generator shed. On the summit we found a simple wood foundation with anchor points. We also found remnants of old electric light bulbs.


We traveled east, down off of McKinney Pass to the southern end of Pleasant Valley. We left the graded dirt and drove north on a primitive two track. This was the first of three roads this weekend that earned the comment, "This road has deteriorated markedly." We were looking for a high point to the east of Polkinghorne Spring. We parked the truck.

Wow! It looked like this beacon tower was still standing! it was about a .75 mile climb up to the point.

The views were great. Here is a shot to the southeast and Pleasant Valley and Dixie Valley beyond.

Spring is coming and we were surprised by some tiny wild flowers.

Far from any improved road and, thankfully without vehicle access, this beacon is almost completely intact.

We found pieces of the lens from the acetylene lamp.

Inside the base were the gas connections.

Finding an intact beacon tower, we were now able to understand the remains left at the previous two beacon sites.

Here is the gas line working its way up to the lamp.

This is a remarkable historic site, out here "in the middle of nowhere."

We took our time in the late afternoon coming down from the point and we continued to enjoy the flowers.

On the peak at the site of Beacon 30, another couple followed us up. They were the only two people we saw out in the backcountry this weekend. The man worked at the large mine to the west in the Humboldt Range. They were also exploring and suggested we visit Ladd Canyon, down the west side of McKinney Pass. We headed over to see if we could find a nice campsite for the night.

"This road has deteriorated markedly." The Lady spotted us once as we straddled a deep washout in 4 low. But the terrain and weather were wonderful. It was a great place for settling up camp in the late afternoon.

This was another deliciously quiet night that brought deep and refreshing sleep. The full moon was still up in the west before dawn.

At this higher perch away from the valley bottom, the overnight low was only  34°. After breakfast we explored a short ways up Ladd Canyon. The couple had told us of an interesting miner's dugout. The Juniper berry crop is large this year.

Improvement in navigation came quickly in the early days of aviation. The Radio Range Stations were the first of the radio navigation aids and soon replaced the lighted beacons on the Transcontinental Airmail Route. 

From our overnight spot, way out across the southern end of Buena Vista Valley is the site of the Humboldt Radio Range Station.

I expect that few people passing by this foundation have any idea what this site was. All that remains is the foundation, electrical debris, and the four corners of the perimeter fence.

Our next stop was a few miles to the west to a high spot in the Buena Vista Hills. This was the site of Air Mail Beacon 28A.

This was a little more elaborate electric powered site

There were broken pieces of electric light bulbs and screw in fuses.

The arrow pointed directly at McKinney Pass (Dago Pass) and Beacon 30 (Pleasant Valley Beacon).

I should mention this about the road up to this site, "This road has deteriorated markedly."

It was time to head to the north and intersect with Interstate 80 outside of Lovelock. Just before the Interstate we got distracted by a most interesting dike.

We had one more airway beacon site to visit. The original transcontinental Air Mail Route followed the railroad and Humboldt River across Nevada. This was used for only one year until the infrastructure for the new route  was established from Battle Mountain to Fernley. This route was 150 miles shorter. This beacon is easy to find if you are traveling Interstate 80.  Take the Coal Canyon Road exit north of Lovelock. Go northwest, cross the railroad tracks, and turn northeast (right) onto the frontage road (Upper Valley Road). Travel about three miles. Where the road makes a 90° turn away from the Interstate, and before you cross the railroad tracks again, you will see the Airway Beacon site on your right.

If you are interested, here are websites with more information on the Airway Beacons.

I expect we will soon be out again to see "what you find in the middle of nowhere."


  1. Great to learn some local history I have 40 acres north of the slab you mention "few know what it was" well now I do. Thank you very much.

  2. Thank you for the nice comment. We are glad you enjoyed the history. There is so much to discover out in your area.

  3. On the east slope of the Humboldt Range, in the northern reaches of the range, is Santa Clara. A contemporary of Star City and Unionville. You have to hike the old stage road. Solitude, stone ruins, a couple of mines, an ore cart. On the topo map.

    I like the old airway beacons. A bit of history I knew nothing about.

    Great photos!