Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Buffalo Valley Nevada & Beyond - May 2017 - Part One

please remember you can click on a photo to see a larger version

We have taught land navigation classes for over 25 years. Working through various federal and state agencies and other organizations we have taught school kids, women, hunters, back country travelers of all types, in addition to search and rescue professionals. Needless to say, we love maps. Maps are a wonderful window into the outdoors. They are essential for trip planning and keeping us found. They bring the landscape to life. They also speak of history with the names bestowed on terrain features. On our first backpack trip into Colorado's Flat Top Wilderness, several years ago, we did a wonderful cross country route that took us down into the Williams Fork. Curious about the name, I researched and I learned about the mountain man, Bill Williams, that the river was named for. Thusly, the USGS 7.5 quad had led me deep into the romance and lore of the wild West. The next drainage south drew me into a darker reality of our history with its name - Dead Mexican Gulch. The map held another tantalizing tidbit. High up in Dead Mexican Gulch was a tiny X with the word "Grave".

We did not have the time to dig into the mystery and visit the gulch on that trip, but it haunted me for years, that grave on the map in what had to be - the map told the story - a high beautiful glacial cirque with a mean, culturally degrading name.

Around a dozen years ago the Lady and I returned to the Flat Tops, just the two of us, and enjoyed another multi day backpack trip. We fly fished for large cutthroat trout in the Williams Fork and high alpine lakes. And, one day when the weather did not foretell deadly afternoon thunderstorms, we went high, crossed the exposed alpine tundra plateau that is the Flat Tops, and dropped down into Dead Mexican Gulch.

In no way do I, as the cowboys say, want to be "planted beneath a mound" when my time comes. I'd much prefer that my remains go to my friends the coyotes and ravens. That's the way I'd like return to Mother Earth. But, if a grave be my fate, there'd be no prettier place for eternal rest than this high cirque we dropped into - Dead Mexican Gulch.

In silence we came upon the grave, a large mound of carefully piled stones. At its head was a wooden cross with a carefully lettered sign. It read, "JOSE VELARDE Killed by Lightning SUMMER 1922."

I suspect Mr. Velarde was a sheep herder; maybe even Basque and not Mexican at all. It was obvious he had people who cared, evidenced by his beautiful grave up here so high and close to heaven. A man who was honored, in all probability a good and decent man, and certainly sad to be dismissed as just the Dead Mexican.

We paid our respects, descended the gulch, and returned to our campsite longing for this place to be renamed Velarde Gulch.

Why do I remember Jose Velarde in the introduction to this trip story? Because in the trip planning for our Memorial Day weekend adventure we encountered another disturbing - at least to us it rang out as disturbing - terrain feature name. Looking over the map, in the southwestern end of Nevada's Buffalo Valley, it stuck up out of the landscape like a sore thumb - Squaw Tit. 

It was Saturday of Memorial Day weekend and the start of the Lady's summer break from school. Oops, I've been writing that line too many times. Correction - the start of the Lady's retirement from teaching, thirty five wonderful years at the same middle school. We headed out into the center of Nevada to continue our search for U.S. Airmail airway beacons, hot springs, and all sorts of critters.

We retraced our entry into the series of Basin and Range valleys of our last trip into Jersey Valley.

We made a stop at the ruins of the old Jersey Valley Ranch.

The Lady climbed high with her see mores and spotted feral horses.

The original route of the transcontinental airway system across Nevada was along the transcontinental railroad tracks -Interstate 80 today. A short cut was quickly established that cut off over a hundred miles. It ran in a straighter line between Battle Mountain and Fernley. The system included an Intermediate Airfield approximately every 30 miles. The location of the Fernley Intermediate Field is being turned into an industrial park as the urban sprawl advances east from Sparks. The remains of the Humboldt Intermediate Field are in the south end of Buena Vista Valley. We visited that site in March of 2015.

We were looking for the remains of the Buffalo Valley Intermediate Field. The road in was in terrible shape. The Lady walked in as I worked the truck around the obstacles. The concrete arrow pointing the way east had been repainted by someone to its original yellow. The grounds are fairly well preserved with curbs and walkways still intact, including a large generator station.

Our next stop was the location of the next airway beacon to the east. We found an area to park the truck and started across the broad Buffalo Valley, a one way hike of 3.5 miles. What would we find?

This was an acetylene powered flashing light. Five hook ups remain inside along with records of when tanks were changed out.

We were thrilled to find another fairly intact beacon, saved because of its remote location.
We hiked back to our truck we had left at the sprawling Buffalo Valley Hot Springs. A young couple was exploring the area, the first evidence of other people we had seen all day. They continued on their way as we set up camp for the night.

Buffalo Valley is an incredible geologic feature that covers several acres. Many small springs pop up over the area. The water is very hot but not much volume in the individual springs. It is a gorgeous area.

This was an exquisite spot - quiet - accented by the  songs of red wing blackbirds, killdeer, and coyotes. This evening was about as good as it gets; absolutely wonderful.

We awoke Sunday morning to 38°, delightfully cool. The Lady snuggled against my back as we awoke. We discussed our plans for the day. The Lady said, "Maybe, if we have time after climbing Needle Peak, we can climb the Tit too!" This brought us back to Squaw Tit. Wow, talk about something that hits two nails with one blow - a demeaning term for a Native American female and a crude term for a woman's breast. It hardly slips off the tongue like the celebrated French word, Tetons. We talked about what we might change the name to. I suggested "Native American Breast", but that was just too bulky, clumsy, and obvious. With the feature such a perfectly symmetrical cone, we settled on calling it "Hollywood."

Sunrise was just after 5:30 am, so we were up and out and about nice and early.

I had information that an airway beacon once sat atop Needle Peak in the Tobin Range. We would climb the peak and see what, if anything remained. We drove back to the divide between Buffalo Valley and Jersey Valley and began our cross country trek from there.

Although not abundant, we did find a few beautiful wildflowers.

Note: I'd appreciate an ID of the second flower. It grows at elevation on barren rocky slopes in direct sunlight. It grows in small clusters.

edit: Thank you to Steve and Taku for pointing me to the Bitterroot.
Bitterroot east of Reno, NV

Even in the flat light of midday, the views were amazing as we climbed.

We reached the summit ridge and every respectable peak always has a false summit.

The beacon atop Needle Peak flashed out a code that identified the location and was electrically powered by a generator. It looks like it was possible the generator building sat beside the beacon. Ironically, the only remains of the beacon tower is the ladder. We did find heavy cable. 

Here is a video view.

On our descent from Needle Peak we saw one vehicle putting up dust on the Jersey Valley Road, the only sign of other people we had seen all day. We stopped on a bench and took in the view to the east across Buffalo Valley.

The round trip to the top of Needle Peak was a bit over 12 miles with almost 3000 feet of elevation gain, most of that in the last two miles to the summit. We arrived back at Jersey Summit at 4:15 pm and were surprised to see a truck approaching from the west, the second sign of other human life the entire day. We had our chairs out and were pulling off our boots as the truck stopped beside us.
"You guys okay?" the man asked as he leaned toward his open passenger window.
"Yes, we're fine," I answered. "Thanks so much for stopping and checking on us."
"What are you guys doing out here?" He looked puzzled. "You out just enjoying the weekend?"
"We climbed Needle Peak today!" the Lady smiled. "We're just getting back."
"From here? You went to the top from here?" he asked.
"Yes, it was a good day and a lot steeper than I thought it was going to be." the Lady continued.
"Do you two have any idea where you are?" He was a good guy and turned serious. "Tell me, where are you right now?" He wanted to check on us and I let the Lady take over.
"We are at the top of Jersey Valley," the Lady answered. "We are parked at Jersey Summit."
"Bingo! Jersey Summit!" he said with a smile and pointed at the Lady.
"Yes and we'll probably camp down near Buffalo Hot Springs tonight," she continued.
"What?" he asked. "Out there on the flats?"
"Yes," the Lady replied and then asked. "What are you doing out here? Do you work at the big mine out to the east? Are you a miner?"
"No," he answered. "I'm with the Buffalo Valley Ranch."
"Oh, then you have a great place to stay tucked up below Tobin." He was getting an idea the Lady knew her way around. "You could get to the top of Tobin from your place!"
"That would be very very steep." he answered. "You two have a great time. Take care."
He continued over into Buffalo Valley.

We considered finding a place for the night near "Hollywood" and another, unnamed on the map, less perky outcropping to the east that I called "The Cow Pie" because, well why do you think? The Lady quickly corrected me. "It's the Buffalo Chip!" The cheat grass was so awful we continued back to our wonderful spot near the hot springs.

Pronghorn were abundant with their new little ones as we drove in Buffalo Valley.

We settled in at our lonely camp and watched night, the stars, and the song of coyotes settle in all around us.

It was a wonderful first two days of our trip. But, we were only getting started. What was in store for us as we continued beyond Buffalo Valley?

Our adventure continues in Part Two. Please CLICK HERE


  1. Julie/Monte, the second wildflower looks like something in the bitterroot family.

    Wonderful TR and place to explore!

  2. Looks like a bitterroot but the tips of the petals don't look as pointed as a bitterroot. Any other photos?

  3. Loved the blog - thanks for sharing! I'd like to get to the top of Mt. Tobin one of these days, seems like a corner of Nevada not a lot of folks get to explore.