Crossing Nevada’s Wide Open Spaces
“There’s not a lot out here in Nevada.”
“Nope, there sure isn’t.”
That was our conversation driving from Lee Vining, California to Caliente, Nevada. That and will we have enough gas to make it, but I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s talk about the drive.
Driving Across Nevada
We got up early to leave Lee Vining for one main reason: to avoid the heat. The drive wasn’t too long, a bit more than 300 miles and about six hours or so towing the camper, but we wanted to avoid driving in the late afternoon. When we drove through the Mojave Desert on the way out, the truck did fine, even in 107 degrees, but I didn’t want to push it.
Actually, the drive kinda excited me. I’ve never been to Nevada before. It is easier for me to count states I haven’t been to and this knocks one of them off the list. I am now down to five states I haven’t been to!
About two hours into the drive, we reached the first major town, Tonopah. We made a point to use the good cell service around Tonopah to make our Father’s Day phone calls and then head on to the Extraterrestrial Highway.
I was talking to my dad when we passed the sign letting us know we had 150+ miles to the next gas. I checked our fuel consumption… We started with a full 36-gallon tank and used just less than 12 gallons. Bonnie asked if we needed to head back to get gas.
“Nah, we got this.”
As we turned on the Extraterrestrial Highway (Nevada 375), we passed yet another sign warning us it was 111 miles to the nearest gas. Again, checked the tank and numbers.
The Extraterrestrial Highway
The Extraterrestrial Highway is so named because it borders the US Air Force’s top secret test facility, Area 51, and is known for “alien activity.”
I can’t say we saw a lot of anything there. There are free range cows. Indeed, we saw several hanging out by the road.
We arrived in Rachel, Nevada, about halfway through our drive down the road. There is not much to Rachel, but compared to what we had seen up to this point, the town of 54 was a gleaming metropolis out in the desert.
The hub of Rachel is the Little A’Le’Inn, an extraterrestrial-themed bar right off the highway. The A’Le’Inn also has a small motel for those who want to stay to watch for nighttime Air Force flights, little gray men from outer space or drive out to see the Area 51 fence and get chased off by the Air Force.
We stopped to take a few pictures and then kept on driving.
Onward to Caliente
Leaving Rachel and its population that might include aliens behind, we headed west for Caliente. For those who don’t speak Spanish, the town’s name means “hot.” Yes, we spent two nights in “Hot,” Nevada in the summer. At least it wasn’t as hot as Las Vegas was at the same time (102 vs 113 degrees).
As we got closer to Caliente, I started to worry a little bit about the fuel. In terms of the truck, it was telling me I had a good extra 30 miles past our destination, but I was doing a bit of uphill and the temperature had climbed into the high 90s.
The problem with the F-150 is the fuel gauge is located on the back of the tank, so going uphill tends to give you a more optimistic fuel estimate. As I started downhill, I was quickly brought to a stark reality: We had very little fuel left.
When I bottomed out into the canyon surrounding Caliente, the miles to empty read around 12. I was concerned, to say the least.
As we made it to the one gas station in town, we had 6 miles to empty.
Pro tip: Top off your tank before leaving Tonopah if taking the Extraterrestrial Highway… even if you think you don’t need to!
There’s not too much to Caliente. The town has about 1,100 residents, a handful of restaurants, a pretty good grocery store, a Dollar General, a couple of auto parts stores, a couple of hotels and a really good RV park.
Located in a pretty canyon, the town is fairly green and was home to a train depot for the Union Pacific. It’s not a bad place to stop if you need supplies or rest heading to or from Great Basin National Park.
There are a few state parks in the area. We made a point to visit two: Cathedral Gorge State Park and Kershaw-Ryan State Park.
Cathedral Gorge State Park
Cathedral Gorge is a badlands area located about 15 miles north of Caliente. The park is not terribly large, but has some interesting terrain, a couple of hikes and a campground which has electric hookups.
Originally, we were planning on camping at the state park, but we never like camping at “first come, first serve” campgrounds unless we know we can be there early. Then we figured out the campground in Caliente was actually cheaper, had full hookups and WiFi. That made the choice easy.
We got out and hiked to the Miller Point Overlook. The overlook gave us a great overview of the gorge. The trail was only a mile long, but we wanted to avoid being out too much in the heat. For those who are less heat adverse (or visiting at a cooler time of year), there is four-mile loop which looked like a good hike as well.
Be sure to check out the “caves” as well. There are some areas in the gorge sides where there are almost caves because the folds in the rock are so thin.
Kershaw-Ryan State Park
Kershaw-Ryan State Park is located just a couple of miles outside Caliente and is a small lush valley framed by tall canyon walls.
The park has a small tent campground, as well as a couple of walking trails, gardens and a playground and wading pool for small children.
The canyon is certainly a stark contrast to Cathedral Gorge and is a relaxing spot with a lot of shade. We hiked most of the Canyon Overlook Trail (we took a wrong turn and ended up back at the parking lot) and enjoyed the hike.
Driving across Nevada was an experience and I wouldn’t trade it. There is a certain beauty in the desert and being in a place with very few people.
Indeed, there are a bit more than 3 million people living in Nevada, which is less than the 5.5 million in the greater metro Atlanta area. Furthermore, if you subtract the folks who live in Las Vegas and Reno, there are only about 270,000 people living in the rest of the state.
Being so far from civilization was a bit humbling. The extended gas tank on my truck almost couldn’t get us there.
Indeed, there is something truly romantic about being in a place where the tourism motto is “Don’t fence me in.”