The Rubies of the Silver State

It’s the Yosemite of Nevada. Lamoille (“luh-MOY-uhl”) Canyon in northeastern Nevada’s Ruby Mountains is a glacier-carved feature in the middle of an arid land. The Ruby Mountains themselves are a surprise, as they support aspens and mountain goats and other critters that one doesn’t expect to find in the desert. The many lakes in this area are also home to many kinds of trout. These creatures thrive here because the Rubies are among the highest and wettest of the Great Basin’s mountain ranges.

The best place to begin your visit to the Rubies is in Elko, Nevada, off Interstate 80. This is the seat of Elko County, one of the largest counties in the United States. The friendly people of the Elko Chamber of Commerce at 1405 Idaho Street can help you plan your visit and arm you with plenty of literature. You’ll also want to check on what events will be taking place in Elko. For instance, the town hosts the Cowboy Poetry Gathering in January, the Elko Western Festival Days and the Elko Mining Expo in June, and the National Basque Festival (the oldest and largest of the Basque celebrations in Nevada) in July. And in September the Elko County Fair and Livestock Show takes place, as well as the Man-Mule Race, a 20-mile jaunt from Lamoille to Elko.

To gain an even better understanding of the region, visit the nearby Northeastern Nevada Museum at 1515 Idaho Street in Elko. Perhaps one of the best local museums in Nevada, this facility exhibits local artifacts, slide shows, and traveling displays of the winners of an annual photo contest.

A third excellent “first place” to visit is the Humboldt National Forest office at 2035 Last Chance Road, in Elko. You can find out where to camp and picnic in the Humboldt National Forest, which encompasses the Ruby Mountains.

Once armed with knowledge, head west from the Elko Chamber of Commerce or the museum on Idaho Street until you reach 12th Street. Turn left and follow the signs for state routes 227 and 228. After proceeding 1.3 miles from the museum, turn left at the junction with the state routes onto State Route 227. After another 3.2 miles you’ll reach Elko Summit and can look ahead to your destination, the Rubies. Stay on Route 227 toward Lamoille; before reaching the town, turn right onto Lamoille Canyon Road, approximately 19 miles from Elko.

The Ruby Mountains, like other ranges in the Great Basin, are long and thin; they measure 100 miles long and a maximum of 10 miles wide. The Rubies are geologically complex, consisting of ancient metamorphic rocks such as gneiss (metamorphosed granite), slate (from metamorphosed shale), and quartzite (from sandstone), all found in the northern two-thirds. Mixed in with these major rock types is garnet, a semiprecious stone that is usually red. The garnet was mistaken for ruby by early settlers, and thus the range acquired its name. The southern third of the Rubies consists of limestone, which makes for a drier-looking landscape. Rain tends to soak through the limestone. The mountains also have a steep eastern face and a gentle western slope, which, from a mountain-range-type perspective, puts the Rubies in good company. Many of the Great Basin mountain ranges, as well as the Sierra and the Tetons, sport this profile. And as do the Sierras and Tetons, the Rubies offer ample evidence of being ground down by glaciers, especially in Lamoille Canyon.

Lamoille Canyon Road – the 13.5 mile drive from the junction of state routes 227 and 228 – takes you from the sagebrush plains at an elevation of 5,800 feet; enters the Forest Service Scenic Byway; and continues another 12 miles up along Forest Service Road 660 to the subalpine zone at the Roads End trailhead, situated at an elevation of 8,850 feet. As you drive to Lamoille Canyon, look for the four road signs that demarcate the forest’s self-guided natural history auto tour.

The Rubies were subjected to glacial carving during the Pleistocene Epoch between 10,000 and 3 million years ago. The glaciers in this range were some of the largest and deepest in the Great Basin, and were some of the few that actually reached the adjoining plains. The first indication of Lamoille Canyon’s glaciated past is its U-shape. As you continue up the canyon, you’ll also notice side canyons that hang high up on the walls. These hanging canyons are another glacial feature. The main glacier in a canyon carves downward faster than the smaller tributary glaciers, thereby leaving the canyons hanging after the glaciers recede.

Besides glacial evidence, Lamoille Canyon offers many recreational opportunities. Among them are camping, hiking, fishing, horseback riding, bicycling, snowmobiling, cross-country skiing, nature observation, and picnicking. The first picnic location you’ll come to is the small but attractive Powerhouse picnic area. A particularly good time to visit this spot is when the creek is full from springtime snowmelt. It offers five sites for families and one group site for 25 people, but no piped water.

If you’re traveling with motorhomers, your first opportunity to camp is where the Right Fork of Lamoille Canyon meets the main canyon – a campground managed by the Elko County Lions Club. Groups of at least 25 people are accepted here; the facility is not designed for single-family camping. To make reservations, contact Heidi Draper at (775) 934-2096. From the Right Fork, the Forest Service offers camping in dispersed primitive sites downstream of the Powerhouse Picnic Area. The canyon’s only developed campground is farther up at Thomas Canyon. It offers 42 sites with water and rest rooms. All of the sites are available on a first-come, first-served basis; however, 19 RV non-electric sites and 16 standard non-electric sites can be reserved online. (see resource box)

A highlight of your canyon tour along Lamoille Canyon Road comes next on the Lamoille Hanging Canyon Nature Trail. One of several hiking trails within the forest, this half-mile-long trail starts at the Avalanche Overlook and leads through aspens, whose yellows and oranges can be enjoyed during the fall. You’ll learn that the Ruby Mountains began as sediment in an ancient ocean that covered much of the West a half-billion years ago. Later, magma intruded into these sediments, leaving pockets of granite when the magma cooled. By the time the Rubies were uplifted 15 million years ago, these rocks had been metamorphosed into the gneiss, marble, and schist that we see today. The glacier that carved Lamoille was 700 feet thick at times, and exerted almost 40,000 pounds of pressure per square foot on the rock.

Combine that with the fact that the glacier flowed one to three feet per day, and you can imagine how much grinding the rocks were subjected to. The creek that flows through this canyon bottom now is home to beavers that feed on the inner bark of the aspens. The canyon bottom boasts the best soil in the area and has the most luxuriant plant and animal life. As you look up at the canyon slopes, you’ll notice that they’re much different from the bottomland. The north-facing slope lacks the good soil but is cooler and moister than the opposite canyon wall, so it supports aspens, limber pines, and other scrubby growth. The south-facing slope receives sunlight more directly year-round, and so it is hotter and drier. This type of climate supports sparse growth dominated by mountain mahogany, and limber pines at the highest elevations.

Another good place to enjoy aspens is the Terraces picnic area, situated approximately 1/2-mile farther up the canyon from the nature trail. This is the most complete picnic spot in the canyon, with piped water, toilets, tables, and grills. It also provides an aspen-framed view down into the canyon.

From there, the byway gradually curves southward, reaching its end at appropriately named Roads End trailhead. At this point, you’ll be in the subalpine zone at 8,850 feet above sea level. The two picnic sites here lack fire pits but otherwise can serve as a spot for a snack before heading off on the Ruby Crest National Recreation Trail. This 40-mile-long trail heads south to Harrison Pass and covers much of the 90,000-acre Ruby Mountains Wilderness Area.

This wilderness actually extends from near Secret Pass at the northern end of the Rubies and reaches almost as far south as Harrison Pass. It preserves the character of most of the higher elevations, including the largest area of alpine habitat in the Great Basin. The region’s flora has more in common with the alpine country of the Rockies or the Sierra than with other Great Basin ranges. In the 1960’s, mountain goats were introduced here, and beginning in 1989, Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep were reintroduced, thus giving the Rubies a faunal touch of the Rockies.

Roads End is a popular trailhead for hikers and backpackers who want to enjoy the highest elevations of the Rubies. Incidentally, the highest point in the range, Ruby Dome, at 11,387 feet, is not along the crest trail, but is actually situated just south of Lamoille Canyon. But the crest trail takes the adventurous near many peaks that are more than 11,000 feet tall. This trailhead is also popular with anglers who enjoy fishing in the many lakes of the wilderness. All of the trails are open from late June through September, depending on how long the snow lingers.

If you want to see one of those Ruby Mountain lakes, then head up the trail near where the loop at Roads End begins. Take the steep hike for a four- to six-hour round trip to Island Lake, which sits in a cirque at the 9,672-foot elevation. Brook trout lurk under the lake’s 7-1/2 acre surface.

Enjoy the different perspective you’ll get of the canyon on your drive back out. Once you’ve returned to State Route 227, turn right and proceed approximately 1/2-mile to the little ranching town of Lamoille. The town was named by Thomas H. Waterman, who, along with John P. Walker, first settled there in 1864. The area reminded Waterman of his home in Johnson, a town in Lamoille County, Vermont.

As you head back toward Elko on State Route 227, take State Route 228 toward Jiggs to continue your Ruby Range exploration. Three miles beyond Jiggs, turn left, or east, toward Harrison Pass. After 3.5 miles, the pavement ends, but the dirt road is well maintained. In another 1.2 miles, you’ll cross the Humboldt National Forest boundary. Then, in 6.3 miles, you’ll reach 7,248-foot Harrison Pass. Ruby Valley will be ahead. Go down the other side for 3.4 miles and turn right into Ruby Lake National Wildlife Refuge.

The refuge headquarters is 7.6 miles from the Harrison Pass Road junction. At this facility bird lists and other wildlife information are available, as well as information about fishing, camping, and boating.

Ruby Lake owes its existence to the Ruby Mountains in this southern third of the range. Remember, this section is mostly limestone, which absorbs rain and snow. Well, that water doesn’t just disappear. It emerges as springs at the base of the mountains and forms this lake. The national wildlife refuge was established around the lake in 1938 and is home to ducks, geese, wading birds, and shorebirds. It is also one of the few refuges that boast nesting sandhill cranes and trumpeter swans among their occupants.

The lake’s greatest attraction is that it harbors trout and bass. Anglers can be numerous on the water at times, but regulations keep fishing from getting out of hand. Nevada state fishing licenses are required, and season, boating, and bait regulations should be checked before you head out. Fishing for bass is most productive in the middle of summer, and fishing for trout peaks in June and in the fall.

The refuge offers its own 35-site campground south of the headquarters with no-hookup sites; a dump station is located nearby.

From this campground, you’ll have 60 miles to return to Elko over Harrison Pass. That will give you a chance to see much of the length of the Rubies on your way – a chance to reflect on what you’ve seen and learned about the Yosemite of Nevada.

The End