Having been a resident of Hawthorne in an earlier life, I had a vague recollection of what was hidden in South Twin Canyon in the Toiyabe Range, and I liked what I remembered. So when three of us were looking for a different venue for a weekend backpacking trip, I described a long, narrow, and colorful canyon, deep enough to be shaded most of the day, with year-round water and lush greenery. Don and Chris, my two companions, quickly bought in.
The Toiyabe Range's Arc Dome Wilderness Area, as the expanse is now known, is a grand place. At 115,000 acres it is the largest wilderness area in Nevada, and its position along the crest of one of the state's longest and highest mountain ranges makes it a hiker's paradise. The 65-mile Toiyabe Crest Trail meanders along the crest of the wilderness, and it can be reached from most of the trailheads that surround the preserve.
Our intentions were much more modest. Given the South Twin's remote location--it would be mid-afternoon before we reached the trail--and given the uncertainties from my 25-year absence, we planned only to hike into the canyon until a good campsite presented itself.
We were all in good spirits as we pulled off Highway 376 about sixty-five miles north of Tonopah. We didn't get on the trail until three o'clock, switchbacking above the locked gate that marks the road-end. As we climbed, I tried to recall where the canyon widened enough for us to camp. I remembered that it was, unfortunately, quite a distance.
At the top we took in broad vistas of the Big Smoky Valley and the chocolate-colored eastern wall of the Toiyabes. Another mile took us to a saddle where the view by itself made the trip worthwhile. Looking down from our perch, we could see several miles into the canyon. Cottonwoods and aspens lined the river, with pinions and junipers standing higher and the summits of the Toiyabe Crest looming behind it all.
We descended into the canyon and quickly began to lose light. The passage seemed to get narrower. Don noted that he had rarely hiked a trail where even a minimalist camp seemed so out of the question. Two miles later the rocks widened some but not enough. The canyon's beauty partially soothed our anxiety about finding a camp. Even the half-light reflected from above accented the contrast between the lush greenery near the river and the sometimes hazelnut, sometimes khaki walls of the canyon.
After passing some old mining equipment, we arrived at a small, wooded clearing. The spot was away from the river but right on the edge of the trail. That didn't matter. We dropped our stuff and pitched our tents. Chris observed, "Now I know a little of what Moses felt like when he led his flock out of the desert." As luck would have it, we only saw one other person, a day-hiker, over the three August days we spent there, but had the trail been populated, our site would have been a nuisance.
In the morning we noticed a nice campsite on the river's south fork, which entered the canyon just above our camp. That site would have gotten us off the main trail and kept us from being an eyesore to fellow-explorers--if there had been any.
We followed the canyon until it eventually widened into a broad meadow. The terrain began to resemble the more conventional images of Nevada's high country: rounded mountains, a reddish tint above the tree line, and lower elevations adorned with pinion, juniper, and sage. We agreed, however, that the first three miles, down deep in the canyon, had been the best part of this trip.
As we walked out the next morning, I noted how unusual this place was. We were hiking through this cool, well-watered canyon, trees everywhere, all framed by these luscious marble walls in central Nevada in August. The lack of permits, fire restrictions, and crowds, together with some of the clearest air we had seen in years were just icing on the cake.
Making the Trip:
South Twin River Canyon is located in the Arc Dome Wilderness Area, 245 miles east of Reno and 262 north of Las Vegas. The trailhead is three miles west of State Route 376 between Austin and Tonopah. The turnoff is well marked between mile markers 59 and 60. The trails are clear and the junctions marked. The Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest has offices in Austin (775-482-6268, www.fs.fed.ushtnf). Be sure to obtain maps and information in advance.