"I'm not going to give you a ticket, but let this be a warning to you. We'll give you 5mph but not 10," the sturdily built, crewcut Nevada Highway Patrolman said as he handed over my license. The trooper had pulled me over for going 80 in a 70 mph zone. When he asked me my occupation and destination, I said I intended to explore and photograph the Santa Rosa range for a magazine article. He said, "I'd sure hate to see you publicize the Santa Rosas. They're my favorite hunting location, and I wouldn't want to see them overcrowded."
The Santa Rosa Range is not Nevada's longest or highest, but it's among the prettiest. Extending south 50 miles from the Oregon border, the Santa Rosas lie on the east side of U.S. 95, the main route between Reno and Boise, but if my experience on a Friday and Saturday in late June is any indication, the area is not in danger of being overexposed.
I pulled into the town of Paradise Valley just after noon on Friday and stopped at the small USFS guard station which was located in an old house. The ranger gave me a cordial welcome, a 20-minute description of trail and road conditions, and several hiking recommendations. She further advised, "If you have the time and really want a good overview of the area, take the loop drive up and over Hinkey Summit and Windy Gap and reconnect with U.S. 95 just above Orovada. After securing a write-up of trails in the area, I left to do just that.
The hamlet of Paradise Valley is located in the center of a valley with the same name. Despite about 50 residents, it had a ghost town feel to it. Several abandoned stores stood nicely preserved among the few that were still open. Three miles north of town the pavement ended, as did its designation as State Route 290.
After crossing onto U.S. Forest Service land the road began switchingbacking up and out of the valley -- and then it switchbacked and switchbacked some more. I watched my altimeter register 100- to 200-foot increases with each turn. Because the scenery was spectacular, it was a challenge to drive and look at the same time. In fact, some of the drop-offs were steep enough to remove the inclination to do both. It wasn't easy to park, either, with my extended cab, full-sized truck on a one-lane road climbing the side of a mountain.
For the record, the town of Paradise Valley sits at 4,500 feet and the pass at 7,850 feet. I entered the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest at 5,200 feet and saw the first aspens in the drainages by 5,400 feet. At 6,000 feet the rock outcroppings were at my level as they marched towards the ridgeline. Then the flowers began. There were whole hillsides of yellow flowers known as mule ears. As I got higher, the yellow was accentuated on the sides of the road by white and purple lupine.
To the right of the flowers was a band of trees, mostly aspen, that snaked up a watercourse all the way to Hinkey Summit. At the summit, I pulled off the road again. I must have made 30 or more switchbacks during the 3,300-foot climb, although I was too busy to count them. The rocks that looked two-dimensional and flat-faced from below turned out to be three-dimensional shapes from above. Some were shaped like tear drops and others more like wisdom teeth. All in all it was a spellbinding scene, and would have been even without the flowers. Once over Hinkey Summit, the road dropped gently into a large meadow, passing small lush groves of aspen and expanses of purple sage. It felt as if I were dropping into a bowl, I could see higher ridges in every direction.
After a dozen miles of graceful scenery, I reached a saddle called Windy Gap. The views extended into Oregon and California. Below, the terrain looked harsher than any I had seen that day. In fact, it was reminiscent of the Scottish Highlands, grassy angular mountains, green in the shady spots and brown on the southern exposures, with few flowers.
I got out once again, and the wind nearly carried me off the mountain. That is, after it tried to tear the door off the truck. Windy Gap was well named. I hunkered down in the lee of the pickup and saw where the road dropped 3,000 feet to U.S. 95.
After a few minutes I was on it. The drive back on U.S. 95 was just as spectacular as the rest of the day. Even though the western escarpment of the Santa Rosas slopes more gradually than its eastern counterpart. Three peaks: Granite, Santa Rosa, and Paradise, all nudging 10,000 feet, dominated the skyline, illuminated in the warm, late-afternoon light.
Droving to Winnemucca as the landscape became more ordinary, I began to think about my earlier encounter with the patrolman. What a nice guy. I just hope I don't spoil his wilderness.
John Dalton is a Bay Area writer who often hikes in the Nevada outback.
To obtain maps for the Santa Rosa Range, visit the U.S. Forest Service's Santa Rosa Ranger District office, 1200 Winnemucca Boulevard East, Winnemucca, NV 89445. In Paradise Valley, the USFS Guard Station is open only when rangers are in town; generally they are in the field, says Jose Noriega of the Winnemucca office. Call 775-623-5025 or visit http://www.fs.fed.us/r4/htnf/.