by Lisa Wolf
On the Nevada/Idaho border, just shy of Utah, lies a mountain range some people liken to the Alps of Europe. It used to be that no one much knew about it. Hidden by vast miles of sagebrush, the pile of ten-thousand-foot peaks doesn’t beckon from any major highway. The people of Boise, the nearest really big city, tend to go north into the famous Sawtooth Mountains or the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness for their wilderness activities. Likewise, the people of Reno have the country around Lake Tahoe and the granitics of the northern Sierras to wander in.
This is at least partly because the Jarbidge Wilderness is not easy to get to. Only one tiny town, Jarbidge, sits close to the Wilderness. Located on the west side of the Jarbidge Mountains, this old mining town is 104 road miles north of Elko, Nevada and 93 miles southwest of Twin Falls, Idaho.
My husband no longer enjoys backpacking and isn’t a fan of llamas, so our exploration of the Jarbidge was restricted to day hikes. Given that the Jarbidge Wilderness Area covers 111,087 acres, not including proposed additions, or considering that it is surrounded by seemingly endless square miles of public land, day hiking wasn’t going to get us very far. Still, with special use permits required only for groups of over 75 people and no permits needed for anything smaller, I was assured that the place was still untrammeled. My only concern was the much-touted statement about the Alps. Surely, that is a people magnet. Solitude was what I was after. I hoped the place wasn’t totally overrun.
The trip was poorly planned, which means we threw some stuff together and left. We decided to make our way in from the north and headed for Twin Falls. From there we would determine what trailhead option seemed most appealing.
We ended up at the dusty town of Jarbidge. Despite it being billed as possibly the most remote town in the lower 48 and miles from the nearest pavement, we found it impossibly crowded. That’s what living on the high sagebrush steppe of SE Oregon will do for you. The (very rustic) campgrounds were stuffed. The bar was busy. ATVs seemed to be everywhere. There must have been a hundred people tucked in, here and there.
South of town the sign reads “fifteen percent grade, not maintained in winter.” I briefely wondered if we would even make it to the top—I definitely wouldn’t want to take a load of llamas up or down that grade.
By sunset we were on Bear Creek Summit at about 8500 feet elevation and six road miles south of town. We found a little camp off a jeep trail seventy yards above the pass and settled in to watch the full moon rise over the Jarbidge’s very own Matterhorn.
The next day we moved on to Coon Creek Summit, about five miles further south. Once again, a little jeep road, originally created to access nearby mines, yielded a nice dispersed campsite. There were several more, all of them able to accommodate a horse trailer and all tucked out of sight of the main road. They were surrounded by vast fields of mule ears, lupine, and other beautiful flowering plants that increase in number with intense grazing, especially overgrazing by sheep. Very little grass was present in the mix, but there were penstemon, horse-mint, wild buckwheat, paintbrush, daisies of many species and much more. Butterflies were rampant. Through crystal clear air we could easily see mountain ranges a hundred miles away.
I sat in shock at all the greenery. The world I left at home was crisp with dust and heat. I couldn’t help but wonder what this place looked like before it was grazed to the point of complete vegetative overhaul. The density of lupine, possibly toxic to llamas, made me figure I would have to pack grass pellets if ever I brought my crew here.
To the west, open country constitutes the citizen-proposed Copper Mountain wilderness addition. To the east lies the heart of the Jarbidge Wilderness. As morning dawned, while dirt bikes roared west and ATVs raced north and south on forest road 062, we hiked east. With no plan exactly, we set out toward a nearby crag and just kept going. The old map showed no trails in the area, and with no contour lines, estimation of effort had to be made on a visual basis. The old “Hey, that looks interesting, let’s go over there” came into play often. So did elk trails. With part of my mind always occupied by llamas, I evaluated everything as if I were leading one. None of my herd would have any trouble with this country.
Over a hill or three and down a ridge or two, we found ourselves deep in the heart of the Pine Creek drainage when came the comment, “Um, this log has been sawed. There must be an official trail here.” It wasn’t on our maps, but sure enough, there were more cut logs. It was for real. We followed it down canyon a mile or two to make sure. Turns out it’s a nice trail that seems to be used only by the elk. Without them, it would likely disappear. It does fade away in the upper basin. The route shown for it on more recent maps I studied after returning home indicates it winds south and west out of the upper basin. We found no sign of it on the ground.
After exploring lovely meadows and aspen groves, we made our way out of the basin via one of the many bare rocky ridges surrounded by hoodoos, sand and pinnacles by following the elk. I didn’t see any sign of the cougar reputed to be common in the area, but surely with all these elk, the cats must be around. Camping in the lush meadows in Pine Creek’s headwaters might be risky for a tasty llama.
My first day in the Jarbidge had not been what I feared. We found no sign of human use at all. Cross-country travel was easy and the land lay wide open for exploration. Away from the roads, if you don’t mind sharing your space with elk, solitude is a given. Our hike included 3400 feet of elevation loss and gain with about eleven miles of distance. We started out at about 8500 feet at the pass, crossed a ridge about 900 feet higher and dropped a couple thousand feet into the Pine Creek basin. The giant peaks for which the area is famous—Jarbidge, Jumbo, the Matterhorn, Cougar, Mary’s, God’s Pocket—are all higher than 10,000 feet (with some closely approaching 11,000) and showed themselves as blips along a craggy ridge, very unlike the European Alps. What fascinated me was the robust cragginess of the lower ridges. The spines, spires, hoodoos and cliffs put me in a perpetual state of “wow.”
The next morning we were energized by the dawn roar of a dirt bike tearing it up fifty feet from our tent. I foreswore saying anything to my husband about the joys of backpacking or mentioning how handy llamas can be. He was irritated enough.
Because few campsites are available along forest road 062 as it skirts the wilderness, we decided to remain camped at Coon Creek Summit and drive back and forth to the Camp Draw trailhead some four miles south. On this day we headed down spur road 063, a rutted dirt two-track that drops to the trailhead on upper SeventySix Creek. Part way down, my husband elected to be prudent in the face of a seriously steep grade. We left the little car on a knoll and hiked the rest of the way in. As it turned out, except for being very steep in the one spot and just steep in a few others, the track was in good shape. At the bottom we found a trailhead parking area large enough to turn a trailer around in if no one else was there, one very well-used campsite, lots of ATV tracks and even a few footprints on the trail. The footprints lasted a quarter mile or so to where the trail began to make a serious climb. Beyond, the tread grew ever narrower with no sign of recent use other than animals. At the top of the climb, in a saddle at nearly 8400 feet, elk trails running lengthwise along the ridge were more heavily used than the pack trail they crossed.
We crossed the ridge and dropped along Camp Draw to the West Marys River. The trail remained on the side of the sage-covered ridge above the creek. With no tree cover, we hoped to relieve soaring body temperatures by cooling off in the West Marys River. By the time we found a shaded nook under cottonwoods, the need was critical. Six inches of water in a “river” six feet wide can cool even the most miserable hiker if it’s cold enough and one sits and splashes long enough. We were refreshed in a remarkably short time.
Once again the question of “what now” had to be answered. Suspicious clouds, echoes of thunder and hints of lightening canceled any thought of climbing higher. The “Alps” were out. My husband considered. “Let’s go up the western-side stream, climb over the ridge dividing it from SeventySix Creek, and drop back down the valley where the trailhead is,” he said.
I considered. None of these places were named on my map. None of them had trails. All of them were lower than the main dividing ridges. At about six miles, the distance was short. There was water coming down the side stream. Like everyone else, I had hoped to see the high country out in the middle of things. But, like everywhere else, it is the unmentioned parts of the landscape that are actually the more interesting and my husband has an uncanny way of finding them.
The first part of the route was definitely interesting, as it was choked with brush and rubble, but eventually the bottom of the creek opened out into a little valley with very special features. It would spoil the fun if I mentioned exactly what we found, but it was well worth the effort to get there and made me far happier than summiting another peak. I was very glad we had no topo maps. I had no hint of what lay ahead other than what the landscape told me. I love exploring and the surprises we were finding in this country were magnificent.
The elk know a great place when they find one, too. We spent the rest of the day following their trails. Most of the time, they were of better quality than the pack trails and they led us to fascinating and beautiful places with numerous excellent campsites. Since a llama is much more agile than an elk, nothing we found would have been difficult for a PLTA Master Packer or other well-trained and experienced cross-country pack llama. Having to focus on the landscape rather than a map to navigate only added to the fun. Our expected cross-country travel turned out to be almost all on elk trails, which eventually led us back to the jeep track near the trailhead. We reached the track in an aspen grove. Fifty yards away, our car sat hidden on the little knoll.
Our statistics for the day revealed we had hiked eleven and a half miles. Our lowest point was 7630 feet and our highest point was at 9100 feet. Even at our highest point, we had remained in forest. This country is far enough south that reaching alpine conditions requires much higher elevations than at more northern latitudes.
The third and final morning, the dawn dirt bike once again did the trick. This time, my husband decided he’d had enough, so we packed up the tent and gear before driving toward the next trailhead south. Surely we could find a better campsite somewhere along the way.
The trailhead is listed on my 1984 brochure as SeventySix. About five miles south of Coon Creek Summit, a jeep track leaves forest road 062 to wind east. After a mile or more of climbing up and down ridges, it crosses the West Fork of Seventysix Creek and climbs a final ridge to reach the trailhead.
We left the car on a knoll a few hundred yards from road 062 and set off through the sagebrush. The track was originally created to access a couple of mining adits and has apparently not been improved. It is not something I would want to drive in any vehicle and it made me wonder how much of the track was actually passable. Our decision to hike rather than drive to the trailhead appeared to be sound.
The trailhead itself proved to be a wide, dry parking area big enough to hold a trailer. Year-old horse dung and hay piles indicated someone had driven to this point, probably the previous fall during hunting season when the area gets most of its use. There are no amenities at the site—no water or campsite, just dry gravel and dust.
Again, the trail was heavily used only by elk. We followed it east to a crossing of SeventySix Creek, then up over a pass at 7700 feet and down along the headwaters of Willow Creek. As we crossed a low ridge toward the eastern fork of Willow Creek, the trail became very faint. By the time we reached the eastern fork itself, it was nearly impossible to discern pack trail from animal trail. We were two and a half miles or less from the trailhead.
As we started to climb eastward toward the pass to Marys River, my husband suggested an alternative. “Why not,” he said, “climb up that little western tributary over there to the craggy ridgeline, then make our way along the ridge north and back to the pack trail at the saddle.”
Why not, indeed? The trail downstream along Willow Creek was not very clear and the trail over the eastern ridge was less so. There was hardly any shade available except for brush along Willow Creek and we were getting fried by the high-elevation sun. Judging from the perspiration dripping off the end of my nose, temperatures had reached three digits. My husband’s suggestion seemed just right. The subalpine fir grove in the high basin up that western tributary was sure to have some serious shade. All we had to do was get to it.
We hiked to the beginning of the drainage, but found no water in the creek and so moved on to the next one. It was also dry, so we backtracked up Willow Creek, located the last of the flow in it and filled our containers. This limited water supply surprised me. The Jarbidge is known for being wetter than most Nevada ranges. I had expected more, even in this drought year. It was hard to tell what a normal year would be like.
By now, having abandoned our original choice, we just headed for the nearest western drainage and started climbing. It didn’t lead to the fir forest. The elk trail we picked up led us over a pass and into a land of eroded granite-like stone-shaped bulbous piles of hoodoos, steps, cliffs, shelves, terraces and pinnacles. This was the headwaters of Dry Creek.
The creek itself lay far below in a broad valley dark with conifers. There would be shade there, but my husband’s foot had begun to hurt. He was now hot, tired and aching. We needed to make our way back using the easiest route possible. I figured that meant staying high.
Another elk trail led us around the head of the drainage to a northern saddle. Crossing it would drop us into the drainage we had originally chosen. Here I made a choice that any pack llama would have objected to, seeing as how they are much wiser than humans. I continued around the headwaters of Dry Creek to a pass on the main ridgeline, thinking this would give us a quicker and easier way forward. Boy, was I wrong.
I will always wish I had followed those elk to see how they navigated the mile and a half or more of continuous rock. I dream of going back and sorting it out. My husband has no such inclination. My chosen route involved clambering in and out of one hidden hoodoo bowl after another with no shade available other than the shadows of rock piles. The occasional hand-over-hand climbing meant this was not a route a llama could follow. Eventually, we untangled ourselves from the maze and dropped far enough downslope on the east side of the ridge to pick up an elk trail so well used it looked like a highway. It led us right back to the saddle on the pack trail.
Had my husband been feeling better, the route would have been fun; as it was, he kept his thoughts to himself. From his expression, it was clear they were not positive. We had covered twelve and a half sun-drenched miles. Our lowest elevation was 7000 feet while our highest climb took us to 7950 feet. It had been spectacularly beautiful and painfully hot and dry.
Our plan had been to spend the night and begin the day-long trip home the next morning. I was excited to see more of the northeast Nevada landscape. After all, my plans didn’t end with the Jarbidge. But when he reached the car, my husband announced we were going home now. He couldn’t explain why, but he was adamant. It was nearly sunset. What was he thinking? Maybe it was the heat. Maybe it was the sore foot. Maybe it was the heavy smoke beginning to obscure even the near views. Maybe it was the overly enthusiastic wife. He gave no reasonable explanation, but sometimes you have to trust these feelings.
Thinking a southern route would get us home more quickly, we started down the thirty-five or so miles of gravel road between us and pavement on the way to Elko. Driving these gravel highways at night, especially on a dark moonless night, is not something I would recommend. Cows loom up out of the blackness with no intention of getting out of the way. Road signs are missed, hard to read or absent. With no way to navigate based on landscape observation, it is difficult to tell where you are. Possible campsites are hidden in the gloom and travel speed can be much slower than the daytime’s thirty miles per hour.
During the night, as we traveled south, then west and north toward Oregon, the smoke became ever denser. Even in the dark, it obscured views and irritated our breathing. At gas stations, tired attendants spoke of wildfires to the south, west and north. At dawn, as we crossed the last pass between adventure and home, firefighters walked the roadside setting backfire in an attempt to stop a wildfire fast approaching from the north. The pass closed later in the day as fire swept over it.
That evening I learned that the day’s temperature hit 104 in the shade. My husband is a smart man.
Meanwhile, the Jarbidge waits, as it always has, for those with a sense of adventure and the willingness and skill to go exploring. In our three days there, we barely touched the place. Miles of trails shown on the maps get very little use. The solitude I treasure is easily found. Unlike the endless miles of surrounding desert, water is available. Craggy peaks and hidden wonders abound and there are no limitations on the cross-country wandering required to find them.