Since Nevada Day, I’ve been writing about unique places in each county in Nevada that bring something you can’t find anywhere else.
This column is the last in that series. Since we’re at the end, it’s only fitting that we turn the lights off.
If you’re like most Nevadans, the night sky serves as a dark canvas upon which the lights of our cities are painted on to. By dint of human ingenuity and effort, the whole of the universe, save for the moon and perhaps a planet or two, is blotted out. Photons of light from millions of miles away are obscured from our vision by the lights of our neighbors, our cars, our casinos.
Though more than 94 percent of Nevadans live in an urban area, most of Nevada is not urban. Much of Nevada, in fact, is functionally uninhabited, or as close to it as anyone can find in the continental United States. Once you get away from either of Nevada’s metropolitan areas, the lights from human activity nearly disappear, leaving ample space for the infinite light of the cosmos to shine through.
Somewhat ironically, the furthest it’s possible to get from anyone in this state is in the state’s second-most populous county.
Washoe County: Massacre Rim Dark Sky Sanctuary
Despite being home to Nevada’s second largest metropolitan area and nearly half a million people, most of Washoe County is uniquely and inaccessibly remote.
Driving through the northernmost stretch of Washoe County requires driving on, at best, roads with “improved surfaces,” which are, at best, gravel roads. With the exception of County Route 447, which travels between Gerlach and Surprise Valley in California, all roads north of where the pavement ends on County Route 34 north of Gerlach are unpaved.
The primitive condition of the roads in northern Washoe County is a blessing and a curse.
The Massacre Rim Dark Sky Sanctuary, which is in northern Washoe County, benefits from its extreme remoteness from everyone and everything. Vya, the closest named hamlet, is a ghost town with little more than a ranch and a maintenance station left to its name. The closest towns, including Cedarville, have only a few hundred inhabitants. The nearest towns with at least 1,000 inhabitants are all more than 50 miles away. Reno is roughly 150 miles away.
Consequently, the night sky in the sanctuary is almost completely devoid of light pollution — the light human beings send into the night sky from our homes, our businesses and our vehicles. In its absence, it’s possible to see every pinpoint of the Milky Way and beyond that naturally reaches our night sky. The lack of improved roads, then, further guarantees that the sanctuary will continue to earn its designation as one of the world’s 18 Dark Sky Sanctuaries.
The catch is, if you want to directly experience that uniquely dark night sky, you’re going to need to exercise a bit more planning and forethought than you might ordinarily expend on, say, a family vacation to a national park.
At a bare minimum, you’re going to want to check the weather forecast in Surprise Valley and avoid the area if it’s going to rain or snow. If it’s going to rain, be advised that rain and desert dirt turn into sticky, impassable mud in surprisingly short order. If it’s going to snow, read about the adventures of the Stolpa family, who got stuck in the area for four days during a blizzard, then make better life choices than they made by avoiding the area until late spring.
You’re also going to want a spare tire in good condition and may want to bring a portable tire inflator as well. You also may want to consider installing a metal skid plate, which will help protect the undercarriage of your vehicle from damage from flying gravel. Metal skid plates are frequently available as purchasable accessories for passenger cars (lowriders apparently love them) as well as trucks and sport utility vehicles.
You’re also going to need to make a decision: Will you do some dispersed camping by pitching a tent directly on the desert? Or will you try to camp at a nearby campground? Either decision will require you to bring enough food and water to last at least the length of your trip.
Finally, you’re going to need to be prepared to hike. The county routes and campgrounds are near the sanctuary, not in it. If you want to actually enter the sanctuary itself, you’re going to need to be prepared to rough it a bit.
If all of this sounds too intimidating for personal comfort, don’t panic. You could camp at the nearby Sheldon National Wildlife Refuge instead, which is accessible via State Route 140.
Or you could keep reading.
White Pine County: Nevada Northern Railway
If you’re interested in experiencing a perfectly dark, star-filled sky, one devoid of as much light pollution as possible, doing so requires being far from light pollution — including the people that generate it. That means steering clear of paved roads, hotels, restaurants, running water, indoor bathrooms and all of the other trappings of civilization you might prefer to expect on any given day.
If you appreciate a bit more civilization, a bit more conviviality, a bit more society to your stargazing experience — or you just think trains and shop cats are neat — the Northern Nevada Railway may be more your speed.
The Northern Nevada Railway, like a lot of Nevada’s early railroads, was originally built to haul ore and passengers from the mines near Ely to the rest of the world more than a century ago. Unlike most of Nevada’s early railroads, however, the Northern Nevada Railway had plenty of life in it after the Great Depression and World War II. Consequently, when the Robinson mine near Ely finally ran out of steam in 1983 (the mine has since reopened), a rare opportunity presented itself.
Here was a legacy rail line with rolling stock that was still in operating condition, along with trained staff experienced in keeping it all running. Would there be enough support, both by the community and potential patrons, to convert it into an economically self-sufficient working museum?
With the benefit of four decades of hindsight, the answer is an obvious yes. The Nevada Northern Railway, along with its accompanying museum and visitors, very likely kept the doors open in Ely for a decade or two until the nearby mines reopened. Even now, it regularly brings visitors to a town that is only accessible by a long road trip.
Thankfully, unlike the roads to Massacre Rim, the roads to Ely and the Nevada Northern Railway are paved.
Also, unlike Massacre Rim, there’s quite a bit to do at the Nevada Northern Railway and its host city while the sun is up. That’s good since tickets for the Great Basin Star Train, in which passengers listen to “dark rangers” from nearby Great Basin National Park describe the stars twinkling over their heads while they ride a train at night, sell out almost instantly.
It’s also good because, as The Nevada Independent recently reported, there’s a strong chance that the relatively dark skies over Ely are likely to soon become less dark at night. If a proposed closed-loop pumped storage project begins construction, lighting from the project’s construction and operation will introduce a new and powerful source of light pollution into Ely. That light pollution may make it harder for the park rangers hosting the Nevada Northern Railway’s hottest ticket to show riders where our constellations are.
Fortunately, the Star Train isn’t the only train on the railway. Excursion trains run daily, plus the railroad hosts several themed trains that run seasonally or annually as appropriate. Additionally, for those who don’t want to ride a train or those who want to look at more of the surroundings after they ride one, walking tours of the museum, including the depot and rail yard, are available. Alternatively, those who want a deeper dive into the inner workings of a legacy railroad might find the museum’s hands-on history experiences a compellingly attractive option.
These operations, for the most part, shouldn’t be affected by the light from any new nearby construction projects.
That said, nobody likes losing their hottest ticket. The railroad and the nearby Great Basin National Park draw a lot of visitors who want to experience some of the darkest (if not necessarily the absolute darkest) skies Nevada has to offer. Losing those nighttime skies so scarce groundwater can be converted into hydroelectric power and evaporation is a tough sell for a community that kept itself alive on starry views when the nearby mines did what mines inevitably do — run out of economically recoverable ore and close down.
Will White Pine County host a new 1,000-megawatt clean-energy project in its future? Or will it continue to host some of the darkest skies in the continental United States, along with the thousands of astrotourists who drive for hours to see them?
Most importantly, if you’re driving in Nevada at night, remember to pull over, look up and enjoy the view. There’s no other view quite like it.
David Colborne ran for public office twice. He is now an IT manager, the father of two sons, and a weekly opinion columnist for The Nevada Independent. You can follow him on Mastodon @[email protected], on Bluesky @davidcolborne.bsky.social or email him at [email protected].