Gold Rush in the Carson Valley

Story by Liz Janson// Photos by Liz Janson
June 1 2014

Liz finds riding bliss high in the Sierra Nevada Mountains

High above Carson Valley, Nevada, a stone obelisk identifies the summit of Monitor Pass. Designs carved into aspens in the grove surrounding it tell the story of those who have come before, some more than a century earlier. Dismounting our bikes, we picked our way through the trees, musing at the stories they could tell if only they talked. Drawn to the area by Carson Tahoe Adventure Moto, I was exploring the mountain roads that surrounded the valley with J. Brandon, one of the event organizers.

Ebbetts Pass WaterfallCarson Valley has been attracting adventurers for centuries. Framed by the Carson Range of the Sierra Nevada and the Pine Nut Mountains, the broad, high-desert valley and alpine surroundings create a magnificent experience, producing an intricate mosaic from the natural beauty, rich history and diverse culture. The peaks surrounding the lake, some with an elevation of 3320 metres, cradle Lake Tahoe and shelter the valley. Nourished by the Carson River, the land appears unchanged from that seen by early settlers, drawn by the California Gold Rush of the 1840s. The rugged routes that pioneers and the Pony Express traversed over the Sierra passes more than 150 years ago now make fabulous motorcycle roads.

Long after the mountains have given up their ore, the area is now a mecca for motorcyclists seeking a sublime riding experience. Out of this environment grew the Carson Tahoe Adventure Moto, headquartered in Minden. I’d heard about this gathering when I was here the year before, and was captivated by the idea. Meeting up with other adventurers who love to ride, finding out the inside scoop on the best roads in the area, and getting out to enjoy the remote Sierras really appealed to me. I was already in love with the valley, and it became not only the focal point of a six-week journey – it was one of only two dates carved in stone.

As breathtakingly beautiful as nature is, it is also fierce and wild. Heavy smoke from a massive Northern California wildfire, which eventually charred over 257,000 acres, obscured much of the scenery during this visit. Although the fire was 160 kilometres away, high winds carried the smoke directly up into Lake Tahoe and Carson Valley. As disappointing as this was, it could not be compared to the sadness I felt knowing that the smoke represented the destruction of vibrant forests, wildlife and natural habitats.

The roads that lead to Carson Valley transport you through spectacular scenery, no matter where you originate. I’d just enjoyed a week on the Oregon coast, and my route brought me in through Reno and Carson City. I was eager to arrive, knowing that I’d be meeting up with old friends and making many more new ones.

Monitor Pass LizAfter an evening of catching up, storytelling and food, followed by a good night’s sleep, it was time to ride. The only problem was deciding which route to head out on. The good news is, you can’t go wrong. You’re guaranteed a fabulous ride, whether you prefer pavement or dirt. While most of my friends chose dirt, I opted for pavement, wanting to carve up the scenic, twisty and uncongested roads. Three High Sierra passes – Carson, Ebbets and Monitor – are within an hour’s ride of the Carson Valley. Three others, Sonora, Tioga and Donner, are all within two hours. I’m told you can cover five passes in one day if you ride hard, but I wanted to take my time, enjoy the scenery and understand some of the history, which is how I found myself in the aspens at Monitor Pass.

I don’t know which was greater, the adrenalin charge from the roads, or the euphoria sparked by the stark beauty. In any case, expect them both from the moment you set out until you return. Highway 88 (Carson Pass Hwy) took us south, crossing seamlessly into California before we took Hwy 89 east to the picturesque hideaway of Markleeville. You’ll find these friendly small towns tucked throughout the hills, remnants of the boom that the area enjoyed when silver was discovered in the 1860s. Aside from being delightful places to stop, cool off and meet other riders who are doing the same, a stroll along the street takes you back more than a hundred years. The Alpine County Historical Complex keeps the legacy alive with exhibits, displays and restored buildings.

Follow the road 10 kilometres west to Grover Hot Springs State Park for a dip in the warm, spring-fed pools. Or do as we did and let the twists and turns on Hwy 89 thrill you as you snake up the mountain. The summit is deceptively calm along a straight, flat stretch of road, so watch for the marker on the south side before the road begins its descent.

Carson Valley BikesSimilar in terrain to Europe’s Pyrenees Mountains, this rugged area helped Basque shepherds feel at home when they began arriving in the late nineteenth century, fleeing persecution in Spain. Accustomed to a hard, meagre existence, they took ranching and shepherding jobs, spending months alone in remote sheep camps. They passed the time creating carvings on the side of the aspen groves, which can be seen throughout these mountainous areas. Basque-owned boardinghouses, hotels and restaurants – offering dancing, singing and traditional games – soon sprang up to give these hardy souls a little slice of home.

In the absence of forest fires, the view during the winding descent is endless and awesome. Switchbacks relax into broad curves as the road dips back into the valley. The road ends where it meets Hwy 395, which takes you north and back to Minden. Topaz Lake, on the eastern side, is named for the deep, sparkling colour of its namesake gemstone. Continuing north, keep an eye out and stop at one of the existing Basque boardinghouses, which still provide traditional hearty meals and libation. The 115-kilometre loop is a fun and satisfying ride that can easily be completed in half a day, but take your time. There’s a lot to take in.

The next day, it was time to experience a different mountain pass.

California State Route 4 is one of the most beautiful roads over the Sierra Nevada, and a trip over Ebbetts Pass is epic. It’s also one of the least travelled of all the passes, not surprising given the tight turns, the melding of two lanes into one, and the disappearance of lines as you climb the mountain. Access from Minden is again south on Hwy 88, east on Hwy 89 until you get to the cut-off for Hwy 4 and Ebbetts Pass National Scenic Byway. Wild and intimate turns carry you through dramatic, high-country scenery, flanked in the distance by Lake Tahoe and Yosemite National Park.

This narrow ribbon of asphalt clings precariously to the mountain, overlooking deep river canyons and abutting immense rock walls exposed by glaciers that carved the area. Ancient volcanic peaks rise above dense forests. Waterfalls and swiftly flowing streams run beside you. Initially established using Native American trails to take goldrushers to the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada, the migration reversed and the road began transporting miners east when silver was discovered in 1861. Surrounded by national forests and wilderness areas, the region now booms with backcountry recreational opportunities.

Unfortunately, trying to pack too much riding into too little daylight meant that darkness loomed far too soon. With little room for error even in bright daylight, it’s definitely not somewhere you want to be after dark. That meant turning around and returning by the same route rather than continuing the loop, but with riding that fantastic, no one was complaining. For a change of pace, either to break up the adrenalin-fueled rides or just to bask in the area’s history, stop and explore the small towns throughout the area. Many sprang up during the migration of settlers to the west in the 1860s. Mules and horses had a daily range of 19 to 23 kilometres, and so these outposts were spaced out along what became known as the Overland Emigrant Trail, strategically located to provide food and shelter to animals and people.

Genoa was the first permanent settlement in Utah Territory, now Nevada. Mormon Colonel John Reese established it as a trading post on the overland trail, naming it Mormon Station. Settlers at the post traded produce, animals and supplies with travellers heading west. The Mormon Church, which still stands, was established during the early years, along with commercial, educational and political institutions. Ranching also flourished at this time. A 1910 fire ignited accidentally by a resident in the County Alms House (poor house) trying to get rid of bed bugs, destroyed most of the town. Many of the businesses then relocated to the neighbouring communities of Minden and Gardiner.

I found myself in Genoa when I took a wrong turn. It’s a historical treasure and worth a stop. The town square houses the Mormon Station State Historic Park, the Courthouse Museum of Genoa and the Genoa Bar and Saloon, the oldest bar in Nevada. My visit was capped off by dinner at David Walley’s Restaurant and Saloon. Had I arrived early enough, I could have indulged in the hot springs. As it was, the fine dinner, the view, and most importantly, spending time with friends, was more than enough. Although the gold and silver rush is long past, Carson Valley is rich with treasures – an ideal location for a rider to spend a few days. Its towns and people continue to serve the needs of residents, businesses and travellers. And its roads continue to thrill.


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