Thursday, January 12, 2012

A Long Strange Trip: Nevada Caves and Hot Springs

And now, a long time past when it actually happened, I am writing the final part of the four-part blog post about our winter road trip in the bus. In the last post, we had just finished a long drive along a gravel road out of Utah and into eastern Nevada. The sun was beginning to set just as the gigantic Mt Wheeler had come into view to the west. It made it hard to see anything more than it's silhouette, but it was still really cool looking. The Great Basin Nat'nl Park protects part of the mountain range surrounding Mt Wheeler and its unique micro-climate and habitat. I think it's the second highest peak in Nevada. It really looked big, even in the distance. As we got closer, it became towering, and the sun eventually dipped behind it's peak. Now that the sun was behind it though, we could see more detail of the forest that covered it (there are bristlecone that live on it) it's snow capped peak. It was actually making its own small rotating cloud that reminded me of the imagery of blood from the gash in the sky from the mountain peak scraping it. The bright red sky from the sunset was the reason blood first came to mind, I guess. It was crazy.

Lehman Caves
The famous drapery in Lehman Caves.

On our map, we saw that there was a campground in the park. It wasn't too deep into the park, so that was good. It was getting dark fast, and we wanted to find our camping spot soon! Also, it was getting pretty cold. This was not only because the sun was setting, but also because the road to the campground started taking us up the mountain higher than we thought. Soon we were in an aspen forest with a cold creek running through it. It got suddenly really damp and cooled off even more. This was where the campground was, and where we would be sleeping for the night. It was a good thing we had the bus because camping outside would've been freezing cold! Afterall, we were at elevation in Nevada in winter. And that was also probably why we were the only people camping in the entire park that night.

Lehman Caves
Historic graffiti in the Lehman Caves.

The next morning, we woke up pretty early because we wanted to catch the first cave tour of the day at 9am or so. We were feeling pretty grody, as we'd been traveling for so long already with no shower (not since we left Denver), so we made sure to also have enough time to wash up a little in the visitor center bathrooms before we made human contact that morning! It was nice that the bathrooms were heated, let me tell you, because there's nothing like a freezing toilet seat in the morning! When we were done, we made our way inside where the rangers were and bought cave tour tickets for the first tour of the day. We were kind of surprised we had to buy tickets even though we had a National Parks annual pass, because we didn't have to buy tickets to go into Carlsbad Caverns. Weird, but we bought them anyway because they weren't too expensive, and at that time of season, it is about the only thing you can do in the park. Well, I guess you can go hiking in the bitter cold, but most of the roads were closed due to snow in the park.

Powerlines to Bartine
The power lines to Bartine hot springs.

Nobody else showed up for the first cave tour until 5 minutes after it started. We were all ready and excited to be getting a personal tour of the cave, until a middle aged couple (of who the wife was a huge tubby) were ushered in after the ranger already started telling us the history by flashlight. Bummer, but our group was now still tiny (4 people plus the ranger), so the tour was going to cool anyway! It started out in a man made concrete hallway ramp that led down into the cave. Once in the actual natural cave part, the soft lighting in there brightened it up and lit up all of the cave decorations. There were a lot of cool things everywhere! And a bonus, was that it seemed warmer inside the cave than outside. The ranger told us the history of the cave as we walked through the narrow passages. In some places, you had to duck down and really pay attention to where you were walking, or you would walk right into a stalagmite! What a difference between the more visited Carlsbad Caverns. These in comparison must not see much visitor traffic.

Bartine Hot Spring
Romy washing his greasy hair at Bartine! Ahhh Dirty hippy!

The cave tour was short compared to how long we spent in Carlsbad, I think it was a little over an hour or so, maybe two? We took the longest tour, which was called the Grand Palace Tour. It basically took you into all of the rooms that are possible to easily walk through. When we were all finished, we headed back to the bus to hit the road. The nearest town to the park, Baker, looked totally abandoned, but I'm sure it springs back into life in the summer, when the park gets more visitors. But still, its pretty small, with one cafe and a gas station that we almost didn't notice! I don't remember if we filled up there or not, but next we headed onto Hwy 50, dubbed the Loneliest Highway in America. We had a hot springs guide book with us, and our goal was to try and find as many hot springs as we had time to go see on our way back to California along Hwy 50.

Spencer Hot Spring
One of the tubs at Spencer Hot Springs at dusk.

Our first stop was called Bartine Hot Springs. It actually was pretty close to the highway, just less than a mile north of it. The only point of reference to know you were there was a small mound off in the distance by some powerlines. Also there was a small ranch by the name of Bartine that was right next to it. We turned off the highway, went around the small ranch, and took the powerline access road towards the small mound, where we assumed the hot spring was. The road was super dusty, but as we got towards the hot spring, it started to get flooded! We saw a huge pipe sticking out of the ground, and a concrete tub, so we walked towards it. We could no longer drive due to the soggy ground. However, when we got to the spring, it was kind of a let down. The water was coming out of the ground into a concrete box which had the giant pipe sticking out of it. Then the water was piped into another tub, but it was pretty nasty from cows and algae and dirt. So we didn't soak here, but since we did make the effort to come and check it out, we figured we should at least wash our hair a little. So that was what we did. It was soooo refreshing and nice to wash in hot water.

Spencer Hot Spring
Another nice tub at Spencer at dusk.

After Bartine, we got back on Hwy 50 to go further west. The next hot spring on the way was called Spencer Hot Spring, and it was near the town of Austin, NV. It also was not too far from the highway, but it was far enough that you couldn't really tell by looking that there was an obvious mound or something. Instead, there were some dirt roads that headed towards a black rock thing in the distance. As we got closer, the roads didn't actually go to the black rock formation, but right next to it, where there were now some mounds visible and light whitish soil (often a good indication that there's a hot spring!). We knew we were in the right place once we started seeing the tubs and cleared out areas to park. There were three main tubs. Two of them were made of watering troughs, and one was dug into the ground, lined with large flat rocks. We chose the one that was dug into the ground, because it had a nice large wooden deck somebody built. Plus it was the last one we drove to and decided to park the bus next to it. We got there just as the sun was setting behind the mountains to the west. It was getting really cold outside now, which made us super happy to be camping at the hot springs! Before we went in, we made sure to get the bed and everything set up for the night, so that we could quickly jump back in after the hot spring.

Smith Creek Hot Spring
Clean and clear blue water at Smith Creek Hot Spring.

There was nobody else at Spencer except us. Even if there were other people/campers, the place was so huge that everybody would have their own tub. Spencer was more like a hot spring complex. It was nice to spend the evening there. After getting out of the spring, we stayed warm all night in the bus, thanks to our crazy mega sleeping bags. The next morning we turned on the propane heater to warm up as we packed up the bus to get ready to hit the road again, back on Hwy 50. It was a short drive to Austin, where we filled up on gas and got some coffee at the Toiyabe Cafe. They made some real good cappuccinos in there! And they had some informational/tourist brochures and mini pamphlets about the history of Austin. We took some and read about Austin as we drove further west, towards home.

Smith Creek Hot Spring
A second hotter tub at Smith Creek Hot Spring.

We decided that we still had time to hit up one more hot spring on the way home. The closest one that wasn't too much of a detour was called Smith Creek Ranch, and it was on the Lincoln Highway detour, NV 722. Its a pretty cool road, so we decided to take it. Again, we didn't really have a good idea of where we were going, just a crude map and directions from the guide book, so we were in for another adventure trying to find Smith Creek. We knew it was out towards the edges of the playa, but there were a bunch of dirt roads that went that way. So we picked one and went. It started off pretty good, weaving between the giant sage brushes. Then it started hitting silty patches! The bus almost sunk into the ground, so Romy just pressed harder on the gas so were could make our way through the silt. We had a HUGE cloud of silt behind us. After a while, the road kept getting worse, but once we hit a silty patch, we had to just push through it or else we'd get stuck. Finally, we found a silt-free section where we turned around and went back to try another road (what, did you think we'd give up that easy?). We had better luck with the next road we tried, although it ended up not being the best option either, as we learned when we actually got to the spring. We parked the bus when we were so close that the ground was getting soggy and wet. We discovered that there were two tubs, pretty far apart from each other. Both were really nice. Also, along the span between the two tubs, there were a lot of little mini craters filled with hot water bubbling out. It was really interesting.

Nevada Panorama
Panorama of the bus at Smith Creek.

It took us so long to get to the springs, after the road mishap, that we didn't have much time to stay. So after checking the place out, we headed back to the highway (but on a different road). We would like to go back to this one, as it was really nice. There was a super hot tub, which seemed like the temperature was adjustable by moving the pipe partially out of the tub. There was also a tub closer to body temperature, so you could literally have your pick here. Another interesting thing was that the springs were really close to the original Pony Express Trail! I couldn't of thought of a better way to end our winter break vacation than with some new hot springs in Nevada. We only had a few more hours of driving west on Hwy 50 (well, more like the whole rest of the day) before we were home. What a fun trip!