Monday, June 20, 2016

Nevada Beyond the Neon: Berlin-Ichthyosaur State Park

         I nominate Berlin-Ichthyosaur for America’s oddest-named state park.  However, considering that many state parks are named to celebrate either history or scenery—Fremont Indian and Kodachrome Basin State Parks in Utah, for instance—perhaps this remote Nevada state park’s appellation suits it perfectly.

         Let’s break down the park’s unusual hyphenated name and unearth the linkage between the two.  

First, Berlin: 
         Given the chance to strike it rich from precious metals mining in the late 1800s, a town and all its infrastructure materialized before you could say “failed gold and silver mine”.  The town of Berlin, with it’s less-than-successful production, was born and died in little more than a decade between the late 1890s and early 1900s.  
         The townsite remained largely ignored for 50 years before being established as a state park in 1957.  Today the park service maintains Berlin in a state of “arrested decay”.  

         The Berlin ghost town tour is a self-guided journey into the past, through old mill sites and homesteads.
         The miners left in a hurry when the mills closed, without looking back or taking the time to pack.  Furniture, bottles, canned goods, cooking utensils, tools—even a jar of rattlesnake tails—all were left behind in their cabins.  Only in a state as dry and sparsely populated as Nevada could these treasures be preserved for visitors to enjoy and discover decades later.

Berlin Townsite.  The buildings from over 100 years ago are
well-preserved.  Notice the long and lonely entrance to the park.

The townspeople even left their cars intact!

Second, Ichthyosaur:
         A vast inland sea once covered most of the state of Nevada.  Inhabiting this sea were giant creatures, part fish and part lizard.  The sea lizards hung around for 160 million years or so, through the Mesozoic and Jurassic periods, becoming extinct during the late Cretaceous period.  
         Their bones were covered by thousands of feet of mud and slime, which later hardened into shale and then uplifted.  For tens of millions of years the shale eroded, exposing the prehistoric fossilized bones.  

         Enter those gold and silver miners, a few of whom discovered "rocks" shaped surprisingly like bowls.  You guessed it.  The peculiar rocks, used by miners as water dishes for their dogs, were later identified as vertebrae from the long-ago fish-lizards. 

         Dozens of fossilized ichthyosaur skeletons have been excavated near Berlin and thus these two historic sites—one of them 100 years old and the other 100 million years old—are explicitly linked.

The 60-foot long Ichthyosaurs were abundant and were the
largest animals of their time.

         Odd name or not, Berlin-Ichthyosaur State Park is well off the beaten path but worth a visit if you’re traveling through central Nevada.

Up the road from Berlin townsite the park
provides fourteen delightful campsites
with sheltered picnic tables.
A quarter mile nature trail leads to the fossil quarry.

Friday, June 3, 2016

Nevada Beyond the Neon: Great Basin National Park

         Mention Nevada and most people think of Las Vegas, that pulsing, energetic disco ball of a city.  By contrast, Nevada’s backcountry is relaxed and quiet, a place where the pace is not feverish disco but leisurely waltz, where light is provided not by pulsating strobes but by the soft glow of the sun and the moon.

         One Day in America’s most recent post introduced readers to US Highway 50 in Nevada, called the “loneliest road in America”.   
         This post begins a series highlighting places to go and things to see and do when you leave the highway and enter the spaces in between, those landscapes of sweeping views, endless skies, and room to breathe.

         We’ll begin our tour of Nevada with Great Basin National Park.  If it’s solitude you crave, then this is the national park for you.  Located near the tiny town of Baker, the park is little-visited.  I’ll prove it to you by quoting this statistic, which divides annual visitation by the number of days in a year:  

Average # of visitors per day to Yellowstone National Park:  11,000
Average # of visitors per day to  Great Basin National Park:      250

         Don’t get me wrong, Yellowstone is a great park—especially in the off-season.  But Great Basin holds many treasures of its own, including:  

1)  Lehman Caves.  This geological wonder of highly decorated marble and limestone formations may be explored with a guided park service tour.  
2)  Wheeler Peak.  At 13,063’, this is the second highest mountain in Nevada.  An 8.6 mile round trip hike will take you to the summit and back.
3)  Bristlecone Pines.  These ancient trees, several thousands of years old, stand proudly along the 2.8 mile Bristlecone trail.
4)  Lexington Arch.  An uphill climb of 1.5 miles leads to this six-story limestone arch.

Classic basin and range territory.
View from the road to Great Basin National Park.

Close-up of Wheeler Peak on an autumn day.

View from the Glacier Trail, a continuation of the
Bristlecone Pine Trail.

A magnificent Bristlecone Pine.
This tree could be 3000-5000 years old.

Lexington Arch as seen from the trail on a snowy
November day.

Have I convinced you to explore Nevada beyond the neon?  I hope so.  This summer the national park service celebrates its 100th birthday.  If you have a must-see list of national parks, put Great Basin near the top of that list.  You won’t be disappointed.