Fires were ravaging the west. I had backcountry permits for almost every weekend for the next month and a half. I’d just received a cancellation notice from Inyo National Wilderness for the first of many weekends. It was time to find a place to go that was open, safe and smokeless. I chose the Ruby Mountains in Nevada. I’d heard about the Ruby Crest Trail for years and thought I’d give it a try. The 28-32 mile trail (depending on the website or guidebook you choose) winds its way all the way across the ridge of the Ruby Mountains. I decided to start on the south end. at Harrison Pass and hike north towards the Lamoille Canyon trailhead.
While planning the trip in the days before I was to leave, I had communication with a friend that coincidentally was headed to the same place and would be a day ahead of me in a group of 3 others (one of which I knew as well.) He suggested I try to catch them...finish off the trail with them and get a ride back to my car.
My plan had been to hike about 90% of the trail north and then turn around and hike back to my car. I had wanted to do about 50 miles in the Sierra and the 28-32 didn’t seem like enough. Hiking an out and back would solve the mile dilemma as well as solve the need for a ride back to my car. This new information gave me another option that I would think about over the next few days of planning and then while hiking.
Leaving Thursday afternoon and driving the 7ish hours put me at the trailhead just after 5:00pm with a sunset of about 6:45 pm. The dive was easy until the last 2.8 miles. The guides I had read talked about needing a 4wd for the last stretch but gave no indication of the road conditions I encountered. I’m a hiker...not a 4 wheeler and this road put me to the test for sure. The 2.8 miles took about 35 minutes and left me with white knuckles and a bit shaky. Let’s just say it was challenging and leave it at that. I will add that for the next few days, when I remembered the road, I would have to put it out of my mind quickly so as not to stress about it. I was not looking forward to the drive out.
I started hiking at about 5:20 on a 4wd road through the high desert of scrub pine, sagebrush and small stunted aspen trees. A little after 3 miles, the road turned into a single track trail and I finally felt like I was in the backcountry. The sun sank lower in the sky and the air cooled as I headed through dense stands of aspen with very old carvings from the Basque shepherds that have used these trails for years. Watching the sunset while eating my PB&J sandwich, I took a few pictures before heading on. In the next couple miles I saw numerous cattle and a few owls as well. Dusk grew into darkness and finally, 8.6 miles later, I arrived at South Creek and attempted to find a flat spot to camp. A group of hunters was camped nearby as I approached and for some reason had 50-75 LED laser lights pointed in all directions from the inside of their circle of tents. It was weird and a bit disconcerting to say the least. I never heard or saw anyone while I set up my tent on the flattest spot I could find. But I did see moving eyes….everywhere….and as I shined my headlight in multiple directions I could see I was also surrounded by antelope. Quite an interesting night. I slid into my bag and I was toasty warm right away.
Unfortunately, sleep never really came and I tossed and turned most of the night finally getting out of my bag and starting to pack up sometime after 5:30. Looking at the mini thermometer clipped to my pack, it showed it was a few degrees below 40. I was on the trail a bit later and walking quickly trying to warm up my very cold hands.
About 45 minutes later, and much higher in elevation, I’d finally warmed up enough to take off my gloves. About the same time I heard bells and looked to the ridge I was approaching to see 50-100 sheep grazing the hillside. A few minutes later I came across a large tent of what looked like the sheep herder who lives up here tending to his flock. He was nowhere to be seen, but wow….what a job.
I kept gaining elevation to eventually crest and cross Overland Pass and began the descent to Overland Lake on the other side. Overland was beautiful and came as a treat after walking through so much dry arid landscape. It was set in a beautiful granite bowl and the lake was filled with fish. A man was sitting at its shores as I arrived. We spoke for a while and he was up with his son and another friend hunting. Their goal was the Himalayan Snow Cock, a bird only found in the Himalayas and the Ruby Mountains.
“In 1961 the similarity of the Himalayan landscape to the Nevada region was noted and the Himalayan snowcock was considered as a good game bird for introduction by the Nevada Fish and Game Commission. The Commission then approached the President of Pakistan for some birds. A wild population of more than 200 to 500 birds has established itself in the Ruby Mountains, where they forage above the tree line.”
He told me that only about ONE bird a year is shot in all of the Ruby Mountains. Needless to say, they hadn’t seen one in the two days they had been there. He did tell me that a group of 4 had camped here the night before and left about 7:30. That was the group I knew. I left the lake at about 10:30...3 hours after they had left and I didn’t expect to see them until close to the end of the day.
Leaving Overland Lake, the trail dropped for a bit before starting a long climb up to the crest. For the next 10sih miles there would be no water at all, so I filled up with about 3 liters for the trip. Upon reaching the crest, I could see forever in all directions. The valley below on both the east and west sides stretched out for at least 100 miles of smokeless beauty. The trail rose and dropped along the crest of the range hundreds of feet at a time. By the time today was over, I would have ascended over 5000 vertical feet in elevation. After stopping for a quick snack and water, I started off again. Finally at about 12:30 I caught sight of 4 small dots a few miles ahead of me and with my binoculars was able to see that it was probably my friends’ group. Over the next two and a half hours I would see them climbing one rise as I was coming down another. Close to 2:30 I finally caught up with them climbing the trail to the top of Wines Mountain. We visited for a while at the crest, and then I joined them for the final push to a spring above North Furlong Lake where we found a camp spot for the night. It was nice to visit with friends and meet new friends as well. Sitting around talking and laughing was not what I had planned for this trip. But taking advantage of running into these guys was a must and I’m so very glad that I did.
The night was warm and we all slept pretty well before heading out to finish the last 8 miles of the trail on the last day.
We left about 7:30 and very quickly the scenery became my favorite of the trip thus far. Bowls and canyons...greenery and flowers...streams and lakes. This section had it all. Swimming at Liberty Lake was a highlight of the trip as well. Liberty Lake was also the last place of quietness. As we crested Liberty Pass and started our descent to the trailhead, we must have passed over 50 day hikers and backpackers all headed into the wilderness. Unfortunately, their trip would be filled with smoke as a local fire had started while we slept the night before. We were getting out just in time.
We drove out of the canyon and dropped off our things at the “campsite” they had reserved for the night, picked up some food and headed back to Harrison Pass to pick up the two cars left there. Just before arriving, I couldn’t find my key. We stopped the car at the start to the 2.8 mile road and we all looked. It was nowhere to be found. Just before giving up, a friend dug his hand into a crevasse in the seat and pulled out the key. Whew!
The drive up the 2.8 mile road went pretty smoothly and the caravan back down the road went MUCH easier than I had envisioned. Traveling with others sure made the difference.
Back at our Airbnb campsite we used the outdoor shower and cleaned up before handing out on the deck, visiting and just enjoying each other's company. It wasn’t the trip I had planned...it was much different. The difference in this circumstance was terrific and I wouldn’t have changed one thing about the trip. Spending time with friends and making new ones….It’s what life is all about. And to get to do it in the backcountry…..a plus of all plusses. Thanks Ruby Crest and thanks old and new friends.