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A road trip through the middle of nowhere

Published March 11, 2007 12:00 am

There's more to see than you might suspect along the less-traveled highways of western Utah and eastern Nevada
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2007, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Charles Kuralt, the highly regarded journalist, once said nothing interesting ever happens along the interstate. While that might be an overstatement, it is true that travel on any freeway often becomes numbing. Subscribing to that theory, I decided to take a different route than Interstate 15 when driving from Mesquite, Nev., back to Salt Lake in early January.

The plan was simple. Leave the freeway nine miles north of Mesquite, in Arizona, and drive over ancient Utah Hill, taking the road through the tiny hamlets of Gunlock and Veyo west to Enterprise.

From there, the drive continued through Modena near the Utah-Nevada border and into eastern Nevada. Near Panaca, we headed north on U.S. 93, where we would join the 148-mile Great Basin Scenic Byway. We would continue north from Ely to McGill and end up in Wendover before hitting Interstate 80 for the 120-mile trip back home.

Ask a cynic what there is to see along this route and the answer would be "lots of nothing." Of course, that depends on how one describes "nothing."

If "nothing" is defined as going miles between towns or viewing wide-open spaces of high desert, with mountains on the distant horizon of basin-and-range country, then the route would fit the bill.

But if you drive through Joshua Tree Forest on the Arizona-Utah border, explore Gunlock Reservoir, stop in at the Buck Stop Grill in Enterprise for a malt and a burger or catch 13,081-foot-high Wheeler Peak from a distance, there is much to see along the way.

We would watch high desert ice anglers on Nevada's Cave Creek Lake braving the bitter cold, visit an empty Cathedral Gorge State Park, pass the old mining town of Pioche and stop at an antique shop in McGill while a wind howled across the Great Basin.

It would have been nice to have visited Great Basin National Park, a Pony Express station, the Ward Charcoal Ovens State Park, the old steam railway in Ely or the Club McGill, established in 1907.

But, on this trip, all that mattered was the journey itself, enjoying driving under a colorful sky while drinking in the empty, open spaces, all the while making mental notes on places to stop on another day.

Still, there were a few quick stops.

Cathedral Gorge State Park, near Panaca, resembled a tan-colored Bryce Canyon, an unlikely badlands-looking place in the middle of the desert. We stopped for a bathroom break and to take some photos, wishing we had more time to do some hiking, enjoy a picnic or learn about the geology at the visitor center.

And there was time for a cheap prime-rib dinner at a Wendover casino, where the colorful and noisy slot machines buzz, blip and ring, offering a stark contrast to the desolate, quiet and beautiful scenes only a few miles away.

Some places required some more research.

Take, for example, a sign on U.S. Highway 6 just south of Ely. It declared the remote two-lane road was part of the "Grand Army of the Republic Highway."

That seemed like a grandiose name for a fairly humble strip of road, but it turns out U.S. 6 was one of the first transcontinental highways to be completed in the U.S. It received that official designation to honor Union soldiers in the Civil War.

According to an article written for the Federal Highway Administration by Richard F. Weingroff, Maj. William L. Anderson Jr. of the U.S. Army conceived the idea and, in 1934, the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War promoted it. Because each state had to designate its part of the route, which was basically 3,652-mile-long U.S. 6 that crossed the U.S., the designation wasn't official until May 3, 1953, in Long Beach, Calif.

I wanted to learn more, too, about Pioche and McGill, a couple of intriguing towns along the route.

Pioche is an old mining town named after François L.A. Pioche, a San Francisco financier. Built in the 1870s, this was once one of the wildest mining towns in the U.S., according to the town's Web site. Places such as Boot Hill, the Million Dollar Courthouse and the town museum as well as turn-of-the-century buildings made me want to return.

Same with McGill, named after rancher William McGill, who, according to the Great Basin Heritage Route organization, sold part of his ranch property to a mining company that eventually would be owned by Kennecott. The old McGill Club, an antique store and the McGill Drug Store Museum seemed worthy of a further exploration.

It had been a while since I'd visited Great Basin National Park, but I paid a more recent visit to Ely, a hardscrabble city anchored by the venerable Hotel Nevada, where Wayne Newton once performed.

And, of course, there is Wendover. Now a casino border town catering to Wasatch Front gamblers, the city on the edge of the Bonneville Salt Flats was where airmen who would drop the first atomic bombs in World War II trained. The old base and flight line remain alive on the Utah side of the border, providing a much more interesting place to visit than the large casinos, in my opinion.

On a map, my Great Basin drive looked like large amounts of emptiness on a map.

But the empty spaces can be beautiful, and there is much to see for those who take the less-traveled road.

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* TOM WHARTON can be contacted at wharton@sltrib.com. His phone number is 801-257-8909. Send comments about this column to livingeditor@sltrib.com.

Eastern Nevada drive

* WHY GO? This isn't Interstate 15, and that's the beauty behind the drive. Wasatch Fronters returning from St. George, Mesquite or Las Vegas get tired of the same old route. Though a bit out of the way, the basin-and-range scenery, interesting mining towns and bits of history along the way make taking this drive well worth the effort for those who have some extra time.

* HOW TO GET THERE: U.S. 93 runs through most of eastern Nevada, starting just north of Las Vegas and running north all the way to the Idaho border. Utahns can pick it up in Wendover, driving U.S. 6-50 west from Delta or driving west from Enterprise in Washington County.

* WHAT IT WILL COST: Budget a tank of gas to make most of the drive. From that point, it's up to you. Consider staying in Ely, McGill or Wendover or camping along the way.

* NOT TO MISS: Cathedral Gorge State Park near Panaca, Nev., resembles a tan-colored Bryce Canyon and offers some excellent hikes and a nice campground.

* WHERE TO EAT: Since towns are long distances apart, eating places are few and far between. The Buck Stop Grill in Enterprise, the venerable McGill Club in McGill or any Wendover casino are good bets.

* WEATHER: Expect four distinct seasons, with high temperatures in the summer and the potential for wind and snow in the winter.

* MORE INFORMATION: Contact the Nevada Commission on Tourism at 800-638-2228 or visit http://www.travelnevada.com.