Pyramid Lake Project; Union Pacific Railroad Grade

I have always been fascinated by the raised red cinder railroad grade along Pyramid Lake. I am not a train historian nor a railroad buff but I am interested in following these abandoned railroad grades by bike. My first adventure on a railroad grade was between Goldfield and Rhyolite. I found out about this potential route from Dave Spicer of Spicer Ranch mountain bike trails and camping. He referred to them as routes between interesting historic places through beautiful terrain following gentle grades. There are few other qualities to want from a bikepacking route.

As a part of my 2020 project to focus on riding at the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe Reservation I wanted to start by riding the length of the abandoned railroad grade. Rather than starting at one end, say Wadsworth, and following it to Flanigan, decided to start in Sutcliffe and work to either extreme, first Flanigan, then Wadsworth. But this presentation will take you from Wadsworth to Flanigan.

The trestle over the Truckee in Wadsworth.

I parked off Main Street and Hill Ranch Rd. Years ago I followed a dirt road off Hill Ranch to the east with Dean Magnuson and Ray Eliot. After years of exploring it is no wonder that these routes eventually connect. As a starting point this is the furthest point of tracks without railroad cars on it in the Fernley direction, and Flanigan is the furthest point without railroad cars in the opposite direction. Rolling through and navigating the cinder bed through Wadsworth is easy, the grade parallels Railroad Circle and then splits off W Truckee River Ranch Road to the northwest. The grade is used by locals so is compact and fast.

The grade often has a parallel access/service road

The grade moves away from the Truckee River as it sweeps through Dodge Flat. After 9-10 miles the grade passes along the bluffs above the Truckee River. At this point the grade is also used by the Tahoe-Pyramid Trail. At the new and improved paved Chicken Ranch Rd the grade is covered by the road fill. At mile 13 the grade is a little hard to navigate across Little Nixon Rd. You must trust that trains go straight!

Great views of the Truckee River and Truckee Range

This is covers section 1 of of the grade. It is a fast 14 miles without any significant interruptions other than the easy hike-a-bike at Chicken Ranch Rd. It is a fast and easy alternative to the Tahoe-Pyramid Trail. But I would tend to the more river-centric and scenic T-P Trail. It also allows for a loop option for a day trip on the T-P Trail .

From the east side of SR 722, there are gates to the north and south.

Just south of Nixon across from Numana Dam, the grade crosses SR 447 and begins to parallel SR 446 along Pyramid Lake. The highway is high speed without much of a shoulder so the grade provides excellent access with just enough diversion to keep it and adventure. The next 30 miles or so are along the lake and its mountains providing a dynamic landscape with the day’s changing light. So interruptions are just opportunities to look around and take a picture or two.

The end of T-P Trail and where the Truckee empties into Pyramid Lake

There is a fence to prevent wildlife and livestock (I assume more the latter) along most of the length of the road on the non-lake, mountain side. For much of the grade on the mountain side of the road the fence can be a concern. Going into this project there was the possibility fences would make it impossible to stick to the grade. Not the case. While it would be awesome to have hiker/biker access across fences I always found road access near by.

Ruins of past residents

At mile 19 there were some fence lines that came together that forced me below the grade that took me past a ruin of what looked like a home and livestock shelter. It was great to come across flowing creeks coming out of snow melt in the Pah Rah Range. There is plenty of livestock in the Pah Rahs so I do recommend water filtration.

Snow melt headed for Pyramid Lake
Any easy creek crossing looking into the Pah Rah Range

Most of the grade from SR 447 to SR 445 is not used by more than wildlife and livestock. The surface is less compressed, overgrown, but it is just waiting to be ridden. Footloose and car-free! Crossing SR 446 the grade is compressed fast and is used for access to the beaches, camping and fishing. After crossing the trestle-free Mullen Creek bed it is a fast 3-4 miles to Sutcliffe on vehicle accessible compressed grade.

I love to see sagebrush up the middle even if it is harder to navigate
Mullen Creek to Pyramid Lake
Tufa reminds us of lake levels past

Nixon to Sutcliffe, section 2 of this route, is 18 miles of slower paced grade with a softer texture, missing trestles/bridges, but great solitude. Sutcliffe is a great place to resupply, take a load off at Crosby Lodge, and check in with the ranger station if need be. I have picked-up various use permits at the ranger station and always found them to be helpful.

Pyramid Lake offers an exquisite light show as the sun and clouds move across the sky

Since the town of Sutcliffe has been built over the top of the grade a slight detour through town is required. But leaving to the north west is an easily navigated. There are minor and major washouts fresh from flooding events over the recent past years. But all are negotiable with go-arounds and will only become easier with more travel. This is common practice in the desert, unmaintained roads are user maintained.

A perfect trail
Watching the clouds move through
Light on the Lake Range

The grade jumps the highway several times, follows the highway a short distance and the barbed wire fence was constructed without consideration of the grade. But all of these considerations were negotiable. Not surprisingly the grade was a convenient place to construct the fence so there were times you were riding very close to jacket tearing barbs.

The end of the paved road near Warrior Point beach
Through the notch
A small trestle/bridge still remains at Pyramid
This section of grade felt like it was made just for my enjoyment

After the highway turns to dirt the reservation is sparsely populated. There is some traffic related to the ranches in the area and those out at Smoke Creek Desert. The third section ended at George Washington Rock, a prominent tufa formation with great views of the Needles. The tribe has restricted access to the shoreline from Warrior Point to Nixon, clockwise around the lake. Please respect the tribe’s wishes. This section was 16 miles from Sutcliffe to Washington Rock (for those keeping track we are about 48 miles from Wadsworth). The grade was a mixture of hard pack to soft with washout and fence negotiations. There is great beach access on this section.

Morning light to Zenobia, Terraced Hills

There were moments of great solitude beyond Warrior point and that feeling was with me for the next 13 miles to Flanigan. There can be the occasional ranch vehicle on Surprise Valley Road but it is traffic free on the grade. The grade leaves the reservation after about 6 miles from Washington Rock. The fence line here required a minor detour to the road to get around.

Astor Pass with a dusting of winter

The grade bends to the southwest between Fish Springs and High Rock Roads. There are great views of the back side of the Virginia Mountains and State Line Peak in the Fort Sage Mountains. Then in the near distance are the railroad cars of Flanigan Siding.

For me this route serves as a backbone for exploring the Pyramid Lake Piute Reservation by bike. I will fill in all the points of interest along the route as well as rides in the north from the San Emidio and Smoke Creek Deserts.

State Line Peak, Fort Sage Mountains

This was stitched together from four outings. Each trip was an out and back and I made my return trip via the alternate route. From Flanigan I took Red Rock Rd to Surprise Valley Rd. Then followed the paved highway to Sutcliffe and Nixon and returned to Wadsworth on the Tahoe-Pyramid Trail. This choice was in part to make a comparison and for efficiency. It gave me a chance to poke around the geothermal wells in the north, and to start mapping any side roads to explore.

I struggle to propose what is the best future for the grade. If the grade were adopted, developed and maintained by a group such as Rails-to-Trails then this could become a minor/major route. There is a sixty mile resource lying in the dirt. This could be a recreational resource for the tribe as well as a source of tourism. There would need to be an investment in the trail, managing the washouts, and providing routes or access at key fence line intersections. I started out taking photos at every point I thought might need attention.

The other part of me likes the idea of the grade being “user adopted.” This is a romantic notion that I observed in practice north of Rhyolite near the Bullfrog Mine. The abandoned railroad grade is used by the OHV group and routes around washouts were user maintained and overall the conditions were good. My only fear is the route would not have any “official” protection and could disappear.

I alternated bike icon colors on the map for each section on my description.

2 thoughts on “Pyramid Lake Project; Union Pacific Railroad Grade

  1. Pingback: Packraft and Bike on the Truckee River and Tahoe-Pyramid Trail – Bikepacking Northern Nevada

  2. Pingback: 2020 Annual Review; Overcoming Inertia and Building Momentum for 2021 – Bikepacking Northern Nevada

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