April 20, 2020- Bikepacking Roots put out a route scouting call to arms for Jan Bennett‘s mammoth undertaking of the Pony Express. I love riding with a purpose and I am a big fan of our local history so why not make it a point to ride our local portion of the historic route. Then I found myself scratching my head, why doesn’t the proposed route include what I have seen as the historic route on USGS maps? Is it blocked by the Fallon Naval Air Station or some other private property? Is there no follow-able path? Too hot without restocking opportunities? I figure I need to go see for myself.
I have ridden from Dayton State Park to Fort Churchill in the past so I figured I would Start at Buckland Station and ride to Sand Springs Station off US 50. The route follows Simpson Rd along the Desert Mountains and White Throne Mountains before crossing Simpson Pass between the Bunejug Mountains and Cocoon Mountains. I drew the route on Ride with GPS following the dashed lines on the USGS Topo scans (approximate of course) and I was off!
I rolled out on Simpson Rd at sunrise. I was between the Carson River and the Desert Mountains. I know these first miles were on great dirt roads. Looking back at the snow capped Carson Range with the foreground in warm morning light really made me appreciate the opportunities we have to explore by bike in norther Nevada. I crossed my first gate and now I was in cattle country. The route climbs the low southern shoulder of the Dead Camel Mountains before it drops onto the flats of Carson Lake. The view of the sink from point demonstrated how the wrinkled alluvium from the surrounding mountains erodes away into the basins of the Basin and Range.
This was my first encounter with sand. Until now I thought this could be done on a gravel bike. The sand was deep and soft enough that my plus sized tires were having difficulties. So I pushed. But I can’t help but to think, does this go on .2 miles? 2 miles? 20 miles? Luckily it was more of the first. Route finding was a little tricky in spots so I really appreciated the Pony Express carsonites, PX carsonites, and the concrete Pony Express memorials. The sand gave way to the playa of a once greater Carson Lake.
I came across the site of the Carson Sink Pony Express Station. Nothing remains but the historical markers. But I noticed fresh water mollusk shells ground up on the trail. Then in some of the eroded ditches I noticed whole exposed clam shells. I was informed that the recent flooding was caused by the flooding of the desert by the “big dig” where the high sierra snow pack of 2017 was diverted to the Carson Sink.
From there the route was not distinct to US 95 but I crossed the highway and continued along the alluvium that washed out of the White Throne Mountains. I stubbornly want to stay on the “dashed line” of the approximate route but the contours I was having to cross were a fight. Local ATV’s had made their routes out of necessity around these vertical ditches so eventually I followed their lead.
Working my way around the White Throne Mountains I came to the Wildcat Freight Station ruins complete with the explanation of the early route developer (1859) Capt. James Simpson, the namesake for Simpson Pass and Simpson Rd. Now I was looking across the Wildcat Scarp and Bass Flat playa.
Playas are good at erasing history’s tracks. Luckily there were a few makers hinting to my intended direction. Bass Flat is an example of of a soft slow playa, not a fast hard packed preferred option. Eventually I found if I followed the dried rivulets they may be windy but much faster. Eventually I made my way across the playa and was struck by the dunes to the south, Blow Sand Mountains.
Route finding to Simpson Pass was a little tricky. And then there was sand. It was “push your bike downhill” sand or at least “pedal hard in low gear downhill” sand. I was beginning to think my return ride might get long in the day. Cresting Simpson Pass I was looking at the Salt Wells Basin and geothermal plant. Again I had no idea how long the sand would last.
I followed the Pony Express route along Eight Mile Flat to Four Mile Flat fighting the sand hoping for harder packed roads. I was not finding a solution. At this point I resolved to cross Four Mile Flat to US 50 for my return. On a previous tour I had visited Sand Springs Station so I wasn’t too heart broken not making it there today. I did have reservations about crossing Four Mile Flat, I have always seen water on it. For those not familiar with playas, it is a golden rule not to travel when wet. At times the surface may appear bone dry but just under the dust is mud that will get you stucker-than-stuck. But I had to try.
Crossing the playa was a mix of excitement and nervousness. The unique textures and contours of eroded mud capture my imagination of how winter rain and snow and summer thunderstorms shape this crazy landscape. So far so good, travel was efficient. This playa is home to a salt mine that has a service “jetty” sticking out in the salt flat. The only trick was there was a wet rivulet between me and my easy exit. After a bit of slipping and sliding in the strangest foul smelling clay mud I found a spot where I could cross.
At this point I was home free! I just had about 55 miles to return on US 50 and Alt US 95 to get back to my car. I wasn’t sure I had that in my legs, or just how long that might take. I did call a friend to meet me along the route. I pedaled through Fallon, passing Azteca Grill and Bakery, a great place to stop for a burrito. Fallon has everything one needs for resupply except a bike shop. I continued along the Carson River and Lake Lahontan, home to Lahontan State Recreation Area, a Nevada State Park with camping. and then I was rescued about 20 miles from my starting point. It is great to be able to call a friend.
By the numbers: From Buckland Station to Sand Springs Station it is just over 50 miles with about 1,200′ of climbing. It is 100% dirt roads. In that distance there are about 12 miles of sand. Depending on the time of year that sand can be firm and rideable with wider tires, slow going with some hiking, or if the sand is very dry and has seen a lot of ATV traffic it could be so deep you are hiking most of it. So decisions must be made. There is a trade off in taking US 50 vs seeing the wild historic route. If you are out there and need to call a friend here is my cell: (775) 412-3465.