November 20-21, 2021 We ride and enjoy the stolen lands of the Northern Paiute, Washoe and Shoshone. This is to acknowledge that the indigenous people of northern Nevada had their land taken from them and were relegated to reservations such as Pyramid Lake Indian Reservation, Hungry Valley Community, Reno-Sparks Indian Colony, Yomba Indian Reservation and the Ft. McDermitt Indian Reservation, just to name a few of Nevada’s 32 reservations. The People were relocated by acts of Congress not treaties between sovereign nations. They are the original stewards of the land and we owe them an immeasurable debt of gratitude.
Through social media I became aware of the proposed lithium mine at Peehee Mu’huh, “Rotten Moon”, or Thacker Pass. The controversy stems from from the consumer demand for domestic lithium, the BLM’s willingness to grant the mining permits, the land’s cultural/sacred value to indigenous people, preserving wildlife habitat, and the agricultural livelihood of near by communities. The more I learned about this, the more I had to go see this place for myself. So I planned a trip solely based on the information I could glean from the maps offered in the route planning portion of Ride with GPS. This would be my first trip north of Winnemucca.
Three riders joined me. I had promoted this ride like my past offerings, as a Facebook event, but I wanted to make sure everyone was aware of my uncertainty in the route, weather, and social/political climate. Shay and Christine were sporting new sleeping bags for the cold nights and Doug had a new ultralight bike. Most importantly the group came prepared for a fantastic trip in a new area!
We met the night before at a pullout near the start/finish of the route off Kings River Rd, SR 293. Christine and Doug were already car-camped by time Shay and I arrived. We threw our sleeping pads and bags down for a quick cold sleep. I was anxious to see where we were. The entire drive out was in the dark. I woke to the howls and yips of the coyotes. There was a chatty magpie bouncing along the fence line at dawn. The road was quiet. Thacker Pass is a saddle between the Double H and Montana Mountains connecting the Kings River and Quinn River Valleys.
We would be traveling north for about 30 miles then turning west before descending into Kings River Valley to return to our starting point. Mapping the route looked solid, first following roads on the USGS topos, confirming them in satellite view, then hoping that they are passable, not gated, and take us through eye-opening landscape. Our first impressions were, wow, these roads are in great shape! They are Christine approved. This route is definitely gravel friendly. I thought the loop could be a long day ride driving out of Winnemucca, then returning for a great meal.
We zigzagged our way north. The route climbed steadily at a moderate grade. I couldn’t help but wonder if the canyon we were climbing above had a creek bed that was rideable. By now those foolish thoughts should be regarded as folly but they are not. Maybe when the going is good my mind immediately wanders to find hardship. This pathology I must reserve for solo trips. The western edge of the Montana Mountains drops off abruptly and gouged by steep V-shaped canyons providing great views of Kings River Valley and the Bilk Creek Mountains.
We made our way through the sagebrush-grassland, valued by sage grouse and ranchers alike. The water troughs were dry except for the rainwater collected from the last storm. We spooked a couple of grouse riding through but then we saw two groups of 20+ birds. This was the most I have seen at once. Then we passed through a stretch of land designated for sage grouse conservation. The area was fenced, the road had cattle guards and was lined with boulders to keep traffic defined to the designated route. A drainage cut through the middle of the reserve and the road had rock and culvert work to preserve the roadway.
We were near the northern most point of the route. The roads were the least traveled here. The original route had the road down in a drainage but it seems the BLM moved the road to the hillside. This spot was the only confusion in the route. We were in view of Disaster Peak and wilderness area and only a few miles from the Oregon boarder. As the sun was starting to dip to the horizon we started looking for a camp spot.
What a day! Great roads, great weather, beautiful vistas, and my most rideable route in recent memory. With camp set, dinners ate, the sun down, we were ready for a long night. I wanted to catch the moonrise. Shay took a pre-sleep walk to warm up. By walking to the edge of the rise we were camped on they saw the near-full Beaver Moon rise over the Santa Rosa Range. There was no way to miss it! It was spectacular. The bright nights take away from normal stargazing but a moon-bright night has its own allure.
It was a cold night but everyone was prepared. Sunrise on the Disaster Peak Wilderness Study Area was welcomed. Once we were in the sun we were on our bikes headed west. Just a mile into our ride I heard a pop in my pedal. Odd, it popped again. I stopped, reached down and my pedal came off in my hand. Ugh, about an inch of broken spindle stuck out from my right crank arm. All I could do is pedal along, left flat pedal intact, right metal post; a test of my pedal control. Thirty miles of this could only slightly distract me from where I was.
Doug pointed out what diverse geology we were riding through. We crossed through volcanic terrain and now we were descending a granite canyon. We descended along China Creek to Horse Creek Road. China Creek was flowing. It was a quick exciting descent into tall sagebrush at the top of Kings River Valley. We encountered ranchers and dogs in a pickup truck, they were rounding up a few head of cattle that were still grazing the canyon. The road south started out rough and sandy but quickly became a fast groomed gravel road. Looking up at the steep walls of the Montana Mountains we could see steep mining roads but no sign of tailings. We passed a hunter’s camp and were passed by a couple of ranch trucks. Otherwise we hadn’t seen anyone else on this trip. Shay had pointed out the solitude only miles off the paved road.
As we approached the paved highway we saw a small group of deer. I had seen hoof prints along our route. Shay saw a golden eagle and ravens to round out our wildlife count for mid-November. What could biodiversity count yield for this area?
Climbing the paved road to Thacker Pass we were passed by only a few vehicles. This is a very quiet part of a quiet state. The road followed a flowing creek that had a stock reservoir low on the grade. To the north were openings to canyons in the Montana Mountains. All things to explore on the next visit. Then I came to the entrance of the camp occupied by the People of Red Mountain. The BLM had posted a fresh sign regarding the rules for dispersed camping on public land.
This route’s loop closes with a reminder of what brought me here. The lithium mine will change the experience I just had. The paved road will be busy with haul trucks and employee traffic. The open pit mine will create a permanent scar. The processing ponds will be a toxic time-bomb over the Quinn River watershed. The noise and light pollution will alter that feeling of solitude and may disrupt wildlife viewing opportunities. The scope of the mine’s haul roads may disrupt access to public lands. I am not imagining these consequences as much as I am applying my experiences from other places in Nevada. Rather than narrowly categorizing my concerns as those of bikepackers, I will define these as impacting eco-tourism, which should include hikers, backpackers, overlanders, backcountry hunters and anglers, photographers, back country horsemen, and the like.
As groups like Save Thacker Pass and People of Red Mountain look for allies in the fight to save sacred ground from being illegally developed by the mining industry I hope all of these groups can step up to the table. We all have something at stake here. I encourage anyone to go take a look for yourself. If there are public lands in jeopardy in your area, take a look, spread the word on what you saw, invite others to do the same.
Here are some resources I used to to learn more about the issues around Peehee Mu’huh, “Rotten Moon”, or Thacker Pass. Things are moving quickly between Winnemucca and Orovada so I won’t be waiting too long to return.