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Virginia Peak and Pah Rah Mountain are the two highest summits in the Pah Rah Range northeast of Reno, Nevada. Virginia has a prominence in excess of 3,600ft while Pah Rah Mtn has less than 300ft, and is really just a lower northern summit three miles from the highpoint. There are a number of communication towers atop Virginia Peak and a relatively good dirt road reaches to the summit. The periodic maintenance is such that at times it is passable by any vehicle, while other times it may require high clearance or 4WD due to rocks, mud and/or snow. I found the directions given on SummitPost to be superb. Once off SR445 the dirt roads are excellent until reaching Microwave Rd. This road is six miles to the summit and is the biggest variable to reaching the top. I found the road snow and mud-free and navigable in my low-clearance van. I had to stop 4-5 times to remove particularly large rocks that had been kicked up by other vehicles, but this was only a minor inconvenience.
I had to drop off my daughter, some teammates and their parents at the Reno-Sparks Convention Center at 7am, but after that I was free for the rest of the morning. I didn't have time for a longer hike to Tohakum Peak as I would have liked, so I decided to see if I could manage the drive to Virginia Peak and do the relatively easy hike to Pah Rah Mtn. I turned off SR445 at Ironwood Rd where the BLM horse corral is located. I drove this and other roads through Warm Springs Valley under sunny skies and warming temperatures. It was forecast to surpass the previous record high of 86F in Reno, so it seemed a good day to get as high as possible. Ironwood, Amy, and Wilcox Ranch Roads are all excellently graded and have a yearly coating to keep dust down. Speed limit is 35mph, but can easily handle higher speeds, except for the curves. Quaking Aspen Rd is also nicely graded, but did not have the dust protection. The real challenge came when I reached the junction with Microwave Rd. This road is steep. It appears to have been graded sometime in the last month or so and was in good condition to drive it. Aside from the stops to remove a few large rocks, there was nothing a bit of careful driving couldn't handle and by 8:30a I was at the large clearing just below the summit. It had taken an hour's driving once I'd left the highway.
The highpoint is just northeast of this clearing, and braver cars than mine could have driven this last 100 yards or so. As it was, the hiking portion took me all of two minutes. The views were quite fine from the summit with the snow-capped Sierra Nevada to the south and west, dozens of Great Basin ranges visible in all directions, though few of them I could place a name on. I recognized Peavine, Dogskin and Tule, but that was about it. Pyramid Lake was not visible to the north, blocked by the long ridgline to Pah Rah Mtn that intervened. There were two glass jars found in the large, well-built cairn found at the summit. The oldest dated to around 1997, the newer one contained just a loose page with five parties from 2011. I scribbled my name on the newer one, put them back and walked back to the car.
I drove back down a short distance to near a saddle in the ridge, parked the van again and started north for Pah Rah. It is a very pleasant hike through high desert sagebrush, made easier by a Jeep road in the beginning and horse trails for most of the three mile distance. The hike starts above 8,000ft and barely dips below that the entire time, and with temperatures around 60F it was most pleasant. About 2/3 of the way to Pah Rah I came across a band of a dozen wild horses grazing peacefully just west of the broad ridgeline. They took no notice of me until I got within about a quarter mile, then one by one they paused to look up and watch me, wondering if I was a threat or otherwise. When I got within about 100 yards they started moving, heading west and then south in a large arc around me to let me pass and then continue their grazing. They would pursue a similar strategy in reverse upon my return. There was only a single colt among the band, staying close to its mother and watching her for signs that I might be something to worry about. Much of the route I traveled is littered with horse poop, often in large piles where the group decided to work together to create fecal landmarks, or "stud piles" as they are termed, though the behavior is not limited to stallions.
When I was 10 minutes from Pah Rah I came across a trio of pronghorn antelope, all does, grazing as the horses were. They were more skittish than the horses and wasted little time beating a retreat down the hillside before I got anywhere near to them. It was only with the help of the zoom lens that I was able to photograph them at all. It was 9:45a before I reached the summit, taking all of an hour for the hike. There was a small cairn with a register dating only to 2011 left by a large Great Basin Peak Section party. In what was becoming routine, I found Sue and Vic Henney had been to the summit only five months earlier. Though Pyramid Lake is visible from the summit, a better view is obtained by walking a few minutes north to a lower summit from where the view in that direction is much better. Tokahum Peak dominates the eastern edge of the lake. The PAH RAH benchmark appears to be missing, but one of the nearby reference marks is still there.
Another hour had passed before I was back at the car by 11a. As I was taking my pack off I noticed a tick on my pants, the first I had seen in this part of Nevada, but not too surprising considering the number of large mammals acting as transport mechanisms that can be found in the range. A closer inspection found several more ticks on my pants and shirt, and still more hiding in the flaps of my leg zippers. When I stripped to take a rinse a few more were discovered - in all I had about a dozen ticks latch onto me during the short hike. Oddly, I had seen none of the critters during the hike though I had paused several times to check, evidently my checks were too cursory as I really didn't expect to find them.
On my way back to Reno I stopped at a housing development just north of Sparks to see for myself what the housing crisis looked like on the front lines. The new town was called Spanish Springs and had been largely desert scrub before 2007. It had the look of any modern suburb, large homes on small lots, double pane, energy-efficient windows, three car garages and modern construction. The neatly manicured lawns on almost all the lots were brown and dead, watering having been stopped some time ago. The more drought-tolerant shrubs survived, those needing more water and the young trees all dead or dying. There was not a single car parked on the street and only about 1 in 4 homes showed any sign of occupation. There were something like 400 homes in this development and the look on all the streets I drove past was much the same - the making of a modern ghost town...
For more information see these SummitPost pages: Virginia Peak - Pah Rah Mountain
This page last updated: Wed Apr 25 08:43:55 2012
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