South-Central Nevada, also known as Pioneer Territory, is, in all fairness, harsh country. Here, the inevitable boom-and-bust cycle of a minerals-based economy has left an indelible mark, both socially and physically. Get-rich-quick towns that once boasted populations in the thousands are now empty shells, like Belmont and Rhyolite. Others, like Silver Peak and Goldfield, are in a state of “arrested decay.” Meanwhile, new boomtowns like Pahrump and Mesquite, fueled by expanding local economies and gambling revenues, are dealing with the immense challenges of double-digit annual population growth. And the entire West struggles with south-central Nevada’s nuclear monster. The atomic bomb tests held for 40 years at the Nevada Test Site are finally a thing of the past, but many Nevadans wonder what radioactive legacy remains. All the while they ponder the federal government’s plans for a new nuclear waste depository at Yucca Mountain near Beatty.
Yet, cities like Tonopah and Hawthorne that sprang up not long after Muir left have survived and matured in areas where mining continues in gigantic open pits. Much of the land itself is still wild – and still almost entirely owned by one or another arm of the government: BLM, US Forest Service, Department of Defense, Nevada Division of State Parks. The backcountry remains the land of cloudbursts, pinyon pine forests and basin and range that Muir admired. There are portions of Death Valley National Park, Toiyabe, Humboldt and Inyo National Forests, four federally designated wilderness areas that are among the least visited in the country, and six state parks to explore.
Geographically, Pioneer Territory is like a wrinkled blanket, with the Mojave Desert baking in the far west near the California border, and the narrow mountains and valleys characteristic of the Great Basin stretching east toward Utah. In the lowlands, smoky-blue sagebrush and greasewood roll on for miles and miles, giving way to serviceberry bushes and wildflowers in the foothills, forests of pinyon pine and juniper, then limber pine at higher elevations. There is plenty of unspoiled territory, where coyotes chase black-tailed jackrabbits and where mounton lions, Rocky Mountain elk, desert bighorn sheep and rainbow trout travel undisturbed in the mountains, all watched by golden eagles and red-tailed hawks.
Adventuring in Pioneer Territory is not without its hazards. People and services are scarce, and some roads go untrammeled for days or weeks at a time. In the Mojave Desert, temperatures routinely climb above 120°, and in the high elevations of the mountain ranges snowstorms can hit any time of the year. Go prepared in a reliable vehicle – some areas require 4WD – stocked with plenty of supplies and leave an itinerary and emergency instructions with someone reliable.
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