Visiting Austin, which celebrates its 150th anniversary this year, should be a high priority for anyone who loves the Silver State. The town's scenery and history are both colorful, and fall is a fine time to make the trip.
In the geographic center of our state on the northern section of the Toiyabe Mountain Range, Austin's main street is part of U.S. Highway 50, nicknamed "The Loneliest Road in America." Before the telegraph drove them out of business, Pony Express riders used to gallop down this canyon carrying the mail across the continent for $5 per half-ounce.
Austin came into being after William Talcott, an agent at a nearby Overland Mail and Stage stop, discovered a ledge of rich silver ore in Pony Canyon. News of the strike quickly spread and miners came to the area in droves. By 1863, Austin, and the surrounding Reese River Mining District, was home to more than 8,000 people.
While the town has only about 300 residents now, it is worth visiting for its mountain biking and fishing opportunities, historic significance and an abundance of scenic drives in the surrounding areas. This is also the time of year to see some great fall foliage.
The town is at an elevation of about 6,600 feet so expect cooler temperatures than in Southern Nevada. Average daily highs in October are in the 60s with lows dipping to the 30s. And be aware the town is no longer big enough to support grocery stores or fully stocked outdoor outfitters, and accommodations are limited.
A short walking tour of the town's historic buildings is a must. More than 10 sites are listed on the National Registry of Historic Places, but many more are worth your attention. You will find an eclectic mix of styles in homes and buildings. Most private residences are on the north side of town, and while some are on the verge of falling down, others are lovingly maintained. Some have become weekend retreats for well-heeled residents of Reno and even San Francisco.
Austin has three historic churches. The Catholic church and Methodist church, now used as a community center, were built in 1866. The Episcopal church followed in 1878. This is one of the prettiest churches I have ever entered, with California redwood ceilings and carved rafters. The altar and chancel furniture were constructed of black walnut. The organ was shipped from the East, all the way around the horn of South America. After arriving in San Francisco, it was hauled overland by freight wagon. Regular services are held there to this day.
Emma Wixom, a local girl who became an internationally famous singer performing as "Emma Nevada," returned to Austin in 1884 and gave a homecoming concert in this church before an overflow crowd. The locals were so proud of her, many who couldn't get in listened from outside despite the bitter cold of a Central Nevada December.
Of course, this was a mining town, so not all of its history is wholesome. Men murdered others here and were hanged for it - sometimes by legal means, sometimes by lynching. And a local saloon was the birthplace of a peculiar but famous institution named for a celebrated brandy, "The Sazerac Lying Club."
About a half-mile west of town along a well-maintained gravel road, you will find Stokes Castle. This three-story tower of native granite, completed in 1897, stands like a sentry overlooking the wide and scenic Reese River Valley to the west. The tower was constructed for Anson P. Stokes, an easterner who had a hand in mining and the railroads in Central Nevada. The castle was patterned after an old Roman watchtower. Sadly, it was lived in for only a couple of months in 1897 and has remained unoccupied ever since.
The mountain biking opportunities are endless around Austin, with something to offer all ages and abilities. There are nice easy trails, some that are heroically strenuous, and everything in between. One easy trail is the Castle Loop, which starts at Austin Park and travels about 4½ miles. For those with more stamina and experience seeking a strenuous ride, I would recommend the Gold Venture Loop. This will take you more than 27 miles with an elevation gain of 4,500 feet, but the scenery makes every mile well worth it. Be sure to pick up the Austin-Toiyabe Mountain Bike Trail Guide available at many of the local businesses or at the Toiyabe National Forest Austin Ranger District office.
For those who don't mind driving some good (yet very isolated) gravel roads, two in the surrounding area are as scenic as any in the state. Be sure to check the weather forecast before you set out, though, as you will cross through some high passes that can fill with snow on short notice as early as October. Either of these trips will take you six hours or so depending on how many stops you make.
The first is driving through Kingston Canyon. This is usually done as a 60-mile loop starting in Austin and traveling east about 12 miles on U.S. Highway 50, then south on State Route 376 for about 15 miles and taking a right onto Kingston Canyon Road. Along this road, you will find ruins from a mining camp, including the former Victorine Mill. You will also find plenty of water in the canyon, with great fishing in the creeks, Groves Lake and a couple of ponds. There are also plenty of camping opportunities, both dispersed and in official campgrounds.
Along the way, you will pass the trail head for the Toiyabe Crest Trail, which meanders for 70 miles - the longest maintained trail in Nevada. Soon after, you will find the old Kingston Guard Station. Then the road heads up a steep climb to a pass, which on my last visit was full of hundreds of grazing sheep. As the road heads farther west, you will pass by more creeks, including a possible river ford. The road then heads out to the Reese River Valley, where you have about 10 miles to go to return to U.S. 50 and back into Austin. Of course, you may prefer to turn and fish a few hours in the upper or lower Reese River, which holds rainbow, brook and brown trout.
Another interesting drive, about 100 miles long, is called the Toquima Cave-Northumberland Natural History Loop. Just a few hundred yards south of U.S. 50 along State Route 376, go left onto Pete's Summit Road, which travels southeast. The first stop would be about six miles in, for a visit to Spenser Hot Springs. You can take a soak for free in one of the many therapeutic springs. About 10 miles farther, you will find the small Toquima Cave Campground. Drive into the campground, and from here, you can take a five-minute walk along a well-worn trail to the cave itself. Toquima Cave is full of colorful pictographs made by ancient Shoshone Indians.
Continue on the road east about six miles down into Monitor Valley. Here you will go right, or south, and about eight miles farther, turn left on a side road for about one mile. This leads to one of the state's most unusual natural wonders, Diana's Punch Bowl.
The punch bowl is a giant hot spring, whose escaping waters over centuries built up a surrounding hill of travertine rock so the spring now resembles a volcano with a crater perhaps 50 feet in diameter. If you carefully stand on the edge of the well-like opening, you can look down into the geothermal pool. Some say they can smell sulfurous fumes. Don't attempt to go in, as the water temperature is said to be about 200 degrees Fahrenheit. There are no fences, so this is no place to bring children or tipsy traveling companions.
Back on the main road, drive about 11 miles south and go right to reach Northumberland Canyon. Along this road, you will find Northumberland Cave, a limestone cavern with large rooms and many interesting formations. The cavern should be visited only by able-bodied spelunkers because it is dangerous to enter and exit. Continuing on this road returns you to State Route 376, where you go north and back to Austin.
A driving tour booklet for these trips is available at the Austin Chamber of Commerce and various local businesses.
Because of its remoteness and limited accommodations, a visit to Austin may require a little more preparation than other journeys. But it also offers a greater variety of sights and an experience that's authentically Nevadan.