Following Interstate 15 and U.S. 3 north from Las Vegas into Lincoln County, travelers take a trip back in time. The sparsely populated region still relies upon agriculture, ranching, a bit of mining, some railroading and federal and state agency employment. Increasingly, the county aims for tourist income, but just a few of the millions who annually visit Nevada ever get there. Their loss, for Lincoln County offers varied recreational opportunities, wonderful Great Basin scenery and historic towns like little Panaca.
Panaca lies 165 miles from Las Vegas, a distance covered in about 21/2 hours. Watch for the junction with Highway 319, about 14 miles north of Caliente. It lies on the opposite side of the highway from the entrance to Cathedral Gorge State Park, one of several state parks in Lincoln County. Turn east on this highway that connects Eastern Nevada with Southern Utah. A drive of one mile takes you to Panaca.
Established by Mormon settlers in 1864, Panaca is the oldest community in Eastern Nevada and one of the oldest in the state. Continuously occupied since frontier times, Panaca maintains a steady population of about 800 people, the majority descended from the original settlers. With many examples of 19th century structures still standing, the village retains a charming air of being transported whole like Brigadoon from a time long past.
Typical of towns settled by early Mormon pioneers, Panaca follows a grid plan of tree-lined streets and generous residential lots surrounding its tiny business district and one-time public square, now filled by the Panaca Elementary School and the Lincoln County High School. A brochure outlining a self-guided walk around town points out significant public buildings and private homes. Printed guides may be available from county offices or the regional information center at Cathedral Gorge State Park, open all year. You may download the information from www.lincolncounty nevada.com, as well.
Mining activity resulting in the establishment of wild and wicked Pioche and dozens of mines and camps in Eastern Nevada actually started with discoveries of silver near the future town site of Panaca. Early in 1864, Mormon rancher William Hamblin from nearby Southern Utah explored the area for possible colonization in his capacity as a missionary. Led by native people, Hamblin explored an outcropping of rock known as “Panacker Ledge.” This proving to be rich in silver, the frontiersman, brother of peacemaker Jacob Hamlin, and others filed claims there that soon sparked a rush to the area.
That same year, church authorities sent Mormon settlers to farm in the verdant, water-rich area known as Meadow Valley Wash. At first housed within a fort in tents and dugouts, the hard-working pioneers soon had orchards planted, crops growing and livestock grazing on the natural meadows. They laid out their new little town of Panaca and rapidly replaced the temporary shelters with better homes built of adobe, stone and lumber cut and milled in the surrounding hills.
Soon Panaca fed itself, traded with Salt Lake City for goods it could not produce, and supplied the emerging mining camps and towns with vegetables, fruits, meat, eggs, dairy products, timber and ice cut from frozen ponds in winter. Tranquil and religious, Panaca never had an easy relationship with its rambunctious neighbors, but it has outlasted nearly all of them.
For years, Panaca offered food and fuel to passers-by, but no place to stay except for camping in a small RV park in town and campgrounds in nearby state parks. With the opening in December of the Pine Tree Inn, a bed and breakfast and commercial bakery, Panaca now offers accommodations to visitors.
Established in a remodeled 1940s home, the two-story Pine Tree Inn boasts four guest rooms with king or queen beds, private baths and satellite TV. Guests stay for $60 on weekdays and $85 on weekends, including a hot breakfast. Innkeepers Robert and Carol Mathews arrange for guests to explore the region on guided horseback and ATV rides starting at $30 an hour horseback and $50 an hour on an ATV. Call (775) 962-2495 or visit www.pinetreebnb.com.
Margo Bartlett Pesek’s column appears on Sundays.