Lincoln County is a quick and handy getaway for Las Vegans, whether we’re looking for stunning scenery, solitude or a sojourn in the traditional West. The closest parts of it are only about an hour drive north of Las Vegas, but it sprawls across 10,634 square miles, and 5 million acres of that is public land. About 4,000 people live in the county, so there is plenty of elbow room for visitors. While it is easy to spend several days exploring this area, I found that even a day trip can include a lot of variety and bring one home to Las Vegas rejuvenated.
Earlier this month, two friends and I had just such an experience. On previous trips to Lincoln County, we spent most of our time exploring the historic mining town of Pioche, which still retains its charm and its role as Lincoln County seat. But on this trip, we concentrated on the southern part of the county, the part closer to the Las Vegas Valley. By the end of our day, we had gone birding at Pahranagat National Wildlife Refuge, checked out hot springs in Pahranagat Valley and poked around the historic railroad town of Caliente. The cream of the day, though, was seeing the sights along Rainbow Canyon, one of Southern Nevada’s most stunning drives.
On the road by first light, we made it to the 5,380-acre Pahranagat National Wildlife Range while the morning remained young and the avian activity at a high level. Drawn by the plentiful water in this desert region, more than 200 species of birds either make this area home or migrate through it. Permanent residents include great blue herons and common waterfowl such as ducks and geese, but the migratory visitors include such avian aristocrats as pelicans and swans.
Walking around the refuge’s 50-acre Upper Pahranagat Lake, we not only saw hundreds of birds but also found two beaver lodges. We didn’t manage to spot any beavers, but we’ll try again soon.
A few miles north of the refuge, we came to the little farm town of Alamo, which will be 110 years old this July. The agreeable green landscape is filled with small ranches, dotted with cattle and sheep. Only a few hundred people live here, mostly in modest homes. But one building will certainly catch your eye — an elaborate luxury lodging called A Cowboy’s Dream.
Although we wouldn’t be staying for the night, we stopped in and took a look around the place. We did not find a bed-and-breakfast of the ordinary sort, converted from some 19th-century home. A Cowboy’s Dream was built for the purpose, resembling and in some respects surpassing the upscale guest ranches of Arizona and Wyoming. No cost was spared in adorning the Great Room or the eight themed suites. Each is uniquely appointed with names such as "The Duke," "The Alamo" and "Annie Oakley." Their bathrooms have claw-foot tubs and natural-rain shower heads. And the suites are roomy; each is said to be at least 900 square feet. I think I’ve seen expensive New York apartments smaller than that.
Just a few minutes north of Alamo, we stopped at Ash Springs, one of many hot springs in the Pahranagat Valley. The water isn’t extremely hot, just pleasant for soaking, usually in the high 80s to low 90s. There are a couple of picnic tables and a rustic restroom, but you won’t find much solitude, because this is one popular spot.
Our next stop was the historic railroad town of Caliente. When the railroad from Los Angeles to Salt Lake City was built through here in 1905, this tiny pioneer town changed dramatically. By 1910, it had grown to more than 1,700 people. Caliente became a major division point on the railroad, and in its heyday a few years later, the population reached as many as 5,000 residents.
Economically, things went downhill quickly in the 1940s when diesel locomotives replaced steam, requiring fewer workers and fewer stops, and the division point was moved to Las Vegas. The most impressive building in town is the two-story stucco Caliente Train Depot, built in 1923 to replace the original wooden one that burned down. The city of Caliente has preserved the historic building by finding new uses for it; it houses the city hall and other government agencies.
Today, the population is said to be just more than 1,000, but the town has recently garnered national attention. Room 15 in the small Caliente Hot Springs Motel and Spa was where Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints polygamist Warren Jeffs allegedly performed several plural marriages involving underage girls. We found the motel closed when we visited.
It’s easy to see the railroad was the heart of this town. Main streets are laid out facing the tracks, and former company houses, built efficiently to the same style and mostly of lumber that could have arrived only by rail, stand within easy walking distance of the train yards. Today, much of the remaining business caters to travelers on U.S. 93, the scenic north-south route through Eastern Nevada.
Leaving Caliente, we backtracked less than a mile south from the center of town and went left onto Rainbow Canyon Road. This incredibly scenic road, one of the best in Southern Nevada, follows the canyon downstream along the Meadow Valley Wash about 20 miles to Elgin. Just a couple of miles into the drive is the turnoff for Kershaw Ryan State Park, established in 1935 and one of the park system’s secret gems. In a highly vegetated side canyon, the property is quite lush with rosebushes lining the manicured lawns, mature elms and cottonwoods providing plenty of shade and wild canyon grapes and columbine growing profusely up the canyon walls. All the vegetation is watered by natural springs. This is a great place to have a picnic, hike on one of the short network of trails, or cool off in the park’s spring-fed wading pool. It’s so restful you’ll think of taking a nap.
Returning to the main drag of Rainbow Canyon, we made our way south. Mature cottonwoods and ash thrive here, and behind them, in lovely contrast to the new green leaves, red and orange cliff walls tower on both sides of the road. Occasionally we passed ranches, farms, fruit orchards. Until recently, the road was in terrible shape, and the lower 10 miles were practically impassable because of major flooding in 1995. The road has been recently reconstructed in some places and completely repaved; it is once again a joy to drive.
Lincoln County is full of archaeological sites, and some of the better ones can be accessed from Rainbow Canyon. Prehistoric people from the Desert Archaic, Fremont and Southern Paiute cultures are known to have used Rainbow Canyon as a temporary, probably seasonal, home. These peoples hunted bighorn sheep and deer and gathered native plants such as pinyon nuts. The Fremont and Southern Paiute are thought to have farmed here, too.
One great place to visit is the Etna Cave site where you can view pictographs and the cave itself. Pictographs are rarer than other rock art because they are painted on the rock and survive only in sheltered places such as this cave. These were colored with red and orange hematite obtained from the nearby cliffs. It is not known who painted this rock art, but from the hundreds of artifacts found in the cave, experts have documented a 5,000-year sequence of occupation.
Our final stop of the day was the Elgin Schoolhouse State Historic Site. The one-room schoolhouse was used from 1922 through 1967 for children in grades one to eight who lived on ranches in Rainbow Canyon. You need to call ahead to the park ranger at Kershaw-Ryan State Park to schedule a tour. We hadn’t done so, but we took a look around the property.
Instead of returning to Caliente, we continued southwest off the Rainbow Canyon road and onto the 36-mile well-maintained, gravel Kane Springs Road. This would cut dozens of miles from our route, forming a scenic loop and bringing us back onto U.S. 93 south of Alamo and Pahranagat.
From there, we turned south toward home with a bit of regret, for we had run out of time before making it to the tiny town that has become perhaps Lincoln County’s most widely known: Rachel. Founded only a few decades ago and named for the first child born there, Rachel has become known as the "UFO Capital of the World," a fame that somehow stems from its proximity to the supposedly secret, and therefore famous, military testing ground known as Area 51.
Those are mysteries to explore another day. When we’ve managed to pack two historic towns, birdwatching, a hot-spring soak and a scenic drive into a single day, we can go home happy.