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Pocket of perfection in Eastern Nevada

Nevada’s state parks are as diverse as our extraordinary landscapes, and each was set aside for its own special attributes. In the case of Kershaw-Ryan State Park, located in nearby Lincoln County, it is an oasis in the desert that has been made even more enjoyable by man’s improvements.

When a group of us needed a break, while returning from a camping trip up north, we decided to stop and check out this park. Only a few miles drive south of Caliente, we found a lovely canyon with lush vegetation, picnic areas, volleyball courts, horseshoe pits, a couple of backcountry hiking trails and a spring-fed wading pool.

Kershaw Canyon was named for homesteaders Samuel and Hannah Kershaw, who lived here in the 1870s. Other early settlers followed from 1892 to 1904. At one point, there were enough people to support a post office. In 1904, the Kershaws sold their land to cattle rancher James Ryan of Caliente.

The property was then known as “Kershaw Gardens,” and Ryan held onto it until 1926, when he and his wife donated the land to be used as a public park. Things really got going during 1934-35 when the Civilian Conservation Corps improved the property by adding picnic spots, campsites, a caretakers’ cabin, toilets and the spring-fed wading pond. In 1935, when Nevada created the state park system, Kershaw-Ryan became part of it, along with Cathedral Gorge, Valley of Fire and Beaver Dam.

This was a fairly small park of only 240 acres until recently, when the park received close to 1,500 acres from the Bureau of Land Management.

The spring-fed wading pool is perfect if you have children in your group. At only two-feet deep and about the area of a large backyard swimming pool, it’s safe for little folk, while larger models cool themselves by lying down in the water or sitting on the edge and dipping their feet.

The day we visited, we had the entire park to ourselves, and it felt more like visiting some rich friend’s estate than a public park. The manicured lawns and rose bushes were flanked by canyon grapes and deciduous trees, all kept well-watered by natural springs. These springs are mostly thanks to fault lines in the rock. There are nine springs that flow through the park. All the water used for landscaping and pools are from these springs.

The surrounding cliffs were carved by deep channels of water within the volcanic rock.

The most dominant trees in the main area of the park are cottonwoods, willows, dogwoods and Gambel’s oaks, but there also are fruit trees, including apples, pears and plums, remnants of an orchard the Kershaws planted.

Natural plant communities in the park number four — desert scrub, mountain brush, riparian and, in the higher elevation areas, a pinyon-juniper community. Spring flowers include four o’clocks, Palmer’s penstemon, firecracker penstemon and phacelia.

Habitats and plants so varied naturally support a rich variety of wildlife, including mountain lions, coyotes, bobcats and foxes.

During our visit, we kept seeing an entirely red bird with yellowish bill about the size of an oriole. He was flying back and forth between two trees near the wading pond. With binoculars, we were able to identify it as a male summer tanager, rare for this area, more often found south of here.

Look for canyon wrens, warblers, towhee, lazuli buntings, hummingbirds, western tanagers, Bulloch’s orioles, canyon jays, hawks and occasionally a golden eagle.

As yet, there is only a small network of interconnecting trails. They are the one-mile Canyon Overlook Trail and the Horsespring and Rattlesnake Canyon Trails, each half a mile long, that spur off from the main trail.

Because the park is located in a canyon, it has been the subject of severe flash flooding. The most devastating floods were in 1984, when two episodes came through causing such bad damage the park had to be closed. Through the Parks and Wildlife Bond Issue, which Nevada voters passed in 1990, funds were available to the park for restoration and, in 1997, it reopened to visitors.

The park’s elevation ranges from 4,312 to 5,080 feet, so you can expect temperatures to run about 10-15 degrees cooler than Las Vegas. It is open year-round, but the ideal times to visit are from spring through fall, as snow is common in winter.

The park just put the finishing touches on a new campground. Unlike the original campground, this one is located out of the flood plain, closer to the park entrance on the north side of the road.

The campground has 15 sites, plus one for the campground host.

The Elgin Schoolhouse State Historic Site, located about 18 miles south of the park, became part of Kershaw-Ryan in 2005. The rural school was used from 1922 through 1967, but is currently closed because of damage suffered in 2005 floods.

It is expected to reopen when State Route 317 (Rainbow Canyon Highway), south of Kershaw-Ryan, is back in drivable shape for vehicles, perhaps sometime in 2011 or 2012.

This primitive scenic road is passable now, yet only to adventurous motorists in four-wheel drive vehicles who are willing to take their time.

We left that for another day and resumed homeward on the regular route, refreshed by our sojourn in a little-known but rewarding pocket of rural Nevada.

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