MOH and I began our recent trip up and over Ophir Summit by turning off Highway 50 onto old Highway 8A, now known as S.R. 376. We were headed west, toward Middlegate, we had my truck and not the Prius, and we had at least a half day to spare. Additionally, the weather was clear with no rain or snow expected. We’d have to see about snow on the high passes when we got there. Austin Summit was clear, the pass between Kingston Canyon and Big Creek looked clear, and some north slopes above 9500 feet had light snow left from a week or two prior.
We drove south into Big Smoky Valley, down 8A's long straight stretch, into Nye County, past the first curve in the road, and then past at least two more curves, until we finally saw the sign for Ophir Canyon about 34 miles south of U.S. 50.
I've been thinking about Ophir Canyon for a long time, perhaps since the first time I went up that road 32 years ago this month in October, 1978. That was the day after our newbie helicopter pilot forgot to pick me up—we were camped on Bowman Creek while mapping the Northumberland caldera. Driving up Ophir Canyon was our way of avoiding flying with that pilot ever again (for other reasons besides being left out all night).
Ophir Canyon, above, begins at its partly-in-shadow mouth on the left side of the photo, then goes through steep and rocky terrain to the summit in the far background, the sloping saddle left of the far peaks, also on the left side of the photo. That’s a climb from about 6250 feet at the range front to 10,109 at Ophir Summit. The lowest point on the Big Smoky Valley basin floor is at about 5450 feet.
I’ve long remembered the Ophir Canyon road as steep, rocky, and overhung where the road is cut into the hillside. It has, however, been my experience over these many years that most roads improve with time: my memory of roads traveled during my first years out in the desert has exaggerated any steepness and rockiness, and has generally made the roads worse than they really were. I was more impressed with these early roads, having fewer extreme roads to compare them to, and my 4WD driving skills have improved.
It's possible that I’ve been up the Ophir Canyon road once or twice since my initial encounter with it in 1978—but I don't clearly remember those trips, if they existed, and I do remember that first time, it being so intricately associated with unexpectedly staying out one cold October night.
So, with all these considerations, I was expecting the road to be less difficult than I remembered, less intense, less steep and rocky: a relative walk in the park. (It wasn’t less of anything.)
When we drove up to the mouth of Ophir Canyon, I immediately noticed that two signs were missing, signs I’d photographed during my earlier visit in October, 2008. You can see the post for the second sign behind a bush on the right side of the road, just where it narrows down in preparation for dropping into the canyon. I couldn’t recall what the missing signs said. (The first missing sign was shown on my last blog post.)
The second missing sign (left, photo from 2008) said, “Warning: Flash Flood Area.” Fortunately, there were only a few wisps of high cirrus scattered in the visible part of the western sky. The lower part of the sign said, and may still say, no cars, no 2WD trucks, and jeeps with tops down not recommended. One spot the size of a warning sticker is blank, as though some other warning is missing—perhaps one that says no long-bed 4WD trucks.
I’d have to agree with the warnings on this sign, and with the earlier sign, "Narrow Steep Road." Narrow: yes. Steep: yes. Road: maybe. Jeep trail would be a more accurate description of most of the road through Ophir Canyon, and on the South Toiyabe Peak, Nevada, 7.5 minute topo map, the road up Ophir Canyon is marked as a jeep trail, rather than a double-dashed dirt road, from about 1.5 miles into the canyon to within a mile of the summit. (Google Maps route through Ophir Canyon.)
Much of the Ophir Canyon road is overhung by alders, willows, and other road-encroaching brush. That’s why you shouldn’t go up in a topless jeep.
The lower part of the road requires crossing Ophir Creek about seventy-million times: six crossings are shown on old and new maps between the canyon mouth and the ghost town of Ophir, with most crossings being steep going into the creek and steep coming out. Crossings are usually narrowed and partially obscurred by willows and other brushy trees, and rocks are often scattered randomly here and there—the kind of rocks you don't want to hit with your transfer case, tie rods, or differentials, the kind of rocks you can't really see once past a certain point because they are hidden by the hood of your truck.
This is the best picture we got of a creek crossing—it’s not one of the rockiest or nastiest crossings; it’s probably the first. All creek crossings were successfully excecuted without scraping rocks even though my half-ton Chevy pickup truck has stock tires, tires that really should be one size taller for this kind of backcountry travel. [Photo © 2010 by MOH.]
The lower part of the road requires constant rock watching and dodging, and I managed to hit fairly good once, somewhere near the center of my truck, possibly on the transfer case bash plate. While driving, you need a good memory for rock placement, otherwise it seems as though they move between the time you last saw them—the time when you made the decision to ease by or over on the right or left—and the time when they disappeared from view behind the hood. It probably doesn't help being short while driving through these kind of rocks. But really, the thing that would be best would be one tire size taller—or a shorter wheelbase. [Photo © 2010 by MOH.]
We didn't get any pictures of the really rocky parts of the road. These parts were too attention demanding for me to feel comfortable stopping. I had the truck in Low Range most of the time because of the steep rockiness. I used low low on many occasions.
Here's a nice view of Mt. Jefferson, third highest peak in Nevada, taken on the uphill side of one of the creek crossings. All creek crossings had little pullouts on one side or the other, pullouts that allowed stopping and pulling off the road in case other traffic was passing by. Fortunately, we saw no one. The off chance of meeting someone coming down the hill while we were going up kept me quite vigilant, even though rules say the driver going uphill has the right of way. [Photo © 2010 by MOH.]
There are really no turnarounds in this lower part of the canyon, although it's possible that the little pullouts at each creek crossing might have allowed for very tight, multi-point turning to go back downhill. At one point (the second, third, or fourth crossing), I considered turning back, not remembering that the road had so many crossings, was so tight and overgrown, and was so rocky and steep, and because it was taking much longer than planned and the sun was getting lower and lower. I'm not sure if turning around would have been possible in a full-length pickup—this is where having a real jeep would have been ideal. I suspect that a jeep—or anything with a shorter wheelbase than my truck—would have been able to turn around.
The fall colors, seen in an in-your-face sort of way at times, were out in full force in the lower part of the canyon.
Then, about 30 minutes after entering the canyon mouth—30 minutes of not-quite knuckle-biting concentration—we arrived at a nice wide spot in the canyon, a wide spot where the oldtimers built the town of Ophir. This location was chosen partly because of its proximity to the old silver workings, and partly—no doubt—because the canyon is fairly wide and relatively flat, level ground being a commondity in short supply. One could turn around at Ophir, and I suspect that many people have.
Back in '78, it's entirely possible that we took a side cut instead of driving most of the lower canyon, a narrow side road which goes up to some of the canyon-mouth workings, and which avoids the many creek crossings in the lower canyon. That road would have come back into the canyon just below the town of Ophir. I have no idea what the side road is like today, though it's shown as a jeep trail on the old map (MSRMaps).
So much for the first part of the canyon—the passable part.