Summer is beginning to wane, and it makes you think of all the uncompleted rides up in the Sierras that you had on the list for the year. High altitude, singletrack, forested mountains, alpine lakes, and solitude. The only problem is that these rides can require some lengthy driving to the trailhead, and on a busy labor weekend this is not always desirable. So instead of heading up to Lake Tahoe, Scott Russel, Jesse Richardson, and I chose to ride from the neighborhood up into the arid mountains north of Carson City to experience the Old West world of Virginia City.
Ever since the restoration of the V&T Railroad went in, I’ve heard people discussing how nice it would’ve been if a multi-use trail had been built alongside the tracks. If you look at the map or do some exploring though, you’ll find that there are plenty of roads and trails that parallel the railroad tracks, or at least go in the same general direction. All that really needs to be done to start enjoying a trail now is to designate and mark a recommended route. So while this ride was much recreational, we also had the GPS going, collecting data and finding the most desirable off-road routes to connect Carson City and Virginia City.
We headed out from the neighborhood around 8:45, and rode east towards Centennial Park. It was a cool late summer morning, but warm enough to leave any heavy cool weather gear at home. By the time we left the pavement, things warmed up to a perfect temperature that would last all day. We followed the Centennial Singletrack up and over the hills to Mound House, where we met up with the V&T tracks.
A short time later we reached Linehan Road. There seemed to be a few options to get over to Red Rock Road from here, but we chose to ride up Linehan Road, make a right on McClellan Road, and then had a fun descent on an unimproved dirt road down to Red Rock Road where we rejoined the V&T tracks. We followed the tracks to what I believe is the old American Flat Toll Road, the nice road leading north into the mountains just west of the water tank.
The next leg of the journey up the American Flat Toll Road is very pleasant, a gentle climb that never becomes too steep all the way up to American Flat. The hills are very scenic in this area, with many canyons and evidence of past mining activity. We didn’t see any wild horses in the area as we expected, but there were certainly signs of them, especially around the springs we encountered.
The American Flat Toll Road finally arrives at a big valley known as American Flat, and is just west of Silver City and Gold Hill. Apparently there used to be a little town here, but there’s not much of anything left except a few mining operations. These days, when people talk about American Flat, they are usually referring to the old remains of the United Comstock Merger Mill. According to the BLM Website, the mill was built in 1922 to process local gold and silver ore utilizing cyanide vat leaching in what was then described as the largest concrete mill in the United States. These days though, the old mill more closely resembles a post-apocalyptic city. It has been more recently used as a party spot, a canvas for graffiti artists, and an arena for paint-ball warriors. Use extreme caution when visiting the place, as the concrete is crumbling, there are many open pits, and plenty of exposed rebar. There have been many injuries and even deaths out at the mill site, but the authorities have had a hard time keeping the place shut down. It’s just too interesting of a place to keep the curious explorer out.
We turned east prematurely, and came to a dead-end above the mill site. The lookout on the cliff side did give us a good panoramic view of the area though. We backtracked, and took the next road down into the site. I hadn’t been up here in almost 20 years, but the old shells of the buildings were just as spooky as I remembered them. I stayed out of the catacombs below the place, and just poked around the main building. There’s definitely a lot to look at on the walls.
After taking in the scenery at the United Comstock Merger Mill, we climbed out of American Flat and rode over to Gold Hill, staying on dirt roads until nearly the Gold Hill Hotel. The pavement is steep here, the steepest terrain we had been on all day.
Just past the Gold Hill Hotel, we came to the railroad tracks again. The gates were down, and the train was crossing. It was a good excuse to rest as we prepared for the even steeper grade up around the bend. After the train passed we continued our ascent. But just as we crossed the tracks, one of the locals called us over to his house and wanted to talk about our ride. He reminded us how steep the road was going to get around the corner, and suggested we take the next right on Homestead Road, a dirt road that takes the long way around the hill, joins the truck route, and gently climbs up into Virginia City. He also told us we wouldn’t be finding beers at the Cafe del Rio this day, since they were closed. This is just the kind of advice we needed. We thanked our new friend, and finished off the ride into town.
When we got to the top of the truck route at the south end of Virginia City, we noticed they weren’t letting traffic down C Street, the main street through town. There was a parade about to start! All sorts of characters were lined up ready to march through town. We took the higher B Street and rode to the north end of town, and kept our eye open for the best place to get some beer, food, and a nice spot to watch the parade.
We ended up at the Red Dog Saloon. The street wasn’t as crowded here, and the view of the parade would be unobstructed even while sitting at the bar! We hitched the bikes up out front, ordered a round of beers to wash down the trail dust, and selected a medium pizza off the menu. How often do get to do this midway through a mountain bike ride?
It’s a Parade!
As we thoroughly enjoyed our beer and pizza, the parade passed by on the street. We saw dancing girls, gun fighters, Civil War soldiers, Mexican cowboys, and a whole bunch of other characters. And since we were near the end of the parade route, many of the marchers came back up the sidewalk and even into our saloon after they were done. Two of my favorite characters were Diamond Jim the dynamite laden miner, and the tall menacing cowboy, dressed in black, carrying a whip, and ready to pistol whip anyone that got out of line.
We ordered another round of drinks, and discussed our route home. Originally, we had planned to drop down near Mound House, and catch the road that follows the Carson River back to Carson City. We were enjoying being up in the mountains though, and decided to take Ophir Grade up over the pass, and come back around the west side of McClellan Peak. I hadn’t studied this route on the map, but what the heck, we were rejuvenated from lunch, and this was an adventure right?
We rode back to the south end of town, all the way to the Gold Hill sign at the NDOT maintenance station, and headed west on the Ophir Grade road. This road gently climbs towards the pass, but it wasn’t long until HWY 342 was far below us. We continued climbing, viewing American Flat off to the east in the valley below, and then finally made it to the top of the pass. From the pass, Jumbo Grade descends over the other side into Washoe Valley to the northwest. We continued along Ophir grade to the south, not knowing what we’d find, but pleased that we were headed in the right direction.
We eventually came down to a saddle just to the north of McClellan Peak. There was a road climbing up the mountain, a road to the east descending back to American Flat, and a wonderful looking flat road that circled the mountain to the west. Wanting to get over to Goni Road in Carson City, we chose to head west on the route with less climbing, hoping that it would stay nice and flat the whole way.
The road seemed very encouraging for the first few miles with outstanding views of Mount Rose, Washoe Lake, and even Reno far to the north. We passed little groves of bushes and trees that were thriving off springs coming out of the mountain. We even rode through a stand of giant thistles that Jesse failed to see in time. Ouch!
Just when we thought the nice road would go on forever, the road dived down into a canyon. It looked as if the proud road builder suddenly suffered a debilitating stroke, sending the road grader madly up and down the hill. We didn’t see much other choice than to follow the road down, and then steeply climb right back to the level we were at.
Our legs were tired, and we hoped that we wouldn’t get another dip as bad as the one we had just climbed out of. But then it got worse! We came to a downhill so steep, that only Scott had the guts to ride down the silt covered hard pack. Jesse and I used our bikes as walkers, keeping the brakes on to help slow our descent. Jesse heard Scott howling at the bottom and was certain that he had crashed. It turned out he was just so happy to have made it to the bottom with the rubber side down! We regrouped at the bottom and then began the long hike up the other side.
I knew that the worst had to be behind us, and as it turned out, it was. We finally arrived on the hillside above the volcanic rock deposits on McClellan’s west side. From here it was a fast and fun descent all the way down to Goni Road, and then an even faster descent back into Carson City. We arrived home around 4 PM, our final mileage was 32.6 miles, and we were glad to be back.
In the end we were really happy with our route climbing to Virginia City. There were areas for fine tuning, but overall it was a good ride and very scenic. We definitely would take a different route coming back. Although scenic, there was too much walking, and there are almost certainly some better routes to take. But going back for some more exploration will be lots of fun!
Download the Google Earth KMZ files of the map HERE.
Here are a couple of articles about the toll roads leading to Virginia City:
The full photo set of this trip can be found HERE.
Scott’s photos from the trip are HERE.
And Jesse has a few photos too HERE.