Tuesday, December 8, 2020

Arc Dome

Arc Dome rises in the heart of Nevada's Great Basin
14 miles loop, 4550 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Strenuous
Access: Rough, bumpy road to trailhead (high-clearance vehicle needed), no fee required

At 11781 feet, Arc Dome is the tallest peak in Nevada's remote Toiyabe Range and an excellent hike for those who want to experience the isolation and beauty of the Great Basin. The Toiyabe Range is one of the tallest in central Nevada and the longest mountain range in the state and Arc Dome is both one of the taller and more prominent peaks in the state. From Arc Dome's summit, the layer upon layer of mountains of the Basin and Range stretch of the horizon in every direction, a testament to the vastness of Nevada's desert and mountain landscapes. The hike to the summit of Arc Dome is fairly challenging but is made easier by the expansive views of the Toiyabe Range, aspen groves that display spectacular colors every fall, and the chance to see collections of arborglyphs left by Basque sheepherders throughout the 20th century. This hike is quite remote and requires some effort to reach. First time visitors to the Great Basin may be better served hiking Wheeler Peak in Great Basin National Park or North Schell Peak for those looking for a quieter experience, but Arc Dome is still a worthy summit for those looking to be truly off the beaten path.

There are two routes to the summit from the trailhead at Columbine Campground; as there aren't many descriptive trail names in the Arc Dome Wilderness, I'll simply refer to these routes as the left-hand route and the right-hand route based on which fork you take at an early trail junction. The right-hand route is the more standard route, with a straightforward ascent from the campground to the Toiyabe Crest, where it joins up with the left-hand route. The left-hand route sticks close to Stewart Creek and ascends to the crest more quickly but involves more elevation gain. The two routes are about the same length. Views are better on the right-hand route but the left-hand route visits a particularly impressive set of Basque arborglyphs in an aspen grove. The route I recommend- and the one I'll describe here- is to ascend via the more straightforward right-hand route and then to decide on the descent whether to make the hike a loop by returning via the left-hand route.

I hiked Arc Dome in late September during a trip through Nevada's Great Basin. Arc Dome is an extremely isolated part of Nevada: the trailhead at Columbine Campground is 5.5 hours from Las Vegas and 3.5 hours from Reno. The closest sizeable town is Fallon, still 2.5 hours away. The last stretch of the drive to reach Columbine Campground is in poor shape, requiring a drive through a creek and through badly eroded and potholed regions. A high clearance vehicle is highly recommended- needed, really- and 4WD wouldn't hurt, either. Even before the rough 8-mile stretch from the Yomba Tribal Council to Columbine Campground, it's necessary to drive long stretches of washboarded dirt roads just to reach the trailhead access road.

There are two approaches for reaching Columbine Campground from US Route 50: approaching via Gabbs or from Austin. The approach from Gabbs is an easier drive as it requires less extensive driving on gravel roads (the approach from Austin requires about 35 miles of driving on unpaved roads). I left Fallon by following US Route 50 east for 47 miles to Middlegate- which is really just one bar in the middle of nowhere- and then I turned right onto Nevada Highway 361. I followed Highway 361 south for 30 miles to a junction with Nevada Highway 844, just north of the hamlet of Gabbs. I turned left on Highway 844 and followed it east across the Paradise Range. The highway then descended into and crossed the next basin. Just after passing the turnoff for Berlin-Ichthyosaur State Park, the highway turned into a gravel road and stayed gravel from there on out. I passed the ghost town of Ione and then crossed the Shoshone Range at Ione Summit before descending into the Reese River Valley. Highway 844 ended at a T-intersection with Nevada Highway 21 (also unpaved) at a small village in the middle of Yomba Tribal Lands. I turned left at the intersection and then immediately turned right at the junction after that, where a sign indicated the direction to Columbine Campground. I followed this road across the Reese River and then turned right again at a road signed "Columbine." This road was initially good gravel as it crossed the dry creekbed of Clear Creek and made its way up the sloped floor of the Reese River Valley towards the Toiyabe Range. Follow signs for "Stewart Creek" or "Columbine Campground" at any road junctions. About halfway up this 8-mile road, I had to drive across Stewart Creek, which still had flow after a dry summer; there was probably close to 6 inches of water here at a very dry time of year, so you should almost certainly bring a high clearance vehicle if coming earlier in the year. Past the creek crossing, the road condition deteriorated significantly, with deep ruts in the road and some extreme potholes. A sedan would have a really hard time making it; play it safe and drive a high clearance vehicle when you come. The road ended at Columbine Campground, where there was a small, unmarked parking area for day use visitors. While the campsites- all five of them- were full when I arrived, there were no other day use visitors parked at the time of my arrival nor when I departed in the evening.

The trailhead was clearly marked with a kiosk and a sign saying "Crest Trail." The trail passed through a fence and then quickly began climbing, almost immediately passing a sign welcoming me to the Arc Dome Wilderness in Toiyabe National Forest. After a quick and short ascent through an aspen grove, the trail leveled out as it broke out into an open sagebrush meadow. Views opened up of the Toiyabe crest ahead, with aspens covering many portions of the range's lower slopes. Many of these aspens, including a grove of aspens lining nearby Stewart Creek, had turned color and were displaying bright yellows and oranges. However, the presence of many green aspens indicated that I had arrived slightly before peak color; in most years, you'll probably see good fall foliage here during the last week of September and the first week or so of October.

Aspens along Stewart Creek
A quarter mile into the hike, the trail reentered an aspen forest and arrived at the main split between the two approaches to Arc Dome. A trail sign here pointed to the left for Stewart Creek; the the trail heading straight ahead (the right-hand route) was unsigned but obvious. As mentioned earlier, I chose to take the right-hand route up and returned later in the day along Stewart Creek on the left-hand route.

The right-hand route made a constant and steady ascent through aspens forests for the next three-quarters of a mile along a southern fork of Stewart Creek, at one point crossing over what was now a dry creekbed. Some of the aspens were displaying beautiful fall colors but most of the aspens that I passed here were still largely in their green summer coats. As I passed through one grove with many mature aspens, I spotted the first examples of Basque arborglyphs on this hike; many were just signatures, attendance records of Basque sheepherders who watched over grazing herds in these mountains, while others conveyed messages such as "Viva Espana." Many Basque immigrants worked as herders in the California and Nevada portions of the Great Basin until the mid-20th century; alone in the mountains, they turned to carving these messages in trees to entertain themselves, leave a record, and communicate with other herders.

Basque arborglyphs on an aspen
After a frequently stiff ascent and a mile of hiking from the trailhead, I broke back out into the open as I entered another sagebrush meadow. The first views of the hike emerged, with the peaks of the Shoshone Mountains rising across the Reese River Valley to the west.

Shoshone Mountains and the Reese River Valley with Toiyabe Range aspens
Upon leaving the aspens, the trail leveled out as it entered a high sagebrush valley bound by smooth rocky ridges. Although unsigned, the trail must leave the wilderness here for a bit, as it approaches a barbed wire fence; the land beyond is likely still being leased for grazing. 

Sagebrush uplands on the ascent
The trail wandered up the small valley towards a grove of aspens and then turned sharply, crossing a fork of Stewart Creek that flows down this valley before ascending up the opposite side of the valley to reach a gentle ridgetop.

Colorful aspen grove
On the ridgetop, the single-track trail that I had followed up to this point joined an old Jeep track that led uphill along the ridge. The next 1.2 miles was a sustained but moderate ascent along the back of this broad sagebrush ridge towards the Toiyabe Crest. As I hiked progressively higher, views opened up wider and wider: soon, the entirety of the Shoshone Mountains and the Reese River Valley were laid out below me and I could see to some of the other ridges up and down the Toiyabe Range. Looking forward, a ridge appeared to rise ahead of the trail; although this might seem like it is the Toiyabe Crest, it is in fact a false ridge; there was more elevation gain necessary to reach the backbone of this mountain range. The vegetation also changed as I ascended, transitioning from sagebrush to alpine grasses.

At about 3 miles from the trailhead, an unmarked side trail peeled off to the right; I stayed on the main Jeep track, which began a much more taxing ascent at this point as it pushed up a steeper slope, climbing about 500 feet in a half mile. At the top of this ascent, I emerged onto a broad summit plateau that led up to the Toiyabe crest itself. Here was the first trail view of Arc Dome, an impressive and isolated peak to the south. Another half mile of hiking with a gentler ascent brought me to a junction with the Toiyabe Crest Trail, 4 miles from and 2500 feet above the trailhead.

Shoshone Mountains and the Reese River Valley
The Toiyabe Crest Trail (TCT) is a long distance trail that follows the alpine crest of the Toiyabe Range, crossing many major summits in the range including Arc Dome. From here to the top of Arc Dome, the hike follows the TCT. The sign at the junction with the TCT simply indicated that the TCT ran in both directions along the high crest plateau; to reach Arc Dome, I turned right and headed south. On the return trip, I took the other fork to link up with the trail descending the north fork Stewart Creek drainage.

While the TCT did follow the Toiyabe Crest, unfortunately it wasn't directly on the ridgeline, instead just crossing the plateau-like high reaches of the range as it headed south on the broad slopes of North Arc Dome. To check out views to the east, I took a detour to the ridge from the trail to check out views of the North Twin River drainage. I'm glad I did as the views were excellent. The view here encompassed a deep cirque on the east side of the Toiyabes, cradled between North Arc Dome and Cirque Mountain. A grove of aspens with incredibly vibrant fall colors filled the valley below. Beyond the Toiyabes was a vast dry lakebed filling Big Smoky Valley; the Toquima Range and the many other ridges of the Basin and Range rose beyond that, with the Diamond Range near Eureka visible in the distance. 

Aspens in the cirque at the head of North Twin River
Returning to the trail, I continued south, following the plateau as it made a gradual ascent towards the local high point of North Arc Dome. Views to the west were quite nice, encompassing not only the Shoshone Mountains but the many ranges filling the Great Basin between where I stood and the Sierra Nevada. After following the TCT for just under a mile, I passed the high point of the trail on North Arc Dome. As the plateau began sloping downhill and the trail followed, Arc Dome emerged, its mighty peak- somehow both rounded and sharp at the same time- rising above an alpine saddle. From North Arc Dome, the trail dropped 600 feet to a saddle before climbing 1100 feet in the final stretch of the hike.

Arc Dome
The trail made a moderately steep descent to the saddle between North Arc Dome and Arc Dome itself. It is this substantial elevation drop that gives this hike over 4500 feet of elevation gain even though Arc Dome's summit is just 3150 feet above Columbine Campground. In fact, the trail descended enough that at the saddle it was flirting with the treeline again; prior to this, I hadn't seen a tree close up in over four miles of hiking. At the saddle, there were nice views of aspen groves in the Big Sawmill Creek valley to the west and of Toiyabe Dome rising to the east amidst a more forested region of the Toiyabe Range.

View of the Toiyabe Range and Shoshone Mountains from the saddle beneath Arc Dome
Departing from the saddle, the trail followed Arc Dome's north ridge, making a final ascent of 1100 feet in a mile. The trail made an intial 300 foot climb to a low shoulder on the ridge before embarking on an ascent up the steep north ridge using short, sharply cut switchbacks. The terrain was very rocky but the trail was a bit less rocky and was easy to follow. Having left the Bay Area just the previous morning, I had not yet adjusted to the altitude and struggled a bit on this final uphill. However, a long push brought me on top of north ridge as it leveled out near the summit; a bit of final, easier ridge walking brought me to the top of Arc Dome, the 12th tallest peak in Nevada and one of the 57 ultraprominent peaks (mountains with over 5000 feet of topographic prominence) in the United States.

The summit of Arc Dome
The summit was topped with a wind shelter assembled from rocks. The 360-degree views were excellent. The crest of the Toiyabe Range extended north from here, reaching a few more notable high points to the north like Bunker Hill. Arc Dome is the last truly high peak on the north-south axis of the Toiyabe Crest; the mountains dropped away to the south, fading into lower, barren desert hills. However, the Toiyabe Crest turned here and rose impressively to the east, culminating in nearby Toiyabe Dome. Past Toiyabe Dome was Big Smoky Valley, which had a large playa at its center. Mount Jefferson rose steeply on the other side of the Big Smoky Valley: the highest peak in the Toquima Range, it is just a hair taller than Arc Dome and is the other ultraprominent peak of central Nevada.

View east to Toiyabe Dome and Mount Jefferson
View north along the Toiyabe Range and Big Smoky Valley
To the west, the Basin and Range stretched towards the Sierra Nevada. Unfortunately, a cloak of haze hung over the horizon due to massive wildfires that were burning in California at the time. However, early in the day, I was able to see all the way to the White Mountains on the California-Nevada border, which are the highest mountain range wholy within the Great Basin. I could see many of the nearby mountain ranges that I had driven past on my way to the trailhead from Carson City: past the Shoshone Range was the Paradise Range near Gabbs, and past that was the Fairview Range near Middlegate, where a 7.2 magnitude earthquake in 1954 left visible fault lines and reminded us that the extensional tectonic processes that created the Basin and Range are still active. On a clear day, one should be able to see across the Carson Sink to the Carson Range near Lake Tahoe. I know that Mount Grant- the high peak that rises above Walker Lake- was in my field of view, but I had a difficult time identifying it.

View across the southern end of the Toiyabe Range towards the White Mountains
Basin and Range
While at the summit, I ran into the one other hiker on the trail that day, a member of the Yomba Tribe who had wanted to hike Arc Dome his entire life until finally doing so on that day. A review of the summit register suggested it was a rare occurence for more than a single hiking group to be on the summit on a given day.

Leaving the summit, I backtracked to the junction of the Toiyabe Crest Trail with the jeep track from which I came up. Along the trip back, I had to ascend 600 feet from the saddle north of Arc Dome to regain the Toiyabe crest; this was a bit of a chore by this point as I had become quite tired. However, as I was still on schedule for the day, I decided to return via the alternate route (the left-hand route) to add a bit more variety to my day. When I returned to the junction, I took the right fork and continued north along the TCT.

I initially chose this route for the return in hopes of seeing some nice new views while following the TCT. Unfortunately, there weren't too many new views along this stretch of the TCT. A short, gentle ascent from the junction brought me to the top of the ridge; from here, the trail dropped down into the watersheds on the eastern side of the range to a saddle between the Toiyabe Crest and Cirque Mountain. Intrepid and energetic hikers can probably easily climb Cirque Mountain from here, but I was tired and ready to get back to the car so I just continued onwards. The trail descended along a small ravine on the western slopes of Cirque Mountain, dropping steeply towards the end until it entered a mixed conifer and aspen forest at the top of the North Twin River watershed.

Here, the trail came to a junction with the North Twin River Trail, a mile past the previous junction where I had split from the route I had taken on the way in. I took the left fork at this junction, which kept me on the TCT. Unfortunately, having descended into a valley on the eastern side of the Toiyabe Crest, I now had to ascend back to a pass over the range to return to the trailhead at Columbine Campground. Fortunately, this ascent was only about 150 feet; the Toiyabe Crest Trail made a switchback while it climbed out of the valley, with nice views of Cirque Mountain and distant Mount Jefferson. 

Cirque Mountain rises above the headwaters of North Twin River
Once at the pass, the TCT was at the head of the north fork Stewart Creek drainage and views of the Shoshone Mountains and the Reese River Valley returned. The Toiyabe Crest Trail began a gentle descent as it traversed the slopes high above the Stewart Creek valley below, reentering a forest. About 0.4 miles from the pass and 1.6 miles after I branched off from the route I had taken up, I arrived at another junction. A sign at this junction indicated that the TCT headed to the right; I took the unsigned left fork, which descended into the Stewart Creek watershed.

The Stewart Creek Trail made a number of switchbacks as it descended steeply through aspen-covered slopes into the valley below. There were many beautiful views along this descent: the aspens near the trail had turned color, their bright colors contrasting brilliantly with the duller desert colors of the Reese River Valley and the Shoshone Mountains. Looking down into the Stewart Creek valley below, I saw plenty of aspens ahead, some of which had turned bright yellow but most of which were still in their summer green.

Aspens in the valley of the north fork Stewart Creek
A steep descent of nearly a thousand feet from the pass brought me down to the bottom of the valley and its forests of mature aspen. The valley was pleasantly flat and the hiking through the aspens was enjoyable. Here, I discovered the true rewards of this route: a gallery of Basque arborglyphs on display on the trunks of the larger aspens. There's a lot of more recent tree carvings here as well, so it can be initially a bit difficult to suss out what are Basque arborglyphs and what are more recent tree graffiti. The dates help: Basque sheepherders were leaving messages and carving drawings into these trees into the 1970s. Many signatures are dated; the ones signed in the 1920s to 60s are very likely actual Basque arborglyphs. Unlike the arborglyphs I had seen that morning, these trees had many more drawings. Fidel Castro and nude women appeared to be two common themes here: apparently the Basque herders tending sheep in the Great Basin embraced left-wing politics and yearned, understandably, for human companionship. There was a carving of a man with a hat and a walking cane that might have been a self-portrait. In my week of hiking in the Great Basin, visiting the Ruby Mountains, the Toiyabe Range, the Snake Range, and the Schell Creek Range, I found this to be the most impressive and extensive collection of Basque arborglyphs.

Basque arborglyphs on aspens
Basque arborglyphs on aspens
Basque arborglyphs on aspens
Continuing downhill past the aspen grove, the trail exited the forest and returned to the sagebrush meadows. The trail passed a few stands of red-leafed aspens before heading out onto the open top of a low ridge. I followed this low ridge downhill, enjoying views of the aspens covering the surrounding ridges and the faraway Shoshone Mountains.

Aspens and sagebrush in the Stewart Creek watershed
After a long, gradual descent down this low ridge, I reentered the aspen forests and finally crossed over another branch of Stewart Creek to rejoin the main trail at the first junction of the hike that day. Turning right, I followed the trail back the final quarter mile to Columbine Campground.

Arc Dome is a lovely hike. You might like it if you want to find a hike that allows you to get away from it all and enjoy the solitude of the desert, but if you're just looking for an enjoyable and scenic summit experience in the Great Basin, you can find hikes that are less remote, less tiring, and equally scenic out by Ely like Wheeler Peak and North Schell Peak. Come for the vast views of the desert, the abundance of Basque arborglyphs, and the isolation of being in the middle of nowhere.

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