Friday, December 11, 2020

Grimes Point Petroglyphs

Grimes Point Petroglyphs
1.5 miles round trip, 200 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy-moderate
Access: Paved road to trailhead, no fee required

Just outside the town of Fallon, Nevada, the petroglyphs at Grimes Point are some of the oldest in the United States and a nice leg-stretcher for travelers driving the Loneliest Road in America. Hikers can visit the petroglyphs themselves on a very short hike, just a couple hundred meters long, or do a slightly longer hike to reach a nice viewpoint over Fallon and the Carson Sink. The trail is quite rocky with uneven footing, making it a more difficult hike considering its very mild length and elevation statistics. The petroglyphs are quite interesting but some vandalism at the site detracts from the experience; still, this is a satisfying short stop.

I visited the Grimes Point Petroglyphs during an autumn road trip through Nevada. The petroglyphs are just minutes outside the town of Fallon and just over an hour's drive from Reno. Many visitors may stop here as part of a road trip down US Route 50, the Loneliest Road in America. From Fallon, I reached the Grimes Point Petroglyphs by following US Route 50 east for 10 miles and then turning left at the signed turnoff for the Grimes Point Archaeological Area. Upon making this left turn, I immediately made another right turn to enter an unpaved parking lot for the hike. The site is overseen by the Bureau of Land Management.

There are two trails at Grimes Point: a 0.3 mile loop that wanders through the petroglyphs and the 0.6 mile (each way) Overlook Trail that leads from the parking lot to the top of a nearby hill with views over Fallon. The two trails start off together from the kiosk at the trailhead but split apart after just 50 yards, with the Overlook Trail heading to the right. I took the left fork, which led towards the petroglyphs.

A gentle and short ascent brought me to an area of huge basalt boulders, where I came to the loop; I took the left fork to do the loop clockwise. Thousands of years ago, these boulders defined Grimes Point, a protruding point on the shoreline of the prehistoric Lake Lahontan. A vast inland sea during the cooler temperatures of previous ice ages, Lake Lahontan connected many of what today are isolated endorheic watersheds in the Great Basin. The Truckee, Walker, and Humboldt Rivers all drained into this great lake, which filled the Carson Sink near Fallon and has left noticeable bathtub rings a few hundred feet up the sides of the mountains here. At Lake Lahontan's greatest extent, Grimes Point would have been underwater as well; however, as the climate warmed following the last ice age, the lake began to shrank. At one point, this boulder field at Grimes Point would have been near the shoreline of Lake Lahontan. Today, Pyramid Lake and Walker Lake are among the last permanent remnants of that once-great lake.

Humans arrived in the area as Lake Lahontan's shoreline receded, in the last 10000 years. Early human arrivals may have hunted along the lakeshore; at Grimes Point, these humans left their mark on the boulders here with rounded dents known as pit and groove petroglyphs. These petroglyphs may be as much as 8000 years old and are the oldest at this site and among the oldest petroglyphs known in the United States.

Many other boulders bear more complex, abstract designs: carvings that look like spirals, rainbows, or snakes. These petroglyphs are carved into the desert varnish on these boulders but unfortunately, many are faded. Equally unfortunately, many recent visitors have chosen to leave their own marks on the boulders here, confounding the problem of identifying real petroglyphs and in some cases potentially damaging archaeologically significant artifacts. 

There is ample evidence of human presence in the Grimes Point area; besides these petroglyphs, nearby Hidden Cave was a treasure trove archaelogical find filled with Native American hunting and fishing tools and other artifacts. Hidden Cave is only accessible through guided BLM tours on the second and fourth Saturdays of each month.

Pit and groove petroglyphs
Grimes Point Petroglyphs
Grimes Point Petroglyphs
At the end of the petroglyphs loop, I came to a junction with a connector trail to the Overlook Trail. Taking the left fork for this connector trail, I crossed through the boulder-strewn landscape, passing by a few more petroglyphs on the tenth of the mile stretch to meet the Overlook Trail. At the next junction, I came to the Overlook Trail; the left fork led to the overlook, while the right fork returned to the parking lot. A sign here indicated that the overlook was still a mile away; thankfully, this is an overestimate and it's only about 0.6 miles further from here.

Grimes Point Petroglyphs
While hiking, I heard the roar of fighter jets multiple times. Nearby Fallon is home to the Naval Air Station Fallon, which hosts the famed Navy fighter training program TOPGUN. TOPGUN has been at NAS Fallon since 1996, when it moved from its more famous home at Miramar outside San Diego. Navy fighter jets were taking off and landing from the airfield at NAS Fallon constantly and there were multiple supersonic low-elevation flybys on my hike. 
Fighter jet from Naval Air Station Fallon 
The Overlook Trail headed east, initially staying fairly level as it crossed a boulder-strewn plateau as it approached the base of the low, cliff-lined hill that was the destination for the hike. As I approached the base of the hill, the trail steepened as it continued through rocky terrain. The trail skirted the south side of the hill before coming to an unmarked junction. Here, the trail straight ahead continued east; I took the left fork, which switchbacked sharply and led more steeply up the hill. After ascending through a rocky band, the trail leveled out a bit once again before making a last uphill push to reach a set of interpretive placards at the western edge of the hill's flat summit.

The view here encompassed the desert flatlands of the surrounding basin, the Carson Sink. This basin collects water flowing from the Sierra Nevada down the Carson River and is one of the many endorheic watersheds of the Great Basin. The views from here encompassed nearby Fallon and the Naval Air Station and extended to the distant Carson Range by Lake Tahoe, close to the headwaters of the Carson River. Desert views to the south revealed playas- dried lakebeds- in parts of the basin, with layers on layers of mountains rising and fading out in the distance, a quintessential Basin and Range view. Northerly views of the hills surrounding the Carson Sink showed the bathtub rings left by ancient Lake Lahontan.

Looking out into the desert flats of the Great Basin
This was an enjoyable short hike with nice views and prehistoric petroglyphs. If you're driving the Loneliest Road through Nevada, this is a good hour-long stop to get some air and exercise while learning more about this corner of the Great Basin.

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