Thursday, December 3, 2020

Smith Lake (Nevada)

Smith Lake
2.5 miles round trip, 800 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy-moderate
Access: Paved road to trailhead, no fee required

Nevada's Ruby Mountains hide a number of watery gems just outside the dusty desert town of Wells on I-80 and the hike to Smith Lake is an easy way to see two lakes in the beautiful setting of the Rubies. This is a short hike with a big payoff and while it may not be worth a trip out to this corner of Nevada just to see this lake, Smith Lake is a great leg-stretcher for drivers tackling I-80 and is a good side trip for hikers visiting Lamoille Canyon and the more famous parts of the Ruby Mountains (Angel Lake is technically in the East Humboldt Range, but this range is geologically related to the Rubies just to the south and are often lumped together with them by many local hikers). 

I hiked Smith Lake during a weeklong autumn road trip through Nevada. The trailhead at Angel Lake is just outside the town of Wells off of I-80, which makes this hike easily accessible by a drive on the interstate from the nearby town of Elko, the largest populated area in northeast Nevada. Salt Lake City is the closest major city and is a three hour drive away. No matter which direction you come from, you can reach Angel Lake by taking exit 351 on I-80 in Wells. Upon exiting, turn south onto Humbolt Ave and then immediately turn right onto Angel Lake Road. This road- Nevada Route 231- leads 12 miles to Angel Lake, an alpine lake in the Ruby Mountains. Along the way, Route 231 passes some beautiful scenery as it climbs into the Ruby Mountains, including forests of aspens that turn golden in the fall and views of the sharp peak of Chimney Rock and of the Ruby Mountains stretching to the south. 

Chimney Rock rises above the byway to Angel Lake
The turnoff for the trailhead comes shortly before the road ends at Angel Lake; I turned right at the turnoff for the Angel Lake Campground and then immediately turned right again into a large day use parking area. If you drive this far, though, be sure to stop at the very end of the road to see Angel Lake itself, a pretty alpine reservoir at the foot of Greys Peak.

Angel Lake
The trail started from the day use parking lot just outside Angel Lake Campground; the parking lot was not signed separately from Angel Lake Campground. The trail itself was completely unmarked, just an obvious path heading north from the parking lot. The trail started out by crossing the flat bottom of the valley, which is one of many valleys in the Ruby Mountains that was sculpted by glaciers in the past. After a hundred meters, the trail turned to the right and began a steady but fairly gentle climb to the northeast up the side of a brushy ridge. As I hiked up this ridge, views opened up of the small valley below. Downstream of Angel Lake, the valley was filled with deciduous aspens that had now turned bright yellow in the autumn. Beyond, views started to open up out of the Ruby Mountains to Independence Benchmark on the other side of Clover Valley. 

Aspens in the valley near Angel Lake
Views of the Ruby Mountains also improved as I ascended. After passing through a gate in a cattle fence, I looked back and saw impressive views of Greys Peak and the sharp profile of nearby Chimney Rock rising above Angel Lake. After hiking a third of a mile from the trailhead, the trail started turning around the ridge. Here, I came to a trail junction: the right fork was unmarked and led towards Greys Lake, a destination on the other side of the range, while the left fork was signed for Smith Lake. I took the left fork, which began a steeper ascent.

Chimney Rock and Greys Peak rise above Angel Lake
Over the next 2/3 mile, the trail climbed steadily through sagebrush mountainside, delivering consistent views of the Ruby Mountains and the Basin and Range. On a clear day, hikers should be able to gaze east from here along I-80 to Pilot Peak near Wendover on the Utah border; unfortunately, the skies were hazy on the day of my hike as winds brought in smoke from the California wildfires, limiting views to just the closest mountain ranges.

The trail ascended onto one of the northeast ridges of Greys Peaks and then swung into the Clover Creek watershed, one mile from the trailhead. Here, the trail crossed steep mountain slopes high up in the Clover Creek valley to reach the Smith Lake outlet. This stretch was the most difficult part of an otherwise fairly easy trail: the trail was steep at times and a bit rocky. Views here were quite nice: the Clover Creek valley was filled with aspens and opened up to the flat plains of the Great Basin and the town of Wells.

Looking down from the Ruby Mountains to the town of Wells
The ascent ended when I rounded a low ridge and dropped into the Smith Lake basin. The trail deposited me at a flat area near the outlet stream of the lake that is probably occasionally used as a campsite. From here, two paths branched out: the path to the right headed across the outlet stream and then into a difficult boulder field and did not seem to lead to the lake. The path on the left was less immediately obvious but headed up and over some rocks and vegetation to reach the lakeshore.

Smith Lake was a serene and beautiful sight- in my mind, far prettier than Angel Lake, where I had begun the hike. The lake was quite shallow but served as a nice mirror, reflecting the peaks rising behind it. Greys Peak rose behind the lake, along a line of rocky cliffs on the crest of the East Humboldt Range. Smith Lake is at the very northern reach of the range: Greys Peak is the last peak in the range, which fades into the desert just a couple of miles north of here. A few trees dotted the opposite shore and the low-lying brush growing across the lake displayed beautiful fall colors.

Smith Lake
After gazing at the lake for a while, I spotted a number of trout in the lake. While I'm uncertain whether the trout in Smith Lake in particular are stocked or native, one incredible thing about Nevada is that many streams and lakes here have native trout, despite the watersheds being endorheic and connecting to no other lakes or rivers. How, then, did fish end up in these mountain lakes? Lahontan cutthroat trout, which are found throughout lakes in Nevada, once inhabited the massive Lake Lahontan, a prehistoric lake that connected many of Nevada's basins during a wetter period in our Earth's climate. Lahontan connected much of the current Great Basin; at the greatest extent of the lake, the Truckee, Walker, and Humboldt Rivers flowed into a common watershed. Today, Pyramid Lake and Walker Lake are remnants of ancient Lake Lahontan. As the lake shrunk with the changing climate, some populations of Lahontan cutthroat trout adjusted to living just in mountain streams and lakes and eventually these populations were wholy cut off from one another.

Trout in Smith Lake
I started this hike at 9:30 in the morning on a Saturday and had Smith Lake to myself for the entire half hour that I was by the lake. However, by the time I started my return hike, I ran into about 5 other groups of hikers. The lake is certainly not overrun but you may not be able to find solitude here, either. Nonetheless, I found this to be a very enjoyable hike, with excellent scenery reached after just a mild effort from a trailhead that is easily reached by any car.

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