Friday, December 18, 2020

Ward Charcoal Ovens

Ward Charcoal Ovens and Wheeler Peak
0.6 miles loop, 50 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy
Access: Good gravel road to trailhead, Nevada State Parks admission fee required

The beehive-shaped kilns of Ward Charcoal Ovens State Historic Park in eastern Nevada make a nice, brief stop from driving the Loneliest Road in America to learn some local history and appreciate views of the desert and mountains of the Great Basin. There are a number of hiking options at Ward Charcoal Ovens, ranging from the short walk from the parking lot to the ovens to hikes a few miles long through this park at the foot of the Egan Range. I did the 0.6-mile loon Interpretive Loop, which first visits the ovens and then travels through the sagebrush desert to Willow Creek, where there is year-round water flowing in this desert environment. Interpretive signage along the trail provides a chance to learn about local ecology and the history of the former mining town of Ward.

I visited the Ward Charcoal Ovens during an autumn road trip through Nevada, coming at sunrise to see the site without crowds. The state park is a short drive from the town of Ely, the seat of White Pine County and, with a population of about 4000, one of the largest towns in eastern Nevada. From Ely, I took US Route 50- the Loneliest Road in America- east. Route 50 left Ely and headed south through Steptoe Valley; it soon encountered a sign that indicated the Ward Charcoal Ovens were 10 miles on the right. I ignored this initial junction and continued on Route 50 until coming to a second sign for Ward Charcoal Ovens, this time 7 miles to the right; this time I turned and followed this well-maintained dirt road 5 miles to the east. At a T-intersection with Cave Valley Road, I turned left and soon arrived at Ward Charcoal Ovens State Historic Park. After passing the turnoff for the campground and crossing Willow Creek, I made a right turn at the junction for the day use area and followed this road to its dead end at a large day use parking area with a vault toilet.

After paying the day use fee, I walked over to the charcoal ovens, which were just 200 feet from the parking area via a paved path. There are six charcoal ovens here in a row, all of which have the rough appearance of beehives and are exceptionally well preserved. The 30-foot tall ovens were built in 1876 during the mining boom in the nearby town of Ward at the foot of the Egan Range. Ward was one of the many silver rushes across Nevada- the Silver State- and a town complete with post office rose about two miles from these kilns at the foot of the Egan Range. High temperatures were needed to smelt the silver ore: as wood itself would not burn hot enough, these charcoal ovens were built to burn wood into charcoal that could then be used for smelting the silver ore. The Egan Mountains were stripped of the junipers and pines growing on their slopes to feed these six charcoal ovens, which fueled the brief mining craze here. The fine masonry of these kilns is result of Italian craftsman who built the ovens from tuff quarried off a nearby hill. Within three years, the kilns were abandoned; the town of Ward was eventually moved across Steptoe Valley to a new mining operation.

Ward Charcoal Ovens
Visitors can wander inside the ovens, which have a cavernous feel. The concave walls are perfect for echoes and once reflected and concentrated heat while wood was being reduced to charcoal. The utility of these ovens declined after much of the wood in the Egan Range was stripped away to make the charcoal. After the town of Ward was abandoned, livestock herders occasionally used the ovens as shelter; intepretive signage at the site also suggests that the ovens might have been hideouts for bandits at some point.

Interior of a charcoal oven
Such charcoal ovens were once common throughout Nevada and the Great Basin (another famous set can be found in the Panamint Range in Death Valley National Park). Smelting ore was necessary for most mining operations and Nevada wouldn't be named the Silver State if mining hadn't played such a critical role in the state's history. Nevada's silver history started with the famed Comstock Lode near Virginia City, which took the center of attention of precious metals prospecting away from the Sierra foothills near Sacramento to the vast deserts of the Great Basin. Today, Nevada still produces the most silver of any state other than Alaska. Every town on the Loneliest Road east of Fallon is reliant on mining: silver operations at Austin and Eureka and open-pit copper mining near Ely either created or today sustain those towns.

Charcoal ovens
The interpretive trail breaks off to the right (north) at the far end of the row of six charcoal ovens, crossing the south fork of Willow Creek, which is really just a trickle. The trail stayed to the right when a jeep track breaks off to the left soon afterward and headed north on a very gentle ascent along a dirt path through sagebrush and sparse junipers. Along the way, an interpretive sign pointed out a nearby hillside from which the tuff for building the charcoal ovens was quarried. There were nice views of the Egan Range nearby: the juniper and pinyon pine forests on its lower slopes had clearly recovered since the heyday of charcoal production here. A quarter mile from the charcoal ovens, I came to Willow Creek, a year-round stream that flowed down from the Egan Range. While a trail appeared to cross the river here, I took a right turn to follow a trail on the creek's south bank to continue the interpretive loop. There appeared to be picnic facilities on the other side of Willow Creek for anyone wishing to use them.

Sunrise and moonset over the Egan Range and Willow Creek
I followed Willow Creek downhill for about 200 meters, watching the creek tumble as it flowed towards the floor of Steptoe Valley, where its water would evaporate in the desert sun. The trail then turned right and returned south towards the charcoal kilns. Gazing east, I could see high profile of Wheeler Peak, the tallest peak in this part of Nevada, rising above a low pass in the Schell Creek Range. The sun had not come out where I stood yet, but when it did, the morning's first light emerged from right behind Wheeler Peak.

The sun rises from behind Wheeler Peak
Interpretive signs along the final stretch of trail pointed out the location of the former mining town of Ward and detailed the physiography and ecology of the Great Basin. The trail ended by returning to the charcoal kilns, just a few steps away from the parking lot.

This is a short hike that visits some impressively built charcoal ovens that allow visitors to reflect on Nevada's rich mining history. The views of the Egan Range and Wheeler Peak make it a scenic hike as well and the charcoal ovens themselves are quite fun to explore; I recommend this stop for visitors who are driving the Loneliest Road or are in the area to visit Great Basin National Park.

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