Nevada High Desert
The Nevada desert--it conjures up visions of hot, dry, barren expanses, devoid of life and color, but add about 5,000 feet of elevation and that image changes dramatically. Hungry Valley Recreation Area, home to the infamous Moon Rocks, is a departure from the usual desert image. About an hour north of Reno, nestled between Sparks and Pyramid Lake, Hungry Valley again played host for an annual gathering of friends called CalNevOre--thirteen rigs converging in the desert from Nevada and California, some travelling over eight hours to share our love for off-road riding, family, and the usual excesses that accompany any gathering of Hooligans!
The terrain ranges from over seventy-five miles of fire roads to steep rocky canyons, from sandy river washes to a fifty-degree climb dubbed “Heart Attack Hill,” where only the most skilled and insane riders dare to go. And then there’s Moon Rocks--ten acres of the most out-of-place and unusual terrain you could imagine. Plopped near the entrance of Hungry Valley, Moon Rocks look like they were beamed in from another world. Gigantic granite spires burst from the ground to form a haven for Rock Crawlers and the hordes of onlookers watching these nimble behemoths creep and climb up the granite crags. To some, the real entertainment isn’t watching the ascent; it’s watching how they get back down. There is probably a higher tow-strap-to-vehicle ratio here than anywhere else I’ve seen and as the majority of these crawlers depart, they bear little resemblance to the machines that arrived, since their drivers usually don’t quit until they are sufficiently broken.
I have been here more times than I can count but have never had an experience quite like this before. It was 6 a.m. on Saturday. Hungry Valley’s stillness was pierced--not by the familiar ring-ding-ding of a two-stroker but of birds and coyotes, something I had never heard here. Bright yellow blossoms and plants sprang up everywhere, thanks to the late spring rains and very mild temperatures. The ground was heavy and damp, like a dry cake mix, and was screaming to be ripped. But not a puff of dust was to be found from the valley floor to the surrounding peaks. Hungry Valley usually resembles most desert riding where it’s necessary to space yourself from the next rider to keep from being choked by the dust. But not today. “Possibly the best riding I have had in over twenty-five years,” yelled one rider speeding off with a group of others bound for the hills, throwing chunks of Nevada in the air like fresh-baked brownies.
Upon reaching one particular peak, we found the view back to camp was breathtaking: snow in the hills, Pyramid Lake in the distance, and greenery and color everywhere, with wild mustangs and free-range cattle strewn about the landscape. The climb to this peak was casual, taking over an hour to traverse; however, the descent was anything but, as the steep, winding trail was difficult to take slowly, so the entertaining alternative was to test your skill at a rapid descent. Then the rain came and ended our riding for the day. Normally, rain wouldn’t stop us, but when it’s 45° with a 15 mph breeze, it’s best to visit with friends and consume mass quantities.
Day two began much like the day before ended: cold, damp and overcast. A fresh blanket of snow had appeared on the mountains a mile or so to the east of us. Yep. Snow. On Memorial Day in the Nevada desert. But that didn’t stop us from making a canyon run with the 4WD crew as King Quads and Outlanders set out to climb one of the many rocky gorges. We scaled up the side on one mountain, then slipped our way back down through a rocky canyon that had one of the riders hoping he would still be able to provide for his family after we were done. That uneasy feeling you get when 800 pounds of quad begins to roll over due to the angle of ascent was repeatedly served up. I didn’t think it was that bad, but I was smart enough to be on a loaner King Quad and not my KFX. Even the UTV’s stayed back at camp for this ride.
We rode up a rocky wash, climbing boulders, ducking under fallen scrub trees, and dodging the skeletal remains of something that could have been human. The leader of the ride joked that they were from the last group that couldn’t keep up with him. I’m not sure if it was his comment or the lack of dust that kept the line tight. The return ride was a free-for-all speed test of these 4WD heavyweights as we pushed them to the limit up a serpentine river wash back to camp. More rain and the lack of dry riding gear cut the day in half; again, time for more mass consumption.
Day three the clouds break. Nearly the entire camp mounted up for a ride to the Moon Rocks to watch the crawlers, then off to a dry lake bed some thirty miles west, through green pastures sandwiched between desert mountainsides. This was cattle country and we had to reduce speed and slip through a herd of cows. We were well over halfway to our destination when Mother Nature decided the sun was needed elsewhere. In minutes, the temperature dropped about 20° and we were forced to abandon our quest and head back to camp.
I was leading the charge and making great time riding up Winnemucca Ranch Road when it dawned on me that we were riding on a county road, which is not quite legal where I come from. No sooner had I finished that thought when a Washoe County sheriff rolls up in front of us. I figured this was gonna hurt the wallet BAD! But he just smiled, tipped his hat, and drove right past us. Toto, I’ve got a feeling we’re not in California anymore!
We rode as fast as we could in anticipation of a fire and warm clothes. It was an all-out race as caution and cow pies were thrown to the wind. Oh yes, ever wonder what a long travel RZR can do to a fresh meadow muffin? Ask our photographer--she was riding shotgun in the offending UTV.
The last day ended without a single night ride. Night rides on the Moon Rocks are usually one of the highlights of a visit to Hungry Valley but the heavy rains and brutally cold winds kept us around the campfire each night.
Even though the weather did not cooperate with our plans, it was by far some of the most incredible riding we had ever experienced. The peaks, valleys and wide open rolling terrain are what make up the character of Hungry Valley--miles upon miles of open riding and winding trails that would take the better part of two days to cover from one corner of the reserve to the other or about an hour if you are a speed demon on the fire roads. Camping is free on this government land and there are no facilities, so packing it in and out are in order.
Getting to Hungry Valley is easy by heading north on Pyramid Highway, turning off at Winnemucca Ranch Road, and following the signs. Don’t be in a hurry, as the access roads are “occasionally maintained” and can be heavily washboarded.
-Article by Scott Butera
-Photos by Andrea Schardt