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Posted by on Nov 13, 2012 in Blog, Travel | 13 comments

The Loneliest Highway

 

Las Vegas-Reno-Drive

 

Can the concept of “nothingness” be beautiful?

I think so.

Imagine a highway where you drive 60 miles and don’t see another car the entire way.

Imagine a highway where the nearest person is perhaps 20 to 30 miles away.

Imagine a highway with no gas stations or businesses of any kind.

Imagine a highway with no lights or power.  A place where cell phones don’t work (which is just about everywhere, if like me you’re unfortunate enough to have have AT&T).

There is a such a highway.

It’s Nevada State Highway 266, which is the desolate 60-mile stretch of asphalt that straddles across the Nevada-California border at a crux where towns and people do not exist.  You’re more likely to see a UFO on this lonely road than another vehicle.

If you head West, the highway begins its path about one hour north of the sleepy desert town of Beatty, NV.  The road empties out several ecosystems later about 20 miles south of Bishop, CA — located at the foothills of the gigantic snow-capped Sierra Nevada mountain range.  The other main junction from the West is California State Highway 395.

I’ve taken this incredible road perhaps two dozen times.  I think of it as a well-kept secret — until now.  When driving along it’s winding path, I feel the road is in control.  Not me.  I’m a passenger rocked into solitude within its bosom.  Driving this highway is the closest thing I’ve experienced towards achieving complete peace.  And honestly, it’s even a little frightening if you’re driving it alone.  Especially at night.

The highway is a single-lane road, except for one short stretch which plunges through a narrow canyon.  The rocky pass is so small that only one car at a time will fit through.  But since there’s no traffic, passage is easy.

The road includes a barren desert with little to see but rock and sand.  In fact, upon one’s first impression there’s no sign of life whatsoever.  Then, prickly plants suddenly appear.  Next, you see sagebrush.  The road climbs upward and starts winding.  You enter a drive through rocky cliffs.  The curves are so intense, the speed limit is 20 mph.  Then, the road quickly becomes engulfed by a forest of pine trees.  Next, the road winds back down and eventually rests in a fertile grassland with grazing cattle.  Then, the road winds up again through another mountain range, then through another short desert maze, another forest, followed by several canyons.  Finally, you end up looking at the breathtaking central valley which is bordered by the majestic High Sierras.

This is an incredible journey.  Yet, I’ve never heard or read anything about it.  Perhaps the few that have driven this lonely stretch of highway want to keep it their secret.  I don’t blame them.

I’ve done some unusual things while driving this road — thing I could never do anywhere else.  Once, I stopped my car dead in the middle of the path at the bottom of a canyon.  It was one of the few times in my life I’ve ever been exposed to the sensation of total dead silence.  And a sensation is what it is, when you hear no sound.  Especially outdoors with the immensity and power of nature so prevalent.  Glimpsing miles in both directions and not seeing a soul or a man-made object, other than the road itself.  You have to experience it to know what it’s like.

Another time, it was 5 degrees and it was 3 am.  I stopped my car at one of the high mountain passes, which reached close to 7,500 feet.  With absolutely no lights on the horizon, and surrounded by pristine air, the explosion of stars up in the sky was mind-boggling.  Until that moment, I have not really seen a true sky or been exposed to stars.  Indeed, you must gaze into the heavens on a cold dark night, miles from civilization at a high altitude.  Another wondrous moment.

Let me tell you more about this highway.  Better yet, let me show you this route.  What I’m about to describe is the drive from the Nevada side over to California as it passed through the Inyo National Forest.  Prior to reaching Highway 266 at Lida Junction, I had departed Las Vegas about three hours earlier — which give you some scale of the distance.  The cutoff point off the main highway (95) is about 45 miles north of Beatty, NV.

Try to visualize the multitude of changes.  Imagine 20-degree temperature changes, multiple times.  What’s most amazing is — this entire journey (Highway 266)  takes only about 90 minutes to drive.

Buckle up.  Let’s take a drive:

 

Las Vegas to Reno

Here’s the first sign you see when cutting off from Highway 95 — which is the main (and far more dull) route going from Las Vegas to Reno.  The warning is clear — you better have a full tank of gas.  This road is not for people with car problems.

 

 

Las Vegas to Reno

About ten minutes into the drive, we’re heading straight into a blue sky and the mountains straight ahead.  From this vantage point, there’s little to indicate the beauty or diversity that lies on the road to come.

 

 

About 20 miles into the journey, there’s a historical marker on the northern side of the road — the only such “touristy” attraction on this route.  This is mining country.  At least it once was.  At the turn of the 19th Century before Nevada was even a state, miners set up camps in the mountains looking for gold.  Some camps were successful and blossomed into towns.  Others hit nothing but rock and sand.  And some settlements, like this one, simply vanished.  Here’s all that’s left.

 

 

The highway begins a steady winding climb into the mountains.  Other than a little sagebrush on the side, these hills are completely barren.  Only rock and sand.  It looks like all life here has vanished.  But looks can be deceiving.

 

 

Another shot through the high hills.  A half hour into the drive, and still not a single car on the road has been seen in either direction.

 

 

We’ve just come across the first pass, which is about the 30-mile mark into our journey.  In the distance is a lush valley with grassland.  There is just one house along this route, and it’s located in the center of this valley, surrounded by lush feed for grazing animals.  However, I’ve never seen anyone in he fields or the house.  This is roughly the halfway point of the drive.  There’s also a cutoff to another route called Fish Lake, which is equally as interesting.  But that’s another drive and another blog for another day.

 

 

Another shot of the valley.  It’s tough to take good photos while driving along these windy roads.  The glare was also bad on this day, as I was driving during sunset.  Better watch out.  One wrong turn and you could end up at the bottom of a cliff and never be found.  Seriously!

 

 

On the other side of the valley we have just passed, next you enter a mountain range which starts out as a canyon.  It becomes rocky fast.  At one point, you see lava rock formations everywhere, the sure sign that these were once spewing molten liquid rock.

 

 

Perhaps five more miles up the road.  There are two ranges of forests along this route.  My photos do not do the scenery justice.  In these trees, I’ve seen deer and elk.  On this particular drive, a grey fox darted out in front of the car.  I’ve seen hundreds of rabbits, as well.  They are really heavy during the spring.  You have to be careful driving, as the cottontails sometimes hop all over the road.  They have not ever been around people, so they seem to have no fear.

 

 

The trees disappear again and we cross a winding path down to another valley.

 

 

Here we get our first glimpse of the Sierras straight  ahead.  California State Highway 395 is perhaps 20 more miles ahead.

 

 

It’s getting darker as the sun has taken its rest behind the shade of the high mountains.  It gets dark very quickly.  Shadows are dangerous this time of day.  You always have to be on the lookout for animals.

 

 

The land looks barren, but it abundantly clear there is a lot to this road, which is nearly the end of our journey.

A few more miles ahead and we have hit the 395 junction.  Then, it’s up to Bishop, CA about 20 miles north, up through Mammoth Lakes, the eastern entrance to Yosemite National Park, around Mono Lake, and back into Nevada.

This is a spectacular journey — day or night (but probably better and safer by day).

Go ahead — go off the beaten path once in a while.  Take Highway 266.  But first, you have to promise me one thing:  Don’t tell anyone.  Let’s agree to keep this our secret.

 

A Final Note:  This route is just as quick as the standard (Highway 95) route between Las Vegas and Reno that goes up though Tonapah.  I have driven the entire route in as few as six hours, and as many as eight hours, depending upon weather conditions — about the same time-frame as the other route.

 

13 Comments

  1. Thank you for sharing. (I won’t tell anyone)

    I went trough Betty half a dozen times, but never took the 266, as I always took a turn to go trough Death Valley, then Bishop and the Yosemite/Mono Lake Area.

    To me this – going trough Nevada, rural California, or Utah or Arizona for that matter – is where the idea of driving goes from “something boring you have to do to go from point A to B” to “a surreal, magical, unforgettable experience”. It’s like all those highways have been designed for just one person – you in your car – and the driving becomes the most important part of the trip, as opposed to being just a boring sequence between two stops/cities/touristic points.

  2. Highway 266 is my favorite road. You neglected to mention Lida Summit. That’s my favorite place. I’ve gone through there 13 times, making a point to pass by, so I call it the Lida Summit Adventure. Once you’re in California for a short jog the road becomes Route 168, over Gilbert Pass down into Deep Springs Valley, up Westgaard Pass and into Owens Valley!

    • Last July 30th I made it my 14th. My nephew drove and he was impressed with the highway. I didn’t go on the other two passes, turning north past Dyer. At this point I think I’ll be back August 1st. Indian Spring is right next to the road on the south side not far west of Lida Summit, a good sized spring.

  3. I drive back and forth from Reno to Las Vegas a couple times a year. I always take this route. So much better than going through Tonapah and Hawthorn. Take an extra hour one day and see the bristlecone pines. The oldest living things on earth.

  4. This highway is not lonely anymore, i read your blog and decided to try it coming from Las Vegas to Bishop. I counted double digit cars coming from West to East, including three eighteen wheelers, people were speeding and surprised to see me coming East to West. Anyway, i don’t know how the big rigs navigated the sharp turns, narrow parts of the road, the blind curves and the single lane. I did stop my car a little past Deep Springs College to listen to the silence, only to be startled by the second eighteen wheeler speeding past. I am not a driver who’s slow in the fast lane doing 55, i’m as aggressive as the next guy trying to get to my destination. But, I wont be driving this road anytime soon, the thought of a head on collision with an eighteen wheeler is unnerving.

    Removing the trucks and the speeding yahoos, i can see your vision of the highway, it’s to bad the secret is out.

  5. Thank you “Most Interesting Man In The World”, for the memory treat of one of my favorite driving experiences in California and Nevada. Now I am ready to do it again.

    I have driven this wonderful road twice. Both times going from West to East…and in the afternoon. (I like having the Sun at my back)

    As soon as one leaves the Lower Owens Valley (spans highway 395) behind, with its sprinkle of ranches, the road began to assume the aura of an adventure route into remoteness as it began to climb into the Desert Mountains.(What is the name of these dry ranges?) In the rear view mirror is glimpses of the majestic Sierra Nevada Range…usually capped with snow.

    Then all of a sudden one comes to the narrow one lane opening you described. There is a year round spring on the North Shoulder of the road, about a mile West of this, but I have forgotten its name. The opening for the quiet road is like a eerie gateway to the unknown. On both sides, Gray rock towers over this one sharply turning lane like some kind of sentinel. Then the road begins opening up again and climbing.

    I remember the signs indicating entry into Bristlecone Pine Country. I would like to camp up there someday. I bet that would provide a unique experience in that thin desert mountain air under the stars.

    Then, when one drops down out of the Bristlecone Zone, one gets an impression of a great vastness opening up before them.

    It becomes closer and more intimate at the next range and places you have shared with Us. I think there are a few buildings of an old mining community (Maybe named Lida?) and then the road stretches out across vast flatness, as it approaches Interstate 95.

    The first time I drove this adventure, I got thirsty and stopped at a wee gas station and grocery store that was painted yellow. Inside, surrounded by sparsely stocked shelves of canned goods and various items was a cool bar where I gulped down a cold one. I was surprised and delighted when an older plump Woman (not “real” old), wonderfully clad in an orange baby doll nighty, walked up to the bar on the tender’s side and fetched herself a beer. A couple of other customers greeted Her affably and She engaged in pleasant discourse with them. I liked the place.

    But, running out of weekend, I bought some candy and gas and headed north…to end up in Bishop and then Home.

    The second time I made that journey, I had planned to stay longer at that Friendly little yellow oasis, but, for some reason couldn’t find it.

    I wonder if it is still there somewhere, or if it has just become part of the mystery ambiance of this great little journey?

    Enjoy your “Dos Equis” ads and it was a pleasant surprise to find this blog site of yours. Thanks again for sharing. Dan 1

  6. My family and I just traveled this highway for the first time two days ago. Interesting contrasts between naked mountains, pines, green valleys and abandoned buildings. Fun drive; so much better than the dreadful drive through Tonopah and the desolation of US 6/95.

  7. I thought i’m the only one..
    Well, two weeks ago, I drove this road on my way from Las Vegas to Mammoth Lakes. I spent too much time(and money) on the poker table, and I ended up in 7-PM.. with 6 hours of driving ahead of me. I told to my self; no problem, it will probably be an “highway” roads all the way, with lights and traffic. What a huge mistake.. HUGE.
    I was by my self, and after an hour from Las Vegas I started to realize i’m doing a big mistake. No reception, peach black, almost no one around you. Things have gone from bad to worst when I turned left to this “highway”, NV-266, a road that i’ll never forget for the rest of my life. Almost 2 hours in a tough road, completely dark, no cars anywhere seen, small and big animals crossing the roads almost every 3-4 minutes, forcing you to break hard- I was really scared for my life. I thought to my self; “what if”.. what if I get a flat tire, what if I hit a dear or get involve in a self accident. In some point I saw the sky full of stars and they were shining so bright. I stopped my car, turned off the lights, and just watched the sky in this middle of no where, it was kind of a spiritual experience.

    Anyway, i finally got to the Mammoth lakes in 1 PM, and i’ll always remember this crazy and scary drive.

    • We had similar experience. To make this worst, we were driving with a 8 month old. We were driving from Fresno to LV via Tioga Pass. This was most scariest ride I ever had. Little critters crossing the road every 3-4 min. Bunnies all around and cows and deer passing occasionally. Thank God, I got refueled at Tioga Pass! I couldn’t find even a single gas station until I reached to Beaty. Surprisingly, our little one slept throughout the drive and we made it to Vegas around 2PM. Thanks for your post, looking back to our trip, it kinda makes me proud.

  8. We drove this last night – 11/25/2015 – as it snowed. I knew nothing about this road and had no idea what we were in for. A fantastic and scary drive where we had to put on and remove chains twice, going anywhere from 65 mph and down to 15 in the snow on the curves. Wow! It was 9 degrees and I was under the truck connecting chains. Again, we had no idea. We thought we were on the highway to hell. We made it from Henderson, NV to Mammoth Lakes in 7 hours. A ride we will never forget. Beautiful (when the clouds would clear it was a full moon), a bit scary and spiritually rewarding. Thank God my wife suggested chains.

  9. you drove through our mineing claim!

  10. My husband hit a cow on this road this week. He had to walk for miles before his phone connected with 911. It took emergency crews two and a half hours to find him. You describe this beautifully. I drove it twice – once to get him and once more to bring him back.
    I’ll never drive this at night.

  11. i had a renter/ a friend that took his life on this road.as i sit here reading and looking at the comments i wonder why, why here because of the amazing beauty of the place or the loneliness….smile john the pains gone…

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Highway 168: OMG - The Injection - […] but a happy camper.  California 168 yielded to California 266 for a few short miles which became Nevada 266. …
  2. Highway 168: OMG | The Injection - […] but a happy camper.  California 168 yielded to California 266 for a few short miles which became Nevada 266. …
  3. The Loneliest Highway (Route 266) in Winter - Nolan Dalla - […] [READ MY PREVIOUS DESCRIPTION OF ROUTE 266 WESTBOUND HERE] […]

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