The Loneliest Highway
Nevada State Highway 266 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
Can the concept of nothingness be beautiful?
I think so.
Imagine a highway drive for 60 miles and not seeing another car the whole way.
Imagine being 20 to 30 miles from the nearest person.
Imagine no gas stations or businesses of any kind.
Imagine a highway with no lights or power, a place where cell phones don’t work.
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.
Heading 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:
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.
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.