The Loneliest Highway (Route 266) in Winter
A few years ago, I wrote about one of my favorite drives within the continental United States — the little-known Nevada State Highway 266 to the east which connects to California State Highway 266 in the west. To say this is a breathtaking journey with amazing diversity would be an understatement.
This scarcely traveled 82-mile single-lane stretch of paved road offers no services nor amenities of any kind. There’s not a gas station nor an electric light the entire way. Cell phone reception is non-existent. You drive through several mountains and valleys, which takes about two hours, and might not see another car or human being during the entire trip.
What Route 266 does offer is a highway full of surprises around just about every turn and dramatically changing topography on the other side of every mountaintop. If you make the drive when it’s dark, it also offers a pristine view of the night sky, with thousands of stars as a canopy. Since there’s no man-made light sources around for miles any any direction, on a clear night the stars and moonlight provide an amazing visual experience that almost as interesting as the journey made by day.
It’s mystifying to me that so few travelers — even among my Las Vegas friends — have ever made this journey. Instead, most opt for far less interesting routes between Las Vegas and points to the north, including Reno and Sacramento (Las Vegas to Reno/Lake Tahoe takes about 7 hours going this route). Sure, it’s much easier to fly. But if you have time, this trip is worth it — especially in clear daylight conditions which offer many vantage panoramas. Perhaps the utter isolation of Route 266 is what makes this drive so magnificent. So, this article is somewhat self-defeating.
Because I’ve driven to Reno and Lake Tahoe frequently over the years, I’ve probably taken this route no less than 25-30 times during all times of the year. Winter travel can be tricky, which is the case anywhere around the High Sierras. The roads aren’t always plowed or passable to vehicles. And since elevations reach close to 8,000 feet at a couple of mountain passes along 266, snow can be a serious risk. I’ve experience snowfall in May and September along this route.
Most recently, I drove eastbound from the California side over to Nevada and State Highway 95 (the main drag between Las Vegas and Reno). I snapped several photographs of my drive during the wintertime to give readers some idea of how different this trip is from the warmer months. What follows are some of the most interesting points I discovered along the way. Let our journey begin!
About 20 miles south of the city of Bishop, CA along 395 is the cutoff to State Highway 266, which advertises the ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest located within Inyo. This time, I’m hoping to make a stop and see the rare attraction, which is a short detour off the 266 highway.
I nearly decide against making the trip because of this signpost warning. This sign tells me that snow chains are required. I figure that if the roads become impassable at any point, I’ll just turn around come back to the main road and lose perhaps an hour of my travel time. Warning: If it were actually snowing, I would NOT make this trip because chances are the road would be impassable in some sections. Do not try this road if it’s snowing. But this appears to be a nice day with no signs of snowfall. So, off we go on our journey.
There are warning signs posted from both sides to the highway, warning there are no absolutely services available (gas, hotel, stores) for the next 98 miles. In other words, you want to have a full tank of gas and some drinking water when you begin the trip (in case something goes wrong and you get stranded). This is not the place you want to break down, because you might end up spending the night out in the middle of nowhere. Perhaps this is one reason why so few drivers take this route. Do let someone know you are taking this road in advance — for reasons which will become obvious.
Heading east, our journey begins in a deep valley and winds upward through the first of three major mountain passes. We’re about to climb about 4,000 feet in elevation in about 15 minutes (we’ll do this three times). Temperatures plunge about 20 degrees along the way because we’re going higher.
The road certainly looks clear now, but straight ahead are some snow-capped mountains — so, who knows what to expect? Still, what a glorious day! Onward we drive….Turn up the heater, will ‘ya!
Still climbing, up to about 6,000 feet. Trees and green starts to appear. The air is perfect.
Snow along the mountain becomes heavier now, and the road is getting icy. This is not the sight I want to see driving a car and being all alone. Notice we’re making our way through through a canyon which is about to get so narrow at one point that only one car can pass along the lane. Fortunately, there’s no traffic — so this won’t be a problem.
After passing through the narrows, we’ve reached the first summit, which is a high plateau. This is one of the few areas where there’s any sign of human activity. A few miles off California State Highway 266 is a University of California Research Station and the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest. This seems like a nice detour off the lonely highway. Let’s see what’s ahead on the path less traveled….making a turn to the left.
On second thought, it looks like our visit to the reclusive Bristlecone Pine Forest will have to wait until next time. I came upon this visual, along with a sign off to the right side that read “snow chains required.” Yeah, I’d say snow chains would be helpful in these conditions. Even I’m not crazy enough to chance this drive in the middle of winter. U-turn. Back to Rt. 266.
Downward slope on ice. This should be exciting….
Driving on roads like this is NOT advisable. Basically, this is a giant sheet of ice sloping downward at an 8-degree grade. I recall that this sure was fun to drive in the summer on dry pavement. Less so, right now about 25 miles into our journey and isolated from the rest of the world. One realizes that if you slid accidentally off the road and tumbled into a gully, you’d pretty much disappear, unlikely to be found for quite some time. Never a dull moment on this journey.
I didn’t take any pictures along this stretch, opting instead to concentrate fully on the road under slippery conditions. Here’s where the highway begins to flatten out somewhat. The riskiest part of the journey now seems to be behind us.
We’re now leaving the Inyo National Forest. READ MORE HERE
We’re dropping quickly in elevation on the way heading into a valley. This is a gorgeous meadow down below when it’s warm. But right now, it’s completely blanketed in snow.
I love the purity of the mountains and clean air. These photos are of nothing, and everything!
Here’s arguably the most dangerous part of the entire road, a 5-mile section where the road winds back and forth and is framed with steep cliffs. There’s no guard rail here and some spots can be driven at only about 10-15 mph (much slower when on ice, as you see below). Again, this is a great journey, but never advisable when it’s snowing. Tumble off the cliff, and it’s game over.
I snapped the next two photographs while driving along the part of the road which approaches the Cal-Neva border. This shows the view to the south, which slopes steadily downward into a dry lake bed. The mountains there off to the right are the southern part of the range. About another 100 miles south of this spot is Death Valley which many may not know is surrounded by mountains much like these.
This photo below shows the view out the side window to the north.
The only sign of civilization the entire route is a cutoff road to Fish Lake, which runs up through Nevada’s version of the Central Valley. Here is an area where there are plenty of farms and ranching. These free-range cattle graze year around.
Here’s the California-Nevada border. Just to the west of this fence is a cattle range, which is really the only sign of development along the highway. The Nevada side is far more desolate and desert-like. However, we still have one more mountain pass to cross over.
Historical marker for Palmetto, which was once a silver mining town that was abandoned in 1920. READ MORE HERE
The ghost town of Palmetto, Nevada. I hear the Harry Reid Fan Club meets here on Tuesday nights.
Here’s the view back towards the west from the historical marker.
Now, we are continuing to climb again.
The photo below shows the final of three summits along the way. The Lida Summit is perched at about 7,600 feet and is the very definition of isolation. READ MORE HERE
Here’s the second historical marker of the gold mines that were once the main purpose of this road. Gold was discovered in these mountains during the late 1800’s. So, mining towns popped up throughout Nevada (Virginia City was the most prominent — which became part of Mark Twain’s literary legacy). This particular mine just off Rt. 266 was busy for several decades and even had a sizable settlement at one point, which eventually became a ghost town. The mine closed down during World War II and now sits empty off in the hills ahead.
Now, we’re driving on the flats. The road is perfectly straight and clear.
The end of our road is near. It’s just on the other wide of that large butte off to the left.
Here’s the vantage point looking back to the west, which appears pretty innocent. There’s no indication the road goes through three major mountain ranges and has so much spender behind (or ahead for those driving west to California).
We’ve now come upon the end of the road, which runs smack dab into the busy Nevada State Highway 95, the long and boring stretch of road between Las Vegas and Reno, which is often jammed with trucks, speed traps, and cars racing along at 90 mph. Just to be clear — Route 95 to Reno clocks in at about 30 minutes faster and it comes up as the shortest distance on most maps (my route is about 40 miles longer). But the alternative Rt. 266 that I’ve written about here is so much more fun. I think that’s been proven by these images.
Route 266 is certainly the road less traveled. It’s also a wonderful journey across a part of the country that retains so much of its natural beauty. My advice would be to see as many of these treasures as possible, before they inevitably disappear from our landscape
I can’t wait to go back again.