Desert Temple of the Sea Dragon

It could be the greatest adventure of his life… so far. Finn has an affinity for exploration. He has ascended peaks, prospected minerals, and searched for the elusive Sierra Yeti. All of this before he reached 5 years of age.

Our entire excursion into the central Nevadan desert had been planned around creating an inspirational experience for him. We manufactured (or heavily influenced) some of the events of this excursion, but our underlying goal was to spark Finn’s excitement for travel and exploration.

In early June we set out from Reno on a gusty afternoon. Unsettled weather continued to taper off day-by-day as if it were a hangover from the heavy winter. Finn and I picked up my dad, who had been needing to get out of the house and into some exploring the Nevada backcountry.

Angus continued to limp along after his ordeal in Utah. He continues to run strong regardless of his temporary cosmetic handicap. This trip we cut back on the volume of ‘extras’ we dragged along. That seemed to make a difference in his agility on the highway.

Fully prepared for, whatever… we turned our backside to the wind and set sail eastward down route 50, the loneliest road in America. Our intermediary goal for this evening was to reach the archeological Hickison Petroglyphs at the northern end of the Monitor Valley.

50 east
Eastbound and Down: Approaching the Shoshone range with a strong tailwind.

The Hickison Petroglyphs had been scribed by prehistoric peoples living in the lakes region of the Big Smokey Valley on the northern terminus of the Toquima Range. As the climate changed and the lakes disappeared the communities moved on. Later into the modern era the Pony Express and Overland Stage established routes in the region. The site currently resides on Bureau of Land Management territory and features a small campground and half-mile interpretive trail through the Petroglyph cliff faces.

Arriving shortly before sunset permitted just enough daylight to set camp, start a fire, and prepare a hot meal. Daylight faded away and our small fire couldn’t defend our camp from the invading cold for very long. We buttoned up for the evening and climbed into Angus’ roof tent.

To date, this night remains the coldest that I have spent on the roof of the landrover. Sleep broke into 20-40-minute segments. We estimated that the temperature had fallen into the low 20’s in the pre-dawn hours.

At sunrise, we discovered that our washbasin and water tank had frozen over. Sabers of orange-red sunlight sliced the valley floor for a few instants before the sun rose and bathed the basin in bright gold warming rays that vaporized the frost from the sagebrush. Morning chill hung on tight despite several rounds of coffee and a long breakfast.

Hickson Sunrise
A heroic sunrise in central Nevada desert.

Exploring the Hickison petroglyphs (that I had visited several times previously) leaves me with mixed sourness. Finn couldn’t grasp what he was looking at, but his excitement remains high. He realizes that it’s special. There are several cliff panels which I find intriguing. There is one symbol comprised of an upside-down “U” with a vertical slash through the center that is repeated several times. I’ve researched it a bit, but there are no definitive meanings that archaeologists have been able to attach. What ruins the experience, for me, is the consistent degradation of the site as a result of graffiti. It seems to be more pervasive every time we visit.

Finn summits
Finn surveys Big Smokey Valley. Named for the naturally occurring hydrocarbon haze that fills low lying terrain here.

The central region of Nevada around Austin and southerly traverse into the Reese River Valley can be paradoxical, particularly during these early summer months. Despite being deep in a desert region the springtime is green and lush. More so than in the Great Basin region surrounding Reno. In years of heavy late-season snow, such as this year, the ranges that flank these valleys (e.g. Shoshone, Toquima, and Simpson Mountains) are still deeply capped in snow. The ruins of ranches and ghost towns are backdropped with terrain seemingly more appropriate in the Alps or Andes than central Nevada.

Reece River Valley Ruins
Relics of a more profitable ranching era in the Reese River Valley
Ore House Saloon
Ione, NV: a town that refuses to die.

At the southern end of the valley lies the Yomba Shoshone Tribal Reservation. Here, our path turned westward over the Shoshone mountains depositing us in the semi-ghost town of Ione. A few weathered and determined residents press on in keeping this little town alive.

Icky camp
Angus deployed above Union Canyon.

Our destination lay only a few miles further to the south in Union Canyon. After a short bit of poking-about the campground, a delightful site was chosen near other overnight visitors. We struck out on foot to reach one of the most significant paleontological finds in North America.

Late in the Triassic period, a grouping of 50-foot marine reptiles with long snouts and narrow flippers cruised the shallow coastline of ancient Pacific above modern-day Nevada. It is believed that these ichthyosaurs frequented these waters because of the high density of ammonites. An easy meal of swimming giant shellfish. For this group, it would be their last meal. The current working theory is that these shellfish suffered from a toxic red tide similar to those that plague the coastal southern United States from time to time. The entire community of unusually large ichthyosaurs died of food poisoning within a day. Their bodies sank to the bottom of a small canyon and slumped into a pile on the seabed.

In 1928, Stamford University Professor S. M. Muller first found dinosaur remains in the canyon above the ghost town of Berlin, Nevada. Muller identified the fossilized remains, discovered on the surface, as ichthyosaur. These remains were called Shonisaurus, after the mountain range where they were discovered. It was not until 25 years later when two professors of Cal Berkley, Charles Camp, and Samuel Welles, lead an expedition to excavate the site. Over the following seven years the team excavated the remains of 37 adult ichthyosaurs in very close proximity. It is, for this reason, the name of this species was changed to Shonisaurus popularis.

Icky window
Viewing into a temple built for long-dead monsters of the sea.

The significance of this site required that it be protected from the weather during the winter months. An open wall structure was erected. In 1957, the canyon and nearby ghost town were designed as a state park, even before the excavation of the quarry was incomplete. The building was enhanced to enclose all the sides ensuring that the site was protected.

Wonder Finn
Master Finn comes face to face with the artist’s impression of Shonisaurus
Desert Temple
The ichthyosaur shelter nestles beneath Buffalo Summit

The quarry today is a well-visited museum, regardless of its remote location. Finn bounded down the trail, fully clad in an explorer’s regalia. The building’s red roof pokes above the creek bed along the southern ridge. The entire site is nested just above the canyon floor. Behind the building the canyon and ridges rise to Buffalo Summit, semi-sparsely dotted with a savanna of juniper trees.

With impeccable timing, we found ourselves at the fossil shelter just as the Rangers started a tour of the quarry. The presentation comprised of several expected elements, history of the site, characteristics of the specimens, a little marine biology and ecological description, and finally a walk through the site on the floor before us. The ranger hopped about the quarry using a pointer to call out different bones. On occasion, the ranger would pause and ask if there were any questions. Quiet amongst the tour group. Then small hand popped up in the front row. It was Finn.

Icky's explained
A rich exchange between Finn and the park ranger.

“I was hiking with my brother, and we saw a T-Rex!”

“You saw a T-Rex?”


“Did it look like that?” points to a hanging model of Shonisaurs


The fantastical dialog between Finn and the ranger continued through the duration of the tour (to the entertainment of the other attendees) culminating when Master Finn declared that he had once been in the ocean and his foot touched something that he hoped wasn’t an ichthyosaur. He’s a genius. He left the crowd in stitches. They wanted more.

Prior to our Reno departure, I’d asked my dad to swing through the local rock shop and pick up a few cheap fossils to bring along with us. At camp, we planted the idea in Finn’s mind that we could go for a hike and look for dinosaur bones (removal of fossils indigenous to the park is strictly forbidden). While my dad took Finn off to check out the interpretive signs, I found a good spot in the campground to bury the fossils that we’d brought.

Grandpa supervises
Pop-Pop supervises the fossil expedition.

We loaded our junior paleontologist up with his pack of appropriate gear (garden shovel, paintbrush, whisk broom, etc) and set off across the ridge. As we roamed, we stopped at places we *thought* would be good for Finn to dig and see what he could find. After three attempts that came up empty, we meandered our way to the spot where we knew the booty was buried.

Finn slowly began to excavate. He was a pro at this point. A funny shaped rock different from the others appeared. It was a trilobite! EUREKA! A bit deeper and a tooth the size of my index finger appeared! So good, how could this get any better? “Keep looking so there is no chance of missing anything.” Not much deeper and… Wait!  What’s that? No way! An ammonite in almost perfect condition!!  Huzzah!!! The smiles and excitement were practically uncontainable.

Back in camp, we insisted that Finn make a more thorough cleaning and then catalog his find by making sketches in a notepad. The afternoon became cool and breezy. Clouds on the western horizon suggested that a front was pressing through.

Finn cleans fossils
Processing of fossils at basecamp.

Later in the evening, after we’d buttoned up for the night and climbed into the tent, the wind really began to ramp up. The RTT flapped and billowed in the gusty wind. Angus swayed gently. Any movements felt greatly amplified up on the roof. The motion gave the sense that the Landy would slip out of gear at any moment and roll down the ridgeline with us on the roof! Gear blew about in the camp in the strongest gusts. Sometimes with a smash and a bang.

In daylight we discovered that the wind had sent our (unsecured) tripod-mounted solar panel array over onto its face, shattering one of the 30-watt panels. A pricey mistake not to be repeated.

Workshop front
The machine repair shop gone silent in the ghost town of Berlin.

The Berlin mine was established in 1896. Within a short period, production ramped up, the town boomed, and gold and silver were readily extracted. The population rose to 250 people including miners, woodcutter, a forest ranger, a doctor, a nurse, and a prostitute. By 1911 the operation was no longer profitable. The mine and town were abandoned. Today as part of the Ichthyosaur park, most of the buildings still stand or have been re-built. Tours are self-guided. Many are open for closer exploration.

Rather than make haste back to pavement we decided that a more appropriate route would be to head north through Buffalo Canyon. Here the diatomite formation of the middle Miocene period is exposed at the surface. Dozens of fossilized plant species can be found in the soft layers of diatomaceous earth and volcanic ash.

The Ione Valley crossing included a mix of low-lying mud traps and dusty rolls. The cobbled climb out of the valley up into the Buffalo Canyon jostled the bones a bit. It is this terrain where Angus excels. The plush suspension that sometimes feels like a marshmallow on the highway is perfectly suited for loose rocky and boggy landscapes.

The north side of the canyon was messy. The road had been washed out in several places by winter storms. Churchill County road crew had yet to run a blade up the trail. The surface was firm-ish. Which was fortunate. Given the level of erosion left behind this was likely an impassable location a month prior. We scouted the best fossil hunting spots outlined in Pop’s guidebook. That effort will need to be its own mission at a future date.

We checked back into civilization at Middlegate. The old roadhouse has become a bit of a tourist stop along Route 50. The usual local gang replaced by the ‘gram photo-op crowd. At least tour busses haven’t figured to stop here. Yet.

Angus replaces the horse at the hitching posts at Middlegate Station.

Middlegate station has been a regular stopover for us ever since we started exploring some of the remote corners of Nevada more than a decade ago. The weathered building, genuine décor, and friendly hospitable vibe of the staff speak to the station’s history as a frontier outpost. The food is inexpensive, greasy, and delicious.

East of Fallon lies Grimes point. An archeological site consisting of a field of basalt boulders bearing a glossy desert varnish. These boulders are covered with petroglyphs of the early Americans dating back some 8000 years. More recent than the carvings at Hickison. The detail and complexity found here speaks to a more advanced culture that inhabited this region.

Off to the northeast, and deeper off the paved highway, a network of unimproved roads lead to several quarries and off into the BLM land. Within this region, and again by the direction of Dad’s guidebook, lies an outcrop known as green mountain. Comprised almost entirely of rhyolite, the mountain is easy to spot from a distance. As it is very green it contrasts starkly against the sand glow of the surrounding desert.

green mtn
Finn finds respite from the heat amongst the rhyolite of green mountain.

While scrambling up the steep sides of the short mountain (looking for a good specimen to add to our collection) we gave extra attention to the dark crevices. This terrain was the perfect habitat of the basin rattlesnake. Very common here.

Making our way back to the paved highway (green chunk in tow) Finn continued his rolling diatribe from the previous evening. He continued to articulate, as 5-year-olds do, about meeting the ichthyosaurs and discovering fossils in the desert. They had not left his side since finding them. Gramps gave a chuckle and concealed his grin as the show went on.

Click here for more information about Hickison Petroglyph Recreation Area, Berlin-Ichthyosaur State Park, or Grimes Point Archaeological Area.

Check out our Desert Temple of the Sea Dragon photo gallery

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