Jarbidge: Far-Out in Nevada
If you want to get far, far away from the hustle-bustle of the world, Jarbidge could be your spot.
Story and Photos by April Orcutt
The easy way to reach Jarbidge is to leave the interstate, drive 85 miles on a U.S. highway, 40 miles on a country road and 17 more miles on a narrow dirt road.
But my husband and I did not take the easy way.
Instead, to find this quirky northeastern-Nevada remnant of the Old West in one of the most remote canyons of the lower-48 states — a town so isolated that the federal government measures air quality here as some of the country’s purest — we drove 70 miles on a state highway and then spent four more hours covering 50 miles of a rock-and-dirt road, twisting and turning alongside rivers and through mountain passes.
Of course, the drive would have been shorter if we hadn’t stopped so often to take photographs of mountains, canyons, streams, forests, and fields of glorious wild flowers.
I had heard that Jarbidge Canyon held bizarre pillars of rock and that the 113,167-acre Jarbidge Wilderness in the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest was beautiful but that neither the canyon nor the Wilderness’ eight peaks over 10,000 feet in elevation were visible from major highways. You had to be motivated to experience them.
Given the 50 miles of maintained trails for hiking and horseback riding in the Wilderness Area, dirt roads in nearby Bureau of Land Management (BLM) lands for mountain-biking, and two rivers for serious rafting, my husband, Michael, and I were motivated.
This secluded canyon lies adjacent to the valley where the Rainbow Family held its big hippie gathering in 1989, and that group seeks out the nation’s most hidden spots so we figured we would be way out in the boonies. We were right.
To get there we had driven to Nevada’s gold-boomtown of Elko on Interstate 80 and then traveled north to Wild Horse Reservoir’s campground, which had a tiny-but-fun museum with century-old household items donated by local ranchers.
The ranger told us the easy way to Jarbidge was on the opposite side of the mountain range. Our other choices were the 50-mile northern dirt road or the 45-mile southern dirt road. The ranger looked at our low-clearance Volkswagen Eurovan camper and said, “You can probably make it. If you want to drive a loop, take the north road in.”
We turned at a row of six abandoned mailboxes and headed north.
Within a few miles we entered a canyon of twisted and stacked sienna- and rust-colored rocks contrasting with the bright greens of dogwood, chokecherry and currant bushes lining stream beds. No hoodoos yet, but it was easy to see hints of shapes and faces in the uneven cliffs. The few vehicles coming out were big pickup trucks.
We passed Big Bend Campground, a 15-space, quaking-aspen-filled campground next to Big Bend Creek. At 14 miles we came to a stream that flowed for 100 yards down the rocks that made up the road. We crossed our fingers and drove in.
It wasn’t too deep so our Eurovan made it safely. (We later heard tales from travelers who were not so lucky on this road — even with big pickup trucks.)
Finally, the road curved and rose up to volcanic tablelands where we looked north into Idaho and south to get a good view of the 10-mile-long crest of Nevada’s Jarbidge Mountains.
Following the Wild-Horse ranger’s directions, we briefly crossed into Idaho and dropped down into Jarbidge Canyon. The hoodoos began to appear.
Pillars of basalt and rhyolite “fairy chimneys” lined the canyon and looked similar to those in Bryce Canyon National Park but blockier, browner, less numerous, less frilly and, if anything, more human-like. I could now comprehend why the canyon got its name: local Shoshone believed a giant monster they called Tsawhawbitts lived in the canyon and abducted braves.
One story says the tribe chased it into a cave and sealed it inside. Another says the warriors finally got fed up with the creature’s attacks and moved away.
“Tsawhawbitts” morphed into “Jahabich” which morphed into “Jarbidge.” (“Jarbidge” itself is often corrupted into “Jarbridge” with two Rs. “If someone calls it ‘Jarbridge’ with the extra R,” one local said, “you know they don’t know much about the area.”)
The hamlet of Jarbidge stretched for a mile beside the river at an elevation of 6,200 feet. At the American-flag-flying Trading Post — self-identified as the “Best Little Storehouse in Jarbidge, Nevada” — shop-owner Rey Nystrom sold a few basic supplies like cereal and displayed historical items including century-old mining-claim certificates.
In 1916 the funky jail next door held the perpetrator of America’s last mail-stage robbery, a man who was also the first person to be convicted based on evidence from a bloody palm print. There’s some wild-West history for you.
Nowadays locals in all-terrain vehicles (ATVs) buzz down Main Street past the Jarbidge Community Hall, built in 1910 when the gold-rush was on and 1,500 people lived in the canyon. It displays photos from those early years.
Signs on the door of the bright-yellow gift shop said, “Call Sue” with her phone number and “I’m over at the Outdoor Inn. Please come get me!” I got Sue, who, like six of the seven locals I queried, is a retired Californian. The little gift shop full of jewelry, hats, books and trinkets seemed more important as a social center than as a business.
Krinn McCoy, an Idaho native who, with her husband, owns the Tsawhawbitts Bed and Breakfast, told me her relatives had worked in the gold mines. She gave us a tour of her creekside B&B, and I lost count of the number of rooms and their distinctive decorating themes. A gorgeous (but taxidermied) mountain lion stood in the living room.
The café, the Outdoor Inn, operates during summer when 100 snowbirds return. The smaller Red Dog Saloon across the street is open year-round, including in winter when about 14 folks remain in town. Michael and I chatted with the Outdoor Inn’s bartender, who stood by the bar and backbar purchased in 1972 from the Golden Nugget in oh-so-distant-in-so-many-ways Las Vegas. We obligingly joined hundreds of visitors who’ve signed the walls and ceiling of the saloon.
Dinner at the café was pleasant after our long day of driving and exploring and, on a rainy evening, was easier than cooking in our campsite at the south end of the road.
The next morning Michael tossed a line in the river and caught one of the threatened native bull trout, which he immediately released.
Walking under aspens and cottonwoods we hiked a short way up the Jarbidge River Trail at the end of the campground. Yellow-and-black Western tiger swallowtail and black-and-white Weidemeyer’s Admiral butterflies flitted among wild flowers like yellow arnica, lavender aster, pink clover, blue flax and golden cinquefoil. Birders here seek several varieties of hummingbirds, robins, mountain bluebirds, hawks and golden eagles.
We wished we’d brought mountain bikes because outside the Wilderness boundaries (where, to protect the wilderness, vehicles are prohibited), they could have taken us far on rarely-traveled two-track BLM dirt roads.
We planned to drive out on the southern route through the ghost town of Charleston, but one look at the traffic sign saying “USE LOW GEAR” and showing a truck going up a 60-degree hill convinced us to take the “easy way” out on the northeast-running Three-Creek Road. Good thing, too, because the hoodoos lining this part of the canyon were the most intriguing and spectacular.
Along the way, 12 miles north of town where the West and East Forks of the Jarbidge River meet, signs at the launch-point for float trips down the steep canyon cutting through the sagebrush desert of the Idaho Uplands offered warnings. Float trips from here encounter dangerous Class IV and V rapids and are recommended only for people who seriously know what they’re doing. A BLM sign warns that cell phones won’t work in the narrow high-desert canyons and that: “You are a long way from anywhere. This is some of the most isolated country anywhere. . . . This is an extremely remote region.”
And the air is amazingly fresh.
If You Go
Most businesses in Jarbidge shut down for winter so check websites or call to see when they are open. Even in summer, some businesses are not open every day. Addresses below are in Jarbidge unless otherwise noted.
The “easy way” (and the only way if it has rained or snowed recently): From Interstate 80 in Wells, Nev., go north on U.S. 93 for 85 miles to Roberson, Ida. Turn left (west) and follow the Three-Creek Road/Jarbidge Road 57 miles to Jarbidge. Note: After 40 miles the pavement ends, and the road becomes dirt. Signage is poor and cell service nonexistent so take good maps and plenty of supplies.
Where to Stay
Outdoor Inn & Café and The Barn Hotel and RV sites
Tsawhawbitts Bed & Breakfast
Big Bend Campground: fs.usda.gov/recarea/htnf/recarea/?recid=65628
Lower Bluster Campground: fs.usda.gov/recarea/htnf/recarea/?recid=65586
Upper Bluster Campground: fs.usda.gov/recarea/htnf/recarea/?recid=65606
Pavlak Campground: fs.usda.gov/recarea/htnf/recarea/?recid=65590
Pine Creek Campground: fs.usda.gov/recarea/htnf/recarea/?recid=65592
Sawmill Campground: fs.usda.gov/recarea/htnf/recarea/?recid=65594
Slide Creek Campground: fs.usda.gov/recarea/htnf/recarea/?recid=80567
Where to Eat
Red Dog Saloon
Outdoor Inn & Café
Jarbidge Trading Post (for snacks — not for sit-down meals)
What to Do
Jarbidge Wilderness Area
Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest
Barker River Expeditions
34808 Hassinger Rd., Lenore, ID 83541
Jarbidge Gift Shop
For More Information