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Day trips: Washoe Valley is fun all year long

by Linda Hiller

Washoe Valley is a place for all seasons. In spring, it is a birdwatching hotspot, with white pelicans, egrets, ducks, hawks, eagles and more.

In the right summer light, you can imagine it – as it was for thousands of years – speckled with Washoe people, collecting pine nuts from the forest, fishing in Washoe Lake when there was water and pondering the stars on clear nights.

Now, there are summer campers at the valley’s two campground parks, hikers tackling Little Valley and Slide Mountain, mountain bikers pedaling Jumbo Grade to Virginia City and windsurfers and canoes slicing through the lakes.

On fall days, you can fathom Washoe Valley some 140 years ago, teeming with thousands of workers living off the Comstock Lode, hustling to earn their portion of riches from Virginia City silver mines, smoke billowing from chimneys in busy Washoe City, Ophir City and Franktown as they ready for winter.

n See for yourself. To start a winter tour of Washoe Valley, head north from the Carson Valley on Highway 395 around 21 miles to the Eastlake Boulevard exit past Carson City. A few miles in, there’s a new wildlife observatory on your left and a little further, up the hill to your right, is the “painted rock dog,” a landmark for frequent valley visitors.

Looking northwest, you’ll see a good view of Slide Mountain, a hang gliders’ haven which Mark Twain immortalized in his writings. The last great rock slide there was in 1983.

North on East Lake, you’ll come to Washoe Lake State Park (687-4370), a fee site featuring a boat launch, picnic and camping sites and a popular wind surfing launch area.

Farther north, at the northeast corner of the valley is Jumbo Grade, a 19th century road to the Comstock Lode in Virginia City, now a popular mountain bike route.

New Washoe City is next, home to some 5,000 residents and a few supporting stores. Historically, this settlement was called Washoe City and housed an estimated 4,000 Comstock workers, with supporting hotels, saloons, professional offices, churches and stores.

Next is Little Washoe Lake, a fee park with picnic tables and lake access. At the intersection of Highway 395, take a left and travel a few miles to the Bower’s Mansion/Davis Creek exit .

Davis Creek County Park is on the right, with camping, picnicking, trailheads for hiking and horseback riding and the now-frozen pond for free ice skating. There are no skate rentals available, and the hours are 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Sunday-Wednesday and 8 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturday. Information, (775) 849-0684.

Next down the road is where Ophir City was – the area’s largest ore processing mill in the 1860s, with more than 400 residents, a logging mill, hotels, saloons and a bowling alley.

Bower’s Mansion, built in 1863 by Sandy and Eilley Bowers, two of the first Comstock millionaires, is further down the road. In 1875, this was a popular destination for Reno society folk, coming by the hundreds on crowded buses to picnic under the trees, swim in the hot springs and dance in the ballroom.

The park offers a modern swimming pool and mansion tours (both closed for the season) as well as hiking trails, picnic tables and a large playground.

Continuing south, turn right on Franktown Road, now dotted with luxury homes and a golf course, but previously the site of Franktown, founded in 1856.

Franktown was once a large logging community and home to hotels, saloons, a little red schoolhouse, Chinese cooks and hundreds of millworkers and lumberjacks. At the end of Franktown Road, turn right to head back home.