10 Longest Valleys

by Paul Sebesta

We're a naturally mountainous state, but with every range must be a valley to separate them. It's in the mountains that the action takes place, but it's in the valleys where we call home. We are the Great BASIN after all.

This list contains only confirmed named valleys and bona-fide "deserts" (such as the Owyhee, Carson, and Black Rock). Each valley has been carefully checked for distance accuracy by the U.S. Geological Service (USGS).

US 93 in Lake Valley

   Lake Valley
   60 miles

   Show on Map

Starting our list is Lake Valley, a 60-mile long basin in northeast Lincoln County. Lake is a little-known valley that's bordered on the east by the Wilson Creek Range and the South Schells on the west - beginning at a small divide that separates it from Spring Valley and abruptly ends at another mountain divide near Pioche. US 93 races down this valley at 70mph once leaving US 6/50 at Majors Place all the way into Pioche. What's interesting here is the valley's varied topography. If viewed from an airplane, Lake Valley would like a very long teardrop. In the north, it's about 6 miles wide, yet it widens to over miles near its southern end.

The valley takes its name after its abundant water sources and possible underground aquifer! In fact, several divides along its length allow passage for multiple watercoarses, the most important being Meadow Valley Wash in the south that drains as far south as Mesquite. The north valley only contains dry flatlands, but the lush south valley is about thirty miles long and home to swamp cedars - a unique species of desert conifer, and fertile ranch land. Except for several large rural ranches, Lake is a fairly remote place with no significant populated towns within its acreage.

Such a purplely view north into remote Newark Valley

   Newark Valley
   62 miles

   Show on Map

Here's another little-known valley, but chances are if you've driven "America's Loneliest Road," you've traveled across Newark once or twice without ever knowing it. Newark Valley sits just inside the line of western White Pine County about fifteen miles east of Eureka. Newark contains a single dry Lake that's over 14 miles long, in the winter, forming its own ephemeral lake. Newark is bordered on the west by the Diamond Mountains and to the east rise various minor mountains that separate it Long Valley. A low divide demarcates the valley from the Huntington and Ruby valleys of Elko County.

Now that the geography is out of the way, Newark is a fairly quite place. Except for those few rural ranches, Newark is pretty remote and traversed on its western margin by SR 892, the only single paved highway that ends about halfway up the valley at the Cold Creek Ranch. Most people who come this way are outdoorsmen, hunters in the fall, or the occasional angler on their way to Cold Creek Reservoir. Travelers can continue past the ranch all the way to Elko by driving the unpaved gravel road from where the state highway ends.

Big skies and little springs in Ruby Valley

   Ruby Valley
   66 miles

   Show on Map

Here's a place that relatively few people visit in the year, yet it's one of the state's more surprising and welcomed oases! Ruby Valley makes up a very large basin located in south-central Elko and northern White Pine Counties. If it wasn't for a low divide at its southern margin, you could even call it a continuation of Newark Valley in the south. Ruby runs for 60 miles from Secret Pass to Overland Pass, base located at the base of the Ruby Mountains, the valley's lovely western skyline. The Ruby Mountains steep escarpment are a dramatic sight for visitors here, including its dramatic fews of the East Humboldt Range and Clover Valley to the north. The east side of the valley is less defined, but its maximum width is about 10 miles near Franklin Lake.

The highlight of this valley lies in the south at the Ruby Lake National Wildlife Refuge. It's here that over twenty perennial streams race down the Ruby Mountains's steep eastern face and collect into one giant freshwater lake! Ruby Lake attracts thousands of waterfowl every year and in turn, many outdoorsmen from hunters to fishermen who come away with big fish and big game. The far southern sections of Ruby Valley played an important role in the history of the Great Basin. Before white men, nomadic Shoshone tribes used the valley as a winter home no doubt feasting on the lake's game. Later, the California Trail including the Donner Party passed through this southern end in 1846 heading for the Overland Pass route across the Ruby Mountains – part of the Hastings Cutoff. See Historic Marker 3 for more details! Overland Pass served as both a transportation route through central Nevada and later a way station there for the Pony Express in 1860. In September 1862 the U.S. Government established Fort Ruby at the east entrance to the pass and in 1863 signed the controversial Treaty of Ruby Valley with the Shoshone. Now that's a valley!

If you want to find yourself here, access Secret Pass Road (SR 231) from Interstate 80 in between Elko and Wells. Secret Pass Road rings the far north end of the valley and from there you can follow SR 767 south into the heart of the valley. There is no paved through route to the far southern end of the valley. Follow the good gravel roads that continue past the pavement's end at Shantytown and the Ruby Lake Wildlife Refuge.

South Schell Peak (11,332') from the floor of Spring Valley

   Spring Valley
   76 miles

   Show on Map

This beautiful valley in White Pine County stretches for 76 long miles ... definitely a long one, but marking it only #7 on this list. It may not be the longest, but it's certainly hard to beat in the Great Basin. Spring Valley is aptly named for its well-known underground aquifer, natural springs, and well-watered western edge. If it wasn't for its location, this valley would be solid on the radar and visited more often. Part of Spring Valley's lovely views are the two dramatic escarpments that make up its borders! The steep eastern face of the Schell Creek Range rises 11,000 feet on the west while off the east the steep western face of the Snake Range rises to some 13,000 feet within Great Basin National Park. Speaking of park status, Spring Valley was nominated as a possible candidate for the "basin" segment of the park back in 1986 due to its pristine condition and definitive "Basin and Range" views, but the National Park Service could not gain sufficient land rights to the valley.

Visitors here will immediately notice the dramatic mountain views and the deceptively steep slope of the valley's edges. And that's precisely where the action sits. Spring Valley plays host to some 21 perennial streams that drain mostly from the Schell Creek Range. Once you're here, it's likely you'll have any of these well-vegetated and watered side canyons to yourself ... that is, if you make the effort to get here. US 6/50 cut straight across the width of Spring Valley east of Ely - a classic drive through a sea of sagebrush with island mountains on the horizon! State Route 893 is the only paved highway that runs up the valley following its western edge and allowing instant access to any of these wild canyons via rough side roads. The highway abruptly ends about halfway up the valley at the Muncy Creek Ranch, but the unpaved gravel road continues north up the remainder of the valley. The eastern half of Spring Valley is mostly private ranchland. South of US 6/50, US 93 cuts down the remaining portion of the valley from Majors Place where it meets up with Lake Valley, #10 on our list. The drier southern portion of Spring Valley is even more lightly visited, but does offer some recreational activity at the base of the Snake Range where you'll find a few well-watered canyons draining Mt. Washington and Pyramid Peak within the national park. Use State Route 894 (Shoshone Ranch Road) for this. Either way good times and great views await you in Spring Valley!

   Railroad Valley
   80 miles

   Show on Map

Coming in at #6 is Railroad Valley, one of many Central Nevada basins east of Tonopah. Here's a valley that's unknown to most people, but if you've ever driven US 6 in between Ely and Tonopah, the long stretch through Railroad Valley makes up at least a quarter of the route. This basin stretches for eighty miles north to south and up to 20 miles wide, quite wide for a typical Great Basin valley. Its southern end begins near Gray Top Mountain (7,036 feet) and stretches north all the way to Mount Hamilton (10,745 feet) just inside White Pine County.

Railroad Valley sits at the base of some of the state's most remote and lovely island mountains. To the east are the Quinn Canyon, Grant, and White Pine Ranges, while to the west are the Pancake and Reveille Ranges - all very wild areas that rarely if ever see visitors. Railroad Valley make look barren at first glance, but it fact this one of the more well-watered basins in the state with numerous springs, dozens of perennial streams that drain from the surrounding ranges, and even has four separate Wildlife Management Areas all of which make up the "Railroad Valley WMA." The valley is potmarked by several tiny outposts - Currant, Crows Nest, Duckwater, Green Springs, Lockes, and Nyala. This place has one more secret. Most of Nevada's oil production (about 553,000 barrels worth in during 2002) comes from several small oil fields in the southern end of the valley. How's that for surprises?

The next time you're making the run in between Ely and Tonopah on US 6, set that cruise to 75 and enjoy your trip across wide and beautiful Railroad Valley!

The weird and wonderful natural oddity of Diana's Punchbowl in the middle of Monitor Valley

   Monitor Valley
   85 miles

   Show on Map

Stretching for some eighty five miles in central Nevada, Monitor Valley is a basin full of surprises. Monitor Valley is a long, skinny valley no less than 8 miles wide, but it takes up real estate in three counties, splitting the border between Lander and Eureka in the north valley and ending at the Toquima Range (Nye County) in the south. Compared to most basins, this one has plenty of through routes for easy access into the area! "America's Loneliest Road" crosses the valley at its northern portion in between Austin and Eureka and the paved Belmont Road (Old SR 82) climbs a low divide at Belmont to connect it on the south.

This place has grown in popularity over the last decade, but it's still no less a very quiet and wild place. Part of it has to do with its convenient through route that runs straight up the length of the valley in between Belmont and US 50 known as the "Monitor Valley Backcountry Byway ..." an awesome 82-mile long gravel highway with incredible mountain views! The valley is bordered by the Toquima Range on the west and the lofty peaks of the Monitor Range on the east - two very high mountain ranges that tumble year-round watercourses down into the valley. The highlight of this place are the many natural hot springs that bubble up from the surface, the two most popular being Spencers and Potts Hot Springs. Travel to the very center of the valley to find a fascinating natural landmark known as Diana's Punchbowl, a giant 80 square foot limestone cavern in the ground with boiling hot water. A chain-link fence has been installed around the punchbowl for safety reasons. Oh, and if you want to be the center of it all ... at least in Nevada ... find yourself in the north portion of Monitor Valley. A mere thirteen miles south of US 50 you'll find the exact Geographic Center of Nevada.

Big Smoky Valley is rife with snowy views and big skies (c) Matt Long

   Big Smoky Valley
   95 miles

   Show on Map

Counting down to #4 is a landform known for its hazy distances and some amazing mountain views. This one sits right next door to Monitor Valley, #5 on our list. Welcome to the Big Smoky Valley of central Nevada. Much of Smoky's lovely views are the two dramatic escarpments that make up its borders, the Toquima Range on the east and the steep eastern face of the Toiyabe Range rises to some 11,000 feet on the west. The valley was given its name due to its regular hazy distances and one of the state's great mysteries is the origins of its haze. Many geologists believe the haze is the result of condensation (and residual early morning moisture) that remains trapped in the valley from its two very high neighboring mountain ranges.

Visitors here will immediately notice the dramatic mountain views and the deceptively steep slope of the valley's edges. Over thirty major watercourses, including the North and South Twin Rivers, drain into the valley from the Toiyabes making it an ideal location for ranching and agriculture. Once you're here, it's likely you'll have any of these well-vegetated and watered side canyons to yourself. Several trails lead up into the Toiyabe backcountry from these side canyons, including Jett Creek, the Twin Rivers Trail, and the most popular being the Kingston/Big Creek Road in the northern end of the valley. The width of Big Smoky is crossed by the Loneliest Road (US 50) in the north, but it's State Route 376 that dissects the length of the valley from US 50 east of Austin to US 6/95 near Tonopah ... a major convenience here in central Nevada. The valley's "headquarters" is the town of Carvers near the exact center of the valley. Seven smaller communities make up the valley's total population of about 2,500 that's spread out over ninety miles. The major center of commerce here is the open-pit gold mine at Round Mountain near Carvers that provides the valley's single most important economic activity.

   Steptoe Valley
   100 miles

   Show on Map

Commuters traveling in between Idaho and Las Vegas are all too-familiar with the arrow-straight sections of US 93 and much of its journey down the eastern corridor of Nevada takes place in this huge basin. Welcome to Steptoe Valley. Steptoe is named after Colonel Edward Steptoe, who explored the region in 1854. This massive valley begins at the small outpost of Currie in southern Elko County and runs south for approximately 100 miles to Connors Pass (the highest point along "America's Loneliest Road") in the Schell Creek Range southeast of Ely in White Pine County.

Steptoe is rimmed on both sides by some of the state's longest mountain ranges. On its western edge you'll find the remote Egan Range in the south valley and the Cherry Creek Range in the north valley while to the east is the state's longest range - the well-watered mountain island of the Schell Creek Range. Nature has formed an almost perfect transportation corridor in Steptoe Valley, not to mention a lovely place call home! Steptoe is a region that witnessed much of eastern Nevada's growth over the last one hundred years. Egan Canyon and Schellbourne Pass (near Cherry Creek), the Overland Stage Line and the subsequent Pony Express and Transcontinental Telegraph made their way through here in the 1860s. The historic mining camps of Cherry Creek, Taylor, and the Ward Charcoal Ovens were direct children of the great "Rush to White Pine" in 1868. Of course, Steptoe was at its liveliest during the forty-year Kennecott Mining Era starting in 1904. The communities of McGill and Ely were born during this exciting time thanks in part to the valley's spaciousness and well-watered landscape!

Today, some four thousand residents (and the majority of White Pine County's population) make their home here. And there's more than meets the eye. The two dozen year-round streams that tumble off the mountains, the Steptoe Valley Wildlife Management Area (WMA), and Cave Lake State Park on the foothills are fine samples of what this place offers.

The one, the only, the omnipresent Black Rock Desert (c) Trevor Bexon

   Black Rock Desert
   102 miles

   Show on Map

The Black Rock Desert in northwestern Nevada spans approximately 102 miles in length across northern Washoe and Humboldt Counties ... and this is one place that needs no introduction. When we use the word "Black Rock," we have to weed out several possible definitions. People often it to define just the playa we know and love, but the widest definition consists of the Black Rock Desert watershed itself -- one that covers 11,600 square miles. This definition of the Black Rock is what racks up our number two spot!

The defining highlight of region is the Black Rock playa, the largest dry lake bed in North America. The Black Rock Desert is shaped like a "Y" and separated into two arms by the Black Rock Range. The playa itself spans for about 1,000 square miles from the town of Gerlach north to the Jackson Mountains. The lake bed acts as the outlet for the intermittent Quinn River and several other small watercourses flowing in from the neighboring Granite and Jackson Mountains. During the winter, the Black Rock is a completely different place! During the winter months, the playa turns into a huge lake roughly knee-deep and if the playa is wet for a month or so, the shallow waters begin to teem with fairy shrimp. These tiny organisms lay dormant in the silt crust for long periods of time - sometimes for many years. This interesting oasis factor of the Black Rock attracts more than 250 species of birds and waterfowl that stop in this country to rest and feed. Aside from the playa, the Black Rock Desert is home to dozens of natural hot springs - proving that life and resources are true treasures in this formidable landscape!

The Black Rock is an historically fasinating place too. In 1843, John C. Fremont and his party were the first white men to cross the valley and his trail was later used by over half the 22,000 gold seekers headed to California after 1849! The short-lived camp of Hardin City was established on the southwest "shore" of the playa in 1867. Since then, the valley has fallen under protection by the Black Rock Desert-High Rock Canyon Emigrant Trails National Conservation Area (NCA). In 2000, the NCA placed some seventy percent of the lake playa under "Wilderness status" along with a unique mix of natural hot springs, narrow canyons, and forested mountains accessible by foot only.

Of course, a mention of the Black Rock is undone without its famous venues. Nevada's second longest valley was chosen as an alternative to the Bonneville Salt Flats of Utah by an Englishmen who set the world land speed record on the playa in 1997. The Black Rock also hosts the annual Burning Man Festival - an art-life celebration that brings some fifty thousand people every year during the week of Labor Day. Here's to the Black Rock!

Honorable Mentions
Before we reveal our Number 1, let's take a few moments to honor the few valleys that fell just short of the list!

Goshute Valley (Elko County)  58 miles
Show on Map

The wild and beautiful Owyhee Desert (c) SL & LS

Owyhee Desert (Elko County)   54 miles
Show on Map

Stewart Valley (Nye/Mineral Counties)   51 miles
Show on Map

   Reese River Valley
   153 miles

   Show on Map

Central Nevada once again surprises us with its wild, natural beauty! Depending on what type of Nevadan you are, this one may or may not be a surprise. The lovely and lonely Reese River Valley wins the spot for the longest valley in Nevada!

This place takes its name after its namesake river which is a superlative in itself. Look on any map of central Nevada and the Reese River Valley is an easy one to spot ... a broad and expansive flatland in between the Humboldt River and the historic town of Ione. At first this may not sound impressive, but a map reveals the huge distance in between these places. If you drove Reese River Valley from end to end, it would take you about 5 hours.

Reese River sits next door to the Big Smoky Valley (#4 on our list) and backed up on the east by the rampart walls of the Toiyabe Range. On the west, the valley is absorbed into several high spots and ridges of the Fish Creek Mountains, the Shoshone Range and Desatoya Range. The Reese River Valley averages about ten miles in width, but its northern section fans out to over twenty miles. If you viewed it from above, the valley would resemble a funnel.

The 130-mile long Reese River runs up the center of the valley - beginning in the southern section of the Toiyabe Range as a fast-flowing mountain stream. As soon as it reaches the valley floor, the river becomes a slow muddy stream as it's utilized by scattered farms and ranches along its lower reaches. The Reese River is technically a tributary of the Humboldt River, but in most years the river dwindles into shallow pools long before it makes it to the north valley. Next time you make the long drive on State Route 305, just know you're given the honor of traversing Nevada's longest valley.

Reese River Valley ... we salute you!

Author: Paul Sebesta

What did you think of this list?