Hiking Reno/Lake Tahoe: Virginia Range Roads to Louse Mountain
Sometimes it seems as though the desert peaks, canyons, and valleys bordering the eastern edge of the Truckee Meadows are overlooked when it comes to hiking opportunities. This could be due to any number of factors such as the greater allure of the Sierra Nevada to the west, the comparative lack of developed hiking trails, and the rambunctious tendencies of off road vehicle enthusiasts and recreational shooters. But if you are looking for a change of pace from the encompassing pine forests of the Sierra, the many dirt roads transecting the Virginia Range to Reno’s east provide plentiful chances for natural respite.
The Virginia Range is marked by comparatively low elevations and dry conditions, making it an ideal choice for winter hiking if you desire snow free trails. This area admittedly receives a decent amount of snowfall--usually slightly more than the Reno metro area--but its mid-winter snow depths pale in comparison to the deep drifts of the Sierra. Though mud may complicate travel at times, snow free trails are often the norm throughout the year. And in winter, getting an early start will leave any mud that may or may not be present frozen, making for smooth, carefree hiking.
Louse Mountain is one of few peaks in the Virginia Range that can be readily accessed via established dirt roads. A short (0.15 mile) distance of off-road/trail travel across semi-rocky terrain is required if you wish to attain the summit of the peak, which sits at 6875 feet above sea level. Sticking strictly to the roads will, however, no doubt leave you with a well-rounded winter outdoor experience. Louse Mountain and the Virginia Range are great for winter hiking, but I have yet to discuss hiking in this area in other seasons. Why?
The sun exposure and lack of shade that makes this spot ideal for cold-weather adventures makes it inhospitable in the summer. Temperatures regularly soar above 90 degrees Fahrenheit and sometimes over 100 degrees Fahrenheit from early June through mid-September, making this a less than ideal location for a summer stroll. Additionally, large numbers of rattlesnakes populate the area and become increasingly active with warmer temperatures. Accounting for snakes and heat, the best time for hiking in the Virginia Range is from mid-October to mid-May. Supposing the season is right, what does the hike to Louse Mountain have to offer?
Starting out below the terminus of a rugged canyon marked by steep cliffs, the Louse Mountain route follows a steep dirt road as it zigzags up the exposed desert slopes to the north of the canyon. After the initial ascent the route follows the perimeter of the valley at the head of the aforementioned canyon before ascending further and reaching a series of switchbacks just before the final push to the peak. Wildflowers make the valley particularly delightful come spring. Scattered pinyon pines and encompassing views of the Sierra to the west mark the last stretch of travel to a summit with 360 degree views.
Ready to hit the trail? Read on to discover the specifics of summiting Louse Mountain.
What do You Like?
Do you prefer to hike in the snow of the Sierra during the winter, or do you prefer the drier, warmer climate of the Virginia Range?
This route to Louse Mountain begins from a large parking area located off a high-quality dirt road accessed behind Damonte Ranch High School. To get here, proceed on Damonte Ranch Parkway for 1.0 miles from its intersection with South Virginia Street (near the Walmart shopping center) and turn left onto Steamboat Parkway. Continue 1.5 miles on Steamboat Parkway before turning right onto Rio Wrangler Parkway. Follow Rio Wrangler for 0.4 miles before turning left onto McCauley Ranch Boulevard. Follow McCauley Ranch for 0.25 miles before reaching a roundabout. At the roundabout, take the second right onto the dirt road with the gate. Proceed through the gate, remembering to close it behind you, and continue for 0.7 miles before reaching the parking area (no facilities), on the right.
To get to the described parking area, proceed east on McCauley Ranch Blvd. and take the second right in the roundabout onto the dirt road.
Trail Nuts and Bolts
Length: 5.3 miles one way; 10.6 miles round trip.
Trailhead elevation: 4700
Elevation gain: 2175 to peak elevation; around 2500 cumulative.
Best time/season: late fall, winter, early spring.
Shade availability: low for first 4.7 miles; moderate thereafter.
Trail users: hikers, off road vehicles.
From the parking area, hike directly west for 0.05 miles. This will take you across a boulder-filled drainage ditch and onto a dirt road with a north-south orientation. Proceed north on the road as it first descends mildly and later ascends mildly. After approximately 0.4 miles the road forks, continue to the right and prepare yourself for a heart-thumping, but vista-filled climb. Follow this road as it ascends steadily for 0.4 miles before taking on a much steeper profile.
Pay attention to your footing at this point as the road surface can be incredibly loose depending on weather and use. From the beginning of the steep grade (0.4 miles from the first fork), proceed another 0.7 miles before reaching a second fork. Take the left road to proceed to Louse Mountain. The right road continues for 0.35 miles before terminating at a viewpoint above the cliffs of the canyon first seen from the trailhead. Continuing to Louse Mountain, continue 0.6 miles past the fork before reaching a third fork and going right.
Enjoy a brief respite in the shade of scattered pinyon pines before continuing 0.3 miles to yet another fork (fork number four), at which point proceed to the left. Follow this road for 0.5 miles before reaching fork number five and going right. Descend mildly to the west for 0.35 miles before reaching fork number six and continuing to the left. Thankfully, the next 1.2 miles is devoid of forks.
After the steady, 1.2 mile long ascent past fork number six comes the final fork, fork number seven. Take the left, less-used road and follow it for 0.3 miles through two switchbacks. Continue another 0.35 miles as the road ascends the flanks of Louse Mountain to a saddle, passing through a forest of sporadic pinyons on the way. At the saddle, continue to the left (north) across the rocky slopes for 0.15 miles to reach the summit, marked by a large wooden pole jammed into rock crevices. For simplified travel along this off-road/trail portion of the hike, try to stick to the less rocky/obstructed center of the broad ridge. Once you reach the summit, enjoy the views before retracing your steps back to the parking area.
The Best Guide to Hiking in the Reno Area
One of the most thorough resources available for the area, this book provides in-depth accounts for over 100 local hikes. It provides not only directions to each trailhead and available trailhead facilities, but also extensive descriptions of each route.
What You'll See Along the Way
While the deserts of the Virginia Range may not harbor as wide an array of species as the Sierra, they do still hold many gems. Aside from the geological beauty of the cliff-pocked canyon seen from the trailhead, the route to Louse Mountain provides opportunities to glimpse a wide array of biological beauty. A large population of wild mustangs wanders throughout the hills, and a sighting of these large animals is all but guaranteed over the course of the 10 mile hike. Other mammals indicative of the route include California ground squirrels in rocky areas, mule deer on open slopes, and black-tailed jackrabbits throughout. Notable birds include juniper titmouse amongst the pinyon-juniper woodland and, in the spring, black-throated sparrows in the bushy areas on the perimeter of the canyon-top valley.
In addition to single-leafed pinyon pine trees, flora of the route includes sporadic Utah Juniper plentiful non-native cheat grass, and occasional big sagebrush and rubber rabbit bush in sunnier locales. Spring temperatures bring blooms of the purple, low-growing beckwith violet; the yellow-white Nevada lomatium; and the showy, yellow arrowleaf balsamroot. The wildflower bloom typically peaks in this area from mid-April into the first week of May.
© 2014 Jonathan Heywood