When one gazes up to the lofty crags of the Granite Range in northwestern Nevada, having previously seen a bit of the nearby country, there is the obvious thought which comes to mind—namely that, Wow, those are some big mountains. Bigger than anything else around them. Trees askirt the top and everything. One thinks, “Bet it’s real pretty up there—bet the view just stretches on and on across the desert.” After one lives in nearby Gerlach for several months—situated at the southeastern spur of the range—and is driven sufficiently stir-crazy for want of stimulation, the next obvious thought is, How does one get up there? And what, pray tell, will one see from its exalted summit?
The Granites, peaking out at 8,974 feet, are some of the highest mountains abutting the Black Rock Desert-High Rock Canyon-Emigrant Trails National Conservation Area. (They lie just outside the NCA’s southwest border.) In fact, they are the highest mountains for at least fifty miles in every direction. From the summit, on a clear day, one can look west into California and see Mount Shasta of the Sierra Nevada and Lassen Peak of the Cascades, both roughly 200 to 250 miles distant. From here, a panoramic view of the NCA spills out to the edges of one’s vision and then transgresses them. The Granites are flanked by the Calico Mountains and the Black Rock Desert to the east and northeast, Poodle Mountain to the west, and Smoke Creek Desert to the south. The dozens of lesser, unnamed Granite eminences surrounding and abutting the peak are home to herds of mule deer and bighorn sheep, stands of stunted juniper, vast clonal tracts of aspen, chukar and golden eagles, black-billed magpies.
Given the range’s name, one would generally be correct in assuming that the Granites are composed chiefly of granite. If one sought out a geologist to elucidate further, one might be told that “the stratigraphy of the Granite Range-northern Smoke Creek Desert area consists of middle to late Tertiary volcanic and sedimentary rocks that rest directly on Mesozoic granitic and Permian-Triassic metamorphic basement.” So yes: lots of granite, some of it nearly 200 million years old. If one requested further detail on said Tertiary rocks, the reply could read as follows: “In ascending order, one might find interbedded tuffaceous siltstone, sandstone, conglomerate, and ash-flow tuff; then dacite lavas, rhyolitic lavas; then olivine basalt to basaltic andesite flows.” One could see the superposition stacking up to the mind’s eye. “But,” the geologist would quickly stress, after enumerating those layers, “most of the units interfinger with one another, generating locally complex stratigraphic relationships.” The Granites, then, are not fully granite, but mostly so—excepting the locally complex, intercalated strata, which could be any number of things.
The Granite Range piedmont is everywhere sculpted by alluvial fans that mound up at the slopes, ample evidence of the mountains’ active disaggregation. These deposits comprise billions of broken-up granite bits, called grus, which vary in size from beans and Bocce balls to boulders. They glitter with mica, hornblende, feldspar, quartz. They constitute, in the geologist’s words, a “grussy matrix.” Some of the newest rocks in the range—sedimentary, non-granitic—occur just outside Gerlach, along the ancient wave-cut shoreline of Lake Lahontan. These lacustrine limestone deposits trace the Pleistocene lake’s ebb into near-obscurity, some 11,000 years ago, when the Great Basin shut off almost all water from outside its borders and commenced with stretching, rising, faulting its crust.
Like many of the north-south trending horst blocks in the Basin and Range province, the Granites are tilted in such a way that one side is steeper than the other—the west face rises more precipitously than the east, which slopes (somewhat) gradually back toward the Black Rock Desert. The range lies between two to three normal-fault blocks; these outlying blocks of crust have slipped down at angles approaching sixty degrees and tilted up the intervening range. If one were to ask a peakbagger their opinion of the Granites, one might learn that, of Nevada’s 170 mountains with more than 2,000 feet of topographic prominence—that is, the vertical distance between an apex and the lowest contour line encircling no higher summit than itself—Granite Peak ranks in the top fifty, with 3,460 feet of sheer grussy prominence. Because Nevada sits squarely within the Great Basin, inward-draining bowl of the Basin and Range, the vast majority of its ranges shoot up from alluvium-filled valleys along normal faults—ideal conditions for elevated escarpment. So it is that Nevada holds claim to more peaks of over-2,000-foot prominence than any other state outside of Alaska.
If one were to inquire as to the best route to the top, the peakbagger would likely recommend an approach from the southwest, some ten miles out of Gerlach off of Highway 447—“It is scenic,” says this mountaineer of the ascent, “with some enjoyable, optional third class sections along the way.” Scenic is right—enjoyable, too, even without the technical climbing. One can simply take the sheep trails all the way up.