As talk of rich strikes at Virginia City, Bodie and Aurora spread, adventurous prospectors from California's Gold Country flocked to the Eastern Sierra and high desert. By the 1870s, the Sweetwater Mountains on the California/Nevada border crawled with fortune seekers. These mineralized mountains skirted California's Bridgeport Valley, the Antelope Valley, and Nevada's bustling "Esmeralda" mining district.
California's Gold Country crept from the San Joaquin and Sacramento Valley floors to approximately 5,500-foot elevation on the west side of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. By contrast, the Sweetwater's riches nestled beneath high peaks -- more like the legendary mines of Colorado. Mining camps like Star City and Belfort rested between 10,000 and 11,000 feet. Even Virginia City, notorious for its harsh winters, stood at a mere 6,200-foot elevation, and Bodie lay at 8,300 feet. Determined to find riches, eager miners spent July through October plying the canyons and timberline zones of the Sweetwater Range.
Over time, the larger mines ran deep into the mountainsides, clambering for silver and gold. While production in the Sweetwater Range was a mere fraction of the nearby Bodie, Aurora, and Masonic deposits, there was enough ore to keep smaller operations functioning through the Great Depression Era.
Among the mines that yielded silver, the Silverado Mine was most notable. At one time, the Silverado earned status as the largest silver producer in California. Today, a wooden head-rig and eroding cement structures stand as testament to an epoch when mule-powered ore wagons, then primitive chain-drive trucks, rumbled up and down the steep canyons and switchbacks of the Sweetwaters.
One could very easily drive past these canyons and never suspect their history. The mining is long gone, and Nevada Highway 338 is a solitary, sparsely traveled route. Cresting the Sweetwater Summit at 7,120 feet, the two-lane road connects Smith Valley, Nevada, with Bridgeport, California. At the California state line, Highway 338 turns into California Route 182, which winds along the East Walker River and ends at Bridgeport and U.S. Highway 395.
The "Sweetwater Road," as locals refer to Highway 338, runs parallel to Highway 395. Despite its high summit, the route lies east of the tall Sweetwater Mountains, which often shield Highway 338 from the brunt of Sierra blizzards. East of the Sweetwaters, snow can accumulate and stay hard-frozen from late fall through spring.
Highway 338 can be maintained, and the road dries readily -- if the plows are running. Although a reasonable alternative to U.S. Highway 395's Walker Canyon during heavy winter storms, Highway 338 will not see a plow past 4 o'clock in the afternoon. To avoid being stranded on this lonely road, limit foul weather travel to mid morning through early afternoon. The drive from Bridgeport to Smith Valley is approximately 45 minutes on a clear highway.
Exploring The Sweetwater Mountains
Historically, the Sweetwater Range was a mining and grazing region. Today, the major mines are gone although a number of smaller claims remain active. Locally, the range provides a wealth of recreational outlets, including four-wheeling, old mines, ghost town sites, hunting, fishing, and camping. At the north end of the Nevada access is Desert Creek, providing a U.S. Forest Service campground and miles of streamside play. The Desert Creek recreational area attracts families and those wanting to beat the summer heat of surrounding desert country (with water and rocky hillsides, rattlesnakes have made their presence known here, too). Desert Creek Peak stands at 9,020 feet, the first of several higher peaks lining the range.
Driving south along Highway 338, you can access Desert Creek from its upper end, near the Desert Creek Peak. A quarter-mile before Sweetwater Summit, just before the descent to the Sweetwater Ranch, a sign on the west side of the road reads, "Sweetwater Canyon--3 Miles." This dirt access qualifies as a four-wheel drive route yet does not require excess ground clearance. A stock Jeep, truck-based SUV, or other short wheelbase 4x4 can readily climb the canyon.
There are several treats ahead as you wind up the canyon. Near the top, the Nugent cabin and old mine sites come to view. Peaks tower to 10,500 feet, the East Sister most prominent. The flora ranges from Utah juniper and Jeffrey pines to pine nut trees and even white fir. Sweetwater Creek has a steady flow year round, providing precious water for the Sweetwater Ranch and a shady haven for fickle brook trout. Fauna include deer, occasional mountain lions, coyotes, smaller mammals, and rodents. In summer and early fall, cattle graze the creek area and tiny meadows.
Each of the canyons and draws on the east slope of the Sweetwaters begins in Nevada and winds up in California. The Silverado Mine lies halfway up Silverado Canyon. Unmarked at the highway and accessed due west of the Sweetwater Ranch, there are remnants of the mine and other activity in the area. As always, visitors should use care to avoid open or obscured mineshafts and tunnels. Lightly trafficked and primitive, these sites are not marked. A trickling creek runs throughout the year, and cattle graze here in summer and fall.
At the southernmost end of the range, southwest of the Sweetwater Ranch, is Mount Patterson. Towering to 11,384 feet above sea level, Mount Patterson is accessible to approximately 10,900 feet by four-wheel drive road on the east slope. Star City, now just a vacant plateau, rests near 9,500 feet. Belfort, at 10,200 feet, qualifies as a ghost town, the remnant of a once productive silver and gold mining district.
The views from any angle of Mt. Patterson are spectacular. A 100-mile eastward panorama scans the Bodie Hills, Corey Peak (10,520 feet) and Mt. Grant (11,245 feet). Corey Peak, Mt. Grant, and Lucky Boy Pass (8,001 feet) lie due east in Nevada's Wassuk Range. The west side of Mt. Patterson, accessible by California dirt roads, provides a sweeping view of the Sierra Range.
Additional travels and activities in the area include the ghost towns of Bodie, Aurora, and Masonic. For fly-fishers, the East Walker River's acclaimed catch-and-release section is just below the Sweetwater Ranch. Dirt road access to Lucky Boy Pass leads to Mono Lake, California, or Hawthorne, Nevada. Nearby Bridgeport, California, provides meals, lodging and resources like camping, boating, and fishing at Bridgeport Reservoir or picturesque Twin Lakes.
When traveling this region, please respect property and public lands. In particular, the Nevada access to the Sweetwater Mountains passes through the Sweetwater Ranch on Highway 338. There are many grazing areas en route to the canyons, with traditional barbed wire fencing and gates that require proper opening and closing. The Nugent cabin is a phenomenon in this age, a facility open to those who wish to stay overnight and respect the intent of the property. Once a mine and herder's line cabin, the structure is habitable and supported by generous guests. As long as users leave the cabin as found or better, we can continue to enjoy this unique setting.
If your travels include the eastern Sierra or northwestern Nevada, consider visiting the Sweetwater Mountains. From June to late October (or the first significant snowfall), the area provides seclusion and a glimpse of the past. Nearby, there are archaeological sites dating back many thousands of years, as this region has been home and a sacred place for many peoples. In our next travels through the area, we'll explore those pre-Columbian sites and lifestyles!