OFF-ROAD's returned to its exploring roots. You want somewhere to go with your vehicles once you fix them up, so we're off into the backcountry to bring you destinations that are off the well-beaten track.
Pioche (pronounced pee-oach) sits in Nevada's eastern high desert (37.929N. 114.451W.), on US 93 between I 15 and US 50, about 180 miles northeast of the glitz of Las Vegas. Named for 19th century San Francisco financier Francois Louis Alfred Pioche, who never set foot in the town named for him, Pioche was one of the toughest towns in the West and a wild place. Several books claim the town was so violent that 72 men were buried in the Pioche cemetery before anyone died of natural causes.
In 1864, William (aka "Gunlock Bill") Hamblin was led by a Paiute Indian to silver deposits near what became Pioche. American Indian hostility and technical difficulties in processing ore kept much from happening until E.M. Chubard and Joseph Grange organized the district and in 1868 named it Ely in honor of John H. Ely, who had arrived late in 1868. In 1869, F.L.A. Pioche purchased the properties and, with others, formed the Meadow Valley Mining Company. They successfully separated the silver ore by chemical processing in 1870, opening the area for mining. There were a number of mining districts in the area that used the mills in Pioche and nearby Bullionville, one being Silver Reef in Utah, the only place silver was found in sandstone in North America.
Like all 19th century mining boomtowns, Pioche grew rapidly along with its mines and mills. Population estimates were as high as 7,000 people by 1871, and the city became the seat of Lincoln County, taking it from the nearby town of Hiko. At its peak, Pioche sported 72 saloons, two breweries, two newspapers, and a number of brothels in the red-light district.
Pioche's isolation from civilization, combined with the highly competitive situation of opportunities for quick wealth and a transient population of miners, speculators, and gunmen, created a society that epitomized the Old West. From 1870-1876, only two men were punished for murder, while many murders were recorded and many people who met violent ends were planted in Boot Hill. In 1873, the Territorial Enterprise of Virginia City complained.
"Pioche is overrun with as desperate a class of scoundrels as probably ever afflicted any mining town on this coast and the law is virtually a dead letter . . . It is high time that something should be done, for as matters now stand, the name Pioche has become a byword for reproach and a synonym for murder and lawlessness throughout the state."
Pioche started to wane a bit in 1876, but, since it was the seat of Lincoln County, never died. The arrival of the railroad in 1907 brought about a revival of the area. By WWII, lead and zinc became the principal ores mined in Pioche, with byproducts of silver and gold sweetening the pot.
Today, with a population of about 725, Pioche is a quiet, out-of-the-way destination that's located on US 93 and is a great place to base your explorations around eastern Nevada. While there are very few mines and no mills operating today, rock hounds have a good time exploring the old tailings around the area, and there are hundreds of miles of dirt roads leading into the backcountry for those who like to drive fast or slow. Of note is the Mount Wilson BLM Backcountry Byway, an easy route that takes off from Pioche and passes the ghosts of mining towns such as Treasure Hill, Highland, Bullionville, and Jackrabbit.
The desert, once covered with mining paraphernalia, is now covered with blooming wildflowers if you visit in the spring. For a really spectacular show, come in the autumn when entire hillsides come alive with vibrant shades of yellow, red, and orange, providing great vantage points for the expansive views of the Meadow Valley and desert ranges in the distance. We'll be exploring this byway in a later issue. Pioche is a hub for fishing, hunting, and other recreation, with a number of lakes and state parks nearby.
Pioche gets some snow in the winter. Spring through fall is the best time to visit, although at times, summer temperatures can get pretty warm. As always on backcountry adventures, take along plenty of water and be prepared to do some repairs if needed. The roads we explored around Pioche were very easy, but many times an easy dirt road can turn into rockcrawling fun when a flash flood has cut it in two.
Pioche is a bit different from most of the ghost towns we visit in two ways. First, it's not a complete ghost town, as it's still the functioning county seat for Lincoln County, Nevada. Second, it's not on a dirt road. As we mentioned, though, there are plenty of dirt roads heading out from Pioche that make it a must-visit destination. Maybe the influx of off-roaders will make Pioche wild again!