Nevada High Points #76: Montezuma Range and Clayton Dunes Overland

Clayton Dunes.

Montezuma Peak

8373 ft (2552 m); Gain 1624 ft


It was time for the initial ‘Second Friday’ excursion in 2021. Snow squalls had come and gone during the week, so our plan was to head south into the southern Great Basin so that the daytime temperatures would be somewhat warm and snow might be less in the higher elevations. Darren and I chose Montezuma Peak for our target, and I picked the dunes of Clayton Valley for our two-night camp.

Clayton Valley. View from Montezuma Peak with Clayton Dunes, Silver Peak Range, and the White Mountains in the distance.

I met Darren in Carson City late on Friday morning. With a stop for fuel and a few supplies, we were soon on the straightaways of Highway 95 heading toward Tonopah, Nevada. We turn south toward Silver Peak, dropping past ‘The Crater’ and into Clayton Valley. I camped in Clayton Valley on my first Second Friday excursion in January of last year — in the before times. At the time, I had made the dunes a future destination and worthy of a look.

Clayton Dunes Collection

We arrived at the dunes at sunset. Rising prominently about a mile from the road, the dunes have no maintained access and off-road vehicle activity appears to be quiet in the winter. A sandy (obviously) two-track leads into the dune’s east side; however, I was not sure the truck and trailer would make it — a meter-deep arroyo had taken over portions of the track and small dunes rolled across others. We ditched the trailer by the turn-out and explored the two-track with the truck. It was fine and sandy. Returned for the trailer and set camp as the darkness closed in.

Winds were forecast, but at dinner we commented on the calmness and its relative warmth. A coyote sang in the distance. Watching the stars and mapping out the lights on the distant side of the valley, we noticed the lights of the evaporation ponds dimming and disappearing. The pinpricks of streetlights at Silver Peak were bright against the mountains. Slowly they, too, vanished.

We sat perplexed until a quick gust of wind rattled the table and an empty beer can. The smell of the night changed. Another gust. Dust storm!

The silt engulfed us reflecting a fog of headlamp and not much else. The vanishing lights explained. We hunkered in momentarily and then thought we should make the most of this. Let’s climb the dunes. We worked our way in our silt halos watching white-outs of sand blast from dune crests — the dunes migrating under our feet.

Clayton Camp. My Taxa Cricket with Darren’s tent; our common overland camp configuration.

The morning was bright, a low cloud at the horizon evaporating at sunrise. We waited for golden light on the dune, but the uplands to the east were calling. The road to Montezuma, a historic-era mining town, is well-maintained and its upper reaches access private property and modern infrastructure, but respecting the properties is easily done.

A so-called ‘pack trail’, variously marked on different maps, led to a pass that crests at the northeast ridge of Montezuma Peak. It is a simple, enjoyable hike from there. Snow patches were not deep even though we approached on north-facing slopes.

Montezuma Peak Collection

Montezuma approach. Leaving the pack trail we enjoy rock cross-country hike toward the rounded summit.
Toward Mud Lake. Summit view to the northeast toward the playa of Mud Lake.
Summit moment. The night’s wind brought the day’s cold — we did not linger.

Back at in the dunes we wandered, following animal tracks and composing photographs for the promising sunset. I also wanted to get the know the dunescape so we could catch the early light and the great shadow play of mid-morning sun angles on the curving dunes. I tried a few things but the cold was coming hard and fast. We prepared for dinner noticing that any liquid that hit the table froze immediately. Our hands numbed if we moved anywhere away from the stove. I turned on the trailer heater so we could lounge inside, but we kept to star-gazing and the pleasure of our well-contained campfire. It is something of a challenge to stay up in the winter-darkness, so we were relieved that the time passed quickly among our conversations about future trips, natural history, photography, and video ideas. And likely a myriad other things.

Clayton Dunes. Basin alluvium arranged by wind the basin bottomlands.

Because the evening shoot in the dunes did not materialize, I wanted hoped for success in the morning. I climbed the dune well before dawn, it was dramatically cold (in camp, our five gallon water jug was a solid block). The simple star dune in the midst of the dunefield provide the S-curve I wanted. I could have a play with first light against the dark of the dune shadow. The shadow area held a frost, giving it some highlights reflecting the sky, something I had not seen on a dune previously — of course, I’m not often on a dune in single-digit (F) temperatures. It was very satisfying, and I warmed quickly with my success.

Frosted dune. Feeling the mood of the dune at first light (three-image focus stack).

Darren was hiking his own quadrant of the dune but soon joined me for a few long moments enjoying the quiet, expansive views. This first overland of 2021 had worked out nicely; we had a fast peak and some slow time in the dunes. We had the excitement of the dust storm and the calm of the refreshed, trackless dune on the cold morning. It was, however, time to head home and plan our next overland/photo excursion.

Clayton Dunes Collection

North dune. A five-image pano from the dune apex, looking north across Clayton Valley.

Keep going.

Please respect the natural and cultural resources of our public lands. #naturefirst #keepgoing

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