Winding through the Virginia Hills between Washoe Lake and Virginia City is a jeep trail known as Jumbo Grade. It is named after Jumbo, a mining town that was active for a relatively brief time early in the 20th century (approx. 1907 – 1921). Today the area is a unit of the Bureau of Land Management, BLM, and is managed jointly with Washoe County Parks. The jeep trail starts at a fairly new trailhead, the New Washoe City trailhead, and ends 8 miles to the east in Virginia City.
There are numerous jeep roads in the Virginia Hills that connect now-abandoned mines. These trails are popular with ATV drivers and dirt bike riders, but can also be hiked. The day of my hike was Memorial Day and I encountered barely a half dozen other trail users.
Highlights of my hike included views of the Virginia Hills, a surprising variety of spring wildflowers, and clear views of Slide Mountain and Mt Rose, still decorated with the remnants of the winter snow pack.
The day of my hike promised to be hot, with a high temperature in the mid 90’s, so I only set out to cover 4 or 5 miles before turning around. On the GPS track the orange dot denotes the Jumbo Grade Trailhead, well signed from Eastlake Blvd in New Washoe City, about 15 miles south of I-80 in Reno via I-580 and Old US 395. The trailhead is just off Jumbo Grade, and to get to Virginia City you basically go as straight as possible at all trail junctions. About 3.4 miles from the trailhead the “straight as possible” road becomes Ophir Grade, though there are no road-naming signs at the junction.
Before reaching the Ophir Grade junction the road climbs steadily, with an average grade of 7%. I believe this is the highest elevation on the way to Virginia City. The first part of the descent is more gradual, and I followed it for about a mile before deciding I should turn around.
I started seeing wildflowers virtually as soon as I left the trailhead. There was quite a bit of bush lupine and phlox throughout the hike. Near the beginning, which passed nearby a stream with flowing water, there was some pink wild onion, I believe aspen onion (Allium bisceptrum).
In the area where the trail was close to the stream I also saw wild California rose.
After about 1 mile the trail diverged from the path of the stream and continued to climb. Within the next half mile I saw quite a variety of wildflowers. One was this small, perhaps 1/3 inch diameter, 5-petaled beauty. I tend to refer to all such flowers as cinquefoil (genus Potentilla), though I could not find a type in my flower books or on-line that looked like this, with a touch of orange and green at the base of the petals and numerous stamens protruding from the flower.
I noticed one or two yellow salsify flowers (Tragopogon dubius), perhaps 1 inch in diameter.
Next was a patch of white tidy tips (Layia glandulosa), in which the ray flowers are completely white. (The ray flowers of the tidy tips I see in the Bay Area are yellow, like the disc flowers, with crisp white tips.)
Just after I noticed the white tidy tips I saw, just a few feet away, the first Bruneau mariposa lily (Calochortus bruneaunis) of the day. So I climbed a few feet up the slope at the side of the trail for pictures of both. The Bruneau mariposa lily is quite showy, with yellow at the base of the snowy white petals, a maroon chevron above the yellow area, and six purple anthers.
Not far along the trail was a fairly tall phacelia, I believe a varileaf phacelia (Phacelia heterophylla). It is one of the relatively few phacelias in the Great Basin with white, or dirty white, instead of violet or purple, flowers, and it is characterized by a “stout” stem, which is evident in the picture. I saw lots of these phacelias during the hike. Each plant has numerous tight coils, along the outside of which the flowers bloom, a few at a time. The inset at the lower right shows a close-up of a blossom, with various reproductive parts extending outward from the petals.
Yet another white flower in this area of the trail was blepharipappus (Blepharipappus scaber), or rough eyelash. This is another composite flower, with ray flowers and disc flowers.
In this area there were also a few penstemons, which I usually find difficult to photograph. This picture came out nicely, and seems to show short hairs on the outside of the petals, on the stems, and on the leaves. The different species of penstemon are difficult to distinguish, so I didn’t try very hard to make a specific identification.
I happened to look up an unmarked side trail, which may lead to some nearby former mines, and was startled to see a couple of bright pink patches of wildflowers. I made a small, 10 yards or so, excursion to check them out. The flowers reminded me of purple mat, which I’d seen in Death Valley earlier in the spring. These are purple nama (Nama aretioides) and are, in fact, closely related to the purple mat in Death Valley.
By this time I’d covered less than 1.5 miles of trail and I’d already seen enough wildflowers to call it a good day! There were a few prickly poppies (Argemone munita) and then some snow thistle, also called cobweb thistle (Cirsium occidentale). I would see a lot more of this large thistle plant. When it blooms, the flowers are almost red, quite striking.
When I hike I frequently see flowers that remind me of dandelions. This time I decided to take a closer look at some, and noticed many pretty, forked stamens extending upward from the center of the flower head. I think these flowers are western hawksbeard (Crepis occidentalis), but they might be short-beaked agoseris (Agoseris glauca) instead.
Near this area I reached the first major trail crossing. The trail to the left leads to the Empire Mine and the Pandora Mine. Now the Jumbo Grade trail is heading into the heart of the Virginia Hills and a few peaks come into and remain in view. I think Mt Bullion is on the left and Butler Peak is on the right in this picture.
A bit later I found an interesting multi-colored cluster of Indian paintbrush (Castilleja). It turns out that a couple of types of paintbrush appear in different colors. This picture is intended to show the range of colors – from red to orange to yellow – even though my camera decided to focus on the grasses in the foreground instead of on the paintbrush!
About 3.4 miles from the trailhead there was a second major trail crossing, again unsigned. According to my GPS map, when you continue straight here to go to Virginia City, you actually leave Jumbo Grade and follow Ophir Grade. At the junction, if you look to the right along Ophir Grade, you see McClellan Peak with McClellan Lookout Tower on top, and what appear to be broadcast towers for several radio stations. This junction marks the highest point on the way to Virginia City. The trail begins a gradual descent and winds around several hills.
In a few places I saw some brilliant blue larkspur (genus Delphinium). This is another wildflower that is generally difficult to photograph close-up. However, here there were several stalks close to each other, and the cluster makes a pretty picture.
Once past the highest point of the trail, the views ahead start to open up toward the valley in which Virginia City is located. Several jeep tracks criss-cross in the foreground.
About a mile after I passed the trail’s highest point I decided I would turn around and return to the trailhead. On the way back I noticed a small cluster of sand corm (Zigadenus paniculatus). Although the blossoms are pretty, it is notable that the plant is a type of death camas and is quite poisonous, both to humans and to livestock.
I continued back toward the trailhead, almost without incident. About 1.5 miles from the trailhead I re-encountered a damp area below which the trail follows a stream, mentioned before. This time I stopped to look for flowers that prefer damp areas and noticed a single crimson columbine (Aquilegia formosa). As it turned out, this is the last picture that my camera would take. After this one, the camera was unable to focus properly and shortly the lens retract mechanism failed entirely.
In spite of the heat and camera failure, this was an enjoyable hike. It would have been interesting to get all the way to Virginia City and explore some of the many historic buildings and other sites in town. This would be a great point-to-point hike with a second car stashed at the other end. Alternatively, on a cooler day a round-trip hike of 16 miles would be feasible.