By Michael Lanza
Dark clouds loom low overhead, thunder periodically rents the air, and strong winds blow steadily as hurried rain showers hit us intermittently in bursts that last several minutes between equally brief dry spells. We’re hiking north on our first afternoon backpacking the Ruby Crest Trail through northeastern Nevada’s Ruby Mountains, and passing thunderstorms are making the first few hours of our trip… well, actually quite pleasant.
With the temperature around 70° F, the light showers and wind feel just about perfect for hiking: We switch occasionally between wearing rain shells and hiking in T-shirts, but largely don’t work up much of a sweat. Even better, as we walk into the evening (we started the hike from Harrison Pass at around 3 p.m. after driving several hours to get here), the sunlight slicing through cracks in the heavy clouds lends color and depth to the spare, high-desert landscape of sagebrush, patches of conifer forest and aspen groves, grass and wildflowers, and granite monoliths dappling the mountainsides.
My family, joined by my 17-year-old daughter Alex’s lifelong friend, Adele, is here to backpack a four-day, approximately 36-mile, south-to-north traverse of the Ruby Crest Trail, from Harrison Pass to Lamoille Canyon. We’ve come in mid-July, an ideal time of year in the Rubies, with wildflowers blooming, moderate daytime temperatures and comfortably cool nights, no snow to speak of, and relatively few biting insects compared to what you’d normally see in many mountain ranges in July.
At a small marker indicating that we’re entering the 90,000-acre Ruby Mountains Wilderness, we leave behind an old dirt two-track we’ve hiked for a few miles from the Green Mountain Trailhead, walking quickly and easily down a single-track trail of packed dirt. Shortly before 7 p.m., near the RCT’s junction with the McCutcheon Creek Trail, where the small creek has a good flow, we call it a day and pitch tents.
Just before disappearing over the horizon, the sun erupts through the clouds one last time, setting off an explosion of brilliant yellow that saturates the landscape more thoroughly than the spitting rain has. During the night, I awake to the Milky Way smeared across the heavens like a string of puffy clouds. The next morning, my 19-year-old son, Nate, asks me, “Did you see the stars last night?”
Existing in virtual anonymity relative to renowned footpaths like the Teton Crest Trail and John Muir Trail, the Ruby Crest Trail cuts a snaking route along the spine of Nevada’s Ruby Mountains, a north-south range of granite-rimmed lake basins and arid valleys carved by ancient glaciers. Located mostly within the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest, the Rubies tower thousands of feet above pan-flat valleys to the east and west. Ten peaks rise above 10,000 feet, including the highest, Ruby Dome at 11,387 feet.
Long stretches of the RCT lie above 10,000 feet, traversing an almost treeless alpine zone for miles—the kind of scenic experience that backpackers seek on more-famous trails that require competing with thousands of others for a hard-to-get backcountry permit. But no permit reservation is needed for the Ruby Crest Trail, and even in July, we only occasionally encounter other backpackers.
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While not nearly as speckled with alpine lakes as bigger mountain ranges like the High Sierra and Wind River or even Idaho’s Sawtooths, the Rubies harbor some electrically blue mountain lakes cradled within cliffs and rocky shorelines—several of them along the Ruby Crest Trail.
Our second day on the RCT launches with a beautiful morning, clear and mild, the sun warm but a breeze keeping us cool as we make a long rising traverse to a ridge with a sweeping panorama of the terrain ahead. In this open landscape, we can see that the trail makes a long descent to cross the South Fork of Smith Creek, then wraps around two more ridges while rising steadily to cross the Middle and North Forks.
After lunch near the North Fork, we make a slow, nearly 2,000-foot uphill slog out of the valley, the hot afternoon sun tempered again by steady wind. That effort seems validated when we step up to a pass at about 10,200 feet. Almost 1,000 feet below us, a stone bowl holds Overland Lake like a pair of cupped hands; we’ll make camp on a rock ledge jutting into one corner of the lake, at around 9,400 feet.
But this pass also marks the first point hiking northbound where we can see the backbone of the Ruby Mountains extending for many miles ahead—and how the Ruby Crest Trail mostly hugs those heights. That’s where we’ll walk for the next two days.
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The Crest of the Ruby Mountains
Leaving Overland Lake by 9 a.m. on morning three, we follow the RCT as it circles around the dramatic cirque of Overland Creek, stepping over a tiny creek below a pretty waterfall and two other spring-fed streams. Craggy ridges plunge down the walls of this broad bowl, where the rare, solitary conifer tree speaks to a harsh, dry environment. At one point, we get a view back toward 11,045-foot King Peak, where soaring cliffs ring a cirque high above us.
Alex and Adele set a strong pace as we make a long, steady climb, eventually catching up with Nate and my wife, Penny, who left our last camp about 30 minutes ahead of the girls and me. A couple of hours beyond Overland Lake, we top out on a high plateau of rocks, scant, low vegetation, and wildflowers spotting the ground with color here and there. From this point, we will be traversing the spine of the Ruby Mountains on our longest day on the Ruby Crest Trail.
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Jagged peaks loom in the distance. A passing thunderhead spits fat rain drops at us while we eat lunch on the plateau, but never produces real rain or lightning. We pass three solo backpackers heading south, but no one else all day. Miles away, in the valley west of the Rubies, dust devils raise tornado-like, brown spouts high into the sky. All day, the breeze keeps us cool and the temperature remains comfortable for hiking in shorts and T-shirts.
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After the day’s final uphill, we reach 10,893-foot Wines Peak, the highest point on the Ruby Crest Trail. Nate turns around to gaze far back over all that we’ve traversed today, then smiles and says, “It just never stops being amazing.”
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Gear Tips Trekking poles are recommended for the Ruby Crest Trail’s significant descents and ascents. See my picks for “The Best Trekking Poles” and my stories “How to Choose Trekking Poles” and “10 Best Expert Tips for Hiking With Trekking Poles.”
The Ruby Mountains are relatively dry and can get hot in summer; wear supportive but lightweight boots or shoes that breathe well (not waterproof)/ See all of my reviews of hiking shoes and my “8 Pro Tips for Preventing Blisters When Hiking.”
Find the best gear, expert buying tips, and best-in-category reviews like “The 10 Best Backpacking Packs” and “The 10 Best Down Jackets” at my Gear Reviews page at The Big Outside.
See my expert tips in these stories:
“How to Prevent Hypothermia While Hiking and Backpacking”
“8 Pro Tips for Preventing Blisters When Hiking”
“5 Tips For Staying Warm and Dry While Hiking”
“7 Pro Tips For Keeping Your Backpacking Gear Dry”
Whether you’re a beginner or seasoned backpacker, you’ll learn new tricks for making all of your trips go better in my “12 Expert Tips for Planning a Wilderness Backpacking Trip” and “A Practical Guide to Lightweight and Ultralight Backpacking.” If you don’t have a paid subscription to The Big Outside, you can read part of both stories for free, or download the e-guide versions of “12 Expert Tips for Planning a Wilderness Backpacking Trip” and the lightweight backpacking guide without having a paid membership.