Back in the day, this remote section of western Nevada was an important Army depot on the frontier. Today, Fort Churchill State Park is a good place to experience this history, enjoy a get-away-from-it-all camping experience, and take time for some fun outdoor family activities.
What began as a 200-acre state park immediately around the Fort Churchill ruins in 1932 now encompasses more than 3,000 acres of diverse and fragile desert landscape. However, the area right around the Carson River is green and forested. So, the varied geography attracts a large number of hikers, RV campers, canoeists, hunters, and wildlife observers. Visitors can tour the Fort Churchill adobe ruins as well as a reconstructed 1860s-era Pony Express way station and ranch. The park hosts a number of special events each year, including semi-annual Civil War reenactments featuring the Nevada Civil War Volunteers.
A 20-site campground near the Carson River is reserved just for motorhomes. This rustic campsite features lots of tall shade trees and a very serene environment.
On the map, Fort Churchill State Park is only a few miles from Carson City and Lake Tahoe. But once you reach the park, it feels like it’s about a million miles, and a million years, from anywhere else.
So, this remote park is surprisingly accessible. U.S. Highway 50, which winds from the Utah/Nevada border to Lake Tahoe, is one of the widest and most well-maintained two-lane roads in the West. Even though there are lots of curves, visibility is generally good. So just watch your speed and you should be fine. RV campers can also take Interstate 80 from either Sacramento or Salt Lake City. This route is winding as well, but it’s even wider than Highway 50.
Large vehicle parking is available near the major trail heads and near the visitors’ center and museum. There’s also drinking water and other facilities at or near the visitors’ center.
The soldiers, settlers, and Indians who lived out here enjoyed the rustic environment, and today’s RV campers can have the same experience. This campground has 20 no-hookup sites. But with so much scenery around, you probably won’t spend much time indoors anyway. You can watch Netflix at home. The campground is not far from the river, so it’s very well-shaded. At the same time, the motorhome parking spots are all large and open. Each one includes a picnic table and barbecue grill or fire ring. Campground amenities include an RV dump station and a restroom area.
The 1.1-mile Fort Churchill Loop Trail is definitely the highlight of the hiking experience at Fort Churchill State Park. It’s an “easy” trail, which basically means that it is an unpaved sidewalk. Leashed pets are okay, but keep them close. Rattlesnakes and other reptiles abound, especially near rocks. We aren’t kidding. Geographically, this trail goes through the desert and also through the cottonwood trees close to the river. Be sure you bring lots of water and wear lots of sunscreen. This trail is pretty warm and sunny, even in late spring or early fall. Try to go early in the morning or in the evenings, not only to get out of the sun, but also to enjoy the desert sunrise or sunset. Other trail highlights include a Boot Hill-style old west cemetery and the Fort Churchill ruins. More on them below.
If there is a better place in Nevada to enjoy a picnic lunch, we have not found it. The gently flowing Carson River serves as the background noise for your outdoor meal. The cottonwood trees provide shade and comfort, but they do not obscure the desert views. Picnic area amenities include barbecue grills and restrooms. This picnic area is always open, even on chilly desert winter nights.
As mentioned, there are lots of reptiles in Fort Churchill State Park. Many of the some 100 species are not found anywhere else. Close to the river, look for squirrels and beavers. Out in the desert, look for coyotes and roadrunners. Desert wildflowers normally bloom in May, so the area is alive with color. In the skies overhead, watch for owls, quails, cactus wrens, and lots of other large and small birds. Even in warm weather, wear boots and long pants if you venture out into the desert wilderness.
The brief Pyramid Lake War, which was basically a series of duels between vigilante whites and restless Indians, prompted the construction of Fort Churchill in 1860. Although it was active for less than ten years, it was an important symbol of authority in lawless Nevada. In the 1930s, Civilian Conservation Corps workers partially reconstructed the crumbling adobe walls of this fort. Today, they are in arrested decay condition. In plain English, that means look, but don’t touch. Most people check out the small but informative museum at the visitors’ center before they inspect the Fort’s ruins.
At about the same time, this part of Nevada was a stop on the short-lived Pony Express as well as the venerable Overland Stage. The 200-plus soldiers stationed at lonely Fort Churchill protected the waystation. Samuel Buckland arrived around 1859. Ten years later, when the government abandoned the fort, he scavenged building material to expand the ranch facilities. Much of that original construction remains today. Buckland Station is in better condition than Fort Churchill. Many rooms are decorated with period furniture and other replicas.
Western Nevada has some of the darkest night skies in the country, especially on a moonless winter night. So, grab a blanket and sit under the stars for awhile. Use a telescope to see features on the moon that you’ve never seen before. Furthermore, nearby planets like Venus and Mars are much more than bright spots in the sky. Use a stronger telescope to see similar features on the distant gas giants, such as the moons of Jupiter or even the rings of Saturn. Bring a nice camera as well. The one on your phone probably isn’t up to the task, even if you have a newfangled magic phone.