For a lot of Nevadans, there’s something exhilarating about seeing a sign that reads “pavement ends” and knowing beyond it lies a network of crisscrossing dirt roads that each lead somewhere interesting.
The Nevada desert is dotted with hot springs and ghost towns built around abandoned mines. Summertime is ripe for checking them out. People’s social media feeds fill up with desert adventure photos when the weather heats up. But make no mistake: Abandoned mines and hot springs present very real dangers.
More than a hole in the ground
The short and long of it is, stay out of abandoned mines if you want to stay alive.
There have been more than 50 recorded injuries and deaths to people and pet dogs who purposefully entered or accidentally fell into abandoned mines in Nevada in the last half century.
Unfortunately, the most recent death happened on Wednesday near the old mining operation and ghost town of Olinghouse northeast of Reno. According to the Washoe County Sheriff’s Hasty Team, which conducts rescue and recovery operations, “A 75-year-old hobbyist was mining with a friend near the remote mining camp/ghost town. The ground above him collapsed, and the man succumbed to his injuries.”
According to Nevada Division of Minerals officials, experts estimated a few years ago that there were nearly 200,000 abandoned mines in Nevada, about 50,000 of which they said may pose serious safety hazards. Another 19,500 have been secured by the state.
Sean Derby is the Abandoned Mine Lands Program chief for the division. Every year, he manages a team of college students studying earth sciences to identify abandoned mines and secure or seal them off. He said last year the program identified more than 1,365 dangerous mine sites, and 754 were secured with fencing or permanently sealed closed using coverings that allow beneficial wildlife like bats and snakes through.
“Abandoned mines can kill you in so many surprising ways that there’s just no guarantee of your safety,” Derby said. “So, what we say to everyone is ‘Stay out. Stay alive.’ No one anticipates having a fatal accident, but these mines are dug in unstable ground. That’s why there was a mineral deposit in the first place.”
The list of potential mine hazards runs long to things ranging from cave-ins to leftover explosives, unseen vertical shafts and dangerous wildlife like poisonous snakes and disease-carrying rodents.
If that’s not enough, there’s also bad air—sometimes also referred to as “damp.” It’s a term derived from the German word dampf, meaning vapor.
Damp happens when a mixture of toxic gases displace the oxygen in a mine. There are different kinds of damp. None of them are good.
Not all forms of damp are found in all mines. For example, blackdamp—so named because a flame will not burn in its presence, usually a mixture of nitrogen, carbon dioxide and water vapor—is more common in coal mines.
However, abandoned mines in Nevada can expose you to a variety of damp. Some will just suffocate you. Others are flammable. Many of them have no odor to tip you off to their presence.
Bear in mind, too, that abandoned mines and shafts are often home to wildlife like bats, snakes and tortoises. Don’t throw rocks into them because you’ll disturb their habitats.
You can view a video further explaining the dangers of abandoned mines here.
How to avoid getting into too-hot water
Nevada also has amazing hot springs. Unlike abandoned mines, some can be enjoyed safely. There are, however, tips and tricks for this too.
First, don’t assume the water temperature is safe for soaking. Steam may not rise from a really hot spring on a really hot day. If you have dogs with you, make sure you keep them leashed until you’ve determined the temperature of any nearby springs.
Dogs have cannonballed into springs and been scalded to death. Humans have too.
Scalding is the leading hazard with hot springs. In Nevada, a lot of them are hotter than 150° Fahrenheit. Some hot springs are hotter, climbing to 180° F. For comparison, the average temperature for home hot tubs is 104° F. Skin is scalded within three seconds in 140° F water.
Hot springs can change temperature over time as well, so don’t assume a spring you went to last year is safe to hop into without testing the waters carefully with a finger or toe.
Another danger to consider with hot springs is that some may put off chemical fumes that can make you lose consciousness. When you get near or into one, stay attuned to how you’re feeling.
It seems obvious, but there’s also a risk of sharp rocks and broken glass in hot springs. It’s best to go in with some type of footwear.
Lastly, be advised that you could catch something from a hot spring, including bacterial diseases like meningitis, bacterial irritations like swimmer’s itch or even diseases caused by things like E. coli, fecal coliforms and Vibrio cholerae—which can happen when a hot spring is exposed to wildlife and livestock, as was the case with the popular Trego Hot Springs last year.
Additional safety tips for desert exploration
The desert calls people with its siren song. It can also kill people that way. Being well-prepared with supplies can mean the difference between life and death.
Bring plenty of water when you go to the desert. Bring more than you think you could possibly need.
Bring two spare tires, along with tools, and know how to change them. This reporter can confirm having blown two tires in a single day.
Bring a five-gallon can of gas. If you get lost on back roads and burn every single gallon of gas in your tank, you’ll be grateful you did.
Another thing about Nevada is that you can—and should—map your way to almost any ghost town or hot spring, either by name or by coordinates. But don’t rely on storing them in your phone because you’re likely to lose cell service at some point during your trip. Print or write them out.
Lastly, make sure you’re on the right side of the law. It may be tempting to pick up old bottles, railroad spikes and other things you find in the desert, but it’s illegal if they’re more than 50 years old.
Jeri Chadwell came to Reno from rural Nevada in 2004 to study anthropology at the University of Nevada, Reno. In 2012, she returned to the university for a master’s degree in journalism. She is the former associate and news editor of the Reno News & Review and is a recipient of first-place Nevada Press Association awards for investigative and business reporting. Jeri is passionate about Nevada’s history, politics and communities.