Hawthorne, Nevada and Bonneville Salt Flats, Utah – Cross Country USA Road Trip (Part 10)

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Welcome back to Part  10 of our six week road trip across the United States! In this article, I’ll cover the trip going east through Hawthorne, Nevada and the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah. 

We stayed in Hawthorne overnight after a long day exploring Yosemite National Park. While in Hawthorne, we visited the Hawthorne Ordnance Museum. 

After leaving Hawthorne, we drove through the desert for most of the day and stayed overnight in Elko, Nevada. The next day we visited the Bonneville Salt Flats just east of the Utah/Nevada state line.

A brief recap of our trip: we set out from our home in Raleigh in early June and made it back home toward the end of July. In total we spent over six weeks (46 nights!!) on the road and drove 8,200 miles. 

Along the way, we visited 14 national parks and a ton of other interesting places. It was quite a busy trip, since we stayed in 25 different airbnbs or hotels and spent more than 100 hours traveling in the van

To cover the whole trip, I am breaking up the trip summary into thirteen separate blog posts plus a bonus article covering the trip logistics for a six week road trip for a family of five.

Here is a table of contents for our whole trip if you want to check out other parts of our journey (once those other blog posts go live!):

  1. North Carolina to Kansas via West Virginia and St. Louis
  2. Colorado: Denver, Rocky Mountain National Park, and Frisco
  3. Colorado: Black Canyon of the Gunnison and Mesa Verde National Parks plus Ouray
  4. Utah: Arches National Park and Capitol Reef National Park
  5. Utah: Bryce Canyon National Park and Zion National Park
  6. Arizona: Glen Canyon Dam, the Grand Canyon, and Hoover Dam
  7. A Week in Las Vegas, Nevada
  8. California: Los Angeles and Long Beach
  9. California: Sequoia, Kings Canyon, and Yosemite National Parks
  10. Crossing the Desert in Nevada and Utah: Hawthorne and Bonneville Salt Flats
  11. Salt Lake City, Utah and Idaho Falls, Idaho
  12. Yellowstone National Park
  13. Mount Rushmore, Badlands National Park, and National Museum of the US Air Force
  14. Road Trip Logistics

Join me for part 10 of our trip across the country as we explore Hawthorne, Nevada and the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah.

Our route through Nevada with overnight stops in Hawthorne and Elko. We end this segment of the trip in the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah.

Crossing the Desert (again)

On this segment of the trip, we’re heading northeast along a 25 mile arrow-straight stretch of California Route 167 to get to the Nevada border. The sun just dipped below the hills and it’s quickly transitioning from twilight to pitch black sky. We are tired after a long day of exploring Yosemite National Park, and ready for a good night’s sleep once we get to the hotel. 

We switched out drivers so that our 16 year old daughter could get some nighttime driving experience. Here we are flying down the deserted desert road in the middle of nowhere. Not a car around and we can see for dozens of miles straight ahead. 

Then – THUMP THUMP! – it happened. 

I’m in the middle row of seats snacking on some jalapeno potato chips and happen to glance up. I see a jackrabbit just a few feet away from the front right corner of our car. It looks at us with those glowing nighttime eyes and darts directly into the road. As the rabbit passed under our car, we heard the two thumps in quick succession and assume the end came very quickly for this poor desert jackrabbit. 

Our daughter handled the impact just fine from a technical sense. Not panicking, she continued driving straight and maintained proper control of the vehicle. And that was her first roadkill experience. We were fortunate to not strike any larger animals like deer or elk along our 8,000+ mile drive! 

The rest of the drive into Hawthorne, Nevada was quiet and free of other animal impacts. As we approached Hawthorne, the shimmer and glow of the city lights appeared almost ten miles away across the desert floor.

We arrived at our hotel close to an hour after sunset and settled in for the night. 

Our next hotel after Hawthorne, Nevada was in Elko, Nevada about 4.5 hours away. We had a relatively light travel day so we found something to do while in Hawthorne. 

From looking at the aerial view of the map of Hawthorne, I realized there were a bunch of “dots” spread around the landscape over a dozen miles or more. Upon investigating these anomalies, I found out that Hawthorne was a major military ordnance storage facility for many decades during the twentieth century.

That’s right, storing bullets, bombs, and missiles was the main (and only?) industry in this little desert town in the middle of nowhere. They also decommissioned obsolete munitions at facilities throughout the town. I guess part of the rationale for selecting this remote town for development of a munitions depot was that if it all went “BOOM!!!!” then the civilian casualties wouldn’t be too severe. 

The Hawthorne Ordnance Museum was just a few blocks north of our hotel near the edge of the small town of Hawthorne. We headed straight over from our hotel. Admission is free, just walk right in! 

Grenades and ammo. Like real life Call of Duty

When I first entered the Ordnance Museum I had to ask one of the two older gentlemen sitting in the lobby if the museum was actually open. It was so quiet in there! I guess they don’t get a lot of visitors since Hawthorne isn’t exactly a tourist destination in itself. More of a pitstop in the desert, I would say. 

We walked around looking at various guns, bombs, drones, tanks, and nuclear missiles. The exhibits are well put together for a museum in the middle of nowhere. I would say the museum far exceeded my expectations. 

Tank time

Once I got my fill of the various implements of massive destruction, we hit the clean restroom and then visited the gift shop on the way out. The museum is a non-profit so we spent a bit more liberally in the gift shop just because there was no admission fee. We bought several large caliber bullets, some rocks, and military plushies. I skipped the $5 parachutes (yes, literally army surplus parachutes). 

Torpedoes away!

After the Ordnance Museum, we hopped back in the van and spent the next 4.5 hours driving to our next hotel in Elko, Nevada.

You can see the underground munitions dumps dotting the landscape all around Hawthorne. They are barely visible in this picture but much more obvious when looking at the aerial photography of the area.

The drive was uneventful other than a brief rainstorm that brought out literally millions of massive desert crickets. These crusty bugs blanketed the road and surrounding scrubby desert vegetation trying to get some hydration. After driving over hordes of them in the road, I’d say our minivan’s tires deserve a spot in the Hawthorne Ordnance Museum given how many crickets we inadvertently killed. 

Landscape and horses along the drive through Nevada from Hawthorne to Elko.

The next day, we continued our journey from Elko, Nevada. We drove east about two hours toward the Bonneville Salt Flats. Situated just east of the Nevada/Utah state line, the salt flats extend for miles and miles across the terrain near Utah’s Great Salt Lake. 

The entrance to the salt flats is directly off of Interstate 80. From the main interstate, it’s about a five mile drive to the end of the paved road and the beginning of the “Bonneville Salt Flats Speedway”. The salt flats are used for speed trials and racing throughout the year. However, on most days it’s wide open and accessible to anyone that wants to drive on it. 

For those curious, yes, it’s salty. We tried a little tiny sample in an undisturbed remote spot of the salt flats. Tastes just like table salt. With a side of car tire and road dust. But mostly table salt.

Here is what the salt flats look like up close. The thick layer of crystallized salt has a little texture to it, so it’s somewhat grippy when driving on it

Salt Lyfe

We drove across the salt flats for a couple of miles. Then rotated through the drivers and let everyone take the van for a spin. And I mean everyone. Even our 9 year old son and 14 year old daughter got a chance to do some laps in spite of not technically being licensed to operate a motor vehicle in the state of Utah. We found some slalom cones to weave around and our son really got a kick out of that. Real life racing! In a minivan…

He’s only 9 but drives like a pro!

Was it dangerous? Will the salt eventually turn our undercarriage into a complete rusting hulk of a car? Maybe and maybe. But it was fun. 

We generally stayed at least a mile away from any other cars and I never got the minivan over 50 mph the whole time. Our 9 year old never exceeded 20-25 mph I don’t think. 

Our road trip beast in all its glory (please disregard the missing hubcap that disappeared somewhere between Vegas and LA!)

We did get tons of salt caked underneath the van. I took the van to a fancy high powered car wash place and got the deluxe package that was supposed to clean the undercarriage too. After round one, the van still came out salt-caked so I requested a free second wash.

I thought it was 99% clean after that, but it turns out I was wrong. Over a week later when we were in Iowa, chunks of salt started falling off of our car when we parked it overnight at the hotel. And even after we got home to Raleigh, we still saw the occasional chunk sitting in the driveway.

Mrs. Root of Good walking across the salt flats

Once we were at home getting settled in, I got out my car washing gear and the high pressure hose and nozzle and did a very thorough deep clean of the undercarriage. So far so good – no more mystery salt-bergs showing up in our driveway at random intervals. 

It’s hard to describe how bright it is out there. Sunglasses are required!

We spent a few days driving across the desert from California, through Nevada and into Utah. Along the way, we spent the night in Hawthorne, Nevada. While in Hawthorne, we toured the town’s main attraction, the Hawthorne Ordnance Museum. 

From Hawthorne, we traveled east through the desert to Elko, Nevada where we spent the night. The next morning, we drove another two hours east of Elko to arrive at the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah.

The massive Bonneville Salt Flats stretched to the horizon. The occasional mountain ridge in the distance provided some sense of scale in an otherwise featureless terrain. We spent a couple of hours driving around the salt flats and taking in the views. We even let the kids take a turn at the wheel since there was no one around for miles. 

Ever been to Hawthorne, Nevada? Or the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah?

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