Like a sparkling diamond from a dangling earing, Topaz Lake is the southernmost portion of Carson Valley. Located 22 miles south of Gardnerville on the border of Nevada and California, Topaz Lake is an unexpected oasis with the arid Great Basin to the east and the towering Sierra Nevada range to the west.
History of Topaz Lake
The original residents to the area around what is now Topaz Lake were Northern Paiutes, whose diet included the abundant trout from the Walker River – the same river that feeds the lake today. Explorer Jedidiah Smith and party were the first non-natives to cross the Sierra Nevada, a 400-mile-long mountain range that aptly translates to “Snow Covered Mountains” in Spanish. As they travelled down the Walker River, they passed by a small, shallow body of water that early settlers would later refer to it as Alkali Lake.
Fast forward a bit into the gold rush era, where activity began to increase along the West Walker River. Miners had dreams of making their fortunes on the river and they did find some gold, however, the remote location made it too expensive to be lucrative. Routes began emerging to link boom towns across the Antelope and Carson Valleys. Ranchers began grazing their herds by 1860 along the river and irrigated agriculture was being established.
Enter one such rancher named Thomas Brinley Rickey, who would later be referred to as one of the most influential men in Nevada, the “Cattle King” and perhaps the person most responsible for the Topaz Lake area as we know it today. Rickey was making big moves early on, partnering with wealthy Reno banker Richard Kirman, purchasing land and using flood irrigation to replace the native sagebrush with alfalfa and grass. Rickey’s main ranch on the West Walker River included most of the then “Alkali Lake” and he diverted some of the river into the lake. This was helpful for irrigation, but also pleased local fishermen. Kirman passed away in 1897 and Rickey bought out the rest of the partnership. At that point, one of his main goals was to expand Alkali Lake so it could be used downstream in the Smith and Mason Valleys. Construction began, but as was common for the time, issues arose in the form of water rights disputes. The case eventually made its way up to the US Supreme Court and litigation wasn’t settled until 1919. At this point, Rickey lived in Oakland and passed away in 1920. The land was subdivided, the Walker River Irrigation District was formed and Rickey’s dream for the lake came to fruition.
There was just one last problem – what to call it? As it stood, Alkali Lake would no longer be appropriate once the reservoir was filled with the crisp, clean waters of the Sierra. There was quite the stir over the naming and several options were proposed including Walker Reservoir, Rickey Lake, Antelope Lake and Interstate Lake. The Walker River Improvement District eventually selected Topaz Lake, which came from the name of the local Topaz post office. There were several explanations for that naming, but the best is that Rickey’s wife Jennie chose the name in the late 1800’s since it was the fall color of the leaves on the beautiful local aspen trees. Great choice, Jennie!
Highlights of Topaz
Play — Today, Topaz Lake is a popular honey hole for fishermen, water recreation, camping and an all-around good time. Regularly stocked with fish, Topaz is commonly referred to as the “home of the trophy trout” and anglers can fish there all year long. Because of its unique border location, a fishing license from either state are valid. If the fish aren’t biting, visitors can try their luck in another way at the Topaz Lodge, a casino located on the northwest side of the lake. Venture into the mountains on foot, bike, or ATV by taking the trails of Switchback Mountain to the west and grab some great views of the lake and surrounding areas.
Stay — Part of Topaz Lake’s charm is that it isn’t located within a thriving metropolis. It is scenic and wide-open with plenty of elbow room to go around. Even so, there are two great hotel options near the lake that give the best of both worlds:
If you prefer to be more one with nature, you can set up camp on the shores of this desert gem with the option of motorhome hookups, reservable dry campsites or dispersed camping (free). Reserve hookups and dry spots online or by calling 775-782-9835.
Getting There — Topaz Lake sits just off of Highway 395, about halfway from Mammoth to Reno. From Reno, take I 580 South until the freeway ends in Carson City. Take a left onto Highway 395 South and continue for roughly 38 miles.
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