Family Fun with Horst & Graben

Curious Capers

Exploring the Great Basin National Heritage Area in Nevada and Utah with new friends

This article was produced in partnership with Travel Nevada.

When Dad told us yesterday morning that we were going to visit the Great Basin National Heritage Area in Nevada and Utah, my twin brother, Max, and I got really excited. Dad said there were all kinds of things to see and do, which is great because Max and I are both explorers. We love stories about adventure, but we love having our own adventures even more.

Our escapades usually start in our treehouse, where we pretend to be astronauts or time travelers. At the Great Basin National Heritage Area, I thought maybe we could be scientists or inventors. But that’s not what happened. Nothing could have prepared us for an afternoon of digging for buried treasure or wandering through an outdoor art museum. And we definitely didn’t think we would end up on an old-timey steam train getting robbed by bandits! All right, I’m getting ahead of myself. I’ll go back to yesterday. I guess it all really started when Max saw the sheep.

I’m Sage. I’m nine years old, and so is Max. And I admit that I didn’t believe him when he said that a sheep waved at him from across the hiking trail. Our parents didn’t believe him either. We DID see a small puppet that looked like a big horn sheep sitting on a rock. Mom said it was probably a toy that someone had left behind. But as we walked closer, the puppet came to life! And then he SPOKE!

“Hello, there,” the sheep called out as he leapt down off his rock.

“My name is Horst,” the sheep said. We all just stared at him, speechless. He shuffled his feet and cleared his throat uncomfortably until Max finally spoke up and introduced us all to him.

“Very nice to meet you!” Horst said, “I couldn’t help but overhear that you folks are looking for an adventure. I’m actually from this area. Maybe I could tell you about some of my favorite places,” he suggested.

Well, how do you say no to that?

Max piped in and said that he wanted to explore mountains. Then Dad said he wanted to go somewhere peaceful with no noise or traffic. Horst got a great big sheepish grin on his face and said, “Mountains are my thing! I know the perfect place.” But I should let Max tell you this part of the story since it was his favorite place we went.

Digging for buried treasure

Hi, I’m Max. Horst and I are a lot alike. We both like playing outside and investigating the natural world, which is why Crystal Peak was the perfect place to go. 

The pocketed surface of Crystal Peak is other-worldly. The mountain is made of volcanic tuff and glows white when the sun reflects off the quartzite crystals embedded in it.

And Dad loved that there wasn’t any noisy traffic around. He even turned off his cell phone once he noticed there was no signal and soaked in the peace and quiet, which was good, because Crystal Peak was amazing! From the top of the mountain, you could see for miles and miles. It was sunny where we were, but we watched a storm cloud forming waaaay off in the distance. Pretty cool! It felt like we were the first people to reach the top ever.

Horst told us that the peak was part of an old volcano! He said that it’s made up of something called the tuff ring, which is the stuff that gets thrown out of the volcano when it erupts, but we didn’t have to worry because the volcano wasn’t going to erupt any more.

We had to wear our sunglasses because the sun was reflecting off of the white rocky tuff ring, and Horst said that’s because the rock is full of quartz crystals. Once we got up close, we could see all the grooves and holes in the rocks that kind of made it look like we were on a different planet.

We started digging around in the rocks and found diamonds! Actually, they’re crystals, but Sage thought the sunlight’s reflection made them look like stars that had fallen from the sky.

Camping under the stars

We raced the sun down the mountain and realized that we had better look for a place to camp for the night. Horst suggested we set up our tents at nearby Great Basin National Park, where we could look up at the sky and see the Milky Way. When we arrived at the park, we discovered that the Dark Rangers were hosting an astronomy program. Horst sat with us during the program and pointed out constellations, including his sky cousin, Aries. Sage’s favorite part was seeing Saturn’s rings through the ranger’s telescope.

Art in Ely

Ok, Max is getting off track. I’m taking back over the story.

In the morning, Horst was telling us about the bristlecone pine trees in the park that are the oldest trees in the world, when we heard a loud “Baa” from behind us. We turned around, and there was another sheep puppet with its head peeking over a rock! Horst bounded over to the puppet like he was greeting an old friend.

I watched Mom and Dad give each other confused smiles like they couldn’t believe this was really happening. Then we followed Horst.

“I knew I’d find you here!” the other sheep said as it came to life just like Horst had done.

“It’s so good to see you, Graben!” said Horst. “Come and meet my new friends.”

Horst introduced us to his friend, Graben, and told us that she was a domestic sheep that lived in the valley and loved art and culture. I knew right away we were going to be friends.

When Graben found out that I like to draw and make up stories, she told us about these murals in Ely that we had to see. So Mom and Dad drove us to Ely—Horst and Graben in the back—and we went to the White Pine Chamber of Commerce to get a map of the murals. Graben told us that Ely was an old mining town and when the town was really booming, people came from all over the world to make a new life. Murals painted on the sides of buildings around town show these different groups and the skills they brought with them, such as the Italians who built giant ovens to make charcoal for the smelters and the young men who brought the mail via the Pony Express. It’s really cool to walk through town and see all the murals—they bring the town’s history to life and tell the story of “how the world met and became one.”

Graben’s favorite mural was the Basque Sheepherder. She said that the Basque people came over from the Pyrenees Mountains (between Spain and France) to help herd the sheep around Ely, and then made their homes in Steptoe and Spring valleys.

She showed us another mural about railroad workers. When I told Graben how much Max and I both loved trains, they insisted we visit the Nevada Northern Railway National Historic Landmark and the East Ely Depot Museum.

All aboard!

It was like taking a trip into the olden days. The railcars clanged together, and the steam engine whistled as we boarded the train. Max was so excited he almost couldn’t control himself. (OK, I admit I was excited, too!) Horst and Graben led us to an open-air car, and we could smell the coal smoke as the train started moving.

Going through the first tunnel was kind of dark and spooky. Then, we started to climb up to Robinson Copper Mining District. When we pulled out of the second tunnel, a band of outlaws came out of nowhere! They rode up beside us on horses and jumped on board shouting for us to put our hands in the air.

Graben warned me this might happen—that it was all an act. They weren’t really robbers, but were local horsemen and women who like to put on a show for the passengers. They call themselves the Ghost Riders. It was fun to pretend we were part of the Wild West.

After we got back to the station, Horst and Graben took us on a backstage walking tour of the engine house and the Main Yard. We learned all about how a real American railroad operated back in the day. And the fact that we got to see the original Nevada Northern Railway, working just like it did when it started more than a century ago, made it feel like we really had traveled back in time.

As we were leaving, we thanked our new friends for a great adventure. They told us there was so much more to see, and made us promise to come back. Mom said we would return soon: she still wanted to go on a tour of Lehman Caves at Great Basin National Park and to visit the Topaz Museum in Delta, Utah. Dad said he wanted to soak in the Big Warm Springs Horst had told him about, and to explore more of the back roads. I looked back to wave one more time as we drove away, but all I saw were two sheep puppets sitting on in old trunk in front of the train depot like toys someone had left behind…but I knew better.

Join Horst & Graben on their adventures on Twitter (@HORSTandGRABEN) and Instagram (horst.and.graben). Their adventures will also be shared on Facebook. Learn more about Horst and Graben (and where they got their strange names!) here.

Discover more features of the Great Basin National Heritage Area