Tonopah motel owner Andrea Robb-Bradick remembers the awe she felt some 20 years ago when she first ventured into Nevada's Monte Cristo Range and gazed at its rock formations.
"From the minute I saw it, I felt, 'Oh my word, we have something here the public has to see,"' she said. "There were spires, arches and pillars and a geological formation that looked like a castle. There were boulders that looked like animals. And the colors. Red and yellow and orange in the same rock formations. Lavenders."
Quickly, she added photos of "Monte Cristo Castle" - the centerpiece attraction in the area - to the list of a dozen or more sites for tourists to visit that she keeps in a book at her 21-room Jim Butler Motel. She started talking about the unusual formations to local and state tourism officials and just about anyone else who loves Nevada's backcountry.
Those who have taken trips to the mountains, just north of U.S. 95 in Esmeralda County, share the excitement. The formation is 32 miles west of Tonopah and three miles north on a dirt road from the intersection of U.S. 95 and State Route 265.
"You think you are in Southern Utah when you see it," said Alan Gubanich, a retired University of Nevada, Reno professor who operates In the Field hiking tours. "It is an area I didn't know existed. We were amazed by it."
Gubanich has led three tours of hikers to the Monte Cristo formations, known by locals as the "Badlands."
"I had a hard time getting people to sign up for the tours," he said. "'Why the hell go to Tonopah? It's just a wasteland,' they would say. But they have been just as amazed as I am."
Robb-Bradick learned of the formations after operating the motel for several years. She saw mention of them in an obscure rock hounding magazine.
Working with her husband, Frank, she has embarked on a campaign to make Monte Cristo a Nevada state park.
The land is managed by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. Robb-Bradick has come across information that the BLM, as early as 1963, considered protecting the area around the formations. But those efforts fell through.
Miners in the 19th century must have been aware of the formations. Helen Carlson, author of "Nevada Place Names," wrote that the Monte Cristo Range was named before 1871. She said the name likely came from people who loved Alexandre Dumas' "The Count of Monte Cristo."
Though the trails around the castle and other formations still are relatively unspoiled, Robb-Bradick fears the area eventually will be damaged by motorcyclists and four-wheelers.
Her goal is to have the state acquire a 10-square-mile section of the mountain range, build a campground and an interpretative center, and protect it like other state parks. She has secured estimates that the park would bring about $900,000 a year to the central Nevada economy.
"What will I get? One or two more people staying in our rooms," she said. "I am not doing this for the money."
Robb-Bradick has shown slides of the formations and talked about the need for a park during recent presentations to two legislative committees.
"We are in kind of a big black hole out here in central Nevada," she said. "Esmeralda County is the poorest county in the state. The park could be a starting point to show people the features we have - hiking trails, hot springs, hunting. There are 50 streams with fishable water within 50 miles of Tonopah. Nevada has incredible natural resources. But compared with Utah, Nevada is left in the dust."
State Parks Administrator David Morrow visited the Monte Cristo site as the guest of Robb-Bradick and agrees it meets the criteria for becoming a state park.
"It has unique geological formations," he said. "It would make a good state park." The big "what if" is the lack of money to create a new park, Morrow said. He estimates the state would spend $2 million to develop park facilities and $200,000 to $300,000 a year to operate the park.
Because it's in such a remote area, about halfway between Las Vegas and Reno, Morrow doubts user fees would come close to meeting park operating costs.
"It is tough for me to advocate a new park at a time when there are so many needed repairs and other operating expenses in the rest of the park system," he said. "But it would make a very attractive park."
BLM spokeswoman Maxine Shane said her agency is aware of the significance of Monte Cristo. But the BLM office that oversees that area is nearly 200 miles away in Battle Mountain.
"We would be cooperative if state parks wants it," Shane said.