Natural Beauty, Mountains, Vast Desert Plains
Story and photos by Jennifer Hartley
When many people think of Nevada, casinos and deserts spring to mind. But one of the most surprising features about the state is its varied, stunning, natural beauty and the communities within these landscapes. The Silver State is a place of magnificent complexities and awe-inspiring contrasts. Its snow-capped mountains (Nevada is Spanish for snow-covered) balance its desert highways, while the dark skies of its national parks offset the neon lights of its cities.
Here are a few highlights of this, the driest state of the US and the most mountainous of the Lower 48.
Wendover Will, a 63-foot neon cowboy statue, greets you at the Utah state line and there is no question you have entered cowboy country.
About an hour away, near Wells, you’ll come across the East Humboldt mountain range. Drive up the sagebrush-swept high desert road to glacier-carved Angel Lake, sitting at 8,500 feet. Who knew Nevada had glaciers?
Bing Crosby loved the town of Elko, and so will you. The Western Folklife Center offers a full cultural immersion. Stop by the historic J.M. Capriola shop and watch them craft handmade cowboy gear.
The discovery of silver and gold in the 1800s attracted immigrants to Nevada, including Basques. Their influence is everywhere along the corridor. Enjoy Basque cuisine at The Star Hotel. Walk off your meal checking out the murals around town. Sleep if you must. The Ramada is great.
The peaks you see off in the distance, the Ruby Mountains, are a mere 35-minute drive away. The Lamoille Canyon scenic drive to get there is breathtaking. The hiking is fabulous.
Johnny Cash sang about Winnemucca’s dusty roads (it has sand dunes nearby) but the place is all about Basques and Buckaroos (a regional term evolved from the Spanish word for cowman). The historic Martin Hotel is legendary for Basque cuisine.
Reno has a rich history. Explore it on foot with self-guided tours available at renohistorical.org. Stroll along the Truckee River Walk and do not miss the National Automobile Museum. Splurge and stay at the Silver Legacy Resort Casino.
No trip to Nevada is complete without a ghost town visit. Virginia City, home of the largest silver strike in the world, is enchanting. A beautiful 40-minute drive from Reno, it is remarkably well-preserved, with joie de vivre that is palpable. (Mark Twain was a big fan.) A haunted saloon hop is required as they are here in abundance. The Washoe Club is a must. Catch live country music at Bucket of Blood. The contrast of sin and salvation—check out the many churches—is magnificent.
One of the most famous railways in its time, the Virginia and Truckee offers steam train rides. The guides provide a great history of mining in the region.
The Loneliest Road In America
As you pass through towns along US 50, such as Fallon (a Top Gun filming location), Austin and Eureka, you’ll discover all are rich with mining history and Eureka is aptly named. But Highway 50’s moniker, The Loneliest Road in America, couldn’t ring less true. While these towns are small, fascinating people live in them and the journey between them holds many surprises. Some of the oldest petroglyphs in Nevada, at the Grimes Archeological Site, are just outside of Fallon. Continue down the 50 and you’ll arrive at the Sand Mountain Recreation Area. It’s a place that feels like a scene out of Star Wars, with its three-kilometre-long sand dune. Keep going and stop at Middlegate Station. The restaurant, established in 1850, welcomes you “to the middle of nowhere.” Grab a monster burger and a beer before heading to Austin, home of Nevada’s oldest bank building. Need to whet your whistle? Head to Eureka next, visit the Owl Club Saloon, down from a historical opera house (yes, you read that right) and meet the colourful characters there. Carb load in Ely at Margarita’s restaurant and indulge in the, well, excellent margaritas.
The Great Basin Highway
In many ways, this is the lonelier road. It is a wide, vast expanse and peaceful with stunning landscape. Great Basin National Park is an absolute treasure. Fabulous hiking and dark skies await. Tour the Lehman Caves, but book in advance.
Juxtapose the Basin’s beauty with Pioche, a once rowdy, bawdy town made rich by mining, where guns ruled. Imagine there were once 144 saloons in this very small place. Stay at the Overland Hotel and soak in the history. You’ll meet kind people here.
You’ll also notice the striking contrast when you compare it with the natural wonders of Cathedral Gorge State Park / Valley of Fire State Park. The sculpted landscape of these parks is captivating. Visit both.
While Nevada is chock full of intriguing people, oozing warm hospitality, it’s the stunning, varied scenery that will bring you back.