This Nevada road trip from the Biggest Little City in the World to the Alps of Nevada is a real slice of Americana. You’ll experience the Code of the West as it’s lived by cattlemen, shepherds, and farmers. Stretch your muscles and imagination communing with snowy peaks, mountainous trails, trout-filled streams, and verdant valleys. Reno-Tahoe International Airport offers an easy gateway to this section of the state.
Day 1: Reno
There’s plenty to see and do even before you start your drive across Nevada’s northern frontier. It may be much smaller than Las Vegas, but Reno can wine, dine, and entertain with the best of them. Start with a history and culture lesson at the Wilbur D. May Museum and Arboretum, which displays the magnate’s collections of Western gear, hunting trophies, Africana, and more. More evidence of how the other half lived is on offer at the W. M. Keck Earth Science and Mineral Engineering Museum, highlighted by mining millionaire John Mackay’s 1,250-piece Tiffany silver service—enough to accommodate a tea party of 24. Lunch on enchiladas and beer at one of Miguel’s two locations, then hit your favorite casino and spend some quality time with the one-eyed jacks and one-armed bandits. Top off the evening with a stroll along the Riverwalk, tasting wines and browsing art galleries along the way.
Day 2: Day Trip to Virginia City
26 Miles / 35 Minutes
A living, breathing tribute to early American ingenuity, hard work, and hedonism, Virginia City places visitors in the roles of hardscrabble miner and silver baron, schoolmistress and soiled dove. Strollers along C Street encounter new insights on boomtown life on every corner. Start at The Way It Was Museum to see how the silver went from mine to mill to amalgamation to bullion to mint. A short film puts the town in historical perspective. Before lunch, stop into the Mark Twain Museum. Twain’s original desk is as characteristically messy as he kept it at the Territorial Enterprise. You’ll see state-of-the-art 19th-century printing technology: It’s all hot type and primitive binding machines.
If you’re here in summer, escape the midday heat on a guided tour deep into Chollar Mine. Rough timbers and old-time equipment will make you want to grab a pick and try your luck at finding a rich vein. Imagine you’ve struck it rich and celebrate with barbecue and brews at the Firehouse Restaurant & Saloon. Cap off your visit riding the rails of the Virginia & Truckee Railroad past mines, over trestle bridges, through tunnels, and back through time. Head back to Reno to bunk down for the night.
Day 3: Reno to Winnemucca
166 Miles / 2.5 Hours
Grub up with a skillet breakfast at Peg’s Glorified Ham & Eggs in Reno, then head northwest on I-80. In less than two hours, you’ll be in Lovelock. If you’re traveling with your significant other, stop and hang a padlock in Lovers Lock Plaza to symbolize your unbreakable love in the Chinese tradition. Throw away the key, of course. Load up on picnic supplies, then continue to Rye Patch State Recreation Area. Depending on the weather, go for a swim, watch the shore anglers, or hike into the western hills to search for ammonite fossils, agate, tourmaline, and other specimens.
Enjoy your picnic lunch, then continue another hour to Winnemucca and a perusal of the Buckaroo Hall of Fame, a tribute to the stylish wranglers who keep the area’s ranches running. You’re in for a real treat at the Martin Hotel, one of the best authentic Basque restaurants in the country. Order the lamb and enjoy a full complement of side dishes: fries, beans, salad, soup, and more. The clean, quiet, quaint, no-frills rooms at the Town House Motel will provide the rest you’ll need for tomorrow’s leg of the journey.
Day 4: Winnemucca to Elko
124 Miles / 90 Minutes
Plan for today to be the third Thursday of the month, April-October, and take Newmont Mining’s Phoenix Mine tour. It starts at 9am, so you’ll need to get up early to make the 50-minute drive from Winnemucca.
After the three-hour tour, the 71-mile, 70-minute drive on I-80 to Elko gets you there in time for a late lunch of pot stickers and hot and sour soup at Chef Cheng’s Chinese Restaurant. Fill the afternoon checking out the Northeastern Nevada Museum’s eclectic collection—animals, mining, railroads, printing, Native American history, etc.—and the cowboy culture, ethics, and heritage at the Western Folklife Center.
For dinner, dig into Basque cuisine at the Star Hotel, or go for the south-of-the-border seafood at Dos Amigos.
Day 5: Lamoille Scenic Byway
45 Miles / 75 Minutes
Nevada’s canyon, valley, and mountain beauty takes center stage today. Just 20 minutes from Elko on NV 227 in the village of Lamoille, start with the Lamoille Canyon Scenic Byway, a winding 12-mile interpretive drive along Lamoille Creek. Stop to read the interpretive signs and gape at 11,249-foot Ruby Dome. For a closer look, park at the byway turnaround and pick up the Ruby Crest National Scenic Trail. Hike the trail as far as stamina and daylight will allow, past Dollar and Lamoille Lakes and elevation changes from 8,780 to 10,893 feet. It’s an 8-mile round-trip to Liberty Lake.
Head back to the village of Lamoille for dinner at the Pine Lodge Dinner House, and overnight at the Hotel Lamoille.
Day 6: Lamoille to Ruby Lake and Ely
160 Miles / 3.25 Hours
Pick up some road food as you drive through Spring Creek and head south on NV 228. On your way out of the canyon, drive the auto tour at Ruby Lake National Wildlife Refuge, which encompasses a network of dikes that provide fine in-vehicle viewing of waterfowl and other wildlife. Spend some time roaming the station, engine yard, and maintenance shop, as well.
It’s a rough 65 miles on White Pine County Road 3 to US 50, and another 30 luxurious-by-comparison miles to Ely. Head over the Nevada Northern Railway for a 90-minute steam excursion through tunnels, up steep grades, and into mining territory. In keeping with the railroad theme, walk the two blocks to All Aboard Cafe & Inn for a salad bar or lobster roll lunch. Book a night’s stay while you’re at it. The inn is a B&B, so you’ve got tomorrow’s breakfast covered.
Day 7: Great Basin National Park
67 Miles / 70 Minutes
Spend the day at Great Basin National Park, an hour east of Ely, off the Baker exit. If you have not purchased tickets for the Lehman Caves tour, drive past the park visitors center to the caves visitors center to make reservations. Walk the one-third mile to the 100-year-old apricot trees. They ripen in mid-August; pluck one and enjoy! Before or after your cave tour, backtrack to the park visitors center and spend a quality hour with the orientation exhibits and videos there.
Drive the Wheeler Peak Scenic Drive along Lehman Creek, closer and closer to the looming peak. Park at the trailhead and prepare for the 3,000 feet you’ll gain in elevation to the top of 13,063-foot Wheeler Peak via Summit Trail. Bunk at the Stargazer Inn in Baker and dine at Kerouac’s on-site.
From Baker, you can pick up US 93 south to Las Vegas or head back to Reno via US 50, following the route of the Loneliest Road Trip in reverse order.
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