EDITOR’S NOTE: This article was originally published in the Summer 2015 edition of Tahoe Magazine. It was first published on this website in August 2018 and is presented in its original form.
There’s a camaraderie among Nevadans that becomes more evident to me as I travel around the Silver State.
As my travel buddy, Amy, and I adventure to new places as part of Nevada’s sesquicentennial, locals ask: “so, where are you from?”
The question is always asked with interest and pleasantness, but there’s an undertone of obligation to it. When we answer we’re from Reno, their eyes often light up a little and we’re met with an exclamation of “oh!” as if they meant to say: “Oh! You’re one of us then.”
And we are. Nevada wouldn’t exist as we know it without the small towns that were born out of a mining boom or a railroad station and left to be redefined by the locals who vowed to uphold the pride of rural Nevada.
Last summer, Amy and I decided to drive Highway 50 from Carson City (located just a half hour east of Lake Tahoe) to the Utah border. We picked up Highway 50 Survival Guide books from the Carson City Visitors Bureau so we could collect passport stamps from all the towns along the way.
Carson City | Population: 55,000
Claim to fame: Nevada’s capital city benefited from both mining and railroad development and is now located near many noteworthy destinations, including Reno, Lake Tahoe and Genoa.
There’s a fair amount to do in Carson City, which is why I’ve devoted other days to our state’s capital. The Nevada State Museum is always worth a visit, as well as several local businesses near the downtown area. If you need coffee or tea for the drive, be sure to drop by San Rafael Coffee Co.
Dayton | Population: 9,000
Claim to fame: The first discovery of gold in Nevada was in Old Town Dayton. The town now houses several nostalgic “old timey” buildings.
We drove through Dayton not too long after sunrise, so it was a little early to stop anywhere. The Dayton Museum inside Nevada’s second oldest school house will be worth venturing back for another day trip.
Fernley | Population: 19,000
Claim to fame: Was established and developed through agriculture and farming. It’s now the location of an Amazon.com order fulfillment center.
Fernley is actually located on Alternate Highway 50, but since it’s included in our survival guide we drove through on our trek back west. We were a little tired from the 800 miles we had already logged on the trip, so we decided no Nevada trip was complete without some gambling and a pint of Icthyosaur IPA. After a couple hours of gambling downtime we managed to win back about a tank of gas on the slots, and were congratulated by a couple locals.
Fallon | Population: 8,400
Claim to fame: Known as the “Oasis of Nevada” because of its successes in agriculture, particularly cantaloupes and alfalfa. Now, the largest single employer in Fallon is the Naval Air Station.
Whenever I mention Fallon to people who haven’t been there, they’re surprised to learn that it’s a lush area famous for agriculture. Perhaps this lesser-known secret helps preserve the vibe of Fallon: desert oasis meets small-town charm.
Jerry’s Restaurant in Fallon is a great place to grab a classic breakfast, so we made that our first official road trip stop. The Daily Grind next door provided a convenient place to grab caffeine for the road. It’s important to top off your tank in Fallon to make sure you have enough reasonably priced gas to get to Ely.
Austin | Population: 192
Claim to fame: Founded in 1862 as part of a silver rush. It’s now a hub for turquoise mining and jewelry making.
When we drove up the hill to the heart of Austin, we were greeted with charming rows of business on either side of the road. The old buildings and wooden sidewalks reminded us of Virginia City, and the people we met while walking around were incredible friendly.
We stopped into the famous International Hotel, which was actually built in Virginia City before being transported, board by board, to Austin in 1863. After soaking in the eclectic clutter of artifacts in the building’s bar, we wandered up and down the streets to stop into shops and chat with locals.
We recommend Nevada Blue Rock & Gem for a look at locally made turquoise jewelry, and the Toiyabe Café for delicious milkshakes. Just northeast of town is Stokes Castle, a hilarious-looking three-story stone tower that was built as a “summer home” for a mine developer. It was hardly used. It’s now a historical marker, though behind a fence, for tourists to check out.
Eureka boasts itself as the “friendliest town on the loneliest highway,” but the interactions we had in Austin made this town our favorite stop.
Eureka | Population: 2,000
Claim to fame: Founded in 1864 when silver-ore was discovered in nearby hills that ranked as Nevada’s second-richest mineral producer.
Eureka is home to several well-preserved buildings of historical interest, including the opera house, the court house and our favorite, the Eureka Sentinel Museum. The newspaper building now houses a museum that includes a full 1800s press room downstairs and a variety of exhibits about Eureka’s past upstairs.
The old press equipment and newspaper samples around the room remind me of the state of all modern newsrooms: slightly chaotic and purposefully cluttered. The exhibits upstairs are thoughtfully arranged and definitely worth a walk-through.
Eureka is a great place to stop for a snack or a drink at The Owl, and a walk up and down the historic main street is much needed before the last leg of driving.
Ely | Population: 4,000
Claim to fame: Founded as a stagecoach station before a copper mining boom in 1906. The town now houses the Northern Nevada Railway Museum, which preserves historic railroad equipment and history.
The Hotel Nevada in Ely was an easy choice for lodging. When it was built in 1929, the hotel was the tallest building in Nevada, at six stories. Modern amenities aside, the hotel has not been drastically remodeled since it was built, giving visitors a historic vibe.
Ely is about an hour away from both Great Basin National Park and the Utah border, so we decided to commit to our Highway 50 adventure and drove to the border for some tourist photos. We also drove around Great Basin a bit and took a tour of the Lehman Caves.
We highly recommend adding Great Basin to your camping and hiking list if you have one — the park is a breathtaking mix of mountain ranges, bristlecone pine trees, wildlife and clear Nevada skies. The cave tour was informative and led by an energetic park ranger, which made it a fun adventure for kids and adults alike.
‘The Loneliest Road in America’
Nevada has been taking full advantage of this slogan for a few decades now. While the drive is rather desolate, and cellphone service is spotty, this was hardly the loneliest road. There are just enough cyclists, fellow drivers and cattle along the way to keep you company without making the road feel crowded.
The locals at all stops are friendly and welcoming, and the drive spans several changes in desert scenery — from flat sagebrush-filled spaces to scenic mountains.
Feeling lonely didn’t cross my mind as I soaked in vast stretches of uninhabited Nevada land. Instead, I felt comforted that much of what I saw existed as early miners in the 1800s saw Nevada: waiting for explorers to come and visit.