ADVENTURES ACROSS THE STATE OF NEVADA LEAD TO HISTORIC SITES, OLD MINING TOWNS AND ENDLESS VISTAS.
The Silver State is probably best known internationally for Las Vegas, the state’s largest city, with its famous casinos, 24-hour nightlife and an unrivaled nighttime neon glow that can be seen from space. So, if you haven’t been to Nevada, Las Vegas should be on your bucket list, and it’s a convenient place to start a Nevada adventure because of its airport and easy accessibility on Interstate 15 from California and Interstate 11 via U.S. 93 from Arizona. Travel U.S. 93 and U.S. 95 into the interior of the state and its wonderful, historic small towns, beautifully stark deserts, rugged, high, remote mountain ranges, high-desert valleys and wide-open spaces with vistas you’ve never seen anywhere else. I have created a fun-filled round-trip that immerses the adventurous traveler into the southern third of the Silver State. The trip can be made in a week to ten days, but if you have two weeks or more, relax and really experience all that southern Nevada has to offer.
Bright Lights, Great Museums
While in Las Vegas, don’t miss a chance to visit the famous Las Vegas Strip. Where do you want to be? Venice, New York, Paris, Rome, Old England—your choices abound! If you are into history like I am, especially the history of the West, then get away from the slots, cards, music and shows to tour some of the museums and historic sites southern Nevada. The city actually is one of the better museum cities in the Southwest, rivaling its Southern California neighbor, Los Angeles, for the greatest variety, and many of the museums are appropriate—and fun—for all ages. Local favorites with interactive exhibits include the Las Vegas Natural History Museum, State Museum of Nevada, Las Vegas, Old Las Vegas Mormon Fort State Park, Las Vegas Historical Society, Nevada State Railroad Museum, and the Clark County Museum in Henderson. For more modern history and eclectic curiosity, I recommend the Atomic Testing Museum, the Burlesque Hall of Fame, the Marjori Barrick Museum of Art at the University of Las Vegas, and of course, the Mob Museum. Just outside of the city, enjoy some outdoor recreation. Two great parks, Red Canyon National Conservation Area and Valley of Fire State Park, are best visited early in the morning in the summertime.
After a tour of Las Vegas and all it offers, including museums, it is time to head north to explore the Silver State’s charming small towns, historic sites, natural wonders and amazing scenic highways.
All Aboard to Ely
Leaving Las Vegas by automobile feels like you’ve been squeezed out of a cannon. All the highways converge downtown, and depending on which way you are going, northeast or northwest, when you get past the construction, high-rise casinos, urban sprawl and the last of the suburbs, an overwhelming sense of relief and freedom is conjoined with calm, the natural beauty of the desert and an unending horizon, which if it is early evening, will offer a sunset you won’t soon forget.
Ely is 245 miles north of Las Vegas on U.S. 93 and State Highway 318. By day and night it is a busy two-lane highway, and if you are traveling in the winter months, be sure to pack snow chains. Snowstorms can quickly cover the highway, and the mountain pass into Ely can be closed to vehicles without chains. Highway 318 is one of the fastest and straightest roads you will drive in Nevada. Every May and September the road is closed to hold the Nevada Open Road Challenge and Silver State Classic Challenge, respectively. Racers regularly exceed 200 miles per hour on the straightaway.
The Highway 6 entrance into Ely is dramatic, and if you’ve never been to the mountain town, you will be enchanted by the beauty of the local Egan Range and the Steptoe Valley. Ely was one of the state’s most important silver and copper camps, beginning in 1870, but today it is a destination for outdoor and historic railroad enthusiasts. Camping, fishing, hiking and hunting are all favorite activities for visitors and residents of the White Pine County seat, but at the center of Ely’s historic district (known officially as East Ely) is the Nevada Northern Railway Museum and Railroad.
Open year round, the Nevada Northern Railway is one of the finest heritage railroads in the American West, with a dedicated engineering and preservation team working hard to keep their locomotives and rolling stock ready for customers’ enjoyment. The historic railway, which first started hauling ore, freight and passengers over a century ago, offers a unique program for steam-train enthusiasts: a one-day class called “Be the Engineer,” in which they train you to drive the locomotive. Many packages are available (starting at $637 for museum members) for this experience of a lifetime. Contact the railway (NNRY.com) before visiting to plan your trip, as they have many special events and trains in addition to the “Be the Engineer” program.
Ely offers a great choice of accommodations for travelers, from the historic Hotel Nevada to national chains. Restaurant options also abound, but locals recommend Racks Bar & Grill and Nardi’s Home Style Restaurant.
Sky Islands and Endless Horizons
From Ely, the Nevada adventurer is at a literal crossroads on their itinerary: head east on U.S. 50 to visit Great Basin National Park and the town of Baker near the Utah border; head west on U.S. 50, which for much of its route parallels the Pony Express National Historic Trail through the historic towns of Eureka, Austin and Fallon, or, if you want to take a shorter loop across the southern third of the state, take U.S. 6 south- west for 167 miles to Tonopah. For the trav- eler who has the most time set aside for their Silver State road trip, I suggest heading east on U.S. 50 to the Utah line, turn around, make a pit stop in Baker, and then tour Great Basin National Park, which is not only a hidden gem of the national parks system, but one that is off the regular path of most travelers who tour the national parks and monuments of the Southwest. Visitors to the park will be awed by 13,063- foot Wheeler Peak (second highest in the state) and the park’s worldclass Lehman Caves.
Like U.S. 93 in eastern Nevada,
U.S. Route 6 and U.S. 95 are two of the state’s primary, as well as most historic, highways. Originally con- structed in the 1920s and 1930s as part of the new U.S. highway system, U.S. 6 and U.S. 95 follow serpentine routes connecting the state’s key communi- ties, and in many instances, following or paralleling old territorial trails or the state’s first paved roads. Between mountain ranges and through the high desert valleys of south- central Nevada, Highway 6 twists and turns its way from Ely to Tonopah, connecting the dots between silver camps and desert oases. Since the last gas station and store closed in Warm Springs (118 miles from Ely), Highway 6 might give U.S. 50 a run for its money as “the loneliest highway in America.” Make sure to gas up and pack an ice chest, food, extra water and camping equipment when you leave Ely for Tonopah because there are no gas stations, restaurants or lodging between the two historic mining towns. Dispersed camping is allowed on the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest, but consult with the Forest Service offices in Ely and Tonopah for current backroad conditions, and camping and forest restrictions.
Silver Camp Extraordinaire
If there is an unofficial capital of the western desert of west-central Nevada, it is the historic silver camp, Tonopah. Tonopah is a true oasis in the high desert in every sense of the word. If you love Old West history, it should be one of your favorites to visit regularly, especially because of its historic hotels—The Mizpah and recently renovated and reopened Belvada.
The surface silver that rancher Jim Butler discovered by happenstance in 1900 led to a mining rush that brought 10,000 to the hills of Tonopah and a reversal of a major mining recession in the Silver State. In the 1900s, Wyatt and Josie Earp caught wind of the silver strike and settled in the Nevada mining camp, operating the Northern Saloon. Their stay was short-lived, but Tonopah remained a profitable mining town until the Great Depression and the shuttering of the Tonopah & Goldfield Railroad. Today, eight decades later, with all the preservation and restoration projects completed in the historic district, the city has become a major destination site for Old West tourism.
One of the highlights is the Tonopah Mining Museum, just up the hill from the Mizpah Hotel. Bring your walking shoes, hat, water, sunscreen and walking stick if you are going to do the steeper trails. Allow at least half a day if you want to see it all. The park has an excellent visitors’ center with a mineral museum and informative exhibits on the history of the mining camp, the local mines and the area’s rich mineral history. The staff and docents are very knowledgeable, and guided tours can be arranged. The park has well-maintained trails and informative historical markers, but heed the numerous warning signs: mining shafts and dangerous pitfalls are fenced off, but a misstep could lead to injury.
Less dramatic, but just as interesting and informative is the Central Nevada Museum, just south of the historic downtown district. The park has a more extensive set of exhibits on mining across the county than its sister mining museum, including displays on local American Indian history, miner’s equipment, tools and artifacts. Tonopah is a walking town in most seasons, and a stroll downtown will lead you to eclectic stores, local watering holes and restaurants. After walking and shopping—don’t miss the local A-Bar-L Western Store across the street from the Mizpah—enjoy a great meal and highly rated beers at the Tonopah Brewing Company, Mexican food at El Marques or a savory pie at the very popular Hometown Pizza.
Goldfield to Las Vegas
Leaving Tonopah, the Nevada road trip leads south on U.S. 95 to Las Vegas with beautiful vistas of the Mojave Desert and mountains on either side. The horizon is so clear and the elevation so high in Tonopah (over 6,000 feet) that California’s Sierra Nevada can be seen across Death Valley on the Western horizon. It’s a spectacular sight, and if you want to take a photo, find a safe turnoff before driving on through historic Goldfield.
Goldfield was once a roaring mining camp, and the local historical society is working hard to preserve its frontier past.
Park downtown and take a short walking tour of the local shops and exteriors of the historic buildings, most of which are waiting for major investors to save, restore and preserve them. Hopefully, Goldfield’s community leaders will be able to secure the needed funds to save the town’s most important architectural sites, including the high school and the Goldfield Hotel. Hungry and thirsty? Try the Dinky Diner, the Mozart Tavern or the historic 1905 Santa Fe Saloon and Motel.
South from Goldfield, the landscape widens and speeds up as travelers are either eager to get to Las Vegas or their turnoff to Death Valley National Park in Beatty, a modern-day oasis for travelers needing lodging, food and gas, especially the latter if Death Valley is your destination. As you pass Nellis Air Force Base, just northwest of Las Vegas, you will realize that for most of your drive from Tonopah, the eastern horizon was undeveloped and presumably it will always be that way because it is the top-secret, off-limits Nellis Air Force Range Complex and Nevada Test Site. There’s much to ponder as the sun sets in your rearview mirror and the bright lights and neon seemingly welcome you back from your retreat across Nevada’s silver highways.
Wide Spot in the Road – Mitzpah Hotel
The Mizpah Hotel in Tonopah, Nevada, should be a bucket-list destination for anyone who loves historic Western hotels. Born in the midst of the Tonopah silver boom in 1907, the Mizpah was once the most luxurious hotel in the state. It closed in 1999, but current owners Fred and Nancy Cline bought it in 2011 and fully restored it to its early 20th-century grandeur. Each of the five floors is accessible by beautiful, wide stairwells or the restored 107-year-old original elevator, which is definitely worth the ride.
The rooms are well appointed with antiques, and coffee service is provided in the hallways every morning. If you want a suite, ask for the Wyatt Earp on the fourth floor, or 504, the Lady in Red Suite on the fifth floor. The infamous lady of the night, whose portrait is prominently displayed in the lobby, worked and lived on the fifth floor. Known as “Rose,” her suite originally encompassed 504, 503 and 502 (before renovation in 2011) where an ex-lover strangled and stabbed her to death in a crime of passion. If you are into haunted rooms, many say 502 is the one to stay in!
The Clines have also recently renovated and reopened the five-story 1906 Nevada State Bank and Trust Company building as the luxurious
Belvada Hotel across the street from the Mizpah. The two buildings were the tallest in the state until 1927. The entrepreneurial Clines, who both have family history in western Nevada, also own Tonopah Brewing Company and the Mizpah Club and Casino, which is just across from the entryway to the Mizpah. While at the Mizpah, enjoy breakfast and dinner in the award-winning Pittman Café on the first floor.
GOOD EATS & SLEEPS
- The Golden Steer Steakhouse, Las Vegas
- Cellblock Steakhouse, Ely
- Racks Bar & Grill, Ely
- Stargazer Inn Bar & Restaurant, Baker
- Tonopah Brewing Company, Tonopah
- Santa Fe Saloon and Motel, Goldfield
- Boulder Dam Hotel, Boulder City
- LaQuinta Inn, Ely
- Hotel Nevada, Ely
- Hidden Canyon Retreat, Baker
- The Mizpah Hotel, Tonopah
- Belvada Hotel, Tonopah