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Nevada is one of our favorite U.S. states. We’re not just saying that because we’re easily seduced by the ding! ding! ding! of a Vegas slot machine, but rather because the Silver State is truly a wild, weird, and wonderful place. Nevada is where mesmerizing desertscapes are punctuated by otherworldly foliage, ancient pools of crystal blue water, and jutting rock formations painted in swirls of red. It’s where 19th-century prospectors left behind gold rush towns that still stand in a state of arrested decay. And it’s where off-grid adventurers chase UFOs, run sagebrush saloons, and construct over-the-top artistic oddities. Whether you’re an intrepid road warrior thirsting for an untamable frontier or a day tripper seeking respite from Vegas/Reno indulgences, these NV attractions will blow your mind.
The Extraterrestrial Highway
Is the federal government harboring little green space men? If they are, conspiracy theory has it they’ve been yanked from the sky and are being held captive at Area 51, the super secret base within the Nevada National Security Site located along Highway 375 a few hours north of Las Vegas. The base is strictly off limits to visitors, but the 150-mile highway is now an attraction boasting oddball highlights like the Alien Research Center (T-shirts, souvenirs and ET-related literature), E.T. Fresh Jerky (snacks for the highway), The Little A’Le’Inn (Saucer Burgers, of course) and a selfie in front of the Extraterrestrial Highway sign for your photo memories.
Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge
Where does the rarest fish on the planet live? About 100 miles north of Las Vegas, if you can believe it. At Ash Meadows, observe the largest oasis in the Mojave Desert. Named for its preponderance of ash trees, its larger claim to fame is its vast underground aquifer system which is visible on the surface via dozens of aquamarine springs that are home to rare and endangered wildlife, including the nearly extinct Devil’s Hole pupfish. The fish number less than 100 and were among the creatures added to the very first endangered species list, though visibility of Devil’s Hole from the viewing area is limited. For maximum park pleasure, stroll the Crystal Boardwalk.
Great Basin National Park
Bristlecone pine trees, guided cave tours and verdant fall foliage don’t sound much like Nevada, and that’s why Great Basin National Park—one of the less-crowded within the National Parks system—is such a Silver State gem. Only a stone’s throw from the Utah border and located at the eastern end of Highway 50—The Loneliest Road in America—Great Basin is also an official International Dark Sky Park, so if you think exploring the park by day is beautiful, just wait until nightfall. Discover why “half the park is after dark” at the brand new Astronomy Amphitheater to gaze at thousands of stars—and even entire galaxies—with your naked eye, and maybe a few pieces of high-powered glass during a ranger talk.
International Car Forest of the Last Church
This sprawling artistic junkyard of colorful cars, trucks, and buses provides an array of ever-changing automotive canvases for visiting artists—or really anyone who shows up with a can of spray paint. Unlike the symmetry of Route 66’s Cadillac Ranch, the 40-plus stacked or half-buried vehicles here sprout up across 80 acres of desert (hence the “forest” part). Not a religious site, but rather a nod to one of the artists’ website (the Last Church), the offbeat Car Forest makes for an inspired stop outside the “living ghost town” of Goldfield, along Nevada’s aptly named Free-Range Art Highway (US-95).
You thought Tahoe was a California thing? The largest alpine lake in North America straddles both Nevada and the Golden State, and we happen to love the string of beaches and coves located off Nevada’s Hwy 28. Sand Harbor, for example, is beloved by families and quite popular thanks to its proximity to Incline Village. Trek out to Tahoe via the scenic Reno to Lake Tahoe Loop. Once there, hit the Tahoe East Trail for stunning vistas and bike-riding bliss. Chill mountain vibes abound in North Tahoe whereas South Tahoe boasts boisterous casinos, restaurants, and nightlife.
McGill Drugstore Museum
Trust us, although the shelves are fully stocked at this neighborhood drugstore in mountain-flanked McGill, which is near Ely and a short drive off the Loneliest Road in America, this is not a place you go when running low on meds. That’s because the merchandise has been sitting dormant for more than four decades. The McGill Drugstore operated from 1915 to 1979 and shuttered its doors permanently in 1979 after the Kennecott Copper mine closed down. The entire inventory remains intact and the drugstore now functions as a museum. Prepare to be surprised at how primitive some of the products now seem by today’s standards.
In 1986, LIFE magazine dubbed Nevada’s long, wide-open portion of Highway 50 the “Loneliest Road in America” and warned against a visit without proper “survival skills.” Which ended up enticing true adventurers even more—as it still does today.” Among its many highlights is Middlegate Station, a Western roadhouse and former Pony Express station where visitors stick a dollar bill on the ceiling and, if they dare, order up the famous Monster Burger. This 1 and 1/3 pound double-decker behemoth is served alongside a heaping pile of fries and includes a free T-shirt for those who are able to scarf down the burger in its entirety. Good luck!
Rhyolite Ghost Town
Nevada boasts the most ghost towns in the country, and thanks to its convenient location between Las Vegas and Death Valley National Park, Rhyolite is one of its most famous. Formed in 1904 after gold was discovered in the nearby hills, Rhyolite boomed and at its apex boasted its own Board of Trade, an ice cream parlor, a schoolhouse big enough to hold 250 students, hotels, stores and even a red-light district. Fortunes dried up only a decade later and by 1916 the light and power were turned off. Don’t miss the few structures that remain, including Tom Kelly’s Bottle House and the public art sculptures that have sprung up around town including “Lady Desert: The Venus of Nevada” and the eerie “Last Supper,” both part of Goldwell Open Air Museum.
Sand Mountain Recreation Area
Slopes don’t need to be powdery white to be tackled. At Sand Mountain Recreation Area, about 2 hours east of Carson City, large dunes have been formed by windblown sands that are stopped by the surrounding mountain ranges. The entire recreation area is almost 5,000 acres but Sand Mountain, which stands at nearly 600 feet, is its tallest. Cruise the recreation area via ATV or dune buggy. Have your iPhone camera handy, naturally.
Spencer Hot Springs
Another gem along The Loneliest Road in America, this one is actually squished right between two other roadside detours that include Stokes Castle (a 19th-century stone castle intended as a summer home) and Hickson Petroglyph Recreation Area (where petroglyphs created by the Western Shoshone can be viewed). Meanwhile, there’s Spencer, a trio of natural hot springs (two cattle troughs and one pool with a soft bottom) with temps in the low 100s year around and perfect for daytime lazing or nighttime stargazing.
Seven Magic Mountains
The work of Swiss-born, New York-based artist Ugo Rondinone, Seven Magic Mountains are a septet of florescent-painted rock columns that were constructed off South Las Vegas Boulevard just 20 minutes from the Strip in 2016, and have been such a big hit that its two-year residency has since been extended through 2021. Each column is between 30-35 feet high and is meant to provide a symbolic bridge between the artificial and the natural. And in case you’re wondering, yeah, it’s gonna look great on your Instagram feed.
The Star Hotel
Elko, Nevada (pop. 20,451) is just large enough a town to attract weary road trippers making the long-haul drive across the I-80 Cowboy Corridor. But do yourself a favor and avoid being seduced by the chain restaurants clustered around exit 301. Instead make a beeline for Elko’s downtown. Here you’ll find the Star Hotel, a place to feed your belly rather than rest your head. A temple to Basque tradition, the Star Hotel (since 1910) serves up family-style portions of giant, garlic-loaded steak, spicy grilled haddock, Basque beans and more in a retro dining room.
Valley of Fire State Park
Not up for the six-month journey into outer space to get to Mars? You’re in luck! Valley of Fire State Park, only an hour’s drive north of Las Vegas on the Neon to Nature road trip, is so named for its Martian-like red sandstone formations. (Valley of Fire also has atmosphere, which is a plus.) Hike Fire Wave Trail and see brilliant swirls of red, orange and beige, climb atop attractions like the Beehives and Mouse’s Tank or motor through the park via the aptly named Scenic Drive. Be on the lookout for Desert Bighorn Sheep who thrive here (we’ve got pics on our Instagram feeds to prove it).
After snapping a selfie in front of the Reno Arch and hitting up the Biggest Little City in the World’s hip bars, bistros, and boutiques, drive 35 minutes and walk the wooden boardwalk-lined streets of time-warped Virginia City. (Think Disneyland’s “Frontierland,” except real and with real saloons.) 150 years of history vibes meet a nonstop stream of present-day revelry in a fun-loving, film set-quality town that loves its museums, funky shops, and gunfight shows as much as its oddball events (outhouse races, anyone?), giant parades, and raucous saloon crawls.
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