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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 ling! ling! ling! of a Vegas slot machine, but rather because the Silver State is truly a weird place. Nevada is where stark and forbidding desert landscapes are punctuated by spiky 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 today knock slowly and perpetually at death’s door. And it’s where off-grid types chase UFOs, run gritty 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 excesses, these NV attractions will blow your mind.
The Alien 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 Test and Training Range 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), ET Fresh Jerky (snacks for the highway), The Little A’Le’Inn (alien 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 most critically endangered 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 baby blue springs that are home to rare and endangered wildlife, including the nearly extinct Devil’s Hole pupfish. The fish number less than 100 and 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 lesser visited parks 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.
International Car Forest of the Last Church
No doubt inspired by Route 66’s Cadillac Ranch or Carhenge in rural Nebraska, the International Car Forest of the Last Church consists of various graffiti-covered cars and buses angling nose first into the ground or stacked on top of one another. Unlike the symmetry of Cadillac Ranch, the 40-plus vehicles here are haphazardly strewn about (hence the “forest”). Not a religious site, but rather a nod to one of the artists’ website (called the Last Church), Car Forest makes for an inspired stop along Nevada’s so called Free Range Art Highway (Hwy 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. Then there’s lesser frequented gems like Chimney Beach, Secret Cove and Whale Beach—all beautiful. Cross into California for panoramic lake vistas from Emerald Bay State Park.
McGill Drugstore Museum
Trust us, although the shelves are fully stocked at this neighborhood drugstore in mountain-flanked McGill, 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 declared Nevada’s Highway 50, a desolate 408-mile stretch of pavement, The Loneliest Road in America and warned against a visit. Nevadans have since enacted their revenge and today the road is a bona fide tourist attraction. Among its many highlights is Middlegate Station, a western roadhouse and oasis 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 “Giant Pink Woman” and the eerie “Last Supper.”
Slopes don’t need to be powdery white to be tackled. At Sand Mountain National Preserve, about 2 hours west of Carson City, large dunes have been formed by windblown sands that are stopped by the surrounding mountain ranges. The entire preserve is almost 5,000 acres but Sand Mountain, which stands at nearly 600 feet, is its tallest. Sand board or sail down it, or do as most visitors do and cruise the preserve 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 Stoke’s Castle (a 19th-century stone castle intended as a summer home) and Hickson Petroglyph Recreation Area (where petroglyphs created by ancient civilizations can be viewed). Meanwhile, there’s Spencer, a trio of natural hot springs (two cattle troughs and one pool with a mud 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. 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.
Elko, Nevada (pop. 20,451) is just large enough a town to attract weary road trippers making the long-haul drive across I-80. But do yourself a favor and avoid being seduced by the chain restaurants clustered around exit 301. Instead make a beeline for Elko’s tiny downtown. Here you’ll find the Star Hotel, a place to feed your belly rather than rest your head. A temple to Basque cooking, the Star Hotel (since 1910) serves up family-style portions of thinly sliced beef, 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, 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 (famous for its emblazoned moniker “The Biggest Little City in the World”) and winning a small fortune at the blackjack table (yeah, right), drive 35 minutes and walk the time warped streets of Virginia City. In this touristy town you’ll find T-shirts and key chains where bar brawls once broke out, but despite the ubiquitous presence of sightseers and selfie snappers, Virginia City offers well-preserved Victorian facades and a stellar snapshot of frontier life. En route, you’ll navigate hairpins turns revealing stunning vistas.
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