Surviving the Loneliest Road in America (Nevada)
It was a national magazine article that no doubt left Nevada tourism officials quaking in their cowboy boots. In July 1986, LIFE Magazine published a piece called “America, the most”; a collection of extraordinary things that help define the country. Included, however, was a not-too-complementary description of the section of Highway 50 running through Nevada. Under a headline, “The Loneliest Road”, an American Automobile Association counsellor is quoted: “It’s totally empty. There are no points of interest. We don’t recommend it. We warn all motorists not to drive there unless they’re confident of their survival skills.”
Yikes. Talk about a tourism public relations nightmare.
However, beneath the trash talk, was an opportunity. Why not promote that loneliness as something worthwhile? After all, isn’t ‘getting away from it all’ the reason we wander, travel and explore? Thirty years later, Nevada’s “Loneliest Road in America” rates high on the world’s road trip bucket lists—and for good reason.
I made the trip last September and it was magical experience. The wide-open spaces of Highway 50 are spectacular, but there are plenty of interesting places to visit along the way.
Two hours out of Las Vegas, on the Great Basin Highway (Hwy. 93), we made a stop at Kershaw-Ryan State Park for a short hike and picnic lunch. A former ranch, the small, green oasis is nestled beneath a canyon trail that offers great views. There’s a new 15 unit RV/tent campground in the park if you want to rest up before making the trek.
Further north, just before you hit Pioche, visit the Cathedral Gorge State Park. Over time, erosion has left behind beautiful columns and spires of bentonite clay. Wander through narrow passage ways, crawl through holes into secret chambers that open to the sky, or use climbing ropes to reach hollowed out viewing caves. For some reason, the park resonated with me—almost the same reaction I had taking a helicopter tour over the Grand Canyon. But Cathedral Gorge is on a much smaller, more intimate scale and that makes it special. Take some time to explore this gem in the desert.
My advice to anyone travelling in Nevada is get to know a local. Friendly, perhaps a little eccentric, you will come away with some great yarns about the history of the places you are seeing.
Jim Kelly is a one-of-a-kind amateur historian who lives in the former mining town of Pioche. This was a wild place in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Filled with saloons, brothels, miners and claim jumpers, gunfights were frequent
and more than 70 were killed by “lead poisoning” (as Kelly puts it) before anyone died of natural causes. Ask around town to see if he will open up the historic Million Dollar Courthouse for a tour and a colourful story, or two.
Heading west, the Loneliest Road officially starts in Ely which, aside from having the historic Hotel Nevada (once the tallest building in the State), is home to the Nevada Northern Railway. Historic train buffs come from far and wide to ride the train, powered by vintage steam or diesel locomotives. There are special Haunted Ghost Train and Christmas Polar Express-themed rides as well as winter photo opportunities in the snow. Just west of Ely, in McGill, take the time track down another character by the name of Dan Braddock. He’s the volunteer tour de force behind the McGill Drugstore Museum. The store was closed in the 1980’s and much of the stock was left on the shelves until it was reopened years later. Wander the aisles among vintage jars of Dippity-do, Timex watches, greeting cards and look up prescription records dating back to 1915. This is a strange and bizarre place—you almost feel guilty, snooping around, but it sure is fun.
Eureka has a beautifully restored opera house that contains vintage projectors and the backstage walls are covered in graffiti left by people who performed on stage. A few blocks away is the fascinating Eureka Sentinel Museum, which contains a vintage newspaper press room complete with printing presses, desks, and walls lined with the news clippings from the day.
If you feel like parking the RV and want a real bed to sleep in and a hearty breakfast in the morning (stuffed French toast anyone?), stay at Union Street Lodging in Austin. Hosts Dee and Kip are warm and friendly and you have to ask them about the local cowboy artist who had a habit of dropping his glass eye into the drinks of patrons at the local watering hole so he could get a freebie. True story, they say.
Between Austin and Fallon, lies the Sand Mountain Recreational Area, a massive sand dune 180 meters high. As you start to climb it, you will soon find out it is deceptively big. Often used by off-highway drivers and sandboarding enthusiasts, there is also a spiritual side to the mountain. Donna Cossette, former Chairwoman of the Fallon Paiute Shoshone Tribe, says the mountain is sacred to her people. Left undisturbed, wind would pass over the fine grains of sand, causing them to “sing”. Unfortunately, she has never heard the dune sing in her lifetime, due to heavy recreational use. Native Americans have asked the dunes be off-limits for one month so they can ‘heal’.
Once you reach Fallon, it’s time to celebrate. You made it. Fallon is known as the “Oasis of Nevada”. Irrigation has turned the area into a rich agricultural region, famous for growing ‘Hearts of Gold’ cantaloupe. Head just outside of town to the Frey Ranch to taste estate distilled gin, vodka, bourbon and absinthe. What is truly unique about this facility, is that the family grows all the grain right on the property for its products— basically a seed-to-bottle operation. The gin is flavoured slightly with Nevada Sagebrush, in addition to traditional botanicals, such as juniper berry.
So, raise a glass to your accomplishment. You have ‘survived’ The Loneliest Road in America. Sure, you can buy a T-shirt saying the same thing, but deep-down you will know the adventure wasn’t a hardship at all.
Chris Moran, Public Relations Specialist at Nevada Division of Tourism.
Nevada Northern Railway, Ely, NV
Tasting Room, Frey Ranch, Fallon, NV.
Eureka Opera House, Eureka, NV.