« Return to this article

for people who care about the West

Three days in western Nevada


Think Reno is merely a smaller, tamer stepchild of Las Vegas? Think again. Spend three days here, and you'll get a taste of a modern Western city that's still both quirky and affordable. It's a great base for side trips, too: within easy reach of a classic Western tourist trap, a historic state capital, two of the West's best -- and very different --lakes, a chance to see wild horses, and a surreal Indian reservation.

Start by booking a night in one of downtown Reno's large old casino hotels. Get your neon fix by strolling the sidewalks below the retro skyscrapers, and check out the gambling scene. The casinos must have seemed grand when they were built decades ago, but now they feel somewhat down-on-their luck, like poor relations of their ritzy Las Vegas kin. Reno's unpretentious gamblers look at ease in well-worn jeans, cowboy boots and tattoos. And the casino hotels offer cheap rooms to lure gamblers: Harrah's, for instance, has rates as low as $34 for a summer weekday, and its two towers with their 26 floors offer great views of the city. There are also some pretty nice non-casino hotels, though they tend to have higher rates.

All the downtown hotels are close to Reno's Riverwalk District, with its six blocks of paved trails along both banks of the Truckee River. The riverbanks have been landscaped with grass, artfully sculpted concrete and "7,000 tons of smooth flat-top rocks and boulders." The Riverwalk offers a few trendy bars, cafes and shops, a multiplex cinema, a regular theater, a comedy-show saloon, a hookah bar, a gay bar, and the Pioneer Center for Performing Arts -- with ballet, orchestra and opera, if you time it right. For kayakers, there's a small whitewater park with 11 "drop-pools" in one half-mile of the river. Like the rest of downtown, the whole District seems to be struggling, but it's still a pleasant place, not overrun or overdone the way fancy pedestrian areas in cities like Boulder, Colo., tend to be. And from here, you can hook up with extended hiking and biking trails that range for a total of 12 miles along the river.

Five blocks south of the Riverwalk, the Nevada Museum of Art specializes in the kind of art our cover story explores -- "landscape" or "environmental art." The museum was founded in 1931 by "a small group of plein-air landscape painters" and its "Center for Art + Environment," begun in 2009, explores how people interact with the landscape in both creative and destructive ways. Don't miss Edward Burtynsky's photo collection "Oil," which is on display from June 9 to Sept. 23. "From 1997 through 2009, Burtynsky traveled internationally to chronicle the production, distribution, and use of this critical fuel," the museum says. "In addition to revealing the rarely seen mechanics of its manufacture, he photographs the effects of oil on our lives, depicting landscapes altered by its extraction from the Earth and by the sprawl generated around its use."

If your art tastes run to objects with more horsepower, though, and you'd rather not spend all of your vacation worrying about climate-change-causing emissions, Harrah's operates the National Automobile Museum, just off the Riverwalk trail. It displays more than 200 "antique, vintage, classic and special-interest vehicles" including "many rare, experimental and one-of-a-kind automobiles" and "four period street scenes ... with facades, autos and artifacts reflecting each era's styles and moods."

Next morning -- remember, there's no hurry -- consider driving south for roughly an hour, past the trailing urban sprawl and up a winding desert-mountain road, to Virginia City, where the Comstock Lode boomed in the 1800s. It's called a "ghost town," but these days, the hucksters and tourists far outnumber the ghosts. Carved into a rocky mountainside, this historic mining town is a classic, with its ramshackle saloons, hotels and shops on creaky wooden boardwalks. Previous visitors, enthusiastically promoted today, include characters like Samuel Langhorne Clemens (who took on the nom de plume "Mark Twain" in 1863, when he worked for the local newspaper) and rock-music celebrities such as Janis Joplin and the Grateful Dead, who played at the Red Dog Saloon in the 1960s.

On the other side of the mountain is Carson City, home not only to the current Capitol and Legislature, surrounded by welcoming shade trees and grass, but also the impressive 140-year-old former Capitol, which hosts a small historical museum that generates at least one what-if: Did you know that Mormon settlers arrived before the mining boom started? That means that, if all those precious minerals had not been discovered, today's Nevada might be as Mormon as neighboring Utah. Carson City boasts several other notable historic buildings, including an old depot at the Nevada State Railroad Museum and a brewery that operated from 1865 to 1948.

Roughly another hour's drive will take you up the Sierra Nevada to Lake Tahoe. We work hard at High Country News to avoid travel-writer clichés, but this one is true enough: Lake Tahoe is a jewel. It's at least as beautiful as you imagine it -- famously clear water, 22 miles long and 11 miles wide, surrounded by a ring of peaks that are mostly draped in national forest. Turn left on the shore road and stop at any of the pullouts, to marvel at the water and maybe take a dip, then spend the night in a campground -- there are plenty to choose from --  or at one of the hotels/motels in the shore's largest settlement, South Lake Tahoe, Calif., population about 22,000. Amid the usual resort-town ambiance, you can find inexpensive Mexican restaurants and cheap funky motels, and if you've become hooked on aging casino hotels, there are several in nearby Stateline, Nev. The best public beach is a few miles west of town at Taylor Creek, managed by the U.S. Forest Service. There's a nice long strip of walkable sand and a short trail to a "Stream Profile Center," where you can spy on fish in the creek through an underwater window.

Drive back through Reno, to I-80's Exit 18, and turn north on Pyramid Way, or State Highway 445. About 20 miles north is one of the places the federal Bureau of Land Management collects wild horses rounded up on the West's public lands. The National Wild Horse and Burro Center at Palomino Valley is open to the public weekdays and Saturdays. Even when it's closed, you might see wild horses in the corrals along the road. If you're interested in adopting a horse, call the BLM in advance at 775-475-2222.

A few dozen miles farther out on Highway 445 is eerie Pyramid Lake, managed by the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe. It's as if Lake Tahoe had been recreated on an alien planet -- surreal blue water surrounded by incredibly dry bare-boned desert mountains. Once again, the Truckee River is the watery thread connecting it to the rest of the landscape -- after flowing out of Lake Tahoe and through Reno, it empties into this salty sink. Pyramid Lake is about 15 miles long and 11 miles wide, and its shores are decorated with white tufa formations. You can drive along the shore and stop at overlooks. For modest user fees that go to the tribe, you can visit beaches or go fishing, kayaking, stand-up paddleboarding, mountain biking and hiking. There are only three settlements on the 475,000-acre reservation; the landscape is so empty and severe, you wonder how the tribe's approximately 1,800 members survive. The tribe's Dunn Hatchery, in Sutcliffe, is open on weekdays; call 775-476-0500 to request a formal tour. Visit the museum in Nixon (open Wednesdays to Sundays during the summer, weekdays during winter) to learn about tribal history, the local ecosystem, and struggles of native fish such as the Lahontan cutthroat trout and the cui-ui, which can live for 40 years and are found only in this lake.

If you have the time and you'd like to cool off, stroll the verdant campus of the University of Nevada-Reno. For a hotter and drier experience, visit the sites of several recent wildfires to see how the land is healing. (Search http://wildfiretoday.com for "Reno" fires.) Or if you're really ambitious, just keep driving -- west to the San Francisco Bay area or southeast to Las Vegas, two extremely different places, but equally part of the West. A lot of towns like to describe themselves as gateways, but in the case of Reno, it's especially true.