Venture beyond Las Vegas to experience surprising attractions

           Nearly everyone in the world has heard of Las Vegas. Hundreds of millions of people have visited the Entertainment Capital of the World, enjoying the resort hotels, nightlife, gourmet dining, designer shopping and scenic wonders. But what’s to be found beyond those dazzling city lights, in the rest of Nevada?

           In a word, plenty. Nevada is vast — America’s seventh largest state among 50 — and also claims the distinction of being the most mountainous, with at least 314 ranges and peaks. Its made-for-adventure landscape is part of the great American West, with forests, rivers, lakes and awesome vistas that enable a traveler to see mountain ranges 50 miles to 100 miles (80 kilometers to 160 kilometers) in the distance.

            Nevada is a desert state, and most of the towns north of Las Vegas are at 4,000 feet elevation to 6,000 feet elevation and higher. Climates here are cooler and scenery greener than in the southern part of the state. Charming historic mining towns with Old West ambience await the curious visitor, guest ranches welcome those who want to step into the boots of a cowboy for a few days, and resort hotels beckon with bright lights, 24-hour dining and, of course, Nevada’s famous casino entertainment that’s always in operation.

            Many of Nevada’s towering mountain peaks live up to the state’s name, which is Spanish for “snow capped.” Between the mountain ranges are picturesque valleys, perhaps with sprawling ranches and grazing cattle, fields of crops such as alfalfa, or covered with sagebrush, Nevada’s state flower.

Reno and Lake Tahoe

            Nestled against the foothills of the magnificent Sierra Nevada mountain range that divides Nevada and California lies Reno, the state’s second-largest metropolitan area. Reno is different in climate, culture and geography from Las Vegas, which is 446 miles (718 kilometers) to the southeast, but shares the amenities of resort hotel-casinos that offer gourmet dining, spas and round-the-clock entertainment.

            Visitors to Reno and its neighboring city of Sparks can choose from a wide variety of activities and attractions, such as skiing and snowboarding down the snowy slopes of the Sierra Nevada, hiking mountain trails through forests of tall pine and meadows of wildflowers, cruising the cobalt blue waters of nearby Lake Tahoe on a paddle wheel boat or teeing off on a championship golf course. Less vigorous choices include pampering yourself at a spa or browsing shops and museums before enjoying a gourmet meal, taking in an exciting show or trying your luck in the casinos.

            Reno also is home to Nevada’s first whitewater park, the Truckee River Whitewater Park, in the downtown area. The popular park offers a half-mile of frothy rapids for kayak fun and is open free of charge. The river attracts whitewater rafting enthusiasts in spring and early summer when snowmelt plumps up the rapids. Whitewater tours are available in Reno.

            Lake Tahoe, which straddles the Nevada-California state line, is the second deepest lake in the United States and a superb year-round mountain playground only 45 minutes from Reno by car or motor coach. It is home to one of America’s prime ski resort areas, with more than a dozen world-class resorts. After a day on the slopes, visitors have abundant dining and nightlife choices at hotel-casinos on the Nevada side of the lake. Shopping and sightseeing opportunities are plentiful, and the ski village on the south shore features stores, cafes, an ice rink, movie theater and the Heavenly Gondola, which carries passengers up the 10,000-foot mountain, stopping along the way to let sightseers view the lake and surrounding valleys from a circular platform.

Nevada’s Capital City

            Carson City, Nevada’s capital, 30 miles (48 kilometers) south of Reno, is a picturesque town with a stately sandstone capitol building and silver-colored dome, appropriate for the rich silver mining that helped make Nevada famous a century ago and inspired its nickname, the Silver State. Visitors can walk along the Kit Carson Trail through the city’s historic district, marked by a blue line on the sidewalk, and view Victorian-style homes and mansions from the 1800s beneath stately cottonwood trees.

            Attractions include the Nevada State Museum, which houses displays of vintage slot machines, wild animals, American Indian crafts, gold and silver coins from the days when the building housed the Carson City Mint, a reconstructed ghost town, a mine shaft to walk through and much more. At the nearby Nevada State Railroad Museum, train enthusiasts can see steam engines and railroad cars more than a century old and displays of memorabilia. Rides aboard a steam train on a track on the museum grounds are available on certain days. Visitors also can ride the historic Virginia & Truckee Railroad, which offers rides from Carson City to the old mining town of Virginia City, home of the Comstock silver mines. The railroad’s Carson station is about 6 miles from the Nevada State Railroad Museum, on Flint Drive and U.S. 50.

Traveling Nevada

            Travel in Nevada is convenient. International airports serving Las Vegas and Reno are only a few minutes from resort hotels. Some smaller communities, such as Elko, have regional or municipal airports.

            Two interstate highways, Interstate 80 and Interstate 15, and many U.S. highways, including U.S. 50, crisscross Nevada. Roads outside major metropolitan areas and mountain regions usually are not crowded and are nearly always dry, as Nevada is one of the driest states in the country. Even after a snowfall in the cooler northern part of the state, roads dry quickly in the desert air.

Scenic Byways

            Ten of Nevada’s most scenic areas are accessed by highways with such beautiful views that they have been designated as scenic byways by the state. Travelers need not wait until they arrive at the lake, mountain peak or special attraction to enjoy breathtaking scenery: just gaze out the window of your vehicle as you drive along.

Scenic wonders

            Great Basin National Park in eastern Nevada, famous for its deep limestone Lehman Cave tours and the tallest mountain peak in Nevada (Wheeler Peak, 13,061 feet or 3.98 kilometers), is Nevada’s only national park, and offers cave tours (bring a jacket, even in summer), camping and panoramic views. It’s accessible from U.S. 50 and U.S. 93, which join just east of the park, and is close to the border with the state of Utah.

            Valley of Fire State Park, an hour’s drive from Las Vegas on Interstate 15, offers wildly colorful rock formations in shades of red, purple, orange and yellow, paved roads for convenient sightseeing and a visitor center with displays and gifts. It’s Nevada’s oldest state park.

            Hoover Dam, about an hour’s drive from Las Vegas, is among the engineering wonders of the world and not to be missed. This immense concrete wedge backs up the mighty Colorado River that separates Nevada and Arizona and provides hydroelectric power. Visitors can learn about its intriguing history and inner workings at the visitor center and cruise Lake Mead on a paddle wheeler. On the way, stop at picturesque Boulder City, 23 miles (37 kilometers) east of Las Vegas, which the U.S. government built during the Great Depression to house those who worked on the dam. Casino gambling was not permitted there, and continues to be prohibited today.

Other things to see, places to go

      It’s difficult to choose from Nevada’s amazing lineup of places to go and things to see, but here is a small sampling.

  • Elko, known as the last real cowboy town in America, is famous for ranching and cowboys, the Basque sheepherding culture, gold mining and off-road adventure in the towering Ruby Mountains. The city is off of Interstate 80 in Nevada’s northeast corner, 430 miles (692 kilometers) north of Las Vegas or 288 miles (463 kilometers) east of Reno. It offers an array of lodging, dining, Western-wear shopping and rentals for off-road vehicles to explore the mountains. Attractions include the California Trail Interpretive Center, telling the story of western migration in the mid 19th century; the Northeastern Nevada Museum, featuring a fabulous wild animal display and an extensive collection of the work of artist and writer Will James; and the Western Folklife Center, home of the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering and western folklore.
  • Tonopah, the famed Queen of the Silver Camps, is where silver was discovered in 1900, triggering a mining boom. Today, the landscape still is dotted with century-old head frames from the days when miners dug silver fortunes from the ground. At the Tonopah Mining Park, one can tour an original mine shaft and buildings and see ore samples and artifacts from this historic era. Tonopah is on U.S. 95 at 6,030 feet elevation, just 209 miles (336 kilometers) northwest of Las Vegas.
  • Ely (pronounced E-Lee), one of Nevada’s historic copper mining towns on U.S. 50, is famous for its railroad and museum, where one can ride the Ghost Train, an old steam engine of the Nevada Northern Railway. The city also has gained notoriety for a collection of murals on downtown buildings portraying Ely’s history and culture. Lodging and dining are plentiful and include the historic Hotel Nevada and the Jailhouse Casino, which has a restaurant where patrons dine on steaks and other fare in jail cells. Ely is at the junction of U.S. 93 and U.S. 50, just 242 miles (389 kilometers) north of Las Vegas and 288 miles (463 kilometers) east of Reno.
  • Virginia City, once known as the richest city in the world for the gold and silver mined from its hills in the later 1800s, is Nevada’s largest and most famous mining town, nestled into the mountains 24 miles (39 kilometers) from Reno at an altitude of 6,220 feet. Walk the wooden sidewalks past 1800s-era brick buildings that house Old West-style saloons, gift and souvenir shops, cafes and museums. Listen to live performances at Piper’s Opera House or watch costumed performers do a “shoot out” in the street with real pistols but fake ammunition.

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            Updated July 3, 2014